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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.

Free Parking is Bad and Demand-Responsive Parking is Good, Right? Not Necessarily (Part 2)

Dave Feehan

Yesterday, we talked about why the belief that demand-responsive parking is always best might just be a myth. So if that’s not the answer to our parking woes, what is?Machine parking

Each of the components of a successful downtown has different parking needs. The answer, then, to an effective parking system supporting and complementing all of these components is not just demand-responsive parking, but a comprehensive, well-managed, customer-sensitive, and user-friendly approach.

Boise, Idaho, is a great example. If my memory is correct, Boise introduced a couple of hours of free parking to entice shoppers and diners. The parking system actually lost revenue but sales tax revenue exploded, more than making up for lost parking fees. Not only that, but shoppers were extending the time they spent in downtown. And as any shopping center manager will tell you, the more time I can capture a shopper, the more money that shopper will spend.

The Oakland article mentioned in yesterday’s blog post suggests that shoppers should abandon their cars and take public transit. But that is not how Americans shop. Remember, women make about 85 percent of retail purchases and most do not want to be schlepping a couple of shopping bags on a bus or subway car.

In the 1970s, Jim Rouse, the creator of festival marketplaces, brought that concept to Kevin White, then mayor of Boston. He proposed turning Quincy Markets into a festival market. The idea became a reality, and it worked, so other cities—Baltimore with Harborplace and New York with South Street Seaport—followed suit, with some degree of success. But festival markets were no magic bullet, and when they were tried in places like Flint and Toledo, they failed miserably.

I worry that demand-responsive parking is becoming the next magic bullet—an idea that works superbly in some places, modestly in others, and not at all in still others. If we really understand what shoppers, diners, downtown employees, tourists, downtown residents and other downtown visitors want and need—if we start with the user and not with the parking space—we might find far greater benefits in the long run.

Another trend in the parking industry is for parking system managers to engage in a strategic planning process. My bifurcated brain tells me that any city or district thinking about demand-responsive parking should start by listening to users, engaging them in a really effective strategic planning process, and only then deciding how best to serve and support them. Demand responsive parking is AN answer—not THE answer.

Free Parking is Bad and Demand-Responsive Parking is Good, Right? Not Necessarily (Part 1)

Dave Feehan

The headline in the Oakland, Calif., East Bay Express read, “Why Oakland’s Free Holiday Parking is Hurting Business.” And once again, my split personality emerged from its usual hiding place. All of the experts quoted in the article said free parking will hurt merchants. But how do they know?Machine parking

You see, I’ve spent pretty much all of my professional life in the field of downtown and community development, but I’ve also been deeply involved in parking for much of that time, both as a manager of a downtown parking system and as a consultant. So I look at situations like Oakland’s and part of me sees what parking professionals see. But another part of me sees what merchants, restaurant owners, shoppers, tourists, and downtown residents see. And I’m not sure that free parking is always bad and demand-responsive parking is always the best answer.

I know: “Free” parking is never free. We’ve buried that discussion, hopefully, years ago. And yes, demand-responsive parking seems to be working in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where demand for on-street parking is extremely high.

But I’ve been working with the City of Lebanon, Penn., for about a year on the creation of a business improvement district, or BID. Lebanon has a visually appealing, historic downtown but its retail component is weak and there are too many vacancies and storefront churches on its main street. Is free Saturday parking the answer to downtown Lebanon’s woes? No. Might it help for a few years until the BID can recruit a much stronger set of shops and restaurants? You bet, if it is managed well. Free parking can be managed so that employees and employers don’t park all day in front of the store.

What we do know is that downtowns that are lively and vibrant need great restaurants and clubs, enticing shops and successful office tenants, and lots of residents. Having a university branch, a good library, a live theater, and a burgeoning farmers market help to round out a place that local residents can be proud of, and city officials can appreciate as a major tax revenue generator.

What are the answers? Come back tomorrow and find out!

Is the Parking Industry a Healthy Place to Work?

