“We make minor miracles happen every day,” said Peter W. Lange, Executive Director of Transportation Services at Texas A&M University (TAMU). Running the parking operation for the nation’s sixth-largest university is no easy task.
Lange sees his job as a facilitator, putting arguably the most advanced and complex parking technology in higher ed in the hands of his customers – the students, faculty, support staff and visitors at the College Station campus.
His physical plant is vast, with five large parking structures, 36,000 spaces and 85 lanes of parking control equipment. His goal has been to use technology to serve his customers with as little interaction with them by his staff as possible.
“We needed to share information about students, faculty, staff and visitors, and get those data into a form we could work with,” Lange said. “The problem was that most departments didn’t want to share. It took a lot of politics and some good old horse trading to get the information in a form we could use.”
If an A&M student loses their student ID, which can also be their parking entry pass, they simply have to go to the administration and get a replacement. Within an hour, the admin computer talks to the parking system, and the new card is active – untouched by human hands.
The parking system, which is the result of a nearly decade-long coordination between Lange’s department and the private sector, reaches virtually every aspect of life at the university. The system is set up so a number of credentials can be used for access to the parking areas. Those include the university ID card, mag stripe on the permit, key punch code, a driver’s license, the Texas AVI Toll Tag, and various temporary barcode applications.
A customer can have any or all of these credentials linked to their parking account, but the system stays secure. If someone enters on their driver’s license, they are “in.” They can’t come in again on their toll tag, for instance. However, once in, they can use any of their linked credentials to exit. Sensor tags used by the fire and police departments and local buses have been linked in for access to streets on the university that are controlled.
Lange and his staff run a large business, with parking generating more than $20 million per year, and the transit side (which his department also oversees) more than $8 million. The organization maintains all its own equipment and creates its own signage.
The Transportation Services department has been able to create a technological marvel in the South Texas plains by relying not only on its vendor, T2 Systems, but also on a number of software engineers on its payroll. T2 provides an open architecture foundation, while TAMU’s programmers customize their functionality, such as
publishing real-time space availability in visitor parking to their website, or to a smartphone app.
To ensure that communications work between Lange’s many departments and the programmers who speak in computerese, he has an application specialist in each department as a bridge between those who need the software applications and those who have to create it.
TAMU wanted a single system to run all its parking operations. They had numerous systems, some for access control, some for revenue control, and the T2 “Flex” system for database and citation management. Lange along with leaders from the University of Arizona and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis pressed their vendor to expand into revenue and access control. They were fortunate that their software-focused supplier was able to interface with multiple equipment types during the transition, and over time has all the lane and POF equipment been upgraded and supplied by T2.
“Our system allows our staff not only to have access to data, but also to be able to ‘fix’ problems and react almost instantly to campus requirements,” Lange said. “Say the university president calls and wants someone to have access to all parking on campus for a certain period. We are able to manage the exception and make it happen immediately.”
TAMU opted to host the system themselves in a “private cloud” rather than using the vendor’s hosting option because they have the resources to do so. “We will be taking a hard look at hosting our system off-site,” Lange said. “However, it’s so interconnected with other university systems; it may be a while until we make such a move.
“The more you know about your customers, the easier it is to do business with them. When a staff member or student calls in with a problem, our staff can immediately see everything about that person’s parking activity. We know when they have paid, when they last used their cards, if they have received any citations. Knowing that information when you talk to them can make the conversation go much easier.
“Parkers are quick to complain,” Lange said. “We have to be just as quick to solve the problem.”
But not every problem can be solved with technology.
He told the story of how the campus theater was having severe issues with parking their patrons. No matter whether the parking was sold in advance, prepay or post-pay, it was chaos.
Lange’s team suggested that $2 from each ticket sold be provided to the Transportation Services department, and parking would then appear to be “free” to those attending events at the theater. Problem solved. Parking made money, and the theater was delighted. And it was a win-win.
One of Lange’s staff is Associate Director Debbie Hoffmann. Her team keeps parking in constant communication with the department’s customers through email, Tweets and periodic mailings. “We can let them know about road closures, events or emergency issues, all in real-time,” she said. “We get a lot of credibility when we communicate with them.”
The system has an extensive web presence where customers can go online and buy permits, make payments, and even put themselves on waiting lists.
“Departmental Parking Representatives can do almost anything a staff member can do themselves. We see all departments as partners. Our parkers are customers.
“If you make it easy for them to do the right thing, they will,” Lange said. “After the new online permit system went in, they had a 30% increase in student conference permit sales.”
Information is available not only to customers, but extensive real-time data are available to the system’s managers. The citation-writing handheld devices are tracked, and information is displayed on a map so that supervisors can track their enforcement equipment.
Of course, citations are written in real-time and posted as they are written. If someone wants to pay a citation directly after receiving it, they can do so; it’s already posted in the system’s database.
Among the system’s many features is that managers can see, historically, where citations have been written and thus see “groupings” and determine why so many citations have been written in a certain area – perhaps a signage problem or an equipment failure. System managers can make corrections to their own operation, as well as change the parker’s behavior.
Providing great services is important to Lange, and his central stations monitor more than 400 cameras to ensure that staff and students get quick action from parking staff. VoIP intercoms connect all lanes with a staff member, who can see in real-time what is going on and assist the parker with any problem that may arise.
Football is big in Texas, and A&M is no exception. The parking system provides Aggies season passes, prepayment, and of course, in-lane payments run by the parking staff.
And when “Friday Night Lights” come on, and high school football playoffs are held at A&M, Lange and his crew are on hand to handle event parking, with in-lane prepay, as well as online prepayments that attendees can make through the system’s website.
“Anything we can do to make the experience of coming to Texas A&M a good one, we do,” Lange said. “It may seem like a miracle, but we try to make it look easy.”