What the pandemic means for parking and mobility operations, and what professionals are doing to keep things moving.
IT’S DIFFICULT TO THINK THAT WHEN A MYSTERIOUS NEW VIRUS infected 41 people in Wuhan, China, last December, anyone could have foreseen the coming global effect. COVID-19 has dominated the news and many businesses—including parking and mobility—during the ﬁrst quarter of 2020, and doesn’t show many signs of slowing down anytime soon.
First called similar to the ﬂu, COVID-19 causes headaches, fever, body aches and chills, digestive issues, and respiratory complications that can grow into a fatal form of viral pneumonia. At press time, vaccine and treatment trials had begun but overwhelmed hospitals and medical professionals could only treat symptoms and hope for the best. Highly contagious, the virus forced virtual shutdowns of businesses, schools, and cities around the world. And those closures have had massive effects on parking and mobility, from empty garages and lots to micro-mobility service disruptions to the well-being of staff members—and all of that has rocked the industry’s economy.
Staffing and People
Starting in mid-March, companies in the U.S. were strongly encouraged to have employees work from home whenever possible; stay-at-home orders in many cities strengthened the ask. Parking and mobility operations shifted where they could, but it wasn’t possible for everyone.
Mike Estey, manager of parking programs with the City of Seattle, Wash., says most of his staff began working from home fairly quickly, but it wasn’t possible for everyone. Despite lowered demand for parking, frontline staff largely can’t work from home, and that’s created its own challenge.
“The ﬁeld side is more difficult,” he says. “The office staff is working from home but the ﬁeld staff can’t always do that. So the ﬁeld staff feels like there are haves and have-nots, and they are the have-nots.” He works on constantly communicating with them and offering whatever support he can to dissipate that issue.
Hal King, CAPP, parking administrator with the City of Hollywood, Fla., says some issues come down to essential vs. non-essential functions and employees, especially when states decide who can and can’t move around or go to work based on those labels.
“We normally deal with hurricanes and everyone gets the essential tag put on them,” he says. “Now, we can’t go back and say those people are non-essential.” His downtown garages were about 60 percent full at press time, largely by residents of the city, but beach garages were empty.
“We have to have staff on standby,” he says. “And what do you do with those people if you just send them home? I’d prefer to keep people on the payroll and not have them burn up sick leave or vacation time or anything else for a situation that’s totally out of their control.”
Others have found ways for frontline people to keep their jobs doing different things. “We have about 150 officers a day on the street,” says Shawn McCormick, parking enforcement director, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Those people are doing enforcement and working on curb management to ensure employees aren’t parking in front of businesses all day and keeping pick-up customers out of valuable parking spots. In an effort to keep people on the payroll and do good, McCormick says some officers began patrolling neighborhoods, offering a sense of presence and letting people know the city is still around.
“Some of our officers are taking on other assignments,” he says. “They’re stuffing bags with masks and gloves for hospitals, they’re cleaning buses, and they’re doing other things.”
In areas where parking enforcement has continued, staff remains on the street. “We’ve been working very hard at trying to stay ahead with the message of what we’re doing as an essential means of maintaining traffic ﬂow,” says Scot Reinmann, section chief, parking operations, Montgomery County, Md., Department of Transportation. “We’re examining it constantly.” His office has made parking in two garages free for residents who don’t normally need off-street parking or who want to store vehicles until the crisis is over.
“If you’re still letting people park in your facility, it’s essential that you keep it safe,” he says. “I’m seeing most of our functions as essential, and we’re trying to be ﬂexible with employees who have childcare issues. We are providing some level of safety and service as long as we’re available to be open.”
Operations and Revenue
Not everyone can keep their people working because demand is down signiﬁcantly, and that has real affects on revenue and budgets. “Parking revenue and utilization is down anywhere between 40 and 70 percent per facility,” says Aurora Perkins, parking administrator, City of San Antonio, Texas. “The highest-impact facilities are those surrounding convention center operations, which have canceled all conventions and meetings until the ﬁrst week of April [at press time].”
Enforcement is ongoing, she says, but officers have been given expanded areas to review. San Antonio has actually seen a bigger need for enforcement pertaining to parking violations and solid waste services. “More families are home with more vehicles on the street and an increase in residential trash output,” she says
Benito Pérez, AICP, CTP, curbside management operations planning manager at the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, says his department’s role has grown as well, “between outreach to reiterate CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidance, move critical and business services online, and also continue to operate the transportation network for those who continue to rely on it—vulnerable populations, essential/ emergency responders, and employees.”
“The District Department of Transportation continues to operate and maintain our curbside as-is, with some exceptions such as lifting rush-hour restriction enforcement. We are contemplating how we can repurpose our curbside to facilitate enhanced pick-up/drop-off activity to support our food service and restaurant, pharmacy, and grocery businesses as those businesses transition to takeout/delivery models. That means contemplating revamping our existing Pick-up/Drop-off (PUDO) Zone program, whether temporarily or permanently.”
That’s a common theme in cities where parking organizations are called upon to help support businesses trying to survive the pandemic. Many have launched pick-up parking on the curb, offering customers a certain amount of free parking so they can patronize restaurants and stores safely. For many, it’s leading to other thoughts for a different future.
