About Dave Feehan

Dave Feehan is president and CEO of Civitas Consultants LLC and former president of the International Downtown Association. He is a member of IPI's Accreditation Committee and a frequent contributor to various professional journals. He is working on a new book, Design Downtown for Women - Men will Follow.

One Size Fits All?

Dave Feehan

My wife and I just returned from a vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We parked in the daily garage at Dulles International Airport, and I happened to notice the growing number of very small cars in the facility–Smarts, Fiat 500s, Kia Souls, Minis, and many others. One Smart was parked next to a mammoth Suburban, and had we been looking for a spot, I’m sure we would have mistaken the Smart’s space as vacant until we started to turn in and found a very small vehicle in the 20-foot stall.

According to one city’s municipal code, “The minimum size of a standard parking space shall be nine feet wide and 18 feet long. Parking spaces within enclosed garages shall have an interior dimension of at least 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. The minimum size of a compact parking space shall be eight feet wide and 16 feet long.”

What’s a parking operator to do? Sales of subcompacts have more than doubled in the last couple of years, and given other trends in society, we can expect that more people– especially young people–will buy and drive small, fuel-efficient vehicles, to say nothing of motorcycles and bikes. How do we accommodate all of these vehicles while keeping our customers happy?

Restriping is expensive and can be problematic. Sometimes the old stripes are still visible and confuse parkers. Does a Smart need the same amount of space as a Suburban? Obviously not. You could stack two Smarts in a typical space. And to make matters even more complicated, I drive a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and need spaces with charging equipment. Lots more bikes, motorbikes, motor scooters, and motorcycles are looking for parking spaces. Pass the Rolaids, please. Things are going to be messy for a while.

Evolution

Dave Feehan

In parking, as in life, the best usually prevails–but not always.

When automobiles first came on the scene, gasoline-powered cars competed with electrics, steamers, and diesels. Eventually, gasoline won out, although electric-powered cars are more efficient and both steam- and diesel-powered engines produce more torque. Essentially, gasoline’s convenience that won the day.

Consider recorded music: We evolved from 8-tracks to cassettes, CDs, and now to iPods and cloud storage.

In video, VHS won out over Betamax, and Blu-ray defeated HD DVD. Was VHS better? Is Blu-ray really better? Some would argue that the defeated technologies were actually superior.

So, which technology will dominate the parking meter field in years to come? They all pretty much accept credit cards, so that’s a settled issue. But is pay-by-space, pay-and display, or pay-by-plate better? Are multi-space meters better than single-space? Will meters as we know them be made obsolete by pay-by-cell?

I asked a handful of IPI members I consider leading experts, and they pretty much all agreed that pay-by-cell is the single unifying technology that will dominate. But in the meantime, what should a city, parking authority, or private entity do to provide customers with the most efficient and customer-friendly–or at least the least annoying–form of parking meter?

Pay-and-display has the largest market share in the U.S. and Europe. Customers like the portability of pay-by-space; they’re buying time, not a particular space. The big drawback is that it makes pay-by-cell difficult. Pay-by-space has its proponents, but it can be tricky in cold-weather cities where snow makes for real problems. Pay-by-plate has made some inroads, but it too has problems in cold-weather cities and with U.S. license plates that are not always linear.

The jury is still out. The gripes I hear from customers are not so much related to which type of meter, but to meters that seem to take forever to process information and print receipts, screens that are difficult to read or are poorly placed, and kiosks that are badly signed or hidden by other street elements. A well-designed meter that is easy to read, fast to process, and conveniently located–and that accepts pay-by-cell–is still the best choice.

Free Parking Downtown? It All Depends

Dave Feehan

Anyone who is either an admirer or a critic of Donald Shoup should read his book. It’s essential to be well-informed before making a fateful decision to jump into variable priced parking or alternatively, free parking, both of which can work, but both of which also have drawbacks. In big cities such as San Francisco, where there is very strong demand and parking supply is limited, Shoup’s theories have proven effective, at least in the short run, but may be too new to gauge their effect over a longer period of five to 10 years. In smaller towns, a very different situation may suggest a different approach.

The problem in many smaller downtowns is regulating downtown employees and employers who take up valuable on-street parking while off-street garages and lots remain partially vacant.

The whole point of parking is that it’s not about storing cars. It’s about attracting shoppers, diners, visitors, workers, and residents to downtown. To do that, city officials should direct parking managers to create the most customer-friendly parking system possible for all of the above. That doesn’t mean parking should be “free”–it never is. It does mean, however, that paid parking should not cross the “annoyance threshold,” as I call it. And free one-or two hour parking has its place. It works very well in downtown Boise, Idaho, for example.

When people ask me whether or not they should adopt the variable pricing approach I tell them, it all depends. I recommend you do a strategic parking plan first, and then figure out if free parking or variable priced parking makes sense and accomplishes what you want to accomplish, which is a healthy and vibrant downtown.

