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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.

The Emotional Cost of Parking

Wanda Brown

I had the distinct privilege of hearing Dr. Richard Mouw from Fullerton Theological Seminary speak on civility recently. The topic of discussion was how to disagree with respect and reverence. He relayed an experience he had while visiting a local store: driving around the lot, he finally found that coveted parking place. He didn’t realize there was a woman who had been waiting for that very space. As he pulled in, he watched her drive around to another space and felt very badly about his oversight. To correct his obvious error, he approached her to apologize and explain how awful he felt. She responded, “Just leave me alone! You have no idea what kind of day I have had.” He still apologized, and she finally turned around and said, “Thank you for your apology”.

Hearing the story, my mind raced back to parking in a hospital setting. How many times do we hear that there is great emotion attached to one parking space. To the user, that spot is access to a loved one who is sick or dying, or the space you return to after surgery. It confirmed for me what I already knew: Parking is emotional. It is more emotional than financial.

It is no wonder that with the inclusion of a wayfinding system in our newest structure, our patient satisfaction scores went off the chart. Those little green lights softly say to the user, “I’ve been waiting for you,” versus older structures that said, “Find me if you can.” What can we do as parking professionals to meet the emotional cost associated with our parking spaces and ease the sting and frustration that comes with it?

What’s in a Parking Brand?

Brett Wood

Can you name many parking programs off the top of your head? Maybe the one you work for?

If you pay close attention to the industry, you know SFpark. They have been at the forefront of the parking technology revolution for a few years now. But it’s more than their robust approach to parking management that makes them famous; it’s their brand and the way they present themselves to both the San Francisco community and the parking industry. They developed an iconography and brand that announces to the parker that it’s safe and easy to park when you see the SFpark logo. And even beyond that, they expanded their brand into a marketing and education campaign that compliments the programs mission and goals. See the print version here, and the video they developed here.

I recently helped lead a branding exercise with the City of Seattle Department of Transportation, along with one of the industry’s premier branding experts, Todd Pierce of Pictoform. The exercise was eye-opening and engaging, and the result was a brand and communication strategy that supported the new program, promoted new policies, spun a positive image of the parking agency, and had a little fun with a local flair.

The first component of the exercise was creating a brand for the on-street system. The sign design we came up with expresses the brand, communicates policy, and informs the parker of specific programs (in this case, “Value Block,” which might have lower rates or longer time limits to promote parking in less-used fringe areas).

The second component was to develop an educational video that explained the new policies. Working with local media specialists Team Soapbox, we decided a more local approach worked better than the animated SFpark approach. From our perspective, it seemed fun to see how the Seafair Pirates (a Seattle icon) handled the new program. The result was a humorous set of videos that Seattle residents can easily connect with.

The parking industry is evolving at a rapid pace, and the way we present ourselves is becoming more important than ever. It’s time to put your best foot forward and show your customers you mean business!

What I Learned from Parking

Colin L. Powell

General Colin L. Powell offered the following to The Parking Matters® Blog from his new book “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.”

When I was Secretary of State, I slipped away one day from my beautiful office suite and vigilant security agents and snuck down to the garage. The garage is run by contract employees, most of them immigrants and minorities making only a few dollars above minimum wage.

The garage is too small for all the employees’ cars. The challenge every morning is to pack them all in. The attendants’ system is to stack cars one behind the other, so densely packed that there’s no room to maneuver. Since number three can’t get out until number one and two have left, the evening rush hour is chaos if the lead cars don’t exit the garage on time. Inevitably a lot of impatient people have to stand around waiting their turn.

The attendants had never seen a Secretary wandering around the garage before; they thought I was lost. (That may have been true by then, but I’d never admit it.) They asked if I needed help getting back “home.”

“No,” I answered. “I just want to look around and chat with you.” They were surprised, but pleased. I asked about the job, where they were from, were there problems with carbon monoxide, and similar small talk. They assured me everything was fine, and we all relaxed and chatted away.

After a while I asked a question that had puzzled me: “When the cars come in every morning, how do you decide who ends up first to get out, and who ends up second and third?”

They gave each other knowing looks and little smiles. “Mr. Secretary,” one of them said, “it kinda goes like this. When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile, and you know our name, or you say ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or something like that, you’re number one to get out. But if you just look straight ahead and don’t show you even see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last to get out.”