Dave Feehan

I recently sent a few friends in the parking consulting profession an online article from Harvard Business Review. Here is an excerpt:

As a recent review of past scientific studies noted, frequent business travel, especially long-haul travel, accelerates aging and increases the likelihood of suffering a stroke, heart attack, and deep-vein thrombosis. It also exposes travelers to pathological levels of germs and radiation. If you fly over 85,000 miles per year, you are absorbing radiation levels above the regulatory limit of most countries.iStock_000007198270_Large

At about the same time I was sending this article, I received my monthly issue of the Wellness Letter, published by the University of California, Berkeley. The lead article was entitled The Girth of a Nation, and it outlined how we have become a nation of porkers. More than 80 million Americans are now obese.

What highlighted this topic even more was a tour and cruise from which my wife and I just returned—to Spain, France, and Italy. I couldn’t help but notice how many of my fellow Americans were moderately to severely overweight, while the Europeans we saw throughout our tour mostly looked trim and fit.

I’m going to guess that some of our colleagues who run downtown, university, airport, and suburban parking systems have internal programs that encourage healthy behaviors on the part of their employees and their families. I would bet there are a few that promote good health among their customers. But I would wager there is a whole lot more we could be doing:

  • How many parking systems have wellness, diet, and exercise programs integrated into the healthcare programs they provide employees?
  • How many have incentives built into their programs that reward smoking cessation and weight loss or control?
  • How many systems actively partner with local health organizations and provide educational messages in facilities?
  • How many systems promote bike riding for customers and employees?
  • How many work with local farmers markets to encourage purchase and consumption of locally grown, healthy food alternatives?
  • How many hold periodic brainstorming sessions among employees focused on health?

When I compare my fellow Americans with people from other countries, I’m convinced we could and should do more. It’s a wise investment.

Designing a New Downtown

Dave Feehan

What would you do if you could design a downtown from scratch—not in a new suburb, but in the heart of a city that is more than 100 years old?

I’m currently working with a medium-sized Midwestern city that decades ago demolished much of its historic downtown in a desire to move rapidly into the changing urban world of the 1960s. This was the era of urban renewal. Federal dollars were flowing to cities to remove blight, and aging business districts were losing out to newly constructed suburban malls.iStock_000063161393_Large

Of course, not every city scraped clean its historic downtown, but some did and they are now faced with an unexpected opportunity; in many ways, they have a clean slate, a blank canvas on which to create something very new and different.

Approaching this opportunity from a parking perspective, what would you do?

Would you build a number of conventional parking garages? Above-ground or underground? Freestanding or part of mixed-use developments? What about on-street parking? Bike lanes? Complete streets? Would parking come first to induce development or would you wait until demand materialized? Would you consider automated garages? Or, given the trend toward walkable, pedestrian, and bike-oriented approaches to urban development, would you exclude cars altogether perhaps with parking only on the periphery? Given what we now know about autonomous vehicles, will people even own cars in 30 years when your building cycle is nearing completion?

These are not just academic questions. As downtowns become more dense, more residential, and more green, this city and others like it will lead the way in discovering how we are likely to live, work, shop, play, learn, and park for decades to come. One building that may show us how tomorrow may look is the Edge in Amsterdam.

Some cities like Green Bay, Wisc., demolished large sections of their downtowns to build suburban-style shopping malls. When the Port Plaza mall in Green Bay, built in 1977, proved unsuccessful by 2012, it was demolished. New development is planned.

Local leaders in the town I mentioned are now getting very excited as they begin to comprehend the opportunities that await them. Their city is manageable in size, and what happens there could well define a better future for many other cities around the world.

Can a Downtown Organization Manage Parking?

Dave Feehan

I recently had a couple of inquiries from colleagues asking me if I knew of any downtown organizations or business improvement districts (BIDs) that managed downtown parking. I was immediately reminded of a brief report I wrote in 2010 on the subject for a client, and was able to send her a copy of the report.

As I reviewed the 2010 report, a number of questions came to mind:

  • How many cities are now contracting with downtown organizations or BIDs to manage municipal or public parking?
  • Are other private or public entities contracting with downtown organizations or BID to manage parking that they own or control?
  • What advantages and disadvantages are there to this arrangement?
  • What results, both positive and negative, have these contracts or arrangements produced?