“As we continue to rethink curbside management in light of COVID-19, we are thinking not only in the immediate term and needs, but the ramiﬁcations of curbside in a more digitized future that will emerge after this public health emergency,” says Pérez. “Online food delivery (from restaurants and grocery stores) were nascent and starting to grow before this emergency. We have to start thinking now that such business activity will start to become a major part of our future and has huge ramiﬁcations on how we manage our curbside.”
For now, operations have shifted drastically. Ted Graf, director of parking, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, says demand is down, which has led to agency consolidation.
“As a consolidated transportation agency—that is, parking, traffic engineering, and transit are all under one roof and policy dictates parking revenues are to support transit—the impacts of COVID19 are pervasive,” he says. “Parking impacts are being measured by both revenue and utilization. Garage visits and revenue decreased by about 50 percent for the time period of March 1 to 19, and narrowing the time window to March 17 to 19 shows a reduction of 90+ percent; this spike is result of the city partially closing 15 of its 20 garages effective on March 18.”
“In parallel, on-street parking revenue decreased by about 70 percent as compared to March 2019,” he says. “Beyond revenue impacts, the agency expedited consideration of temporary changes to many parking policies (rates, time limits, enforcement, etc.) to best address the shift in demand during this crisis period.”
His staff is working to keep ﬁgures up to date and assess the total impact.
“With respect to parking regulations and enforcement, it was decided to cease enforcement for several regulations such as permit parking, general time limits, and street cleaning, but enforcement would continue for critical points of access—ﬁre hydrants as well as other conditions for safety,” he says. “Parking enforcement is also being maintained for meters because meters are in locations where turnover is necessary for essential services including grocery stores, medical facilities ,and banks.” For now, meters have been reduced to base rates: $.50 per hour for vehicle spaces and $.10 per hour for motorcycles.
For university parking offices, COVID-19 has been a complete game-changer. Students and faculty have largely been sent home, leaving questions about staffing, enforcement, and the question they hear over and over—what about refunds?
Rodney Gomez, CAPP, executive director of parking & transportation at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, says, “The biggest impact has been the loss of student, faculty, and visitor activity on our campuses. We have had to rethink our enforcement protocols as well as the level of service provided via our transit routes. We have had to be very adaptive to meet evolving needs while still adhering to safety protocols.”
Gomez says his university administration has been “on top of things from the beginning,” which eases some of the crunch. His office is focused on safety, with continuous monitoring and adjustments to keep customer service high.
“It’s a tough time for everyone and it’s important to keep morale up,” he says. “The future is very uncertain. We engage our staff as much as possible in our decisions, share knowledge as soon as we can, and encourage everyone to share their thoughts and feelings. It’s very easy to lose sight of the importance of community during this time.”
Other universities have similar things to share. Kevin Rowald, CAPP, director of parking and transportation at the University of Kansas Medical Center, says his blended world offers unique challenges, especially now.
“The leadership teams of the health system and university are communicating numerous times per day via numerous media avenues to adjust and react as necessary,” he says. “Our emergency management department is effectively executing and adjusting our established plans daily to accommodate new situations as the present themselves.”
“It has taken the entire campus working in synergy to address this challenge. Critical planning had taken place well in advance and then the entire team has shown a unique ability to be execute the plan while being nimble enough to adjust efficiently as the situation has changed. I am grateful to be a part of a great uniﬁed team,” he continues.
Aaron Quisenberry, associate director, student involvement and leadership center, University of Kansas, says the challenges are numerous, from bus route changes to working with the city to having all staff working from home. “It seems like I’ve got a dozen webinars or Zoom calls a day, trying to ﬁgure out what level of service we’re offering,” he says. “It seems like I’m busier than normal and there are so many different dynamics at play.”
He says communication is a priority, both with his staff and others across campus, up to and including guidance on what to do when someone shows COVID-19 symptoms.
Many participants of an IPMI online Shoptalk for university and campuses said refunds are a hot issue—when or whether to offer them and then how. An informal poll during the event showed slightly less than half of participants were actively offering refunds to students, and a popular sentiment was that faculty/staff payroll deductions for parking had simply stopped. Those were not true on campuses that still housed students, largely because they lived overseas and couldn’t go home. And a big concern was raised by Ross Allanson, CAPP, University of Minnesota: “What do we do with employees who are supposed to work from home but can’t do their jobs that way?”
KIM FERNANDEZ is IPMI’s director of publications and editor of Parking & Mobility. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At press time, IPMI had hosted four online Shoptalks for COVID-19 conversation and sharing. More events are planned for the future—watch parking-mobility.org for dates and registration. Conversation on Forum (forum.parking-mobility. org) is ﬂowing, with ideas, challenges, and collaboration happening daily.
Forum is open to all IPMI members and their staffs and shared documents become part of the permanent, searchable library. To participate, sign in with your parking-mobility.org credentials (resetting those is easy). For more information on using Forum, email email@example.com.
For up-to-date information on COVID-19, reference the World Health Organization (who.int) or U.S. Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov). Information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and fact sheet from the CDC are included in boxes with this article.