Imagine that you went to a restaurant and the menu only had only one item on it. Cheeseburgers. Not a problem. You like cheeseburgers. On further inspection, though, you notice that there are in fact other items on the menu. Hmmm. Let’s check out what else they’ve got. But the non-cheeseburger options are in tiny font in the back page. And what's this? The cheeseburger is nearly free but everything else seems kinda spendy? Plus, each of the non-cheeseburger menu choices has a paragraph-long explanation with some ingredients that you don't recognize... French? The server comes over and you say, I’ll have the cheeseburger, please. Of course.
No one would be surprised to learn that this particular joint’s bestseller is the cheeseburger.
This is not too different from the way we run our transportation system. The menu features the ‘house special’--driving alone--in large bold letter, for free or very cheap, everything else is expensive, hard to understand and whiffs of danger. And yet we’re surprised when our streets and parking lots are choked with cars.
This blog is a recipe book for a more varied, more interesting, more choice filled transportation menu. In keeping with the food metaphor, we are going to be talking about ingredients, recipes and menus. We are going to get to know some ‘chefs’ who are serving up interesting and varied fare for commuters in cities, corporate campuses and universities in north america and around the world. Hopefully this will inspire you and others to vary your ‘transportation diet’ and expand your palate. Perhaps getting to know some of the chefs curating interesting transport menus will inspire you to try your hand at one of these recipes.
As a consultant and a transportation leader in organizations, I’ve had the opportunity to help cities, universities, hospitals and corporate campuses reduce their reliance on cars and provide effective transportation solutions that increase choice for their commuters.
These cities, universities, hospitals and corporate campuses were moved to find new ways to provide mobility to their commuters for many reasons. Sustainability included, of course. But honestly, it is hardly ever the main reason. In almost every case, the burning platform that causes leaders to think of about this thing that they’ve never paid any mind to is much more mundane: they can’t fit anymore cars in their parking lots or congestion is grinding their streets to a halt. Or both.
I’m sure it says something about human nature that despite knowing full well that we are ruining the future for our children and grandchildren what actually makes us change are the nuisances bugging us today. But does it really matter why we saved the planet as long as we, in the end, actually do it?
In many ways geometry has already locked us into this path. Typical 1980’s offices had 3-4 people per 1000 square feet. Today, it is not uncommon for offices to house 6-8 people in the same space. And here's the catch: the parking garages have not doubled in that time. And neither have roads. So the good old ‘recipe’ that called for 90% of people to drive alone just doesn't work anymore now that there are almost twice as many people in the same space.
Just like interior designers have found smart ways for people to collaborate and be productive in shared office spaces we need to find the smart and innovative recipes for more people to get to work or school or wherever they are going using the same amount of space in our roadways and parking lots.
And if, as a byproduct, we happen to save the earth from burning into a crisp then... bonus!
Over the course of the last 10 years or so, I’ve developed a transportation menu shorthand to make sure no key ingredients are left out. I guess like a chef might think, I’ve got to have a vegetable, a meat or protein and a starch this cheat sheet has helped cities, universities, hospitals and large employers balance their transportation program.
The ingredients are: Culture, Cost, Convenience and Concrete. The idea is that when building a transportation program, or menu to stick with our metaphor, you need to have a bit of each of these ingredients in order to make the whole thing work. In my experience, in fact, if you have nothing in one of these ingredient categories then the whole recipe will fail.
That means that a balanced transportation menu is actually a multiplication problem not an addition problem. If you recall from elementary school there is a thing called the commutative property of multiplication that says it doesn’t matter the order of the multiplicands. For example 4 * 2 = 2 * 4. BUT any number multiplied by 0 is zero. So 4 * 2 * 0 = 0.
In our balanced transportation equation of Culture X Cost X Convenience X Concrete if any of these factors is zero then the whole thing equals to zero.
In later posts we will explore in depth each of the ingredients, but for now imagine a scenario where the transportation chef at a large tech company has put together a program with three of these key ingredients. Parking is free but so are transit passes and vanpools: check on the Cost ingredient: at least there is a level playfield between driving and the other choices.
There is a website with lots of good information about commute options to work and when new employees get on-boarded they receive a parking permit and a transit pass at the same time. Again check on the Convenience ingredient: a half-day long search in the company’s website is not needed to discover how to get a transit pass. Some friendly person from HR or wherever hands you your pass on your first day.
And there are showers and lockers available for you if you choose to bike to work so we’re OK on the Concrete realm. Check, check, and check.