At the time I produced the report, I identified eight cities where downtown organizations were managing some or all of the municipal parking system: Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boise, Idaho; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Memphis, Tenn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Schenectady, N.Y.; and Tempe, Ariz. I haven’t checked with these cities lately, nor do I know how many other cities might currently have similar arrangements. What I do know is that all of these cities and the downtown organizations I contacted reported positive results. But there are also cautions that should be considered.

Briefly, the eight organizations reported:

  • They made significant changes in parking operations, rules, and regulations to make the systems more user-friendly, with varying degrees of success.
  • They were, in most cases, able to earn a management fee to support the downtown organization and pay for internal management personnel.
  • They developed and offered a host of innovative amenities that customers found appealing.
  • They mostly reported higher revenues as customers found the parking system friendlier and often cleaner, safer, and more attractive.
  • They were able to use parking as a more effective economic development tool.

Disadvantages included not having the deep-pocketed financial reserves that cities have, and finding it difficult to continue innovating once the initial changes were made.

It would seem that with the proliferation of robust downtown organizations and BIDs, more cities might consider this as an option. However, not every downtown organization is eager to take on what might be a headache if the system is poorly managed, and others may not feel this is their core business. City governments might also be reluctant to turn over a considerable asset to a group that they feel lacks parking management knowledge and experience. Nonetheless, it’s an option worth considering.

(Full disclosure: I was president of Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. when that organization pioneered this arrangement in 1990.)

Still a Long Way to Go?

Dave Feehan

I read last week in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that in the wake of the firing of the athletic director at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, for sexual harassment, the university president had extended contracts and given substantial raises to a number of coaches. Talk about income inequality! In the field of college athletics, male coaches sometimes make double, triple, or even quadruple what female coaches make in the same or comparable sports. Of course, the revenue sports—football, basketball, and hockey—are the places to make big bucks if you’re coaching, and women’s sports don’t generate the revenues that big-time men’s sports produce. Further, any athletic director will tell you that if you want to be competitive in big time college athletics, you have to be prepared to pay seven-figure salaries to male coaches in football and basketball.

What does this have to do with parking?

I also happened to be perusing the August issue of The Parking Professional this morning and was delighted to see a good friend, Kim Jackson, CAPP, IPI’s board chair, featured on the cover. This afternoon, I’m finishing up some final chapters for a book on women and downtowns I’ve been working on for a couple of years. (Full disclosure—a few prominent IPI members are contributing authors.)

In our research, my chief co-author, Dr. Carol Becker, and I found that women are generally thought to make or influence around 80 percent of retail decisions, residential decisions, and healthcare decisions. Women control more than half of the private wealth in the U.S. and represent nearly 60 percent of college graduates today. Yet women are woefully underrepresented in the professions that design the downtown experience.

Parking, like architecture, urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture, real estate development, commercial real estate brokerage, civil engineering, construction, and a host of other related professions, has been and is still male-dominated. More women have moved into these professions, yet they have not achieved parity in the upper levels of management, and it is here where the tone is set.

We surveyed about 200 women who were business and civic leaders and asked what they liked and disliked about downtowns. The number-one dislike was parking, and more specifically, parking garages. If women designed parking garages, how would they be different? And when women do manage parking, what are they doing to dispel the notion, as one survey respondent said, that parking garages are “dull, dirty, dark, and dangerous.”

It’s very encouraging that IPI has taken leadership in creating opportunities for women not just to work in parking, but to lead. Kim Jackson, Immediate Past Chair Liliana Rambo, CAPP, and the many other women who serve on IPI’s board and committees are but one of several examples of successful women who have proven that parking is not just a profession for male leaders. As the old saying goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But my sense is that until more women are in the driver’s seat in terms of top management, we’re not there yet.

Are We Prepared?

Dave Feehan

A survey in the Washington Business Journal asked readers if they were canceling planned trips to Baltimore as a result of recent demonstrations and riots. More than 60 percent said they would and another 20 percent said that while they would not cancel a planned trip, they would be more cautious. Baltimore isn’t the only city that has seen demonstrations and unrest. In fact, any city or suburb that experiences an incident of questionable police behavior this summer is almost certain to see some form of demonstration or protest.

