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The Pandemic Cleared the Way for Smarter Parking Tech

Several cities have taken advantage of nearly empty streets and parking structures brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic to roll out technology upgrades for when — and if — drivers return to downtown areas.

a nearly empty parking lot seen from the air
Shutterstock/Andreas Altenburger
When workers return to downtown areas in a number of cities, they could be greeted by a range of new parking technologies, like touchless transactions, license plate enforcement and new approaches to better managing ride-hailing services. 

In Tempe, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, parking officials have been able to fast-track projects that would have taken longer if they were being deployed under more typical parking and office occupancy situations.

“I long for the day when we can get back to those numbers before COVID. But in the interim, we’ve been able to fast-track some of those projects,” said Adam Jones, vice president of operations and parking in Tempe, during a panel discussion related to smart parking at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo late last month.

Tempe has been rolling out upgrades such as allowing drivers to pay for their parking online and the deployment of interactive kiosks on streets. Seven have been installed, with more coming.

Back in mid-March, Las Vegas was just in the beginning stages of a project to use part of downtown parking garages as staging areas for ride-hailing and taxi vehicles — a move to remove them from the circulatory patterns in downtown streets.

FlashParking, a smart parking tech provider, was able to accommodate the staging area by rebranding a portion of the app so that Uber and Lyft drivers can download it and get free access to the parking garage. The city added portable toilets, contracted with food trucks and installed Wi-Fi in the garages “so that we could really make an attractive place for TNC drivers to stage,” said Brandy Stanley, parking services manager for Las Vegas.

Then came COVID-19.

“Obviously, things completely shut down that weekend, and everything’s been on hold since. But we are keeping in touch with Uber and Lyft, and we’re basically ready to be off and running once things start to pick up,” said Stanley during the parking panel.

In the last six months, public parking in Vegas experienced a 90 percent drop in revenue, though it is creeping back up, she added. During this time, the city has explored more “touchless transaction” tech initiatives. These could include scanning a QR code at a parking meter to pay, rather than downloading an app, and a payment app that can be used at both meters and garages.

In Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, parking officials used the downtime to repaint and restripe garages and replace broken lighting, along with other improvements like upgrading the citation management system, as well as launching a portal for customers to see their citations and pay them online.

“That’s light years ahead of where we were just a few months ago,” remarked Christian Doolin, director of strategic innovation in Tallahassee.

Public parking is but one more facet of city life facing unprecedented changes brought on by the coronavirus crisis, and the way it is affecting mobility. In the last seven years, Tempe added some 3.5 million square feet of office space. Officials wonder how office workers might return, and when.

“Are they going to be back in full force? Probably not,” remarked Jones.

“Anything that we do, we’ve gotta be able to adjust quickly, change quickly, because in this day and age there’s a disruptor around every corner that’s going to change what you’ve been used to doing,” he added.

When the commuters do return, they’ll encounter a newly launched system which allows parkers to purchase monthly parking and manage monthly accounts online.

“We had been talking about that for years and looking into it, but [COVID-19] allowed us to fast-track that,” said Jones.

That system, along with others like a license plate enforcement system in Las Vegas, is among some of the tech upgrades public parking operations have been fine-tuning and rolling out in the last eight months. The license plate reader system is expected to "drastically" increase revenue, as well as reduce expenses, said Stanley. “We don’t know that we’ll need the same level of actual staff that we did before.”

Parking is becoming more tied into tech products and smart city ecosystems. And even as cities bemoan traffic and tout their progressive plans to reduce car use, parking is becoming less of an “afterthought.”

“Just because a thing is not what you want it to be doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any value. We have a lot of data, and you can get a lot of data that you can’t get anywhere else,” she added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.