BUT the employee of the month is rewarded with a rock-star parking spot usually reserved to executives right by the front door. The person’s name goes on a sign that says “Employee of the Month”. Message being, good performers earn special perks the most special of which is a reserved parking spot with the masters of the universe right by the front door. ZERO on the Culture ingredient. Actually maybe worse than zero. Negative on Culture. So following our multiplicative properties any any bunch of numbers multiplied by a negative number is negative right? 4 * 2 * -1 = -8.
Most likely this program will fail in producing a balanced transportation outcome because despite all the good efforts of the chef in making the cost, the convenience, and the concrete pull in the right direction, the company culture has laid a big fat goose egg. Whatever money, effort, political capital and goodwill are being expended to encourage a more balanced commute at this particular tech giant are going to waste because culture ate the rest of our strategy for lunch.
And this is true for any of our multiplicands. In order to create a balanced transportation ecosystem in a city or university campus or large company we need to have at least a positive effect from each of our key ingredients of Culture, Cost, Convenience and Concrete. No goose eggs!
One of the problems with many of the transportation systems we've set up in North America is that they are pretty good at serving the operators but not all that good at serving customers. Among these customer-last practices it would be hard to find a worse offender than parking permits. Prepaid parking is so universal that most people take it for granted. Almost every employer or university in the US or Canada that charges for parking sells pre-paid parking permit. Which does wonders for the operator of parking, but mostly harms commuters.
DO WE REALLY WANT TO RUN AN ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET?
Ask yourself, how much do I usually eat at an all-you-can-eat restaurant? It’s a stupid question. The answer is in the name of the place. Parking permits are essentially the same thing. They cause people to drive more because the amount of driving is priced in. We’re expecting people to drive as much as they can when we sell them an all-you-can-park permit. The moment you’ve sold someone a pre-paid parking permit, you just took away any incentive they might have to leave their car at home even a few times.
Permits hide how much we are driving and parking. It’s really hard to change an unconscious habit. That’s why in recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of apps and gadgets that help us quantify how many steps we’ve taken, how many hours we’ve slept, how often we took a break from our desk and so on. Because all of those things are small repeated habits that are hard to keep track of, but all together make a big difference in our well being.
By having a set it and forget it approach to parking charges we create an environment of unconscious consumption where it is really hard for people to make changes.
Parking permits go against the principles of a dynamic transportation system because they make it harder for people to make gradual changes. As my partners and I interview commuters all over the country we hear this all the time. “I want to drive a bit less but I still need to drive sometimes. So I can’t give up my parking permit.”
HAVE FUN IN HAWAII! WE'LL KEEP CHARGING YOU FOR PARKING, JUST IN CASE.
Again because it is such a common practice, we don't really think about it, but pre-paid parking essentially forces people to pay for parking even when they don't use it. When I converted the Seattle Children's parking program to pay-per-use there was a really positive response to the idea that we weren't going to charge them for parking when they were sick, or on vacation, or at a conference. We were just going to charge them for parking when they parked. What a relief right?
So the first step in our transformation from static, operator-centric single choice menu to a user-focused, choice-filled, dynamic mobility menu is to decide that we are not going to be an all-you-can-eat joint anymore. Serving a high-quality product--in the quantities that customers want--should be our goal.
Once the infrastructure for a dynamic transportation system is in place. a variety of more-sophisticated pricing options become available. There are innumerable possibilities available, but these can be generalized into three main categories, described in further detail below. The most important point to highlight before discussing the various dials that can be adjusted in a dynamic transportation system is that simplicity is a virtue. Just because it is possible to make differential rates for each day of the week doesn’t make it a good idea. Again, striking the right balance between legibility and effectiveness will be key.
TIME OF DAY PRICING
Some worksites have used different prices for time bands during the day to meet a variety of policy objectives. Healthcare settings and other 24/7 work places have used time of day pricing as an equity factor, since housekeeping are some of the lower paid staff and yet have to arrive early in the morning when there are fewest transit or other options available. Charging the highest rate at peaks tend to have greatest effect in mode shift since more options are available, and can support congestion reduction goals.
Another potential pricing strategy is tiered pricing based on usage within a pay period or month. In the example above, the first 14 days of parking a person uses in a month costs $4 per day, but the 15th and all subsequent events cost $8 per day. This approach sends a very clear price signal for users to be aware of how often they are driving--and that they should look for other ways to travel to campus after a certain number of days driving. A major university in Portland Oregon is rolling out a tiered pricing pilot in the Fall of 2018.
OTHER PRICING DIALS
Once we’ve stepped away from the parking permit model, pricing strategies allow for more nuanced and flexible system management options. For example, it might be useful for transportation services to know ahead of time how many people will be parking on a given day, so they would offer a discount for users who reserve parking the previous day. Alternately, users would have the option to pre-purchase a ‘bundle’ of parking days at a discount, and would be subject to higher daily after the bundle is used up.
