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Park this way: Colleges find high-tech solutions

Leveraging information from intelligent parking systems to address campus priorities
University Business, November 2013
Since pesky parking to-do’s such as getting a permit or paying a ticket can be done online, there’s no need to find a spot near one of the parking offices at Northern Virginia Community College.
Since pesky parking to-do’s such as getting a permit or paying a ticket can be done online, there’s no need to find a spot near one of the parking offices at Northern Virginia Community College.

Dan Hofmann has been working for years to make parking about more than just painted lines, structures, and tickets. From city government positions to parking operations management at Harvard University to his current role as director of parking and transportation services at Clemson University (S.C.), he has been a champion for parking efficiencies. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he makes parking cool.

He still didn’t expect the applause. At Clemson, Hofmann’s work incorporating “smart” technologies into parking earned kudos from campus stakeholders and provided him, for the first time, the opportunity to present to the university’s Board of Trustees. He spoke about this goal: To align sustainable, cost-effective parking and transportation management solutions through technology with Clemson’s sustainability goals.

On slide after slide, he reviewed the work that he and university staff had done to bring intelligent systems and thinking to parking and transportation, from smart sensors in parking lots that read and transmit parking availability to pay meters that alert staff when they need to be emptied of money.

“I was really taken aback. They applauded at the end of the presentation,” says Hofmann, adding that “people view parking as a negative; they think we only write citations. We’re not about that. We do it as a byproduct of what we do to change behavior and fund parking.”

Campus parking—once a process-oriented, back-end part of the higher education ecosystem—is emerging as an avenue for supporting sustainability efforts, saving costs, and providing campus stakeholders a (gasp) pleasant experience. From online maps that pinpoint parking availability to smartphone apps that steer drivers toward lots and allow them to pay parking fees with the swipe of a fingertip, smart technologies are flipping the parking process on its head.

At the same time, technologies are helping administrators strengthen larger initiatives. Although they have costs attached, parking technologies can save resources and spending.

In a recent survey conducted by Global Parking Association Leaders of parking association members and stakeholders from 21 countries, leaders cited the “move toward innovative technology to improve parking management” as the trend having the greatest effect on the parking industry. Read on to learn how smart parking technologies are strengthening campus initiatives.

Keeping things green with a sensor and a phone

The device is small enough to be barely noticeable, efficient enough to run on batteries, and sufficiently sturdy to last more than four years. The sensor deployed by parking technology company Streetline to monitor parking spot availability is tiny but powerful. “Parking spaces are talking,” says Kelly Schwager, chief marketing officer.

The often-heard statement “there’s never parking” isn’t usually correct, she adds. It’s more a matter of having the information to find and use spaces than about needing to create new ones.

Many of Streetline’s higher education customers currently use the Parker app, which can be downloaded to any iPhone or Android phone. Some also embed the dynamic Parker Map into their websites to show parking availability.

Oregon State University installed Streetline sensors into accessible parking spots to ensure students, faculty, and staff with disabilities can more easily find parking, and to allow the university to assess the availability of accessible parking. The initiative supports seamless parking but also aligns closely with the university’s commitment to diversity and providing access to people of all abilities.

Smartphone apps and online maps are not only improving user satisfaction with the campus driving and parking experience, but helping to enhance sustainability. Clemson has used the Streetline Parker app to guide campus visitors to available spots in visitor lots.

It will soon expand coverage to student lots so at any time of day, students can grab their smartphones before they hop in their cars, home in on precious empty spots, and drive straight to the destination. That’s a far cry from the experience of circling blocks and lots for half an hour in search of a spot.

“If you have a smartphone, you can guide yourself right to a spot; you just follow the instructions,” says Hofmann. “That’s reducing emissions, reducing frustration, improving the experience, and improving sustainability in general.”

Saving funds through a license plate

Paper permits and metered parking spaces can drain material, financial, and people resources and cause a drag on efficiency. Using smart technologies that connect front-end scanners to back-end, cloud-based databases, institutions are reinventing the process of paying for parking.

That’s a cost benefit for Northern Virginia Community College, which uses several T2 Systems modules to enforce and manage permits and reinforcement. NOVA is the largest educational institution in Virginia and the second largest community college in the country, with 10 locations and 75,000 students.

“The biggest component we’ve had is the web system and it is doing great,” says Cory Thompson, director of college parking. “Students being able to buy their permits, pay tickets, and appeal citations online has been wonderful. We get a lot of good feedback on that. The ability to pull data very easily from Flex has been great. Whenever we’re asked for information by administration, we’re able to provide it very easily.”