I thanked them, smiled, and made my way back to where I had abandoned my now distraught bodyguard.

At my next staff meeting, I shared this story with my senior leaders. “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word,” I told them. “Every one of our employees is an essential employee. Every one of them wants to be viewed that way. And if you treat them that way, they will view you that way. They will not let you down or let you fail. They will accomplish whatever you have put in front of them.”

Read more insight about parking, business, and leadership in Gen. Powell’s exclusive interview with The Parking Professional magazine–look for the August issue coming soon!

All Roads Lead to Technology


According to a new survey released today by the International Parking Institute (IPI), technology, sustainability, revenue-generation, and customer service are the top trends in the parking industry and the things most parking professionals are looking for.

The 2012 Emerging Trends in Parking Survey was released at the IPI Conference & Expo in Phoenix, Ariz., this morning. It showed that cashless, electronic, and automatic payment systems join apps that provide real-time information about parking rates and availability and wireless sensing devices that help improve traffic management as the top in-demand technologies in the industry.

More than one-third of respondents said that demand for sustainable services is a top trend, and that they’re talking about energy-efficient lighting, parking space guidance systems, automatic payment process, solar panels, renewable energy technology, and systems that accommodate electric vehicles and/or encourage alternative methods of travel. Technologies that help people find parking faster take cars off the road; an estimated 30 percent of people driving around cities at any time are looking for parking, wasting fuel and emitting carbons.

Survey participants also said that convincing urban planners, local governments, and architects to include parking professionals in their early planning processes is a priority; doing that, they said, would help prevent many design problems in final projects. And when asked where parking should be included as a course of study in academic institutions, nearly half of the survey participants said schools of urban study, followed by business or public policy schools.

The full survey can be accessed on IPI’s website.

More on Climate Change

Casey Jones 4x5 (2)

Last week, John Van Horn, at his Parking Today Blog, wrote a response to my blog post about the need to take leadership on the sustainability front.

Here is more information I wanted to share, with links to additional resources on this topic.

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists who publish in the field and every major scientific academy in the world agree that climate change is real, is mostly caused by humans, and requires urgent action. The fact that carbon dioxide (CO2) warms the Earth has been known since the 1800s. It is also well known that man has increased the CO2 content in the atmosphere by 40 percent since the industrial revolution by burning gigatons of fossil fuels every year. Arguments such as “it’s the Sun” or “it’s natural variation” have all been debunked in scientific literature. Read more at

Recent studies show that extremely hot days in summer that happened about 0.25 percent of time 50 years ago are now happening about 10 percent of the time–a 4000 percent increase. The same study concluded that there is a high level of confidence that the recent Texas heat wave, the Russian heat wave the year before that, and the 2003 European heat wave (that killed tens of thousands) were not natural events and were indeed caused by climate change. Even an organization funded by those who deny climate change, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, found that the Earth has warmed +0.8°C (+1.4°F) which is consistent with NASA and other scientific organizations’ results.
Speaking of NASA, while a group of retired astronauts, engineers, and administrators did write a letter to NASA, not a single one of the signers has any climate science qualifications.

Part of the confusion among media about climate change stems from a fossil fuel-funded disinformation campaign (which includes some of the same groups that tried to show there was doubt that cigarettes were dangerous). The facts speaks for themselves: Farmers are planting weeks earlier than they used to, 90 percent of mountain glaciers are melting around the world, gravity satellites show that Greenland and Antarctica are losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers of ice ever year. Last year, there were 14 U.S. weather events with $1 billion or more in damage. The previous maximum was nine events and the long-term average is four.

Continuing to deny science will hasten our arrival to a point where there is no turning back. And that point is fast approaching. Even a few degrees increase in average temperature will create a climate spiraling out of control for future generations.

It’s time to accept reality and take steps to protect our children, our grandchildren, and our planet.

A first step is to read more on this topic. Here are two suggestions: [PDF]

Thinking Outside the Lot

Eran Ben-Joseph, Ph.D.

Guest blogger Eran Ben-Joseph, Ph.D. is professor of landscape architecture and urban planning and head, joint program in city design and development, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is author of Re-Thinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, and of a feature in the May issue of The Parking Professional.

