What does the future of parking hold in a post-Covid world?

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As with many things, the future of parking today looks very different to what we were expecting just 12 months ago, says Anthony Eskinazi, Founder & CEO, JustPark

Parking has always been positioned towards the end of the development chain for new technologies. With some notable exceptions, such as Dundee City Council, which has embraced the latest parking technology over many years, take up of smart solutions within the parking sector tends to be slower than some other areas of the transport ecosystem, such as traffic management and vehicles.

The reason for this is that parking has always been something of a safe bet: as long as people are using a vehicle – be it a clattery old diesel, an autonomous EV or an e-scooter – they will always need somewhere to park it. This meant that many parking operators were doubling down on 30-year leases for big locations in towns and cities.

It is also the case that, while operators accepted that modernisation of parking infrastructure had to happen,it was very much seen as part of a long-term plan. There have always been clear benefits to embracing a digital platform to enable contactless, ticketless and pre-booked parking, but this was largely seen as a ‘nice to have’.

After all, the tried-and-tested model was working and was profitable – people were parking in busy towns and cities, they would turn up with little planning, take a paper ticket and pay with cash or card.

“Take up of smart solutions within the parking sector tends to be slower than some other areas of the transport ecosystem, such as traffic management and vehicles”

And then Covid-19 hit. Suddenly, the industry was turned on its head. Great parking locations became terrible parking locations, as safe bets for operators, like train stations, airports and event spaces saw a total drop in traffic. Demand for parking disappeared overnight and the industry was left to wonder what the road to recovery may look like.

As the first lockdown passed, we started to understand what the future might hold. In the very short-term, there was a glimmer of hope for inner-city parking locations, as office workers – keen to be behind a desk but reluctant to use public transport – were expected to drive into cities.

However, the time and financial strain on commuters travelling by car quickly became unsustainable, especially in areas like London, where the price of the Congestion Charge was increased, and extended into evenings and weekends. As a result, more people moved to mixed location working – spending some time at the office, but the rest of it at home.

Recovery actually looked relatively uniform in a number of the areas in which we operate. Data from JustPark saw that parking in Cambridge went from near zero in April, to half of pre-Covid levels by the end of June, to full recovery by July. In Dundee, recovery happened a month later, but the pattern was broadly the same.

“Parking has always been something of a safe bet: as long as people are using a vehicle – be it a clattery old diesel, an autonomous EV or an e-scooter – they will always need somewhere to park it”

With more people spending greater amounts of time at home, smaller town centres, villages and rural locations saw an influx of traffic in-between lockdowns.  For example, Wyre Forest District Council saw the same quick recovery as Cambridge, but its August usage went on to be 75% higher than pre-Covid levels.

While it’s safe to say that the public is still settling into whatever a post-Covid world might look like, one positive maybe that people spend more time close to home. As a result, we couldsee a reinvigoration of the local high street, if planners are able to stem the flow of store closures or find new reasons to retain visitors.

Regardless of location, one thing that Covid-19 has changed universally is our willingness to physically interact with public infrastructure. When going on our many lockdown walks, I’m sure we’ve all thought twice about touching the button at a pedestrian crossing, or indeed at a Pay & Display machine in the car park of our favourite nature trail.

If congestion or air quality is particularly high, the authority can use dynamic pricing to switch to a higher pricing band to dissuade people from entering the area by car

It’s difficult to imagine that, with or without Covid-19, we’ll ever want to go back to touching things that other people – strangers – have also touched. Will we be willing to crowd around a Pay & Display machine with other people, or use cash at all?

If we do ever revert to our old ways, we expect a slow and measured move backwards, rather than a complete reversal of the status quo in times of Covid-19.

This creates a real and immediate problem for many parking operators, local authorities, hotels and retail sites, which for many years have relied heavily on physical parking equipment. As lockdown eases and people start to return to retailers, towns and cities, there will be an onus on parking providers to keep people safe, and make them feel comfortable.

“The proliferation of car parks using a mobile-based contact-free parking solution, such as JustPark, means that we will be able to accelerate digitisation of the parking industry”

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we’ve seen a significant increase in parking providers switching to our touchless and ticketless parking solutions. This is not only driven by a desire to offer safer and more efficient parking, but also to give operators greater visibility –our JustPark app currently has more than six million users, so the income potential is significant.

