By: Patrick Brooke

Parking facilities are a crucial element of any building or complex. They often serve as de-facto lobbies, providing the first experience of a building to visitors and tenants. Parking facilities can therefore shape an individual’s impression of an entire complex: inconvenient or unpleasant parking facilities may sour people’s feelings towards a building, while clean, safe and convenient parking can make that same complex seem more attractive.

Parking also vitally impacts a building owner’s bottom line. When inadequate, parking can undermine and counteract an owner’s efforts to attract and retain tenants. Additionally, when owners rely on parking facilities to generate revenue, the importance of providing safe, convenient and pleasant parking becomes even more pronounced. Many building owners have experience headaches triggered by parking-related problems. So, what can be done to optimize parking facilities and eliminate those headaches?

For many building owners, technology provides the answer. The parking industry is currently experiencing a technology renaissance, brought on by the constant introduction of new tools to help make facilities more user-friendly, profitable and convenient to operate. The past few years have seen parking innovations such as single-space sensors that guide parkers directly to open spaces; revenue control tools that automate parking access and payment while providing real-time information about who is using a particular garage and how they are using it; cloud-based software packages that improve security by storing parking utilization and enforcement data off-site; and mobile technologies that permit more accurate enforcement while also providing enormous benefits to parkers. These impressive new technologies represent the tip of the iceberg – there are constant new innovations in a way finding tools, mobile apps and other cutting-edge equipment that improve customer service while decreasing owners’ costs.

Red light/green light
One of the most exciting trends in parking technology is the use of parking sensors. The sensors, which are located in each of a facility’s parking spaces, record and display each space’s occupation status with the use of a green (open), red (occupied) or blue (handicapped) light. They can also be configured to indicate short-term parking or other special uses such a taxi- or shuttle bus-only spaces. The lights can either be installed on the ground adjacent to parking spaces or mounted above spaces, and they typically feature LED lighting, which is both extremely energy-efficient and easy for drivers to see and recognize. Some sensors are even solar-powered, which makes them virtually free to operate. The sensors also transmit utilization information to signs located at the entrances of each floor and at the ends of each parking aisle, telling drivers exactly how many available spaces can be found on a given floor or a particular row.

The benefits to parkers are obvious. By guiding parkers to open spaces, the sensors eliminate the need to search for parking. As a result, drivers need not go aisle-to-aisle (sometimes floor-to-floor) looking for an open space. This ensures a much more convenient parking experience, particularly for people who are in a rush and have no time to drive around looking for a space. Additionally, parking sensors confer an important safety benefit by significantly reducing the risk of a vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to pedestrian accidents.

While these customer benefits are important, the direct benefits of parking sensors to facility owners and operators are just as significant. The sensors collect key data about parking utilization and trends within a facility, and then transmit that data to a cloud-based management system that tracks parkers’ behavior. The data can tell owners and operators when peak parking hours occur and which areas within the structure are most attractive to drivers. That information can be used to operate the facility more efficiently and market it more effectively.

Some sensors can even enforce facility policies by alerting officers when parkers overstay their parking sessions. In addition to the obvious benefit of aiding enforcement, this feature can also influence parking behavior by increasing space turnover. For this reason, sensors are particularly attractive to owners of retail complexes and other facilities where parking space turnover is important.

The safer parking environment provided by the sensors can also yield financial benefits. By reducing the risk of accidents, owners can also reduce their liability and lower their insurance costs.

Finally, by reducing the amount of time drivers spend looking for a space, single-space sensors provide several additional benefits. They significantly reduce wear and tear on the parking structure, which cuts maintenance and repair costs, and can save owners hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the facility. There are also significant environmental benefits because the emissions produced by vehicles within the parking structure are reduced. This is a particularly important issue for owners seeking LEED certification for their facilities. Single-space sensors can be installed both in new facilities and as part of retrofits. However, installation is easiest when completed during the first, rather than second, phase of construction. This is especially important for overhead sensors, where early installation will permit the necessary infrastructure to be set into ceiling areas. In addition to providing a cleaner look, this can also offer considerable per-unit savings. Parking access and revenue control
The benefits of parking technology, later recognized by building owners, begin at a garage’s entrance. Access and revenue control equipment regulates who can enter and leave a garage. Drivers take a ticket from a dispenser upon entering a parking area, then pay either at a kiosk or an automated credit card machine located near an exit when they are ready to leave. Permit-holders can also use a tag, chip or electronic parking card to enter and leave a structure, and some technologies even allow parkers to pay using their cell phones. Automating entry and egress provides several benefits. First, it streamlines the parking process, significantly reducing the time it takes to enter and exit a facility. In addition to increasing a facility’s customer-friendliness, it also promotes sustainability by reducing the amount of time drivers spend idle in their vehicles waiting to leave. This, of course, minimizes unnecessary fuel consumption, but also creates a healthier environment for drivers and staff by reducing the amount of vehicle exhaust that is introduced into the air they breathe.

