By Matt Jobin
The Coronavirus crisis has thrown our lives into chaos, and it’s changing the way that we, as parking professionals, think about parking.
The public health crisis will eventually pass, but even as it does, it will be important that cities, private parking owners, and organizations with parking assets work with their parking consultants learn from this crisis. This pandemic provides a stark reminder that people are susceptible to illness, and we should strive to find ways to minimize the risk.
As a parking facility designer, I’ve always considered safety to be one of the most important design elements. Until recently, though, these types of healthcare issues weren’t part of the equation. But as the Coronavirus crisis has shown, it should be. The parking process exposes people to many common “touch-points”, forcing drivers to touch surfaces that others (often many others) have already touched. This is how illness spreads, and as we are learning during this pandemic, viruses can live for several days on surfaces. This is an important issue, not just now, but in normal times too. We are constantly coming into contact with flu and cold viruses, as well as many types of bacteria. As such, cities and parking owners and their design teams need to be aware of where potential risks exist within parkades and how to mitigate them.
So, the question is, how can we reduce the risk of viruses being introduced to high-use surfaces within parkades?
Start with Technology
Technology can play an important role. There are a number of technologies already in use that can reduce touch-points. Perhaps the most common, and useful, are frictionless parking suites that use LPR to recognize a vehicle as it enters and exits, and automatically bills the driver’s credit card or associates the parking episode with a permit. These suites eliminate the need to stop and pull a ticket or to physically pay at exits, and they are already common throughout Canada. If your parkade already offers frictionless parking, this is the time to promote adoption by tenants and regular parkers to sign up for parking permit programs or create parking payment accounts permitting frictionless parking.
Mobile payment technology can also play an important role. By offering a mobile payment app to pay for hourly parking or manage permits, parking owners can entirely remove parking equipment from the equation for drivers who use the app to pay or manage their permits. With this technology, parkers merely download an app to their cell phone, enter their vehicle and payment or permit information, and then use the app to pay or manage the permit when they enter a parkade or parking lot. There are many mobile apps to choose from, and they typically don’t cost cities or parking owners anything—the driver pays a small convenience fee.
And mobile payment platforms don’t just promote public health. They also make parking more convenient and provide valuable utilization data that municipal parking planners and private owners and operators can use to better manage their parking resources.
From a design point of view, the most common touch-points on which viruses can be transmitted are in elevators and elevator towers, stairways, and door handles. It’s difficult to eliminate these types of touch-points since people need to push elevator buttons, use railings as they climb stairs, and open doors.
However, there are materials, such as copper, that actually kill viruses and bacteria. Moving forward, cities and private owners and their parking designers should consider sheathing touch-points like stair railings, door handles, and even elevator buttons with copper. While copper is more expensive to use than stainless steel or plastic, the public health benefits may make it worth taking on the cost.
Finally, cities and private owners can reduce transmission risks through parking management strategies. The first management consideration is staffing. Throughout this pandemic, you want to minimize the need for on-site staff, particularly cashiers.
Most parking operations are already automated. However, for those that aren’t, it’s important to minimize person-to-person contact, and this begins by limiting the number of cashiers working at facility exits. If it’s necessary to have cashiers working, make sure that they wear masks and gloves while working. They should also regularly clean their work space, with a particular focus on surfaces that they touch, and which are touched by others. Additionally, many retailers are installing temporary plexiglass barriers between cashiers and patrons, and that strategy may work well for parking operations.
The other area in which parking employees may need to continue to work is enforcement, but that’s less of concern. Enforcement officers can easily work alone, often from the relative safety of enforcement vehicles, so they have less contact with others. Still, even enforcement officers should wear masks and gloves while working to minimize the chance of transmitting the virus.
Cleaning is also an important management consideration. Because there are so many common touch-points in parking areas, they should be disinfected regularly. Today, we all tend to prioritize sustainability, but green cleaning supplies may not be strong enough to fully eliminate viruses from surfaces. During this public health crisis, it may be advisable to err on the side of overly stringent cleaning by using stronger cleaning chemicals, prioritizing public health over sustainability. When the crisis is over, you can return to using greener cleaning projects. Of course, cleaning staff should also wear masks and gloves to protect themselves and others.
When we see relief from the Coronavirus crisis, these strategies can be adapted to provide long-term public health benefits. It’s possible that the virus will return, and perhaps even become an on-going concern. Even if it doesn’t, the flu and other viruses will continue to be public health concerns. It’s important that we not let our guard down when this crisis passes. Instead, we must continue to look for creative design, management, and technology strategies to promote public health in parking operations.
About the author: Matt Jobin, RA, is an associate and senior architect with Rich & Associates, a leading parking consulting firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.