By Bill Smith
The parking industry is in the midst of what may be its most exciting era. We have seen a lot of change over the past fifty-plus years, including major advances in parking design, planning, and management. These innovations have transformed our communities and improved the quality of life immeasurably. But no period in the parking industry’s history has seen so much exciting change.
What’s so exciting? The technology age that is so important to our everyday lives is transforming parking. New technologies are constantly being introduced to the marketplace, from pay-by-phone technology to online reservation services to innovative facility management packages, just to name a few. Each offers to make parking more customer-friendly, efficient, manageable, or profitable.
But perhaps the most important technologies revolve around parking guidance. Parking guidance tools use sensors to record whether a particular space is occupied. This information is then transmitted to LED signs that guide drivers directly to available spaces. Sensor-based systems also typically have the ability to compile occupancy data to allow parking owners and operators to manage their parking assets more efficiently and profitably.
“Guidance systems move motorists into parking spaces quickly and reduce congestion throughout a facility,” according to Shareena Sandbrook, managing director from FrogParking Ltd. “This has benefits for customers in different ways. For example shopping mall operators need to maximize the time customers are in retail areas to boost revenues. While for airports, the goal is to make parking easy and efficient for people hurrying to catch flights. A guidance system shows them quickly, at a glance, where parking spots are available.”
And that’s also the appeal to parkers. Parking guidance systems eliminate the need for drivers to circle parking decks looking for an open space. As soon as a driver approaches a parking structure with a guidance program, exterior signage tells the driver how many spaces are available within the garage and, often, how many spaces are available on each floor. Then, when they enter the parking floor of their choice, an array of lights indicate the status of each space: green for available, red for occupied, and blue for spaces reserved for persons with disabilities. Owners and operators often have the ability to create unique color schemes as well, to designate reserved, valet, or other categories of parking.
Tim Flanagan, managing director of Sentry Control Systems agrees that parking guidance systems provide extraordinary benefits to parkers. But he adds that the advantages to owners and operators are just as significant.
“Garages with parking guidance have a huge advantage over those that don’t have the technology,” said Flanagan. “The most obvious benefit is the competitive advantage they have when trying to attract business. Parkers are naturally going to be drawn to parking facilities that are easier and more convenient to use.
“There are also life-cycle advantages that most owners and operators never think about,” continued Flanagan. “By eliminating cars circling aimlessly throughout your garage day-in and day-out,
you are significantly reducing the wear and tear on your facility. Over time this can add up to huge savings when it comes to maintenance and repair costs. It can also help extend the useful life of your parking asset.”
According to Dale Fowler, company director of INDECT USA, another leading parking guidance provider, the beauty of parking guidance systems is that they provide a win/win for owners and operators as well as their customers because they provide such a wide array of benefits.
“First and foremost, parking guidance systems are designed to help people find a parking space quicker and to ensure that every available space is used, 24 – 50% faster than when there is no guidance system” said Fowler. Other benefits roll from this: reduced carbon footprint, higher turnover of spaces, 100% usage of the available occupancy, and reduced need for staffing. The systems also provide a wealth of information about their customers, which is often a surprise to the owner/operator. For example: where they park, for how long and in what volumes. This detailed statistical information is valuable for audit but also for planning the operation and future parking needs of the garage as well as managing the yield from the property.
“Interestingly, the first systems were installed in small garages to encourage customers to come in and occupy every space,” continued Fowler. “They do this by providing accurate information at the front of the garage that the drivers can trust. The locals know that if the sign says there are three spaces, they’ll be able to drive in and find that spot. In small garages, the last five spaces are where the profit is made and that’s where guidance helps owners and operators’ bottom lines. Without access to occupancy information drivers are more likely to assume the garage is full and drive on.”
In spite of the numerous benefits of parking guidance, many operators are still hesitant to take the plunge and install a guidance system. According to both Sandbrook and Fowler, this is often because of some common misconceptions.
“A big concern is the perceived cost and time involved with installation,” said Sandbrook. “There are a number of options when it comes to selecting a guidance system, and if cost and installation time are primary concerns, they can be mitigated. For instance, fully wireless systems can provide a high-quality solution without expensive infrastructure. These systems can be installed at a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time—just a few minutes per parking space.”
Fowler thinks that one of the primary issues for owners and operators is that they may not understand how significant the return on their investment will be. “Owners and operators often assume that there is no ROI and that the only benefit is to the customers,” he says. “There are in fact huge benefits to the owners and the operators as well. Any site that is nearly full, has turnover, and short term parking will see immediate revenue upswings from 5% to 15%.
“For larger sites there can also be huge savings by deferring capital expenditures,” continued Fowler. “In the past, when owners believe they’ve reached capacity their automatic reaction has been to build more parking. But most garages have unused parking, and large facilities are typically considered full at 85% capacity because customers simply can’t find those last 15% of spaces. A parking guidance system can ensure that the full capacity is used and filling those last few spaces can actually add up to thousands of dollars a day in additional revenue.”
The Future Is Now
The parking industry has seen its share of futuristic technologies in recent years and many seem to be directly related to parking guidance. Some of the most exciting advances revolve around connectivity between parking guidance and mobile technologies.
“The ability for customers to find their car by being guided through their cell phone is already available,” said Fowler. “You could get off a plane at an airport and be guided from the gate directly to your car via your phone.”
Sandbrook is particularly excited about the introduction of iBeacon technology to engage and interact with parkers as soon as they arrive at a PGS-equipped garage.
“The system is integrated with social media and advertising platforms to add further value,” said Sandbrook. “Imagine a motorist parking in a garage. His smartphone pops up with a message saying, ‘Hi John, welcome to Fashion Central, today you receive 20% off shoes in-store! Also, we have marked where you’ve parked your car, so let us know when you’re ready to be navigated back.’ It’s an incredibly personalized parking experience that can be tailored to the unique needs and desires of each individual parker.”
The Sky’s The Limit
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the current technology revolution, it’s that parking technology is limited only by the imaginations of the industry’s technology creators. Who could have imagined 25 years ago systems that could guide parkers directly to open spaces? Or having miniature computers in our pockets that could allow us to reserve parking spaces before we left our homes and guide us back to our vehicles when we’re ready to return home?
“Parking is particularly well-positioned to benefit from technological advances,” said Flanagan, who also contends that these new technologies will be deployed in even more creative ways. “We are going to continue to see exciting parking technologies introduced for at least another generation.”
The newer tools being introduced aren’t utilized in the same ways that traditional parking equipment was in the past. Rather than installing a particular piece of equipment to serve a single function, more parking technology providers are pursuing a total solution approach that combines different technologies from different providers. So, for instance, it’s not unusual to see guidance packages utilizing a variety of technologies from different providers or suites that combine a range of technologies that meet all of a parking owners’ needs.
“Really, when it comes to the types of technologies we’ll see in parking, how they are deployed, and the many ways they’ll benefit owners, operators and customers, the sky is the limit.”