Combine these human-related incidents with other factors—for example, the nearly unbelievable increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, prospects of increasingly severe weather, and an apparent increase in sinkholes—and suddenly, parking managers and operators need to ask themselves a few questions: Do we have an emergency preparedness plan, how good is it, when was it updated, and are we financially prepared for what could happen?  The IPI Safety & Security committee is developing Emergency Preparedness Guidelines just for this purpose.  This new resource will be invaluable to your operation, and available for download this summer.

I worked with the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District in downtown Washington D.C., a few years ago. I thought I had seen good emergency preparedness plans in other cities where I’ve worked, but this one was on a whole different plateau. Of course, the southern edge of this district has a unique architectural feature called the White House, so the Golden Triangle BID has to think about all kinds of terrorist threats as well. But anyone who thinks terrorism can’t strike in their town isn’t paying attention. Remember the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City?

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, I called a hasty joint meeting with International Downtown Association members and members of BOMA, the Building Owners and Managers Association. We arranged a conference call with members in perhaps a dozen cities, and several people on the call expressed fears for their downtown skyscrapers. Not Minneapolis. The BOMA representative in Minneapolis said his greatest fear was an attack on the Mall of America, bookended by massive parking garages. A truck bomb in either one or both would be devastating.

Now would be a good time to review (or create) a robust emergency preparedness plan for your parking system. You may find that one possible danger isn’t physical, like a bomb, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado. It may simply be a major loss of revenue occurring when customers, out of fear, don’t show up.

Warrior or Ambassador?

Dave Feehan

With the nation’s attention recently focused on Ferguson, N.Y., and other police shootings, it might be a good time to revisit how parking systems provide security in their facilities and offices.

Some parking systems hire and deploy their own employees as security officers. Some contract with private security firms. Others may hire off-duty police officers. Some parking facilities are patrolled by Business Improvement District (BID) personnel.

Law enforcement has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Today, by some estimates, there are as many private security officers as publicly employed sworn police officers. Foley, Minn., recently disbanded its police force and hired a private security team to patrol its streets.

Discussions of security are generally not the hottest topic at parking conferences. Yet security is sometimes a life-and-death issue, and parking systems that handle security poorly may be putting customers and employees at risk, to say nothing of liability concerns.

Several years ago, when I was the president of the downtown organization in a midwestern city, we provided additional security through our BID. We patrolled downtown sidewalks and the skywalk system as well as augmenting parking garage security. The first important question we had to address was, should we employ our own security workers or contract with an outside firm? We elected to hire our own, because we wanted more control over who was hired and what kind of training was provided.  Fundamentally, we had to decide: Do we want to employ warriors or ambassadors?

There is an old saying in human resources that I often find extremely helpful: Hire attitude and teach skills. In our case, we wanted security patrol personnel who were ambassadors first and warriors only when absolutely necessary. If I were putting together a SWAT or SEAL team, I might think differently about whom to hire.

So what advice might I give a local parking operator or manager? If your facilities are not frequent crime locations, having security officers who are friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable about their surroundings, who carry maps and event schedules, but who know what to do in an emergency might be the right choice. Your officer is more often going to be helping someone with a dead battery or chasing away a skateboarder than apprehending a murderer or bank robber.

Of course, there are many other considerations when evaluating parking security—cost, internal capacity, availability of good contractors—but if parking is the first and last experience for many downtown users and if your security personnel are the first people they encounter, what message do you want to send? Does your garage feel like a war zone or a hotel lobby?

What if Apple got into the Parking Business?

Dave Feehan

There’s been a lot of speculation in the media recently about Apple’s interest in the auto industry. Some have even suggested that Apple has enough cash on hand to buy GM, Ford, or Fiat Chrysler. Of course, Apple has already tiptoed into the world of autos with CarPlay, which turns your in-car screen into a bigger iPhone screen. So will Apple ever build a car? Stay tuned.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.17.16 PMWhat if Apple decided to get into the parking business? Where would its expertise and formidable design sensibility take it? I doubt that Apple would be interested in parking garages. With pay-by-cell, why would it have any interest in parking meters? And I would be shocked if it ever ventured into the back-end of the parking industry, into revenue control systems and ticket spitters.