Clemson is just one university using license plate recognition for permit systems. A basic camera grabs an image of the license plate, feeds it into the system, and matches it with the parker’s account. In essence, the license plate becomes the permit itself. Clemson has implemented license plate recognition through Genetec, and the technology is in the process of being integrated with the university’s parking management software from T2 Systems.

“The enforcement person can drive around and, for example, can see if someone’s on the tow list [for multiple citations],” says Hofmann. “In the past we had to write a fourth ticket and they’d pop up as being on a hotlist. Now we can drive around and just scan the plates.”

The system is creating incredible efficiency. “There’s 12,000 spaces at the university. We recently looked at 6,000 plates within two hours. The system cost us about $18,000, and we’re going to get a return on investment immediately because printing permits costs that per year. We’ll also be able to issue a citation automatically,” Hofmann says.

Pulling permits into modern day

Murray State University’s use of several modules from Boss Software has made the entire permit purchase, renewal, and violations cycle more automatic and easy for everyone at the Kentucky campus. The software modules have also saved campus resources by cutting back time spent on entering and pulling data or issuing permits.

“A major win for MSU with Boss Software was the labor-intensive job of entering, maintaining, and tracking all parking revenue manually or through Excel spreadsheets,” says Francie Ray, parking supervisor. Once that was eliminated, the university saved labor costs and time. “It also enables a larger number of accounts to remain current,” Ray adds.

Printing costs are saved, as well. “It eliminated the necessity of the parking office to make hard copies of every citation and permit card associated with a charge sent to collection by the bursar,” says Ray. “The bursar office was given the ability to search by citation, permit, and/or the individual’s ID number, giving them immediate access to any and all charges related to parking sent to collections.”

The data-rich system allows for a complete database of all previous and current vehicles on campus, which makes responding to internal data requests easier.

There are staff management and messaging wins, too: The university has the ability to track all communication to the community as it relates to parking, and can track the number of citations waived by officers, which allows for departmental tracking of officer and ticket writer efficiency.

Encouraging flow between campuses

Hearing about websites embedded with dynamic, engaging parking information, and permits and payments updated in real-time may just be a campus visitor’s dream. Whether for a prospective student or a current donor, having up-to-date websites with helpful parking information and easy next steps creates a smoother campus visit.

Thompson at NOVA says that unifying parking data and permit systems across all of the system’s campuses has made students more comfortable about enrolling in multiple campus locations. They are able to buy permits, pay tickets, and appeal citations online for any of the system’s six campuses and additional satellite locations.

“T2 hosts us on their server, so it’s all web-based, real-time data for all campuses,” says Thompson. “If someone buys a permit at Annandale campus, it’s seen at another campus in real-time.”

The system allows for enforcement of parking across all campuses also. “It’s like we’re one college,” Thompson says. “And any student can take a class on any of our campuses. We really treat our students and services that way.”

As technology has created a sense of a unified parking experience for users, it has also unified the administrative and operations side of parking.

“If we did not have a unified system to streamline these processes, our department would be faced with managing and integrating a multitude of different software systems,” says Thompson. “The additional cost, resources, and manpower needed would be overwhelming.”

Pruning back parking attendant time

For a long time, parking staff have issued citations or collected meter payments by making regular rounds of campus lots and street spaces. Their work has been based on set schedules that may or may not have aligned with actual peak times. That is changing as more campuses incorporate technologies that feed databases to provide a more dynamic, lean approach to operations.

Clemson’s brand new parking meters are solar-powered and allow multiple payment options. In the course of converting to them, the campus spread the costs out to users (previously users didn’t pay for parking). To ensure that experience isn’t too bumpy, the university has allowed for multiple forms of payment such as cash, coins, or a card. When the coins hit $400, or the dollar bills hit $350, the “smart” meters send an alarm to a supervisor who then schedules a payment collection.

“We’re not going out unnecessarily,” says Hofmann. “We’ve saved a tremendous amount of labor.” While Clemson hasn’t reduced parking staff due to this innovation, staff have been reallocated in ways that make more sense. Ultimately, that type of smart decision-making can lead to what any campus community and its officials strive for: a better campus parking experience that’s less confusing, frustrating, and wasteful than ever before.

Caryn Meyers Fliegler, a former editor at UB, is a staffing manager at the nonprofit TNTP.