A combination of technology and cooperation is helping the Reading Parking Authority set record exit times for parking garages during sold-out downtown events.
Those times are likely to become quicker with the ongoing roll-out of a new gateless system this year.
“I am not satisfied with ‘good enough,’” Nathan Matz, authority executive director, said in a recent phone interview. “We are partnering with different tech companies to solve problems.”
In an effort to further improve garage exit times after events, such as hockey games and concerts, the authority installed new gateless technology this year at its Fourth and Cherry streets garage.
The Reading garage is the national beta testing site for the technology, he said.
“It’s a big change,” he said.
There will be no barriers at entrances and exits.
Patrons must pay within 15 minutes of parking by using a cellphone parking app or a credit card at a kiosk inside the garage.
The new system is expected to whittle exit times per vehicle to 6.7 seconds, a 3.4-second reduction from the recently set record of 10.1 seconds per vehicle.
The new system is an example of the way the authority is using technology to fix problems, Matz said.
“Our goal is to have the new gateless system installed in the event garages by the end of 2022,” he said.
April 2, with a sold-out concert at the Santander Arena and Jazz Fest events at multiple venues, was the busiest night in RPA history, he said.
Following the events, it took 664 vehicles 11.2 second each, for a total time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, to exit from the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel garage in the 700 block of Penn Street.
The same night, 741 vehicles exited the South Penn garage in the 600 block of Franklin Street at 10.68 seconds per vehicle for a total time of 2 hours and 12 minutes.
The faster time is just 0.67 seconds per vehicle over the record exit time of 10.1 seconds per vehicle set last month, Matz said.
“We are always extremely happy when they improve on exit times,” said P. Michael Ehlerman, chairman of the Convention Center Authority. “I think Nathan is working the problems, and that’s great.”
Matz said 14 staff members worked overtime April 2 to make sure people got out as soon as possible.
He noted exit times at the DoubleTree garage are always slower than those of the South Penn garage due to the layout.
Craig Poole, president and general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, 701 Penn St., said he is pleased by the cooperation between the hotel, the authority, Mayor Eddie Moran, city police department, arena management and other downtown entities that are working to make visiting the city convenient and pleasurable.
“This is the first time in seven years that everybody is working together,” he said.
The garage, built as a joint venture between the hotel developers and the parking authority, was the subject of a lengthy dispute between the previous city administration and hotel owner Reading Hospitality LLC.
It ended in 2019 in the Berks County Court when Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher ruled that the DoubleTree owner is entitled to 350 free parking spaces in the garage for as long as the hotel stays in business. The parking authority had argued that the valid version of the contract established a cost-sharing arrangement.
“It feels good to be working together now,” Poole said. “We are all on the same page with the goal of getting people out of the garage quickly.”
Matz credited the authority’s event staff and their manager, Abril Ortiz, for implementing efficiencies.
Ortiz added more staff to direct traffic, which yielded great results, he said.
“We also further accommodated patrons by providing portable restrooms at the garages,” Matz said.
Ortiz and her crew set a record exit time of 10.1 seconds per vehicle at the end a sold-out concert last month at the Santander Arena.
At that rate, it would take 1.8 hours for 1,000 vehicles to exit a garage, Matz said.
“That is a tremendous — 23% — reduction of time and inconvenience for people who are leaving a downtown event,” he said.
When the authority implemented its cashless-gate system in its garages in 2019, the average exit time per vehicle at the end of a show was 24.3 seconds, he said.
That meant it would take approximately 6 hours and 45 minutes for 1,000 vehicles to exit a garage filled to capacity.
“This was unacceptable,” Matz said, “so we brought in staff to assist people at the exit by helping them scan their tickets and credit cards.”
That change reduced the average exit time to 13.2 seconds.
“This was a remarkable improvement and a reduction of time by almost 50%,” he said.
But it still meant it would take more than 3 1/2 hours for 1,000 vehicles to exit after an event.
Ortiz and the event team were able to reduce that time, Matz said, and the new gateless system will make exiting even faster.