But what if Apple’s design principles could be applied to, let’s say, multispace meters. What would they look like? How would they interact with customers?

Several years ago, when my downtown management organization took over full operation of a municipal parking system in a small Midwestern city, I challenged a parking task force of downtown businesspeople to think differently. “What would our system feel like and look like if it were run by Nordstrom,” I asked. (Nordstrom was then considered the ultimate retailer in customer service.) We devised more than three dozen innovations and won numerous awards while seeing an 80 percent drop in customer complaints and a 50 percent increase in revenues. The key was to see the parking system through the eyes of the users – who were, in many cases, women.

(Full disclosure: I’m writing a book on designing downtowns for women.)

So let’s just for fun think about a multispace meter designed by Apple. First, the display would be bright and readable. Many meter displays today are tough to read in bright sunlight, and can be impossible for short customers who see nothing but glare-reflected from above because for them the display is above eye level. Second, it wouldn’t take what seems like an eternity to process a payment and register a license plate or space number. Third, the design would be a work of art.

Perhaps multispace meters are already somewhat obsolete. Several cities I’m working with are moving directly from older meters to pay by cell. But if parking meters are going to be around for a while, maybe instead of asking Apple to design them, we should be asking women.

Parking Shortage? An Easy Way to Increase Supply

Dave Feehan

Do you have a parking shortage in your downtown or business district? Many municipal parking directors and managers of downtown organizations hear scores of complaints from customers and merchants who claim there’s no place to park, at least on the street.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 9.20.27 PMMany cities and towns have focused attention on re-examining streets that carry only modest traffic but are marked either no parking or have limited parking hours. Others have tried to solve the problem of downtown employees arriving early, taking the most desirable spaces, and either plugging meters or periodically moving their cars. However, while these measures may produce modest gains, there is another rich trove of potential spaces most cities are loathe to explore. I’m talking about curbing the abuse of disabled placards.

One city that had the wisdom and courage to tackle this issue recently is Portland, Ore. The Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates that placarded cars occupying prime on-street spaces dropped 70 percent when the city started charging placard displayers $2.40 for 90 minutes. In one enforcement beat in the heart of downtown, parked vehicles displaying placards dropped from 31 percent of available spaces to 8 percent.

Portland isn’t the only city suffering from disabled parking placard abuse. In cities where I’ve consulted in the past few years, parking directors have estimated that 30 percent to as much as 50 percent of on-street spaces are occupied by placard holders.

No one disputes that there are many people who absolutely need close-in, reserved parking. My mother had a very weak heart, walked with a walker, and had a valid reason for obtaining and using a placard. When I had two hip replacements, I used a placard for a few weeks. But I would contend that abuse is way too common, and the solution is a matter of political will. City leaders, however, might find they have allies in local organizations serving disabled people when seeking to end abuse. In one Montana city that was a client of mine, the director of a resource center for disabled people said ending abuse was something he could support because it would free up spaces for those who truly need them.

What seems to work in Portland and other cities with this problem is simply asking people with placards to pay for the spaces they use, even if these spaces are designated for disabled people.

Can a Parking Garage Be Beautiful?

Dave Feehan

Conventional wisdom among downtown and business district managers is that most parking garages are best hidden away or disguised, and that too many are downright ugly. But can parking garages be beautiful? Can they actually contribute to urban design and urban fabric? Can they fit into an historic district or a gleaming collection of state-of-the-art office and residential towers?

As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some might look at a very futuristic design and see beauty, while others might a structure that is jarringly out of place in relationship to its surrounding context. Some prefer simplicity while others prefer color and a more fanciful approach. Still, parking garages can be both functional and attractive, and a few recent examples are truly beautiful, even stunning.

Car Park One in Oklahoma City makes many of the “most beautiful lists, as do 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami and the Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Garage. There are also a number of European structures that show up on many lists (many have been showcased in The Parking Professional and in IPI’s annual Awards of Excellence competition—submissions for this year’s competition close soon.)

So what criteria should we use to judge the most beautiful garages? Here are a few I would suggest:

First, the garage must be visually striking. While many fine designs seek to make the structure relatively unobtrusive and nearly invisible, a garage must have a certain amount of attitude to be considered truly beautiful.

