Park It

Parking is one of the most cash- and labor-intensive aspects of business operations at a college or university. As such, it is a prime target for the application of new software and hardware technologies that can maximize revenues, eliminate paperwork and free up staff to focus on improving service levels.

Mike Rose, director of parking at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, gained all those benefits and more when he upgraded his parking-ticket machines to the newer “intelligent” machines for the 2000-01 school year.

“We can't measure productivity, but I know these machines have given us dramatic savings in time and headaches,” says Rose, whose staff manages more than 5,300 parking spots over two campuses for the university's 11,000 students. “It's basically stopped all the refund ticket fraud because we can take the complainant to the machine and check right away to see if the cash collected equals the tickets distributed. It's a foolproof system that eliminates many nuisance factors. We've also seen significant savings in repair costs and physical counting of tickets.”

Weather or not

For Rose, upgrading his parking-ticket machines was long overdue. He was getting exasperated with the older-model “spitter” parking machines that would freeze up during rain or snow . Sending out employees to fix the problem in the cold weather was no small expense — he had 20 machines covering Northern Colorado's 26 parking lots.

“It just seemed that every time it rained or snowed the water would gum up some of the coin slots, and then we'd have to send somebody out to fix them,” said Rose. “The older machines had recurring problems that were becoming a real annoyance to both us and the public.”

Replacing all the machines throughout a system is more common, but the new technologies also can be applied on a spot basis to fix an area in the system that is causing grief.

At the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, staff were developing a way to provide visitors with temporary parking permits for overnight and weekend stays.

It was not cost-effective to have the parking office staffed overnight. One high-security outdoor machine at the parking office took care of the problem.

“Once we installed an automatic ticket dispenser,” said Robert Brecklin, director of visitor parking services at the university,” the issue of providing visitor permits at night and on weekends was eliminated.

“Students knew their visitors could get a temporary permit anytime our parking office was closed. Now, all we do is collect the machine once a week.”

Ducks in a row

Some of the other parking-machine concerns for educational institutions revolve around university accountants' complaints about a lack of audited control over cash counting, ongoing claims by parkers that the machines had kept their money without providing tickets, and the difficulty of managing ticket expiration times. For Northern Colorado, the old-style parking machines were a constant source of frustration.

Rose knew more advanced machines were available. These systems feature electronic reporting, weatherproofing, heavy-duty security systems and powerful auditing features designed to satisfy the back office.

Through a bidding process, the university purchased six intelligent parking machines for installation just prior to the start of the 2000-01 school year.

“With university budgets tight, we were looking for a product that provided the electronic features we wanted at a competitive price,” said Rose. “The fact that they also saved our department time and reduced employee workloads was a bonus.”

A top priority was providing an expiration time and date stamp on every ticket purchased. A day parking ticket at Northern Colorado entitles the bearer to park at any lot on campus until midnight of the day of purchase.

Previously, parking staff had no easy way of checking when a ticket was purchased, putting parkers on an “honor” system.

The electronic-reporting feature of the new system satisfied the concerns of the accountants for proper cash management. Shortly after the new system was installed, an audit put the parking department's revenue system to the test, and the system passed with flying colors. Rose believed that wouldn't have been the case with the old machines.

In the old system, there were too many loopholes where cash could slip away. With electronic reporting, the machine monitors all transactions down to the penny and can confirm easily, to the parking department and the accountants, that the cash is being handled properly.

With the new parking machines, field staff cannot even touch the cash directly until it gets to the counting room.

Inside the machine, the bills go into a bill collector that stacks up to 500 bills; the coin bag is nine inches tall by four inches wide by four inches deep, providing plenty of room to accumulate the day's receipts.

At collection time, field employees open up each machine with a key that allows them to release the collector bag only, which can be pulled out but not opened.

For added security, the keys needed to unlock each bill collector and coin bag are in the parking department's counting room.

Although the new machines can accept credit cards, Rose chose not to include this option at Northern Colorado. He wanted to encourage students and staff to buy the more cost-effective annual parking passes rather than pay on a day-to-day basis. But, for those schools wanting it, real-time credit-card processing is available to cut down on the use of fraudulent cards.

