Contemporary Approaches to Parking Pricing: A Primer
3.0 Technology and Pricing
The tools to manage parking inventory and facilities are advancing rapidly, helping to support and make possible some of the parking pricing programs and policies discussed in the previous section of this primer. New technologies allow parking managers to collect large quantities of data at relatively low costs, which results in more transparent decisionmaking, particularly when setting parking rates. Technology advances also allow parking managers to implement dynamic pricing, increase revenue generation, offer real-time reporting, and allow for more efficient parking enforcement. At the same time that parking technology is improving the decisionmaking and management process, it is also improving the customer service experience. This combination of improvements can decrease the potential for negative reactions to new parking policies and prices.
Electronic parking meters have essentially replaced mechanical meters, offering improved security and a simplified process for changing parking rates. Today, intelligent single-space parking meters, multi-space meters, pay-by-phone technologies, and automated off-street facilities offer even more convenience and flexibility. These technologies increase the number of payment options available to users, provide more information regarding revenue and utilization, and allow for real-time updates to pricing. Advances in license-plate-recognition (LPR) technologies and space sensors further improve enforcement and data collection.
The customer benefits associated with new technologies are significant. Users can receive real-time information regarding available parking spaces and pricing, have multiple payment options, remotely extend their parking time using a phone or computer, and even be told where they parked if they have forgotten.
This section of the primer discusses available parking technologies, items to consider when selecting a technology, and options for implementing advanced parking policies with older parking assets.
What follows is a list of currently available technology to accept parking payments, monitor use, and conduct enforcement. The list represents both older and newer technologies and includes assets applicable to on-street and off-street parking spaces.
Single-space meters are the oldest type of parking asset and have traditionally been very limited in their ability to accept multiple payment options, adjust prices, report revenue collected, and monitor utilization; however, intelligent single-space meters have been developed that can be retrofitted into existing meter housings and accept both coin and credit card payments. These meters are solar powered, wirelessly networked to allow real-time reporting, automatically report system failures, and support dynamic pricing. Responding to other technology innovations, discussed later, they can also integrate with pay-by-phone systems and vehicle-detection sensors.
The benefits of single-space meters include the ability to pay at the space rather than at a central payment location; the presence of a visual reminder to users (i.e., the meter itself) that they must pay to park; the failure of a meter affects only one parking space rather than an entire block face or parking lot; meter mechanisms can be removed for repair at a maintenance facility; and enforcement personnel can visually determine if a vehicle is in violation. Upgrading to the intelligent single-space meters also allows existing meter housings to be reused, reducing system retrofit costs and allowing for faster installation.
The multi-space meter classification represents a broad assortment of payment and technology options. Multi-space meters are common with both on-street and off-street facilities and can support pay and display, pay by space, and pay by license plate. While each of these has unique benefits and applications, all are capable of accepting coin and credit card payments, real-time reporting, and dynamic pricing while reducing the clutter associated with single-space meters. Specific options associated with multi-space meters are summarized below:
In-car meters are small, programmable devices that hang from rearview mirrors and driver's side grab bars (handles located above the driver's side window) or are placed on dashboards. The meters are pre-loaded with funds that are deducted based on the location of a vehicle and duration that it is parked. When users arrive at a parking space they select the appropriate parking zone, which tells the meter what parking rate to charge, and activate a timer that deducts funds from the user's account based on the time the vehicle is parked.
Reusable and disposable versions of in-car meters are available, and funds can be added over the phone, on the Internet, or using smart cards that are inserted into the devices. Some in-car meters contain Global Positioning System (GPS) cards that allow the meters to determine their location and automatically charge the appropriate rate. Efforts are currently underway to integrate in-car meters into vehicle navigation systems, such as OnStar. In-car meters offer an alternative to single-space and multi-space meters but do not typically replace those meters.
