It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: University Parking Practices Worth Reconsidering (Part II)

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George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change.” With the goal of improving parking on college campuses, this blog series concentrates on old parking policies and practices universities should re-think. I wrote last about the hunting license approach to parking permit allocation and demand-based pricing. Using price to differentiate parking products based on demand gives consumers a critical tool to determine if the convenience one parking space offers over another is worth the difference in price. What’s more, tiered parking systems enhance customer satisfaction by improving the likelihood that a patron will find a space in his or her assigned lot. Universities should also be thoughtful about how parking programs and services are delivered, so this post is on organizational structure and service delivery.

I visited a campus recently and learned that the parking programs and services there are spread across several different departments. Police write parking citations, permits are sold from the business office, the planning department plans for future parking facilities, and athletics handles parking for athletic events. It’s good to invite multiple perspectives on how parking should be run, but a decentralized, fragmented system promotes inefficiency, poor customer service, and tactical (rather than strategic) thinking.

The alternative to a fragmented system is a centralized one in which the parking and transportation department is the principle unit responsible for campus access programs and services. Ideally, this includes fleet services, alternative transportation, special event parking, and transit and shuttle services in addition to parking operations and planning. I do not suggest that parking departments work in a silo. Instead, parking staff work with their counterparts in other departments who serve as subject matter experts (e.g. the public safety department and emergency management) or as a client (e.g. the athletics department for on-campus athletic events). Centralized parking management provides the best opportunity to keep the big picture in focus by facilitating the coordination and delivery of related programs and services. It also ensures that each opportunity for a customer interaction is managed with the same overarching goals and objectives and that quality customer service follows from start to finish.

If colleges and universities wish to deliver the best, most efficient parking and transportation service, they must be willing to structure their delivery mechanisms for success. Consolidating all facets of access management offers the optimal solution.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (Part I)

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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, wrote that not only do we fear change, “[people] genuinely believe that when you’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things. And the longer you’ve been doing it that way, the better it is.” It’s no wonder some universities have a tough time considering better ways of running their parking departments.  Even though the old way of doing things may feel comfortable, there are probably ways to improve customer service, reduce costs, and in some cases, increase revenue.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll offer up parking practices at universities that may be worth reconsidering. Today: hunting license permit systems.

Many schools sell permits for parking but the permit only offers a chance to park on campus—it doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually be able to park. The number of permits sold in this scheme is not capped, so you often create a situation where there are more parkers than parking spaces. This in turn results in excessive driving as parkers search for available spaces, additional congestion and pollution, and unhappy patrons. This approach works when parking demand is low but as schools grow and construct new buildings on parking lots, the parking supply-and-demand relationship changes, requiring a new way to allocate scarce parking permits and spaces.

Many schools have successfully implemented demand-based permit allocation systems where the price of a permit is based on the demand for the facility for which the permit is valid.  This system is grounded in supply/demand economics and uses pricing signals to help consumers make informed decisions about whether and where to park. The use of alternatives to driving (and a reduction in congestion and pollution) often follows a move to market-informed pricing.

In a tiered parking scheme, parking lots and garages are typically treated as discrete facilities. A finite number of parking permits are sold for the facility with an established oversell ratio based on documented occupancy data for the facility, and parkers do not hunt for parking spaces between lots but are assigned to specific facilities.

Drop me a line if you have an example of a parking practice worth reconsidering. Together we can make change less fearful.

Demand-Based Parking for Universities: From the Municipal Playbook

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Many universities struggle to meet parking demand as they grow in size and enrollment. A technique that is commonly used in municipal parking is to base parking on demand and set prices in a manner that provides price and convenience choice. Sometimes referred to as demand-based or tiered parking pricing, this market-informed strategy can help universities and community colleges achieve financial and sustainability goals while maximizing the amount of people accessing campuses each day. There are nuances and variations on the theme based on the special needs of specific campuses, but in essence, the approach allocates parking prices based on demonstrated demand. Facilities with the highest demonstrated demand have the highest value and therefore the highest cost, and those with relatively low demand command a lower price.