For Northern Colorado, moving from 20 machines down to just six also substantially reduced the person-hours needed to maintain the machines. This means parking employees no longer are required to make stop after stop at machines for repairs and collection.

With 70 percent fewer machines, there are fewer machines to attend to, paper rolls to change, and money bags to collect. The whole process is streamlined.

Some might argue that reducing the number of machines means less service and increased hassles for parkers, but that's not the case. Everyone learns quickly where the closest machine is. When they need a parking ticket, they simply stop at one and then drive on to their selected lot. Because the ticket is good for all 26 lots, no one has to worry about getting the right ticket for the right area.

The paper trail and reporting function means that the finance department can keep close track of the cash flow, and the parking department can begin to analyze parking trends and make recommendations for maximizing revenue and service levels.

The new system provides factual backup for what were previously hunches and field intuition. It is easier to get administrative approval for changes when the facts are available to back up the recommendations.

Security and weatherproofing are other important issues. Both Rose and Breckline have had no problems with the new system and again, with fewer machines, they are easier to track and monitor.

“Our machines would be easier to pull out of the ground by getting some sort of powerful forklift to lift both the machine and its cement slab than to crack open the door,” says Rose. “I honestly don't see any possible way someone could get in.”

In fact, even the weather cannot get in. These machines have weatherproof stainless-steel covers over the coin acceptors that are designed specifically to prevent water and snow from leaking inside to jam the mechanisms.

Heater units inside the machine prevent excessively cold temperatures from freezing up the ticket printer, even at readings below -20°F.

Rodger is director of marketing and sales at Digital Pioneer Technologies Corp., Vancouver, B.C., a developer and manufacturer of intelligent parking machines for on- and off-street parking management.

The end of stand-alone parking meters?

The demise of the on-street parking meter is well nigh. The annual costs involved for universities in operating a per-space parking meter system may be too high to justify, given the low-cost alternatives that have emerged.

In Europe, many cities have moved to a block parking machine system where there are one or two parking lot-type machines for each group of street spaces.

These machines print out parking tickets with time and date for parkers to put on their dashboards after they find a parking space. In addition, the software can be set up so that the ticket includes the specific parking space selected.

Although the capital cost of changing to the block system may seem daunting at first, the reduction in the annual labor budget required to empty, service and count all the coins from street meters can cover the initial cost within a few years.

Another advantage of moving to the block system is that more of the university's parking budget goes to servicing street meters instead of paying people. Those savings can be used to buy new hardware and software technologies that can help improve auditing, analytical and forecasting functions.

Given these exciting technologies, there is a strong possibility the future will see the demise of the stand-alone parking meter.

While many will no doubt mourn the passing of a streetscape icon, the potential savings involved could simply be too attractive to pass up.

New on- and off-street parking technologies

Tomorrow's intelligent parking machines will use hardware and software technologies to revolutionize parking. Here are some possibilities:

  • “Skimming” of cash could be eliminated by having the machine's microchip store the details on how many coins, bills and credit card purchases the machine has accumulated since it was last emptied. This will ensure that all money makes its way to the counting room.

  • A wireless-reporting feature would allow the machine or meter to report to the central office the day's receipts via a handheld device, greatly reducing the work involved in tabulating revenues and speeding up management reporting.

  • New sensors in a meter could detect when an on-street parker has left the space and automatically reset the meter to zero.

  • Citations for parking violations could be issued in real time. Parking enforcement officers standing by the car could download the information from the meter and then print out the ticket right on the spot. Once back in the office, the violations can be downloaded to a central computer without ever taking pen in hand.

  • Real-time credit-card processing is now available to eliminate the fraudulent use of credit cards to gain tickets.

  • Trend analysis through downloading information on parking usage will allow parking managers to analyze and make recommendations for changing rates, determining how long a ticket will be valid and other variables.

  • Many of the reporting features will be operated securely over the Internet. For example, prices could be changed throughout the campus without leaving the central office. Software upgrades for each machine could be distributed in this same manner.

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