In-car meters allow users to pay only for the time they use, reduce the threat of vandalism, and yield higher levels of compliance. Because money is loaded onto the meters before use, parking departments have the dual benefits of receiving revenue up front while reducing collection costs. The ability to pay in the vehicle allows users to avoid standing outside to pay at single-space meters or walking to multi-space meters. Unlike multi-space and smart meters, however, in-car meters do not provide real-time information to parking managers. Some parking agencies have also expressed the concern that visibly placed in-car meters are subject to theft.
Pay-by-phone technology allows users to pay for parking by phone, text message, or with a smart phone application. Users are typically required to preregister and provide a credit card number. There are two ways in which this system charges for parking. The first option, typically referred to as "start duration," allows the user to arrive at a parking location, enter a code associated with the location, and select the amount of time they would like to park. Some systems will send text messages or other notifications to users before their time expires and allow them to add time with their phone, so long as doing so will not cause them to be parked beyond any existing time limits. The second option, called "start stop," requires parkers to contact the system when they first park and again when they are ready to leave.
Pay-by-phone systems are typically privately operated and are capable of integrating with intelligent single-space and multi-space meters and LPR technology. The integration with LPR means enforcement officers using that technology can be automatically notified of time violations. If not integrated with meters or LPR, pay-by-phone systems require enforcement officers to check an additional database before issuing a parking violation. Any cities using pay by phone must share data regarding street sweeping, time limits, and other restrictions with the vendor to assure that the data remain up to date. Creating a process and system through which this information can be shared is a significant and potentially costly undertaking that may require changes to business processes and organizational culture; however, the end result is a system through which data can be easily shared across many departments and with the public.
Benefits include an additional, convenient payment option for users, the ability to add additional parking time remotely, and the capability to warn users if they attempt to park during a period in which restrictions are in place. The technology also reduces costs associated with cash collection and prevents users from exceeding posted parking time limits. Rates can be easily adjusted and the systems can provide utilization data.
Automated Technologies for Off-street Facilities
Some parking payment technology is specific to off-street parking facilities. This technology allows staffing at facilities to be reduced and can support real-time reporting. The two primary technologies are pay on foot and pay in lane, both of which are discussed below.
License Plate Recognition Technology
LPR technology uses cameras and optical character recognition to read license plates. The systems can be hand-held or vehicle-mounted and work in daylight and low-light conditions. Once read, the license plate is referenced against a database containing violation, payment, and other pertinent information.
LPR also serves as an enforcement and data collection mechanism. It is able to determine if a vehicle has remained in a parking space or district beyond allowed time limits or lacks a necessary parking permit. The technology can also be integrated with payment systems for off-street parking facilities. Entrance and exit barriers will automatically open for registered vehicles. If appropriate, users' accounts can be charged for the amount of time spent in the facility. LPR is also able to monitor vehicle occupancy and duration in both on-street and off-street facilities.
The systems help prevent fraud by replacing printed permits, can significantly decrease staffing requirements for enforcement personnel, can identify stolen or wanted vehicles, and can simplify duration counts. LPR technology is not perfect, however. Systems may have trouble reading some States' license plates, worn out license plates generally cannot be read, the readers are not effective if license plates are covered with debris such as dirt or snow, errors occur if enforcement personnel with vehicle-mounted systems drive too fast, and community members may raise privacy concerns.
Parking Space Sensors
Parking space sensors typically use ultrasonic, magnetometer, or digital-camera technology to determine if a space is occupied. The sensors can be placed in pavement, affixed to single-space parking meters, or hung from ceilings in parking garages. Space sensors are used for enforcement, data collection, and informing users of the location of available spaces. Data can also be used to determine occupancy rates.
Data from space sensors can be posted on Web sites, accessed through smart phones, or provided on message signs so that drivers know where to find open parking spaces. In off-street facilities the increased reliability associated with sensor data (versus magnetic loops) allows occupancy to be increased from an industry standard of 85 percent to 90 to 92 percent. Newer digital-camera parking sensors are able to determine vehicle type, color, and license plate number. If people cannot find their car they can enter basic details about their vehicle and the system will tell them where their vehicle is parked.