One look at a typical surface parking lot raises many questions: Can parking lots be designed in a more attractive and aesthetically pleasing way? Can environmental considerations be addressed and adverse effects mitigated? Can parking lots provide more than car storage? Can they be integrated more seamlessly into our built environment in a way that is not only practical but also elegant and enjoyable? What can be learned from usage behavior and the manipulation of lots by unplanned-for users such as teens, food vendors, theater companies, and tailgating sport fans?

In the May issue of The Parking Professional [PDF], I offer thoughts from my book, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking. The book explores the origins of the surface lot and its influences on our culture; I think even the most mundane lot has potential to be much more. I argue, using the parking lot as an example, that molding everyday places though simple, generative interventions can transform the way we live and interact with our surroundings.

What is needed next is a renewed vision and exciting ideas for the 21st century parking lot. As a leading voice of the parking industry, the International Parking Institute champions new directions through its Awards of Excellence, which recognize outstanding design in parking. These awards encourage imagination and creativity that help find new solutions intrinsic to the function of the lot, but go beyond the typical aesthetic embellishments and illustrate potential for our future built environment. I am looking forward to hearing about this year’s winners in June.

What do you think can be done to encourage better design in surface lots?


The Magic of Transitional Places

L. Dennis Burns

Parking facilities are not merely temporary storage facilities for automobiles. They are also the interface or transition between the vehicular and pedestrian experience.

These modal intersections can be much more than utilitarian connection points. Consider train stations, which we associate with spectacular building forms and public areas. Union Station in Washington, D.C. and Grand Central Station in New York City come to mind as traditional examples. These environments are much more than simple transportation connection points; they have a special energy and excitement. In them, we transition from one point to another and there is a certain excitement related to movement, exploring new environments, the anticipation of a specific event, and the unknowns of a new place. All of these elements combine to create a special vitality. These places can capture and enhance the positive and magical elements that go along with being in the mode of journeying.

There are also many examples of how poorly-designed or maintained transitional places can lead to feelings of uncertainty, trepidation, and even fear. These types of experiences can have a dramatic effect on the overall experience, even if the final destination met all expectations.

Parking facilities are probably the most numerous and undervalued modal intersection points in the world. We should take a fresh look our facilities and how the experiences we generate have a direct bearing on businesses and functions that depend on us as their customer gateways.

Take a critical look at your parking facilities and re-imagine them as community gateways, designed to meet the special needs of sojourners transitioning from one mode of travel to another. The more we take on the ownership of our limited but critical segment of the journey, the more we enhance our value to our customers and our communities.

How are you enhancing your facility as a community gateway?

The Conundrum of Paid Parking

Brett Wood

We are often asked about the implementation of paid parking within a community. Citizens, business owners, property owners, employees, and employers all want to know three things:

  • How will this affect business?
  • Who is going to be accountable for the system?
  • How do you measure success?

These are difficult questions to answer, but we find ourselves trying to answer them more and more. Every community reacts differently, and the success or failure of a parking system depends on everyone involved. Your community should consider these thoughts:

The community has to support implementation. You don’t have to believe in it, but if you want your business to succeed in the new environment, it’s imperative that you educate yourself, your employees, and your customers about the benefits and use of the system.

Forget about revenue. Paid parking shouldn’t be a cash grab for the general fund. For successful implementation, everyone has to understand that paid parking is about management, providing incentives to park away from premium spots, and encouraging prime spots to turn over.

Give something back. Provide some tangible benefit to the area through benefit districts that pay for transportation and community enhancements, and tell people you are doing it. Put a sticker on every meter that tells your customers where the money goes.

Ease up on the tickets. If you implement paid parking, focus on compliance. Ease up on citations. By educating your customers about how and where to park, violations should go down and revenue should be unchanged.

Market, market, market. Before you implement paid parking, start educating your customers about it. Pilot studies are a great way to test new technology before you buy. Don’t be afraid to try three or four vendors and equipment types. Test them all at one time. Ask people what they think.

Be flexible. Provide payment options. Don’t be afraid to raise or lower rates if you don’t find the balance you like. Go into the implementation with the mindset that year one is a trial, and include your stakeholders. Because they are using the system, and they are educating your customers.