Indeed, by June 2020, it had felt like we had done two or three years’ worth of digitisation in a number of weeks, future-proofing parking operations that had previously been happy to make do with traditional parking infrastructure.

So, what does this mean for the next two to five years of parking?

Ironically, the future looks brighter for the parking industry now than it did 12 months ago. The proliferation of car parks using a mobile-based contact-free parking solution, such as JustPark, means that we will be able to accelerate digitisation of the parking industry.

If more people are managing their parking and making payments on a digital platform, this generates more data about peoples’ parking habits, which can finally make parking more intelligent. With deeper pools of data, we can aggregate and analyse behaviours, allowing both operator and customer to make more informed decisions.

An example of this is publicly-accessible, real-time and predictive availability modelling. I think we can all understand why it would be helpful for motorists to know if a parking space is available,especially with the rise of public EV charging.

Parking operators have become good at understanding parking availability, particularly in car parks, where in and out flows give visitors a good idea of how likely they are to find a space.

Availability modelling becomes more difficult when it comes to on-street parking, however, where the current solution is to install sensors into a parking space, which monitor whether it is occupied or not. This can be prohibitively expensive for many local authorities, and it is also rendered useless if parking spots are hotly contested and become occupied within a minute or so of being made vacant.

With rich data available from the GPS from phones, we can instead use data modelling to predict parking availability for a given area in real time. For example, if a driver parks on-street to go into a shop, we’ll know when their parking session begins, how far away from the shop they have parked, and when they’ve paid using their phone. We can then work out how long it will take them to get back to the car, and, therefore, when that space will be available.

If we can do this on a macro scale, we can then say with a high degree of certainty that a driver looking for parking on a particular street has a percentage chance of finding a space, depending on the time of day and weather.

Data also gives the parking industry an opportunity to better understand its customers. As it stands, a family could visit the same shopping centre every weekend, without the retailer having any idea whether that family is spending their time shopping in Primark, sitting in the cinema or eating at a particular restaurant in the food court.

“Integrating parking into a wider data ecosystem also allows local authorities to better manage the flow of traffic around a city based on external factors”

In a world where an online retailer knows exactly what each of its customers likes, and is able to market to them accordingly, this puts ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers at a significant disadvantage.

With data, retailers can build up a profile of their customers and tailor their offering to individuals, providing unique marketing, offers and promotions to them at the moment they park.

Integrating parking into a wider data ecosystem also allows local authorities to better manage the flow of traffic around a city based on external factors.

For example, if congestion or air quality in a city is particularly high, the authority can use dynamic pricing to switch to a higher pricing band to dissuade people from entering the area by car. It also helps planners understand where demand is greatest for new infrastructure, such as EV charging points, allowing them to deploy funding as efficiently as possible.

In fact, this is an area where we are already seeing local authorities choosing to future proof their offering. For example, West Wittering Estate, which uses JustPark’s pre-book service as its parking solution across its car parks, is able to restrict parking levels to limit overcrowding. This was used to great effect last summer, when many UK tourist destinations saw dangerously high numbers of visitors during the holiday season.

However, all of these future possibilities require full visibility of the parking sessions taking place, which can only be achieved when a critical mass of motorists are paying for parking using their phone. This is something that is now more likely to happen more quickly due to changing attitudes brought about by Covid-19.

While the past 12 months have been a challenge, the opportunities offered by a more digitally focused parking sector means that I am confident the industry will come out of this crisis much stronger than it entered it.

About JustPark

Founded in 2006 and backed by some of the world’s leading investors, JustPark helps more than 6m drivers make smarter and more sustainable journeys using its industry leading app.

JustPark users can find, reserve and pay for parking across a network of over 50,000 car parks, hotels, residential driveways and a variety of other real-estate providers.

Since 2017, JustPark has operated the UK’s fastest growing and multi-award winning mobile parking payment service, helping local authorities and parking operators provide Covid-safe and faster payment solutions.

In 2020, JustPark took over the operation of all public sector parking payments in Northern Ireland, while continuing to support Cornwall, Cambridge and more than 20 other public sector contracts and now process in excess of 1 million transactions every month.

By unlocking the potential of under-utilised real-estate, JustPark helps motorists find a convenient and often cheaper place to park, while providing real-estate owners with new revenue opportunities and cutting-edge technology solutions.

www.justpark.com

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