Automating access and revenue control can also save owners thousands of dollars a year by reducing the risk of theft. Like any cash business, parking facilities are also susceptible to theft by employees handling money. Converting to credit card payment can eliminate this concern, dramatically impacting an owner’s bottom line. Of course, decreasing the number of staff required within a parking facility also reduces the associated salaries and benefits.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, modern access and revenue control equipment provides important administrative benefits by collecting and reporting utilization data. With this technology, owners and operators can measure how full a garage is from day-to-day; which times are peak hours; when there is likely to be an excess of empty spaces; and how long the average parker stays. This invaluable information can help owners and operators develop more effective rate structures and marketing programs for their parking facilities.

One of the most interesting recent developments to access and revenue control tools it that they are no longer self-contained. In the past, they were essentially stand-alone tools that served a single function: controlling who entered and exited a facility and collecting parking fees for those parking stays. However, today many access and revenue control suites can be integrated with other tools provided by outside vendors, such as tags and mobile apps. As a result, systems can be programmed to read bar codes on cell phones, to charge credit cards associated with outside apps or even to provide validation from local businesses. Each of these additional benefits can make a structure more attractive to visiting parkers or tenants.

Access and revenue control equipment can be incorporated into the design of a new structure, or easily added as part of a retrofit. Additionally, because there have been so many technological advances in recent years, owners who already have equipment in their facilities may consider upgrading. The provided efficiencies, added security and customer benefits of automating generally allow owners to earn back their investment in a very short time.

Going mobile
Just as mobile technologies transform day-to-day lives, they also make parking operations more efficient and customer-friendly. The best-known mobile parking technologies are mobile payment apps, which permit parkers to pay using their cell phones. Some require parkers to keep a credit card on file, while others let drivers pay directly through their cell phone accounts. Many cities across the United States have recently adopted mobile pay technology, and private owners are beginning to follow suit because of the administrative and customer service benefits it provides. In addition to offering customer convenience, the apps also record utilization data that owners can use to manage their parking resources more effectively and make more informed pricing choices.

Mobile enforcement technologies have also become increasingly important for owners and operators. Several Android-based tools have been introduced that permit enforcement personnel to record and monitor parking behavior. This helps them assure that drivers are parking where they should be and that they are not overstaying the session for which they have paid. Bar code apps can also be used to accept payment via cell phone for parking sessions.

Bar code technologies are making validation programs much more effective. When parkers visit participating businesses, they can simply scan the business’ code with their cell phone and their parking account will be billed accordingly. Some systems even permit businesses to send push notifications to parkers letting them know that validation is available.

Other mobile apps can send push notifications to drivers telling them where parking is available so they do not have to search for on- or off-street parking. This can be a particularly attractive tool for owners with several parking facilities. By providing such added convenience to parkers, owners can gain more regular customers.

The technology revolution
The ongoing technology revolution regularly changes aspects of daily life. Technology is having a particularly transformative effect on the parking industry. The rate of innovation has been astounding, and new, formerly unimaginable developments are being introduced every year.

Facility owners are the beneficiaries of this technological innovation. By allowing owners to streamline their parking operations and by providing incredible utility, new parking technologies allow owners to better manage and market their facilities, thus significantly reducing operating costs. Additionally, by providing a more customer-friendly parking experience, they offer an important competitive advantage to owners who rely on their parking facilities for revenue. Finally, park technologies improve tenants’ quality of life. For parking owners who have not yet taken advantage of parking technologies, it is time to join the revolution.

Patrick Brooke is the director of technical services at Sentry Control Systems, Inc., the leading national provider of integrated parking technology solutions. He is an authority on parking technologies and technology trends. Brooke may be reached at pbrooke@sentrycontrol.com.

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