Second, it must be more than functional—it must be designed with users in mind, not just as an architectural statement.  Beauty is not just what you see from the street—it’s the feeling you get once you’re inside the garage.

Third, tasteful, thoughtful and effective use of color is important. We’ve seen way too many concrete brutalist designs and we’re living with these monstrosities today. Grey concrete is simply insufficient no matter how functional it might be.

You can check out some of the most lauded beautiful garages here.  Have you seen a particularly attractive garage lately? Let us know in the comments.

Variable Pricing Spreads, but is it Right for Everyone?

Dave Feehan

Credit Professor Donald Shoup with spotting a nascent trend and injecting it into the world of parking. Variable pricing has become a concept and practice pioneered in San Francisco and being considered or implemented in a number of other cities. But according to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) report, variable pricing has also become the rage in other industries as well.

Take air travel for example. Prices vary, day to day and hour to hour. A ticket on the same flight might cost 40 to 50 percent more or less depending on the day of the week and hour of the day it is purchased. Prices also vary according to what services you require. Spirit Airlines is probably the biggest proponent (or offender, if you prefer): A bag that you carry on costs less than one you check, but its cost also varies with how, when, and where you check in.

Another industry that is seizing on variable pricing is sports. Buy a ticket in advance online and pay one price, but pay at the gate and, depending where you sit, you might pay five to 10 times as much. Teams are considering changing prices based on the attractiveness of the opponent, day of the week, and the success of the local team.

I think variable pricing is a great tool–in the right cities, in the right locations within those cities, and managed thoughtfully with both a short- and long-term perspective. That said, I still have reservations as to whether every city should adopt the practice. Where parking is scarce and where there are many affluent people who will pay just about anything for a safe, convenient parking space, variable pricing makes great sense. It also makes sense in terms of residential parking discounts, as Shoup recently proposed, and as a way of rewarding other behaviors such as driving small cars and hybrids.

But in cities and towns that are still struggling to revive their downtowns, where retail stores and restaurants are fragile, and where the culture is resistant, I would think long and hard before introducing a system that confuses local customers and may spell doom for struggling shops and diners.

The Auto Bailout and the Parking Industry

Dave Feehan

One of the pleasures of living in Washington, D.C., is being invited to events at the Brookings Institution, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wilson Center, and other thought centers. I recently attended a series of panel presentations entitled, “Recovery Road? An Assessment of the Auto Bailout and the State of U.S. Manufacturing.” Featured speakers were Larry Summers, former National Economic Council director; Steven Rattner, who handled the government’s side of the auto bailout; and Sergio Marchionne, chairman and CEO of Fiat/Chrysler.

Summer was his usual self; Rattner was earnest and thoughtful. If you haven’t seen Marchionne in an interview, I heartily recommend going on the Brookings website or watching a recent interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He is a remarkably forthright but humorous fellow.

What does this have to do with parking? There was virtual consensus among all eight presenters and four moderators that had the federal government not stepped in to bail out automakers, a tragic disaster would certainly have occurred. As many as 2.6 million jobs would have been lost in the first year after General Motors and Chrysler collapsed. Ford would have been virtually out of business as the supply chain also imploded. Another million-plus jobs would probably have been lost in the second year. With the credit markets frozen, no one was in a position to pick up the pieces.

The best analysis shows that the bailout cost the U.S. government and taxpayers about $12.6 billion dollars, but saved us from at least $100 billion in lost taxes, higher unemployment costs, and other expenses. The effects on the manufacturing, mining, energy, health, and retail sectors would have been significant.

Imagine for a minute if the unemployment rate soared to perhaps 15 percent instead of 10. Imagine all the people who would not being buying cars and driving to work. Imagine the lost revenue parking systems would suffer if millions out of work were not shopping, working, and using parking facilities.

When we think back to those perilous times just a few years ago, we often think of the bank bailout and the auto bailout and grit our teeth. Did the people in charge at the time make all the right decisions? Certainly not. But had they not saved the auto industry, there would have been real pain in the parking industry as well.

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.


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.