Getting a Charge

Dave Feehan

Last week, I bought a new plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt. I previously drove an all-wheel-drive Ford Edge because I was doing a lot of work in Pittsburgh, and the winter drive through the mountains from Washington, D.C. can be challenging. With that consulting contract winding down, I was primed for something much more economical but didn’t want to sacrifice comfort.

I looked at several hybrids and a couple of diesels, but the Volt seemed like the best option, especially because General Motors has spiced up incentives. With current tax credits, a $40,000 Volt can be purchased for well less than $30,000. After a week of in-town driving, I hadn’t spent a dime on gas, because I recharge every night. On the round-trip to Pittsburgh, I averaged almost 40 miles per gallon (mpg). The Volt handles much better than my Edge did, and because it’s a hatchback, luggage space for my wife and me was more than adequate.

The transition hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Places to recharge other than home are almost nonexistent–I couldn’t find a charging station in any of the parking garages I used. Charging seems like a great service for the growing number of customers with plug-ins, and it could be a money-maker for garage owners and operators. Why not reserve a small number of spots (next to handicapped spots, close to elevators?) for plug-in drivers? Why not advertise that your garage is “plug-in friendly?”

I’m convinced that many (if not most) of us will be driving something other than conventional, gas-powered vehicles within 10 years, especially if car manufacturers are going to meet federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Plug-ins such as the Volt seem to make a lot of sense because most trips are less than 50 miles and they can extend their range by switching to gas when necessary. Charging kiosks will, admittedly, be expensive to install, but the payback should be reasonable, and even with a surcharge for profit, most plug-in drivers would rather spend a couple bucks on a charge than $60 filling the tank.

Industry analyst Lisa Jerram estimates there will 150,000 public charging stations in the US by 2020. This looks like a great opportunity for folks in the parking industry.

Making Difficult Customers Happy

Dave Feehan

Many parking professionals have found that some customers are, well, difficult. Sometimes it’s an individual who’s found an unauthorized car in his or her space. Sometimes it’s a corporate customer who isn’t happy with leasing arrangements for his or her employees.

Monika Jansen, writing in Grow SmartBiz offers five ways to turn difficult customers into marketing success stories. While I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about the parking business, I also think her five points are ones we should think about.

In the article, Jansen suggests:

  • Put a detailed plan together.
  • Never get defensive.
  • Thank them.
  • Get them involved.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.

Her suggestions reminded me of a program I put together a few years back while working with a downtown organization. That organization was worried about losing a number of office tenants who were threatening to leave because of frustrations with parking.

Here’s what we did:

First, we constructed a plan based on information from property owners. When they alerted us that a current tenant was planning to leave when their lease expired, we contacted the tenant directly and offered a customized parking plan.

Second, we avoided being defensive, always telling a positive story about our plans for the parking system.

Third, we always thanked the tenant–for letting us meet with them, for discussing their issues frankly, and for giving us a chance to make them happy.

Fourth, we got them involved in designing a solution to their problems.

And fifth, we always tried to look at things from their point of view, which often meant we had to understand the difference in cost between downtown and a suburban office park lease. When the topic of cost came up, we pointed out that they had to factor in the other costs–moving expenses, reprinting stationery and business cards, customers that might be lost as a result of the move, and difficulties for employees who didn’t own cars and relied on public transportation. Surprisingly, these were things they sometimes hadn’t considered, and they appreciated that we were looking to help them save money.

Our success rate with “difficult” customers was greater than 70 percent, and we found that many switched from difficult to happy and satisfied.

Taking the People out of Parking

Dave Feehan

A recent report on the CBS program “60 Minutes” featured robots and, among other things, suggested that our jobless recovery was in large part due to companies buying robots to take the place of human workers. Robots were shown building cars, moving stock around warehouses, dispensing boarding passes, and vacuuming floors. Some robots were hardware, while others were software.

As I pulled out of a parking garage in Pittsburgh after the broadcast, I couldn’t help but think how things have changed in the parking industry. An automated ticket spitter greeted me when I arrived. Another machine allowed me to pay for my parking without any human intervention. The old ticket window where an attendant used to sit was closed. A third robot accepted my paid ticket and opened the gate for me.

Many of my colleagues in the parking business are fond of calling it a people business, because the cars we park are driven by people. But as I noted in an earlier blog post, California and several other states are now passing legislation allowing driverless vehicles to operate on public roads. Google, Audi, Toyota, and other companies have invested millions in new technologies to develop driverless vehicles and systems.

We can expect that many routine maintenance and safety tasks in parking facilities may soon be done without much aid of humans. Are we really in the people business? It’s possible to imagine driverless cars parking in automated garages, having batteries charged, and repairs made without any human intervention in just a few years. What implications do these trends have for the parking industry?

Unionized Workers: Blessing or Curse?

Dave Feehan

Legislators in Michigan recently passed a bill making that state one of 24 “right to work” states, limiting the power of unions to require employees to pay union dues. Right to work states mostly mirror the red states in previous elections, and limiting the power of unions–particularly public sector unions–has become an important plank in conservative agendas around the US.

