Downtown parking can be a struggle for many cities, especially those that see a large number of visitors and sports fans throughout the year.
Parking in East Lansing is not all about game day. Every day, downtown visitors and residents need a place to leave their vehicles while they work, shop and live. Parking meters and paid parking lots are nothing new to urban areas; however, they may look a little different nowadays in many cities, including East Lansing.
In 2016, the city replaced its coin parking meters with IPS Smart Meters, and several of its metered lots were upgraded to Parkeon multi-space meters.
By 2017, East Lansing’s gated lots were using Skidata cashier-less technology.
“Our transition to a cashier-less parking system with cameras has helped our customer service ability, saved money on staffing, assisted with reimbursements for equipment damage and assisted law enforcement,” East Lansing Parking Administrator Caleb Sharrow said.
Parking lot exit lanes no longer feature cash/coin options, though pay-on-foot machines have been installed for those who still prefer physical currency. Exit machines accept credit cards, validations and monthly parking permits.
According to Sharrow, switching to an electronic system has improved parking throughout the city.
“The technological upgrades we have implemented over the last four years gave us a much more user-friendly and well-managed parking system for customers of the downtown district,” he said.
A plus is that the ISP and Parkeon systems work with the PassportParking app, which allows users to pay using a mobile device.
“Customers really like the convenience of the app and that it sends reminders and receipts,” Sharrow said. “It only takes a minute to set up your account, then just seconds to start a parking session from then on.”
With this in mind, Sharrow sees downtown East Lansing transitioning from single-space parking meters along the street to pay-by-space machines.
“With the mobile payment apps becoming much more popular, having a meter at every space is less necessary,” Sharrow said. “Customers can pay with the app or walk to the machine if they insist on paying with coin or credit card. Having less equipment means less fees, less staff maintenance time and less staff collection time.”
Another perk of the new machinery is that it incorporates green energy via solar panels.
“Both IPS and Parkeon have solar options,” Sharrow said. “IPS is solar at all the street meters, and we have two solar Parkeon multi-space meters.”
On the one hand, solar power means energy cost savings. A down side is that during the winter, when there are fewer hours of daylight, the batteries may run out.
As far as troubleshooting, occasional communication issues can occur, though the city receives emails alerting them to any meters requiring attention. Coin jams in the Parkeon lots have occurred but are quickly resolved, usually in-house. Still, a service provider is available if needed.
The Skidata equipment is the most heavily used, and therefore, it has the greatest number of troubleshooting situations.
“Customers are not very gentle with parking equipment,” he said.
The key, Sharrow said, is good facility maintenance. This not only keeps equipment running longer, it ensures people will return.
“If your facilities are not well maintained, clean or well lit, customers will be less likely to visit your downtown,” Sharrow said.
As is par for the course, the city has handled its share of complaints as users become accustomed to the new equipment.
“Unfortunately, when working with parking, there is not an abundance of positive feedback, as many see parking as a ‘moneymaker’ for the city,” Sharrow said. “In actuality, the parking system is an enterprise system that funds itself and allows us to pay for facilities, facility maintenance, service contracts for elevators, condo dues, land leases, fund art projects in the downtown, do landscaping, assist with funding for homeless outreach, provide parking for customers, etc.”
Others have stated they miss face-to-face interaction with booth attendants.
“That type of feedback is rare, though we do dispatch a parking ambassador to assist customers if needed or requested,” Sharrow said.
According to him, parking ambassadors work from a centralized office and are available 24 hours a day, six days a week, for customer service and machine maintenance.
“In the near future, we would like to invest in back-office integrations so that IPS, Parkeon and Skidata back-offices interface into one back-office,” Sharrow said. “This would increase efficiencies and allow us to focus staff time in other needed areas.”
The city has received plenty of positive feedback as well and has been pleased with the results of using the equipment.
“Some positive feedback we have received is regarding our high level of customer service, camera additions, signage, cleanliness of facilities and our preventative maintenance strategies,” Sharrow said. “By far the biggest compliments we receive are for having implemented the PassportParking mobile payment app at the street meters and the multi-space meters.”
As far as cost, the ISP meters were around $500 apiece, the Parkeon units were around $10,000 each and the upgrade to Skidata cashier-less technology cost around $1,600,000. Monthly service fees apply to all three.
Credit card fees are another thing to keep in mind.
“Credit card fees are definitely a complication when you get more technological with your parking systems, as more tech usually means more credit card usage,” Sharrow said.
Despite the upfront costs, the new technology will save the city annually on staffing, and the equipment has a life span of roughly seven to 10 years.
“My hope is that, with each technological upgrade, there will be additional efficiencies and aspects that make the parking experience more user-friendly,” Sharrow said. “The more easy and seamless a customers parking experience is, the more likely they are to come back.”
Meanwhile, the city has been working to set aside 10% of its annual parking revenue to fund future repairs and upgrades.
“This is easier said than done, with substantial debt-burden left on the parking fund from the past,” Sharrow said. “But with substantial debt service coming off the books in the next five years, we may be in a much better spot to cash-fund these types of upgrades, which will put us in a much better financial situation.”
Technology is not the only way East Lansing has been creative with parking. Several years ago, a major construction project began that would ultimately remove a heavily used gated parking lot, replacing
it with residential and business space. The project also included a new 620-space public parking garage.
Until the garage was ready, however, there would be one less place to park.
Knowing this would be a problem, the city designed a campaign to lighten the situation. With funding from the developer and the Downtown Development Authority, the city hired a marketing firm to come up with a temporary solution, which they dubbed, “Find the Bee, Park for Free.”
As its name suggests, the program used a bee in a construction helmet as its mascot. Throughout the campaign, drivers could look for meters covered with a bag bearing the construction bee logo. Those spots were free throughout the day. The East Lansing Communications Department posted daily updates on social media.
“The cute bee with a construction helmet was meant to signify that this may sting a little, but we will get through this together,” Sharrow said.
Combined with the “Find the Bee” campaign, the city also offered a monthly allotment of free parking validations to businesses near the construction site.
“Businesses appreciated the free parking validations, and the ‘Find the Bee, Park for Free’ campaign was a hit on social media,” Sharrow said.
When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene, East Lansing closed its parking system, providing free parking for a time.
“It has been a necessary step, but a very difficult financial step,” Sharrow said.
The parking system opened back up in June with new and improved sanitation procedures, plus two hours’ free parking in gated facilities.
“We hope for a safe and strong recovery for all people and businesses,” Sharrow said.
The third aspect of East Lansing parking is game-day parking for MSU home games. Available spaces can fill up fast, as many fans want to park as close as possible.
For this, East Lansing offers game-day VIP parking. The meters at designated parking spaces will be covered and the spaces reserved for customers who have paid ahead. Funding from this goes toward general facilities parking operations.
Sharrow looks forward to the role technology will continue to play in East Lansing parking.
“I envision the future of parking to continue to be more smart technology-based, with cellphone mobile payments in all facilities and much more license plate recognition,” he said. “This removes the need for gated facility equipment and reduces staffing levels for customer service and enforcement.”