Transportation agencies throughout the United States have begun implementing advanced parking information systems with the goal of increasing customer satisfaction and improving traffic operations. Through the use of variable message signs (VMS), these systems provide motorists with real-time information about parking availability at appropriate decision points on their route so that they can make an informed decision about where to park.
To determine the benefits of transit applications of parking management systems, the United States Department of Transportation's (USDOT) ITS Joint Program Office and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) conducted a national evaluation of two of the first transit parking management systems deployed in the United States. One system serves two Metra commuter rail stations in Chicago, Illinois, while the other serves a Metro Station in Montgomery County, Maryland.
The parking management system in Chicago, Illinois monitors parking utilization at two adjacent Metra Stations with the use of loop detectors and conveys this information to motorists via eight VMS located at key decision points along expressways and arterials near the stations. The Montgomery County system monitors parking utilization at the Glenmont Metro Station with the use of video detection and conveys information to motorists via three VMS located near the station.
Project stakeholders should consider the long-term operations and maintenance responsibilities and costs when selecting project components. For agencies deploying parking management guidance systems, it is important to consider the long-term responsibilities and costs associated with operating and maintaining the system. How the system is designed, where the project components are installed, and how the system is used can add substantial staff responsibilities as well as recurring operations and maintenance costs.
The following lessons were derived from the experiences of the Chicago, Illinois and Montgomery County, Maryland teams in operating and maintaining the components of their respective parking information systems:
- Identify what agency and staff will be responsible for monitoring and maintaining the system and what activities they should perform, and ensure that they are trained on how to use the equipment. If desired, it could be the contractor who designed and/or installed the system who is responsible for monitoring and maintaining the system. Alternatively it can be project staff, but it is important that someone familiar with the equipment develop a maintenance schedule and train those who will be responsible for maintaining the system. It is important that the maintenance schedule clearly denote where and how all maintenance activities should be conducted and documented. As an example, the Chicago project's maintenance schedule calls for cleaning the solar and LED (light emitting diode) windows on an annual basis. It also calls for other very specific activities: cleaning and inspecting cabinets, replacing filters, performing a count survey (including verifying the number of available parking spaces as compared to the values displayed on the signs), performing a loop survey (including verifying proper loop detection), performing a delineator survey, and adjusting equipment settings.
- Expect that in order for the system to continue to be reliable, manual settings and adjustments may be needed. Not surprisingly, Montgomery County found that the fill rate at their parking facilities slows significantly during the summer months when traffic is typically lighter. Also the project team has found that it is important to monitor the system more closely (or turn it off) on holidays and other days when traffic patterns are unusual (e.g., inclement weather). As a result, the county has found that it is necessary to adjust the system's algorithms a few times a year to accommodate these variations in traffic patterns.
- Allow visual monitoring of systems to help ensure system reliability. The Montgomery County staff elected to install a camera on the top of the Glenmont Garage to aid in remote monitoring of the system. They have found visually monitoring the system on a regular basis to be extremely useful. They generally check the system once a week to see if it appears to be working properly based on how full the top level of the garage looks as compared to how many spaces the system shows to be remaining.
- Provide built-in monitoring systems to save time and help ensure system reliability. Metra uses a dedicated laptop to provide a remote user interface to check the information that is currently posted on each sign, and the configuration of the lot assemblies, and also to inspect error-checking mechanisms. The interface of the monitoring system also allows the user to update or shut off signs remotely as needed. The system does not fail often but it does require frequent monitoring. The project team has found that it is best to leave the monitoring system running in the background at all times.
- Keep in mind the long-term maintenance costs when developing the system. The Chicago Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and Metra have found that solar batteries used to power remote signs need to be replaced quite often. One of their signs is solar powered because there was no electrical line available at the sign location. At the time of design, it appeared that it was more costly to run an electrical line to the sign than to use a battery. In retrospect, however, the batteries required by the solar powered sign have been very expensive, and have less capacity than the electrical signs. Therefore, the project team feels that extending the electrical line is likely to be more cost effective in the long run.
A parking management system requires a considerable amount of planning and commitment to operations and maintenance to ensure that the system is functioning reliably. Therefore it is critical to determine who will be responsible for monitoring and maintaining the system and how maintenance activities are to be conducted. Fully considering the long-term maintenance costs of the system will allow project stakeholders to operate their parking management system in support of the system goals. The lessons learned above are expected to improve operational efficiency and staff productivity at transit parking facilities.