A significant benefit of tiered parking is that it offers parkers price and convenience choice–something we all appreciate as consumers. Demand-based parking can encourage commuters to use alternatives to driving by assigning a meaningful cost to different parking options. Additionally, the approach can help redistribute parking demand. A less convenient parking lot may become more desirable if its cost is lower than one with higher demand.

Moving from less sophisticated systems to a demand-based approach can be met with resistance from the campus community if it isn’t implemented in a thoughtful way. Ask yourself:

  1. Does the institution have the political will to make a significant change in your parking program? If university leadership won’t see the process to fruition, it may not be time for you to pursue something this weighty.
  2. Do you know parking occupancy by facility and by day of week/hour of day? To begin dividing up lots into different pricing groups, you must understand current and anticipated occupancy levels inside and out.
  3. What’s happening and likely to happen just outside of campus with demand-based parking? If neighborhoods adjacent to your campus have no parking management strategies in place, it is likely that any major changes on campus will simply displace parking into the neighborhoods on your borders, potentially causing town/gown problems.
  4. Do you offer good alternatives to driving? When you change how permits are allocated, you’ll cause some parkers to rethink how they reach campus. There may be great resistance if you don’t have viable alternatives, such as transit, carpool, and biking.

There are many details to work out when implementing demand-based parking, but more universities will need to consider this approach as they grow and exceed the capabilities of old permit allocation systems. Those that make the move will improve customer satisfaction, and they will enjoy more financially secure parking programs that are more efficiently used while helping their campuses meet sustainability goals.

My Worst Nightmare: The Parking Death Spiral

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This term “death spiral” conjures up images of nothing good in my mind. As a kid, I had a frequent nightmare about jumping off the bridge of a huge ship and spiraling downward without being able to stop my free-fall. Luckily, I’d always wake before hitting the water, where I’d certainly perish.

In a real death spiral, the thing spiraling (organization, state, business, or person) continues a downward progression that only accelerates as conditions worsen. Mounting inertia grows, making revival nearly impossible.

I recently returned from the Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) annual University Summit, which brought together 60 transportation demand management (TDM) and parking professionals to talk about university parking and transportation. Some of the schools most successful in advancing the use of alternatives to driving were there, including Stanford, the University of Washington, Arizona State, and the University of Colorado. The topic of the death spiral was prominent at this conference and worthy of further consideration.

Most higher education parking departments are self-supporting auxiliaries. This means that no outside resources are provided, and programs and services are funded through parking fees and fines. Alternative transportation programs have become increasingly important to universities in reducing driving, furthering sustainability goals, and enhancing the pedestrian environment.

There is, from our perspective, a downside. As more people find alternative ways to reach campus, (bike, bus, carpool, walk) revenue streams and expenses are affected. The more successful an institution is in shifting people away from single-occupancy cars, the fewer parkers there are to fund the entire parking and transportation program. This creates a spiraling effect that can result in financial instability.

Some might argue that the obvious response is to abandon alternative transportation altogether. While I’d disagree wholeheartedly with that approach, I do believe that the traditional funding model for higher education parking and transportation may be incompatible with alternative transportation goals. A new model is needed. The strategic partnership between IPI and ACT offers the best chance of coming up with a new model to help us all avoid a TDM and parking nightmare.

Friendly, not…

Doug Holmes

A subscriber recently posted the following question to the CPARK-L list:

“Does anyone have a policy that allows students to park free during summer class time? I have a student that wants me to assist her in an English class assignment and proposal to do exactly that.”

Free Parking? That is one of the worst four-letter words in this or any language.  In fact, I think it was George Carlin’s eighth banned word, but he had to cut that routine down to 3:05 to make it onto a record.

The response from around 15 or so institutions was a resounding, “No!” Ann Szipszky of Seton Hall put it quite succinctly, “Oh dear, NO! Free parking for everyone would create a nightmare situation for us, not to mention the pleas in the fall, ‘But no one charged me in the summer,’ ‘I didn’t need a permit in the summer, why do I need one now?’ and then there is always, ‘No one told me I needed to buy a permit, I parked for free all summer.’ Free summer parking would be scary, very scary.”