Throughout North America and the world there are thousands of people whose job is to manage parking. Whether for a city, or a company, or a university campus, these people have a hard job. I know. I used to be one of them. There is just no way to win. Everybody wants parking. No one wants to pay for it. Parking just makes people grumpy--even the happiest people are miserable when it comes to parking. There is never enough of it. It’s always too expensive. Why can’t I park exactly where I want any time? You can imagine the gripes because you’ve said these exact same thing with some cuss words mixed in.
The truth is that storage of cars takes lot of space and costs a ton of money to build and maintain. And there are the very real impacts further afield to worry about, climate change and congestion and air pollution etc... So the poor parking manager is left holding the bag trying to provide this thing what everyone wants but there isn’t enough to go around.
The mobility cookbook is designed to untangle this knot. We start by helping parking managers all over the world expand our concept of what that job is. Because parking is really just one piece of a larger need: mobility. It happens to be the biggest piece in many places, and certainly is the one with the biggest footprint--literally and figuratively.
By unifying all mobility offerings into one menu and managing them side by side we can begin to meet the larger goals of our cities, companies and campuses. The alternative, chasing demand for parking by building more and more of it, by finding ever more satellite lots with armadas of shuttles or buses to ferry in commuters, will cause us to run out of money, or land, and create an enormous amount of unhappy neighbors, while tweaking the climate at the same time.
My hope is that the recipes in this blog will help cities, companies and campuses elevate that poor aggrieved parking into a mobility manager--someone with the tools, and the charge to actually solve mobility problems.
In keeping with our cookbook theme, we will call this transformation of this job description from cook to chef.
How parking is sold and incentives for other modes delivered is one of the key ingredients we have to understand in order to build a really enticing and dynamic transportation menu. Today almost all transportation costs choices we face are pretty static. We buy or lease or cars and pay monthly even if we don’t use them very much. At work, or at school many of us face a decision to buy a monthly parking pass or, if we're lucky, sign up for some kind of incentive of discount for carpoolers or transit users.
Underlying these choice is the assumption that people are mono-modal. But in fact, research shows that people are much more multimodal than we give them credit. By creating an ‘all or nothing’ choice transportation program makes it more difficult for those who drive to make gradual changes in their commuting patterns.
A dynamic transportation program structure allows users to drive when they choose, but creates meaningful incentives for each trip that is reduced. In a dynamic program, parking patrons pay per use and therefore save money for each day they don’t drive. When coupled with daily rewards for non-drive trips, this creates a powerful virtuous cycle in which users’ incentives are aligned with overall program goals to reduce single occupancy trips.
Until recently, the technology needed to manage dynamic transportation programs of large scale did not exist. Today it is possible and cost-effective to curate the various elements of a transportation and parking management system to support dynamic choices, daily parking and rewards for non-drive trips. A dynamic system is integrated from the user perspective --meaning all choices, costs, and rewards are accessible in one location through a single sign-on--and from the administrator perspective--meaning that a single portal connects to all necessary external data sources and services that are involved in administering the program.
In the following posts we will look at different ‘recipes’ for using Cost to create a dynamic transportation program that provides users with lots of mobility choices.
The dynamic transportation experience starts with the user making a daily choice of how best to travel to work that day. Users can simply go--get in their car, hop on their bike, or head for the bus--or they can use a mobile app to decide the best way to go for that particular day based on time, cost, and other factors. For example, a user might discover that a nearby affiliate has offered a carpool ride, or that a volunteer bike buddy has organized a group ride.
The key point is that the users is making a choice about what works best for her on a given day. And that the ‘menu’ is easy to read and offers lots of choices. When we provide users choices we can then assign the appropriate cost or reward for each individual trip--rather than a one-size fits all pricing like forcing users to buy a monthly parking pass. When we converted to a system like this at Seattle Children’s, people were very keen on the idea that we were no longer going to charge them for parking when they were on vacation, or at a conference.
Carrots and sticks! Here is a time when our food and dining metaphor just kinda works. What a relief. Ideally your mobility menu will have an artful combination of carrots and sticks. Too much stick will make people unhappy. Just carrots and you might not get a lot of participation. Clearly just unshackling people from the burden of monthly parking will be very welcome. However, pairing the freedom of daily parking with a program of rewards and incentives tied to use of non-drive modes really kicks off a virtuous cycle. The rewards can be direct cash, prizes, digital vouchers (e.g. for coffee), or points that can be redeemed for rewards, or even virtual rewards like badges. The different types of incentives are not mutually exclusive and can be combined to achieve the best result.