Navigating the Maze

TPP-2014-02-Parking Without ApologyBy Thomas Szubka, CAPP

I recently had the opportunity to share a presentation about the City of Tampa, Fla., Parking Division’s experiences implementing new technology during the past few years. Later, in a roundtable-type discussion, I heard a smaller municipality’s parking professional mention that it was the role of larger and more established parking markets to be the guinea pigs for implementing technology. He said they should work out the kinks for the benefit of markets like his.

I must admit that I had not previously considered this type of statement to be relevant to the City of Tampa Parking Division, as we are not what I would brand a large-market municipality. However, our department has been relatively active with our efforts to implement technology in the past five years. While we may not be a large parking market, there is a significant amount of experience that can be shared and may help organizations considering adopting or upgrading to new technologies avoid the challenges that we faced.

Let’s start with a little background. Some of our recent efforts have included:
PARCS installation and upgrades in eight parking structures. These facilities now operate on the same common system with on-site servers that allow for universal validation and similar options for contract parking.

Installation of 26 pay-and-display pay stations on 13 surface lots. This has eliminated the need to staff these lots, which serve as contract parking by day and event parking during nights and weekends.

Overhaul of our on-street parking system, including installing 147 multi-space parking meters. This significantly reduced our inventory of ­single-space meters, gave us monitoring capabilities, and most importantly, gave customers the opportunity to pay with credit cards.

Implementation and upgrades of a license plate recognition (LPR) system. This system has primarily been used to locate and boot scofflaws with multiple citations and was expanded to enforce residential and other permit programs via a virtual permit application.

Implementation of a system-wide permit and citation management system. This has modernized our enforcement and adjudication process, provided us with the ability to better analyze our permit systems and data, and given us an improved customer management system that is able to cross-reference data.

Installation of more than 100 security cameras and a recording system. Originally installed to monitor PARCS equipment, our camera system has been used in conjunction with law enforcement efforts to apprehend criminals.

Addition of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. Originally part of a nationwide grant program, these offer an added amenity to our customers.

Implementation of a mobile payment solution. This serves as another payment option for our customers in an increasingly mobile-dependent culture.

While all ultimately successful, these experiences ranged from turn-key to, at times, miserable. From this, I’d like to share my top 10 things to understand and consider when implementing technology.

You’ll Get Tired
Understand that implementing any technology can be an exhausting process. There will be many conference calls and meetings to map the process, convert data, and program functions. Frustration will creep in when you realize that the solutions are not exactly what you expected and you are forced to make decisions to activate/deactivate a portion of the solution to maintain your existing processes. Don’t forget the inevitable deadlines that you will encounter and test.

Inevitable Obsolescence
As soon as you purchase a parking solution, an upgrade will replace it. At least, it often seems that way. On the other hand, if you keep waiting for the next upgrade before taking the leap, you may never get it done. Of course, if you have a smartphone, you should be used to this by now.

Bid vs. RFP
If you have a procurement process, always favor a request for proposals (RFP) over a straight bid. Parking technology is too important and detailed to automatically go for the lowest possible cost. Do your homework and find the best solution and then ask for proposals to make it happen.

If you need to go through a committee, take the time to educate its non-parking members about parking and the challenges you expect the solution to address. Remember, you have to live with their decision.

Reporting
Ask to see how reports are generated, how they look, and if they are customizable. Make sure you can accept the type of reports that are provided by a prospective vendor before you begin the relationship.

Rate Programming
Many organizations (primarily governments or municipalities) are bound by resolutions or charters when it comes to parking rates, which means they cannot easily be altered to accommodate the limitations of a solution or specific equipment. Ask your vendors to show you how they program your rate structures and how customers will ultimately see and interact with the technology.

Integration
Technology providers are becoming more open to integrating with others—sometimes even with their direct competitors—but it’s important to realize that there is a cost involved on both sides of almost any integration process. Unless specifically contracted, the new technology partner will only be responsible for the cost associated with its side of the integration, leaving the rest for you to pay. Do your homework, because this could be prohibitively expensive and may influence your provider choice.

Off-the-Shelf vs. Custom
Every technology provider began with the purpose of offering a solution for a specific group of issues. If you do not present that exact scenario for them, understand that their off-the-shelf solution will have to be modified or have a workaround. This is not necessarily negative, but it may cause additional stress during the implementation process.

Ultimately, the final solution may not resemble what you originally envisioned due to the provider’s limitations, and a compromise may be necessary. Due diligence prior to entering into an agreement will help manage expectations and may also affect your choice of technology providers.

Server
Hosted solutions are becoming more popular, and for the right reasons: regular upgrades, faster response to downtime, and reduced maintenance headaches are all checks on the pro side of the spreadsheet. Hosted solutions, however, rely on dependable network and internet communications for which your organization is primarily responsible. We have found the subscription fees associated with hosted solutions to be financially easier to manage than the costs of on-site options because there are no unexpected costs. If you own an on-site server, you are also responsible for repair, maintenance, and upgrades, and planning for those can be difficult, especially as the technology ages.

Communication
It is a fact of life: no matter how well you prepare or how dependable your service is, you will have communication issues. These issues, of course, always seem to occur at the worst possible times, during the peak of your operations, and during the most important events.

This is a good time to become friendly with your internal IT resources if you have not done so already. Even if you have the best provider in the world, your in-house experts are a critical component to ensuring that your technology works to its full potential. How the technology connects to the internet is usually going to be your responsibility, and your IT professionals are the ones who hold that key. Also, stay in touch with your vendor and make certain you have the most recent upgrades, updates, modems, and other equipment to reduce the frequency of interruptions.
Most important, however, is to be prepared with a plan B and a script to properly address customer issues.

Sales vs. Service
Some of the best qualities of successful sales professionals are that they have a positive attitude and are convinced that they can solve your issues and make your job easier. Often, these sales professionals are correct, and at worst, they can at least bring you options. That said, no one knows your operation as well as you do. Sales professionals will focus mostly on the benefits of their product without full realizing how small drawbacks can negatively affect your operation.

Expect that nearly every project will not go as planned and that solutions will not prove as easy as they were explained to be during the procurement process. This is normal. Do not expect the worst case, but manage your and your stakeholders’ expectations that all your issues will be resolved with a handful of new technologies.

That’s not to say that vendors do not have the solutions; most are, in fact, at the top of their games. However, there is a very large disconnect between theory and practice. For every parking issue, there are multiple possible solutions that will vary by customer. It is probably unrealistic to expect a vendor to be able to provide every solution—our industry isn’t that static. The best you can do is be thorough in your due diligence and take your time during the procurement process to have real demonstrations that include your specific operational nuances. You may not be able to change the inevitable, but you will be better prepared to work through it.

Adding new technology to your operations should be exciting. By preparing yourself and managing expectations, you will better enjoy the process of implementing new technology and have a more successful roll-out with your customers.

Thomas Szubka, CAPP, is operations superintendent for the City of Tampa Parking Division. He can be contacted at tom.szubka@tampagov.net or 813.274.8182.

TPP-2014-02-Parking Without Apology