So are parking systems better off with unionized or non-unionized employees? Like many management and policy issues, it all depends.

I come from a family of union workers. My grandfather was a union organizer in saw mills in Minnesota and Montana. My father was a Minneapolis city firefighter. But only one of my siblings is a union member; three others own their own non-union businesses. I belonged to two unions when I was in college and have seen the benefits of a union shop as an employee (as well as the abuses that can happen). I now own my own business and have been on the management side of things for most of the past 40 years.

Having managed or consulted with many parking systems and business improvement districts, I have my reservations about whether or not our current model of management engagement with employee unions is still delivering what we all want–namely, exceptional customer service at a reasonable price delivered by happy, well-paid employees.

On one hand, I’ve seen unions go to bat for employees who clearly were not performing, and were affecting the morale of other employees, to say nothing of delivering poor customer service. On the other hand, I’ve seen at-will employees fired for no reason other than disagreeing with the boss.

Trade unions were established at a time when industrial companies employed horrendous practices to keep employees in line. Some workers lost their lives trying to organize unions. My grandfather was literally driven out of Missoula by the sawmill bosses, who threatened him and his family. But some unions today have become anachronisms, fighting against even the most basic forms of employee performance evaluation. In one city where I worked, supervisors were forbidden to conduct even the most basic annual reviews of city employees by the union contract.

Many parking systems today are unionized, and seem to work well. Perhaps the industry should study these and extrapolate lessons to be learned, with an ultimate goal of crafting a 21st century model of management-employee relations. We might well lead the way for both public employee unions and private sector unions.

Parking and the Annoyance Threshold

Dave Feehan

Like most Americans, I am relieved and grateful that election season has finally subsided. Well, mostly. Not every television channel rumbles with constant attack ads. My land line (yes, I still have one, but never answer it) has ceased to be the target of hundreds of robo-calls. My mailbox is once again filled with innocuous flyers promoting local supermarkets instead of candidates and causes, and my email seems empty without the 50 daily pleas for political financial support. A blogger for Daily Kos called this barrage an attack on our collective “annoyance threshold,” a term I used about a year ago in a parking pricing report for a major West Coast city.

Not too many years ago, people in the parking business seemed mostly unconcerned with the annoyance threshold. If parking customers didn’t appreciate lugging a pocket-breaking load of quarters with them every time they went downtown, too bad. If parking garages were dull, dirty, and dangerous, we still collected their money, frequently without thanks. If drivers didn’t like tickets, towing, and booting, well, they should have been more careful. At the same time, city officials and downtown organizations wondered why downtowns kept losing retail, dining and office establishments to the suburbs.

Thankfully, we parking professionals woke up one day and realized that customers had lots of choices. Some of these choices were managed by people who understood what an annoying experience parking in downtowns and urban business districts could be. Then, in just a few years, a revolution occurred. Pay by credit card? Sure! Pay by cell phone? Coming soon to your city, if it’s not already available. Clean, safe parking structures? Of course! We were listening to our customers!

But I worry that we are in danger of once more forgetting the annoyance threshold and what our customers like and don’t like. Too many cities are now in financial trouble and see parking as a cash cow. Untested or poorly-designed variable pricing programs can easily annoy and confuse our customers. Some parking kiosks are user friendly; some, not so much. Signage and wayfinding? Too expensive. We should all remind ourselves that we are in business for one reason: to serve people, not to store cars.

Parking 20 Years From Now

Dave Feehan

Are city local governments and private developers that are building parking structures today with life expectancies of 50 years in the same boat as people who built horse stables in 1900? A number of companies have been at work in the U.S. refining a concept that has been working in Europe and Asia: the automated robotic parking garage.

I visited Boomerang’s model facility in New Jersey recently and I was impressed with how smoothly and efficiently it works. No up and down spirals, no slanted floors, and a building that can be used in any number of ways and can store any number of things besides cars.

California just became the second state to pass legislation permitting driverless cars. Several other states are considering such legislation, and Google, Toyota, and Cadillac are well into testing these vehicles. Add to these advances the acceptance of car- and bike-sharing programs, and in 20 or 30 years it may not be necessary to own a car, secure a driver’s license, or worry about tickets at all.

People living in urban areas will only need a smartphone (maybe worn on a wrist?) to summon a “personal transportation unit” that will pick them up, deliver them to their destination, and then proceed to either the next customer or a charging station. These vehicles may well use Segway technology, and will be relatively small, light, and electrically powered. Some people may still own more conventional vehicles, but even these will probably have driverless technology, obviating the need for traffic signals and reducing auto accidents to a very low level, thus reducing traffic congestion.

Automated parking structures can be built to be readily convertible to office or residential use once development patterns change, so there will be no need to tear down expensive conventional parking garages that are still structurally sound.

None of us knows for sure how fast these changes will occur, and how readily people will adapt to them, but think of the speed of innovation in other industries, and think of the energy savings and cost savings that could occur if we move in this direction. If I were a parking director for a city, hospital, university, or private development, I would think long and hard about this technology.