Municipal parking managers have the challenging task of balancing the management of a scarce resource and providing service to a wide range of customers. The mindset is a shift from the mentality of an enforcer to that of a protector.
Enforcement is the one element of parking planning and management that people generally don’t like to discuss. People resent getting parking tickets—or getting towed—and they often associate enforcement with greed on the parts of municipal parking authorities. Why else would a city penalize parkers with fines if they weren’t trying to generate additional revenues, right?
That’s why even municipal officials often like to maintain a low profile when it comes to enforcement. For many, the plan is to avoid controversy by avoiding the enforcement discussion. However, it’s important to remember that parking enforcement is an essential element of running any parking program, and the more the public knows about its benefits the more they will recognize its importance.
In fact, the real point of parking enforcement is neither to punish nor to generate revenue. Granted—it often does these things, too. The real function of parking enforcement is customer service. It is about protecting parking spaces and capacity for people who are doing the right thing: purchasing parking permits, parking in the proper spaces, and respecting time limits. People who ignore the limits and regulations displace and inconvenience other parkers who need access to parking to get to work, access services, or just visit a city or town. And that’s the best-case scenario—illegal parkers are abusing parking spaces for persons with disabilities, are blocking aisles and emergency access, and are preventing service and delivery from occurring effectively. These transgressions go beyond simple inconvenience and can jeopardize health, safety, and the efficiency of operations.
Ambassadors, not Ninjas
When it comes to parking enforcement, the most effective programs take an ambassadorial approach—meaning that enforcement personnel shift from being ticket writers to being field service representatives. Often, enforcement officers will be among the first municipal representatives that many people will meet. They are also a consistent presence around parking facilities; they can be greeters and guides, helping drivers figure out how to use parking technologies and showing them how to reach their ultimate destinations. If they spot someone parking illegally (whether out of ignorance or disregard), they can educate and guide that customer to a legal space.
A good hiring and selection process is crucial to putting the right people, with the right mentality, into enforcement roles. Naturally, a robust training program gives these talented and personable professionals the customer-service orientation and tools. Another key aspect, however, is having the appropriate metrics. If you do everything else right, but give the field representatives a ticket quota, you risk the success of this endeavor to refocus your efforts, redefine your mission, and revise your reputation. By no means does this imply that these ambassadors shouldn’t have metrics—all of us should—but we need to rethink what those metrics are.
Ask your staff to make a certain number of customer contacts during the course of their day, or make sure that they are covering enough parts of each parking facility enough times during their shift. It’s more about improving compliance than about writing tickets—the citation is only one tool. If you are responsible for overseeing this staff, train them well, accompany them occasionally (it will do you a world of good to go out among your staff and your customers!), and set the expectation that they will hold themselves and each other accountable to the reimagined (and somewhat less tangible) metrics that you set. It’s impossible to completely erase the stigma from a staff that writes citations. However, if they are friendly and proactive, their days are going to be more pleasant. And regular visitors to your city or town will come to expect a positive parking experience. >
But, the Budget?
Undoubtedly, budgetary realities have to factor into this conversation. The good news is that enforcement personnel can fully support their own positions (including equipment and career apparel) writing, on average, just three to eight tickets per hour depending upon pay rates, systems, equipment, and other expenses. In reality, there is never likely to be a shortage of violators.
In a reconsidered enforcement operation, anything beyond break-even could be considered gravy. If that would be a budget buster, consider recovering lost revenue through improved citation accuracy to reduce voids, and via enhanced collection rates. Reduced staff turnover among the enforcement ranks (by virtue of making the job and people’s impressions more pleasant) will also save money by reducing hiring and training costs.
As we know, sometimes violations are so frequent, chronic, or flagrant that stronger action is needed and vehicles must be physically removed. Or, must they? A good, rational towing and booting program can also help enhance the customer service face of the parking organization, by judicious application of these options. Naturally, there are times when towing is the best (or only) solution, for example: a vehicle illegally occupying a reserved or disability space; or, someone parked in a manner that threatens health and safety (hydrant, fire lane, etc.). Other times vehicle immobilization, or “booting,” may be more appropriate. These boots are wheel locks, which don’t allow a vehicle to be moved until the device is removed. The application of these devices can be superior to towing in many cases and for several reasons. A vehicle that is parked in an area with adequate capacity which, for example, is displaying a forged, lost, stolen, or otherwise fraudulent parking credential; or, one that belongs to a chronic violator or to someone with a high dollar-amount of outstanding fines can be immobilized instead of being towed.
There are several advantages to booting over towing (which is usually done by an outside service provider).
Obviously, the booted vehicle is still THERE. For the customer, this means no panicked phone call to the police reporting a stolen car; it also means that they don’t have to chase the car down to get it out of impound. Also, the boot fee (more on this in a moment) doesn’t necessarily have to be paid in cash—a typical requirement at towing companies—and the customer can simply pay their fee and all outstanding fines, and drive away.
The city (or parking authority) benefits by collecting a boot fee (it should be priced less than the towing fee), which generates revenue for the municipality rather than for a towing contractor. Also this costs the customer less, hopefully creating fewer hard feelings. Applying a boot takes less than a minute, which is much more efficient than summoning and awaiting a tow truck. The boot can be used to compel payment in full of all outstanding fines, whereas a towing company is usually only able to and/or concerned with collecting their own fee.
Then there’s the visibility of booting, which communicates that the municipality is serious about enforcement. However, instead of seeming draconian, a good communication and marketing program can highlight the benefits and the fact that the municipality is using booting to save customers time, money, effort, and inconvenience.
There are a couple caveats about the use of a booting program. First, you need to have the ability to respond 24/7, be prepared to collect fees and fines and, and be prepared to release a vehicle at whatever moment a customer discovers the boot and settles their account. > This can be done with the assistance of police officers or parking enforcement officers, an answering service, or an outside contractor (which is easiest, but cuts the potential revenue benefits). Note that this also gives you the flexibility to immediately return a vehicle to someone who cannot pay, but has a bona fide emergency for which they need their car—something that simply isn’t possible if you’ve had a vehicle towed.
Heroes, Not Villains
A motorist assist program can be a great public relations enhancement, and is as simple to provide as procuring a jumpstart kit with a built in compressor for dead batteries and soft tires, a one-gallon gas can for empty tanks, and a shovel and some road salt or grit for cars stuck in the snow. In short, parking enforcement staff don’t need to be seen as villains. In fact they can be heroes of a sort, providing parking assistance. These efforts don’t come from one-time expenditures, but rather through a process of investing in your staff and processes. However, it will raise the profile (in a great way) of your parking department. It will also make all of your staff, particularly the field staff feel better about their jobs—they’ll be better and more comprehensively trained, they’ll have more positive (and fewer negative) experiences with customers, and they won’t burn out quite so easily. For small investments, you can avoid frequent hiring processes and new-employee training; you’ll also be developing entry-level staff who will gain the skills to grow and develop within the department. With efforts to continuously improve, to broaden the definition of customer service, and to proactively share and communicate your initiatives, your efforts, and your commitment to a quality parking experience, the reputation of your department will be enhanced. And—if even a little bit more than before—residents, employees of local businesses, and visitors to your community will recognize that parking enforcement IS customer service. ν