4 Ways to Welcome Cyclists

J.C. Porter

Bicycling is receiving a lot of attention in the parking world, and for good reason: it’s healthy, it’s environmentally-friendly, and it helps alleviate car congestion. There are four easy ways to create an inviting bike environment for businesses, cities, and universities:

  1. A little paint goes a long way to help increase the visibility of cyclists and your efforts to promote bicycling. Sharrows, a street marking to indicate a shared-lane (from a combination of the words share and arrow), are easy to paint and save space over traditional bike lanes, as they are meant to be used by both bikes and automobiles.
  2. There are several different types of bike racks that can work for different types of spaces. An inverted U is the most common type of bike rack; this works best for cyclists and is also attractive. Space savers can be used in areas such as underneath stair wells or unused portions under garage ramps. And finally, cycle stalls are multi-space bike racks that are placed on the street. These allow for better access on the sidewalks and, if placed strategically such as near crosswalks, can create better sight lines for both pedestrians and motorists.
  3. A fix-it station is an easy addition to any location. This provides a place for riders to use an attached pump or other tools to keep their bike running.
  4. Joining forces with bicycle-related organizations is a great way to receive recognition for additions and improvements you take on. These organizations will help promote your business, city, state, university, or hospital’s efforts to encourage cycling. Small investments in time and money will go a long way in helping to promote your organization.

Have you encouraged your customers to commute by bike? Let us know in the comments.

Rx for Hospital Parking: Raise the Bar

Wanda Brown

Accessibility to healthcare services is the biggest concern of hospital parking professionals. Getting patrons to their appointments without parking stress is crucial. While maximizing operational efficiency through technological improvements is essential, parking professionals must also consider the effects on their customers as they consider implementation of new products. They can find the answer by examining companies such as Disney and Starbucks.

Ideally, patients and their families will be greeted with a smiling parking ambassador who is well prepared to educate them on the use of new equipment and provide directions to their hospital campus destinations. Customers will know they are valued because ambassadors have been trained to make each visit memorable. They are trained to know their customers, make them the priority for that moment, listen to what customers say, and be a valuable resource in handling parking issues quickly and sufficiently.

Unlike university campuses, where most customers are young and techno-savvy, hospitals have to plan for everything and everyone. Hospital patrons mirror the greater public and in creating a culture of care, parking professionals must consider all of their individual needs during every visit.

From the parking garage to the clinic appointment or visit, the customer should have a pleasant experience. Hospital parking professionals help with just that through the installation of way-finding systems, establishing cashiering stations, offering manned exit booths, and acting as parking ambassadors whose ultimate goal is to assist with the learning process.

Creating such an environment raises the bar for excellence in the parking experience. The parking professional knows that it takes the integration of both the human and technology factor to accomplish this. Has your operation raised its own bar? Comment below and share your story.

Throwing the Book at a Librarian I Don’t Even Know

Casey Jones 4x5 (2)

There are rituals at universities, many of which take place at the beginning of each semester or holiday break. One popular tradition is to lament the quiet of those times when students aren’t on campus. On our most recent first day back after a break, a fellow staff member and I were participating in this tradition. I said something like, “I forgot how peaceful it is when the kids are gone.” He followed my altogether too-obvious quip with a story from his graduate school days along the same lines: he worked in the library where the head librarian was fond of asking, “Why don’t they just leave the books on the shelves where they belong?”

This got me to thinking. Do I wish my customers took their problems, complaints, and neediness someplace else? Am I happier when there are no lines, phone calls, or emails pleading for help? Have I become that fussy librarian? What about you? Do you love or tolerate your customers? How do you view the challenges and problems they bring? Do you secretly wish that they’d just park their silly cars and leave you alone?

Despite my off-hand remark to my colleague, I don’t think like the librarian. In fact, I’m a firm believer in garnering loyalty through challenging customer interactions. The moments our customers are needy, demanding, and want special attention put us in the perfect position to deliver. By solving their problems efficiently, creatively, and positively, we have gone a long way in earning their repeat business. Like the librarian, we can see our customers as the cause of all our problems or we can see them as the purpose for our existence and thrive on problem solving.