Even if someone else is subsidizing “free” parking, it sets the parking office up for a bad beginning of fall semester. And what happens to the subsidizing agency or group when fall semester rolls around? Who has control over and responsibility for the bank?

No matter what time of the year, operating a parking lot (and all the attendant activities that go into that effort such as office staff, utilities, maintenance, enforcement, etc.) continue.  Would this student approach the council of academic deans to request a tuition waiver during the summer? After all, not all the classrooms are full over the summer and class sizes typically run smaller than in other semesters.

I was reminded of a favorite parking quote when I saw this post: “Parking should be friendly, not free.” This phrase was coined by Rina Cutler who ran several municipal parking systems, and who even created a bumper sticker with it–one of her stickers hung over my desk until the day I retired.

There are times when you may have to accommodate an event (a Presidential visit comes to mind) with free parking, but, in my humble opinion, “free” parking is the antithesis of good parking management.

Sorry, this just reminded me of the good old days prior to retirement.

Parking and Surgeons

Isaiah Mouw

A recent medical study published in the British Medical Journal Open concluded that patients place as much importance on finding a parking space as their surgeon’s clinical ability. Let that sink in for a moment.

The study concluded that factors such as the parking experience, food quality, and cleanliness of the hospital are as important to the patients as the clinical skills of the surgeon. Researcher Colin Howie, a senior orthopedic consultant at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, said, “The clinical skills of the surgeon were on a par with a parking space.” In other words, parking matters a great deal in hospital environments.

The hospitals found that patient (customer) satisfaction depended on issues outside of the surgery they were having. We in parking are not too surprised by the results of this survey as this customer service principle is true in almost every realm of parking sectors. A hotel guest’s valet parking experience at a five-star hotel will influence the guest’s customer satisfaction at that hotel and the hotel’s five-star rating. The first thing a visitor to a city must do is park. That parking transaction, whether on the street, in a garage, with a phone, or at a meter, will shape the visitor’s perception of that given city. The same goes for prospective students or parents of students visiting a university. Did the parents feel their child would be safe on that campus based on their parking garage experience? Parking is often a critical and powerful factor in a customer’s overall experience–not just their parking experience.

When our youngest son was born, he needed surgery. Boston Children’s Hospital had a world-renowned surgeon known for his work with the type of procedure our child needed. For us, this surgeon’s ability was infinitely more important to us than our parking experience or the cafeteria food. That being said, we will always remember the excellent customer service shown by the staff at the hospital. If you asked someone for help locating a certain place in the hospital, they didn’t just give you directions–they walked you there. The parking staff was also friendly and the parking garage used a kid-friendly, creative wayfinding system with pictures of animals. Children loved it and parents loved having help remembering where their car was.

The fact that hospital patients in this survey said that the parking experience was as important as the surgeon’s ability speaks volumes. Remember this and take pride in knowing that improving your parking services is usually going to help improve the customer’s overall day, not just their parking experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Transportation: A Factor in College Choice

Bridgette Brady

University recruiters may have been keeping a few secrets.

Among the largest is that there are fewer kids to recruit into college. A decline in birthrates in the late 1990s means there are fewer teens than previous years, which translates into fewer considering advanced education.

Recruiting from a dwindling pool of high school grads often results in lowering standards for admission, which is certainly not a great business model. It’s a tough fact to swallow when the lifeblood of any university is a continuous and consistent flow of quality students.

Here’s something that’s not a secret: transportation is moving up the lists of criteria used by students in selecting a university.

Hmmm…does this mean they need us more now than ever?

I am the director of Washington State University, which is a member of the Pacific-12 Conference (PAC-12). If transportation systems are selection criteria, we’re competing with the likes of Stanford, Cal Berkley, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Washington, to name a few. From bicycles to buses, walking paths to carsharing programs, our system now competes with some of the best in the nation.

Our department is not discouraged, we’re energized. We’re excited by the notion that we can help WSU compete for quality students. We’re excited to have a new strategic opportunity and a new way to appeal to the university community for support of our transportation system.

