The Magic of Technology, or the Wisdom of Fundamentals

October, 2016

Tom Wunk

Sometime in everyone’s early development, probably before age 3, we are conditioned to look where we are going. Pretty basic premise that extends beyond all gender, nationality, religious, and socio-economic borders.

Not too long after this year’s IPI conference, I performed an operational audit on a medium-sized parking operation. I was asked to do so by its director. He had attended the conference and was shown a product that would allow patrons to download an application that would enable them to make a reservation. His operation was continuously struggling with more demand than inventory, and a product such as this could provide an alternative method of securing a parking space.

I planned to observe the operation for several hours in the morning to become familiar with the fill characteristics of their facilities. I was struck by the number of visiting patrons that extracted their parking ticket from the ticket dispenser and then either placed the ticket on top of the dispenser or simply let it drop to the ground and then proceeded in. Looking at the number of tickets lying on the ground, I saw this was a somewhat common behavior pattern.

I continued to watch the operation through most of the morning and left about 1 p.m. local time. I returned at 3:30 p.m. local time to observe the overall patron activity, paying close attention to the exiting process. It was generally well-organized, with only minor queueing delays due to exiting volume. It remained this way until 6 p.m., at which time all the exit gates were opened. It is important to note that, at this time, the garage was still relatively occupied and a guess would put the occupancy at about 40%. Once the gates were opened, the exiting traffic increased, and by 7:30 p.m., the facility was empty but for a handful of vehicles.

The next day, I prepared several questions for the operational staff, including the following: Why do you open the gates at night? What percentage of tickets that you issue remain uncollected? What is your known average duration of stay – based on exits that occur when the gates are down?

Without going into specifics, the responses were generally as follows: “not sure why; we have always done that”; “not sure, why is that important”; and “probably less than 8 hours.”

We then proceeded to discuss the operation and the potential impact of reservations, with particular emphasis on whether the intention was to pre-pay along with the reservation or simply reserve a space “hunting license.”

Somewhere in this part of the discussion was the realization that a reservation system would likely increase the number of non-paying patrons.

The outcome was as follows:

• Discussion would take place with senior management to determine the genesis and thought process behind the determination of operational hours.

• The operation would begin to collect information with regard to the number of tickets issued vs. the number of tickets collected.

• Once the information with regard to operational hours and non-paying patrons was gathered and appropriately verified, will additional inventory become available to address the demand increase?

The consideration of a reservation system was put on hold, and the director and his operational staff recognized that they can proactively examine their operation and determine with more clarity what the functional and operational gaps are, and then craft an appropriate response plan.

A couple of months ago, I visited a location to have lunch with a facility manager I have known for several years. His facility recently installed a pay-by-mobile-phone module (app) in its garage. The operations manager was excited and felt the module would increase customer service and provide more payment options for their patrons.

After our lunch, we proceeded to the garage to observe the operation and get a feel for the acceptance and use of the new module. At that point, he indicated the use of the module was less than they had hoped for and less that what the supplier had expected.

We stood by the exit plaza (3 lanes) for 45 minutes before we observed a patron using the app. It was interesting to watch the process. The patron pulled the car next to the exit device and shifted the car into park. They took out their cellphone and opened the app. They inserted the parking ticket into the exit verifier and the fee was displayed. They then entered a 5-digit code that was shown on the decal on the face of the exit verifier. Once the code was entered, the gate opened about 3 seconds later. While I did not time the entire process, it was easy to tell that it lasted well beyond 20 seconds.

I then asked the manager to watch several exit transactions with me to determine some degree of mean exit transaction times. It is important to note that this garage has both pay-on-foot machines and exit verifiers that are able to accept credit card payment in the lane.

After observing about 20 exit transactions (note that none of those 20 included the use of the mobile phone app), we were able to determine that those clients that had paid for their ticket at the POF machines averaged about 4 seconds per transaction, and those that paid for the ticket at the exit verifier averaged about 14 seconds.

I asked the manager to take his car and, behaving as a patron, enter and exit the garage as a visitor and use the app for payment. The first effort resulted in a 22 second exit transaction time, but he already had the phone ready with the app engaged as he pulled into the exit lane.

I asked him to repeat the process but have the phone on the car’s console without the app being activated. This resulted in a 43 second transaction time. He then pulled back into the garage and we met in his office.

Silence is a great tool, and I took the opportunity to deploy it. After some interesting body language and with a troubled grin, all he eventually said was, “I got it.” He then proceeded to discuss the hoops that he had to jump through to get funding for the module and his concern was now for his credibility. Overall usage penetration was low, and he did not see that changing.

Like so many other industries, the pressure to do with less in the parking and transportation realm is constant. Relief is often found in the development and deployment of technology. Wonderful products and services are available that enhance customer service, offer varieties of payment and access options, provide vital data and directions to prospective patrons, and overall improve the effectiveness and efficiencies of your operation.

However, for every instance of a successful deployment of a new product or an emerging technology in a parking management operation, there are multiple instances of inconsistent or underwhelming results, additional labor/staffing needs totally unanticipated, extensive and time-consuming additional developments, and overall disappointment in the results.

In analyzing many situations in which the results were underwhelming, several common themes were apparent. Speaking to the primary constituents of these projects, the following indicate their reflections -- sort of a lessons learned list.

Silence is a great tool,
and I took the opportunity
to deploy it.

A) In conducting your business, have you identified the critical Internal business practices you must do every day to determine if you are successful or not? Will any new technology deployment impact those practices and how?

B) Can your staff understand the new technology and operate/use it to gain the desired results?

C) Don’t be first, and go to several locations to see new products/technology in operation.

D) If the product/technology doesn’t work, can you turn it off and still operate?

E) Have an industry peer/trusted confidant look over your notes and documentation for an objective second opinion.

F) Cheaper is never less expensive.

Wonderful new ideas and products are introduced on an almost daily basis. Consumer pressure on how they wish to be engaged is unprecedented. How we conduct our business 10 years from now will likely look different from what we do today.

Nonetheless, patrons will come to our location as part of their journey. We will want to provide to them a fair, safe and secure environment in which to park, depot, or warehouse a vehicle, and perform some sort of auditable transaction.

If you remember not to lose focus on these core business needs and to incorporate technology to enhance those needs, you will be well-served and impressed with the results.

Tom Wunk is VP of PARCS Solutions at T2 Systems. Contact him at twunk@t2systems.com.