Three Ways to Change the Game

Brett Wood

The other day, we talked about the changing perception of parking. As a follow-up, here are a few real-world examples of customer service approaches that have helped change the perception of parking:

  • Ticket forgiveness. Rick Onstott, parking director at EasyPark in Anchorage, Alaska, allowed first time offenders to take a parking quiz that negated the offender’s ticket. During the three-month period he ran the offer, nearly 4,000 people took the survey (and all passed!). While there may not be a direct correlation to reduced citations, the perception of the parking program has reversed course and his group has built a lot of positive momentum.
  • Leveraging technology. Adam Jones, vice president of parking and operations for Downtown Tempe Community, Inc., in Tempe, Ariz., installed new on-street meter technology along the community’s major retail and activity corridor. Credit card usage debuted at 25 percent of all transactions and violations have seen a slight decline, while overall revenues have stayed consistent for the program. This validated Jones’ approach to compliance through education rather than strong-armed enforcement, encouraging patrons to properly pay for transactions rather than penalizing them with parking citations.
  • Better information. San Francisco is at the forefront of the parking technology revolution with their SFpark program. The program uses new payment technology, sensors, and smartphone applications to make the parking experience seamless. Initial reviews are encouraging and the associated press and industry buzz has created a very positive perception of the program.

These are just a few examples of areas where parking perceptions have been boosted by proactive programs. Have you tried something similar? Let us know in the comments!

Making the Call

Vanessa Rogers

In early 2011, I started spending a little time on Fridays writing down the names of one or two customers I’d recently worked with on an issue to touch base with the following week, to see if their issue(s) had been properly resolved and if the solution we came up with was still working.

When calls from customers or businesses reach my desk, it’s usually because the individual or company has exhausted all other options and needs to talk about a negative experience they had with a front line staff person. These messages come from Facebook, Twitter, website inquires, emails, and even the occasional, good old-fashioned phone call. It would be very easy to think that people who contact me are just doing it to pointlessly complain (especially my frequent squeaky wheels), but I still think one-on-one customer outreach is critical to the success of any downtown or municipal parking operation. Many of the interactions I have with customers can be challenging and (not uncommonly) uncomfortable, but I continue to spend time each Friday writing down names of people to call.

I think magic lies in the relationships that are forming between downtown development professionals and parking professionals who realize that it might just be time to get back to the basics when it comes to customer service. It may sound straightforward but nine times out of 10, all a customer wants is to have their voice heard. With all the dollars that are spent on marketing, public relations, and customer incentives, I’m always amazed how far a few minutes of my time will go towards creating goodwill.

Try this experiment and let me know how it goes: carve out a half-hour each week to follow up with one person or organization you’ve recently worked with on an issue. Ask them how everything is working out. Tell them you appreciate their contacting you because it makes you better at your job. Listen to them, empathize with them, and most importantly, be honest with them. You can’t fix everyone’s issues, but people know when someone is being straight with them. After several months of Friday follow-up phone calls, I can tell you that the reaction you’ll get from your customers is profoundly addictive.

Sustainability: Thinking Big

Casey Jones 4x5 (2)

The pursuit of sustainability is going to be a way of life, not a passing phase or flavor of the month. Here’s evidence from two industries that are very different from ours, but relevant in that we share the common denominator of being petroleum-focused.

“Creating a sustainable future” is the lead in to United Airlines President and CEO Jeff Smisek’s February column in the company’s on-board Hemispheres magazine. The column describes the company’s historic November flight propelled by algae-derived biofuel; it was an important precursor to a commitment to purchase 20 million gallons per year of the stuff. Pretty bold move, I think, for a company that seems just as connected to petroleum as the parking business is.

Another great example of bold is seen in Ray Anderson, founder of carpet tile giant Interface. Anderson’s company committed to eliminate all environmental impacts by the year 2020. Shortly before his death in 2011, the company was halfway to meeting that lofty (some say impossible) goal. Interface says that in the past 17 years, it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent, fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent, waste to landfill by 82 percent, and water consumption by 82 percent while avoiding more than $450 million in costs, increasing sales by 63 percent, and more than doubling earnings.

If you haven’t already read IPI’s Sustainability Framework please do. This important document lays out what IPI stands for on the topic of sustainability and represents a bold step forward. I’ve read recently how the parking industry has been “doing” sustainability for a long time. Yes, we’ve been doing some good things, but up until recently there have been no game changers. If we intend to make meaningful progress, we need to think and act like Smisek and Anderson: BIG.