I’ve begun introducing this concept to the community, including administrators, faculty members, student government, sustainability groups, or just about anyone else who will listen. And I’ve not been laughed out of the room. Pride runs deep in the university setting and competition is a way of life.

Let’s get into the game. The new message: “Help us help you. We’re all in this together.” It’s the beginning of a new era for transportation directors. When it comes to competing for students we have a seat at the strategic planning table.

It’s a good thing we’re ready.

MTI: Claiming a Seat at the Table

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Sally Ride’s passing gives us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of exploration and the profound impact research can have on our society.  In our own sector research is equally critical. The Mineta Tranportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University announced yesterday their award from the U.S. Department of Transportation  of a $3.49-million grant to study “transportation research, workforce development, technology transfer and education.”  MTI will be teaming on the project with colleagues from Rutgers University, Howard University, University of Detroit Mercy, Grand Valley State University, Bowling Green University, Toledo University, the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Pennsylvania State University.  No doubt, the consortium’s work will produce findings that will positively affect us all.

In looking over the list of schools included in the work I can’t help but think of the fine parking professionals at or near each school who I hope will be included in the effort.  Experts such as Tad McDowell at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Clayton Johnson from the Downtown Toledo Parking Authority, to name two, are seasoned parking and transportation professionals who would bring a tremendous amount of practical experience to the table.

Research is critical to expanding our knowledge base, and it’s exciting to hear about efforts that are directed at our field.  To get the most of the effort, the right people need to be included. In this case, the MTI and its colleagues need to look no further than their own communities to find capable, smart, talented people who can help them ensure their efforts bear the most fruit.

Training for the Unexpected

Cindy Campbell

A recent sunny, southern California Friday afternoon that should have been a typical last day of the winter academic term turned out to be anything but at Cal Poly State University. A passerby discovered the body of a young man (later identified as a first-year student) in a vehicle parked in a busy campus parking lot. The tragedy was an apparent suicide by over-exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas. The young man had taken steps intended to keep others safe, posting signs on the inside of his vehicle windows that warned of the chemical. Along with police officers, members of our parking staff were on scene to keep pedestrians and vehicles a safe distance from the work of the hazardous materials team. It was a challenging task, as students were trying to pack their cars and leave campus for spring break.

When something like this happens, we naturally reflect on thoughts of our own families and hope to never experience such personal tragedy. We feel sadness and sympathy for both the victim and their family. On this occasion, another thought occurred to me, and it’s the purpose of this post: what if one of our parking employees initially came upon the situation? Would they have understood the potential dangers involved? Would they have reacted instinctively and opened the car door in an attempt to help the young man? We provide training on a wide variety of topics to our parking staff, but understanding and recognizing hazardous chemicals isn’t one of the topics we’ve covered in the past decade. Is it a standard training topic for your program?

College Parking Makes the Grade

In much of the country (sorry, Colorado), birds are singing and flowers are blooming and spring has definitely sprung. April brings with it a renewed freshness as we break out of our winter doldrums, sweep out the proverbial cobwebs, open up the windows, and let a little newness in.

April means The Parking Professional focuses on colleges and universities, and there are lots of fresh ideas in this month’s issue.

We kick things off with “Shooting for Three,” which looks at how a university, a neighborhood, and a city balanced their triple bottom line when a new 12,400-seat athletic complex opened on campus. Far from shrinking from the challenge, parking professionals at the University of Oregon put their heads together and figured out how to make the new center and its crowds work for everyone.

The magazine next looks at how the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill balanced its funding when expenses went up recently. Innovative ideas helped keep the spreadsheet healthy without placing undue burden on any one group.

One of my favorite stories from the issue is about Operation Safedrive [PDF], which provides free vehicle safety inspections to students and faculty at the University of Georgia–you won’t believe how far that’s gone in good public relations for the parking services department there. Similarly, you’ll read the story of Texas Tech’s new motion awareness program that helps keep everyone–drivers and pedestrians–a little bit safer.

The magazine also features stories about Duke University’s LEED-certified garage, and how Seattle Children’s hospital used solid data and a little fun and games to proactively push TDM, with great results.

I hope you’ll enjoy the April issue of The Parking Professional. Let us know what you think!