August 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Parking Lots

My friend and copyeditor Jane had an operation last week and seems to be facing a long hospital stay. This has given me much experience with the parking lot of UPMC St. Margaret. (Curiously, this hospital doesn’t have “Hospital” in its official name.) I hadn’t thought much about the functioning of its parking lot until yesterday.

Pittsburgh has had a lot of rain lately, and that day I drove to the hospital in a downpour. I couldn’t understand why the SUV in front of me was having such a hard time getting into the parking lot until I followed it up to the access gate. Normally, one presses a button on a machine that dispenses a card with a magnetic stripe and opens the gate. This time, the gate was raised, and repeatedly pressing the button had no effect. As I drove into the lot, the driver of the SUV, who was walking toward the hospital entrance, looked at me and shrugged. For a moment, I thought I might park free, but I did notice that the exit gate was not open. (Only later did it occur to me that I might have avoided the $3.00 parking fee by exiting through the parking lot entrance, assuming the gate was still raised.)

As I was leaving the hospital, I explained to the people at the information desk that I needed a card to get out of the parking lot, and one of the ladies there handed me one. In response to my asking why the card dispenser wasn’t working, I was told that it was because of the rain, an explanation that, in retrospect, was less than satisfactory. Was the dispenser unreliable in wet weather? Was the hospital helping drivers stay dry? (This seemed unlikely, as people would have to exit their vehicles eventually.) I was told that the dispenser doesn’t work when the gate is raised, which begged the question.

I took my card, inserted it into the machine in the lobby, along with $3.00, and received the card back, with my payment recorded on the magnetic stripe. At the parking lot exit, I inserted the card into another machine, which took the card and raised the gate.

Today, I began to wonder if all the parking lot machinery at St. Margaret was absolutely necessary. Parking at Mt. Lebanon’s St. Clair Hospital, for example, is somewhat simpler. Nothing is dispensed at the lot entrance. One pulls up to a gate, which then opens automatically to allow entry. Before leaving the hospital, one has to put $2.00 into a machine that dispenses a metal token. Inserting the token into a slot at the parking lot exit opens a gate to allow one’s vehicle to leave the lot.

In most respects, the St. Clair system seems better than that of St. Margaret. Less machinery is needed—no dispenser is required at the lot entrance, and the indoor machinery may be less complex. Moreover, the metal tokens are recycled, whereas the magnetic stripe cards are consumables. (They are obviously not reused, as they are time-stamped when dispensed.) Visitors don’t have to worry about carrying anything around the hospital related to parking until they are ready to leave.

Are there any advantages to the system at St. Margaret? Potentially, there are two. Because the cards are time-stamped—I assume the entry time is encoded on the magnetic stripe as well as printed on the card—the hospital can, in principle, analyze parking lot usage not only in the aggregate but also down to the behavior of individual users. Additionally, parking can be discounted. Because I drove Jane to the hospital for her operation, I was entitled to a $2.00 discount on parking that day, a discount implemented by writing on the magnetic stripe in the surgical waiting room.

Do the “advantages” of the St. Margaret system really matter? Do they justify the more expensive system than that of St. Clair? Does someone at St. Margaret really analyze the comings and goings of individual parking lot users, even thought the parking charge is independent of the time spent in the lot? Is it really important that surgical patients get a 67% discount, rather than free parking on the day of their operation? I doubt it.

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