There are some drawbacks to these systems. The current cost of space sensors keeps them beyond the financial reach of most cities and parking facility operators. In-pavement sensors can allow water to flow behind them, negatively impacting the life of paving materials. Some sensors must also be flush mounted for snow removal and require battery replacement approximately every 5 years. Privacy concerns may also be raised with the use of camera sensors that record license plate information.
No company currently manufactures all types of parking technology. This means that cities wishing to use multiple types of technology, including LPR, smart meters, parking sensors, and pay by phone, will need to develop database tools to integrate data from the various systems. This is a process that can quickly become complex. SFpark and Seattle both had database tools developed to collect, store, and analyze data from parking assets. Personnel from SFpark recommend that cities outsource development to assure they have sufficient staffing and skill levels. They also recommend that those staffs that will implement the tool be involved from the beginning, that one vendor not be allowed to control the process, and that cities understand that development will take longer than expected. Cities should also consider developing application programming interfaces that allow parking data to be shared with developers, who can then create applications for the public.
When selecting a technology, items to consider include reliability, purchase costs, installation costs, maintenance costs, staffing requirements, and revenue potential. Parking providers must determine whether the new technology needs to be integrated with existing infrastructure or if an entirely new system in needed. The data collection and analysis process will help narrow the technology options. As with other elements of parking management, selection of a final technology should be a community effort that involves affected stakeholders.
Once a technology has been selected, the parking provider needs to create a specifications package, which is generally released to vendors as part of a request for proposals (RFP) process. While RFPs need to be very clear to avoid any issues and potential challenges from bidders, many parking operators may be tempted to provide very detailed specifications that cover minutiae such as the location and color of buttons. Specify what an asset needs to do and what a report needs to contain, but maintain flexibility by avoiding unnecessary specifics.
Some agencies may not have the money to purchase advanced meters, space sensors, and database solutions. Fortunately, innovative programs can be implemented with basic technology. A look at Seattle, the subject of a case study provided in section 7 of this primer, proves the point. Occupancy and duration information are the two primary data points driving price and time-limit decisions at the more innovative parking agencies. While it is much easier and quicker to collect this information with space sensors and to adjust prices with advanced meters, less technical options also exist.
In smaller downtowns it is possible to conduct license plate occupancy and duration counts that cover all or most of the inventory manually. These counts can be conducted with assistance from part-time employees or interns. Ideally, counts should be updated at least once a year or after changing prices or time limits. In larger communities it may not be possible to analyze all parking facilities on a regular basis. In this situation conducting counts in sample areas that are representative of the larger community can reduce costs. LPR technology can significantly decrease the staff time required to conduct occupancy and duration counts.
If a community has advanced meters but lacks space sensors, meter payment data can be used to roughly estimate parking occupancy and duration. SFpark and other agencies are developing processes for doing this in an accurate manner. Meter data can be supplemented by manual counts.
Adjusting prices on an annual basis, rather than quarterly or monthly, will further reduce the staff time needed to implement a performance-based parking policy.
In the future, technology will become more affordable, integrate better, and offer more opportunities for sharing data. Cities and municipalities are likely to use overlapping technologies such as parking meters, pay by phone, and LPR technology, which will likely result in increased demand for improved data integration. In turn, this should make it easier for cities to integrate parking payment and enforcement systems.
Improvements in LPR technology should make the collection and tracking of occupancy and duration data easier as well, and the way in which parking data are shared is also likely to change. Online and mobile tools that allow parkers to check on the availability and cost of parking are just beginning to appear, and their presence in the marketplace is likely to increase significantly in the future. The integration of radio-frequency identification chips that allow cell phones to communicate with nearby electronics will likely give parkers one more way to pay. The potential to integrate mobile devices into the payment, data tracking, and parking space locator functions should offer significant opportunities to innovative manufacturers and communities.
Mechanical parking meters ruled the world of parking for decades, negating the need for parking managers to monitor new technologies and manufacturers. Today a parking agency must carefully examine its technology options and attempt to see far enough into the future that its asset purchases do not become quickly outdated.
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration