Magnetic stripe vs. Barcode: Which technology is best for your parking facilities?

Nathan MaustPARCS

We receive several invitations each week to bid on new construction projects or existing sites that require a new Parking Access & Revenue Control System (PARCS) to be installed, & I would say that 50% of them specify magnetic stripe tickets, and the remaining 50% specify barcode tickets. Depending upon which manufacturer, consultant, owner, or operator you talk to, you are going to hear from some that “magnetic stripe is dead…” or “barcode is the way of the future…” or “magnetic stripe is more flexible because…” with accompanying examples of reasons one technology is superior to the other.

Since Designa systems are available in either magnetic stripe or barcode configurations, NextGen is unbiased, but each technology does have its pros and cons, so I thought it might be a good exercise to examine some of those.

Magnetic stripe: Pros

One of the biggest advantages of magnetic stripe technology is the rewritable nature of the ticket. When using a bulk validation device like the Designa TCU 120, a user inserts a magnetic stripe ticket into the device at which point the ticket is encoded with the appropriate validation as configured during setup. The encoding also includes a cost center code unique to each establishment so that when the validation is read by the exit device, each validation can be properly allocated to each business using the system. Since the encoding process does not require communication back to the PARCS server, the TCU can run offline, meaning the establishment does not require an additional internet connection that would require coordination with IT personnel or internet service providers. As part of an installation in Fort Worth, Texas, over 100 TCU 120s were deployed to allow various retailers & restaurants to quickly process large quantities of validations. Imagine the hassle of having to make sure over 100 establishments (some processing thousands of validations each week) have internet connections in the necessary areas and having to secure IP addresses and more from so many different businesses and IT departments. IT guys are some of my favorite people in the world; we tend to get along really well. But, we all know coordinating setup with over 100 of them to support what they would see as a less-than-important peripheral would be a massive time and life force drain. In a mixed-use setting, another advantage of magnetic stripe is the ability to “stack” multiple validations since, at least in the Designa system, tickets can be encoded with multiple discounts. For example, let’s say a garage charges $10 per hour to park, & a patron visits a mixed-use site for 4 hours. A coffee shop provides a 1-hour validation per purchase, a restaurant provides 2 hours for each lunch customer, and a retailer provides a 1-hour validation per visitor. By stacking validations as the visitor goes from one establishment to another, the visitor can exit for free, & the partial validations can be charged back to the appropriate merchant. Additionally, the owner of the development gains valuable insight into the behaviors of its visitors since they know which establishment was visited by each patron and for how long. Understanding these behaviors and developing marketing programs around them can potentially have a huge impact on the revenue growth goals of a mixed-use development.

Magnetic stripe: Cons

 Although not as much of a concern now as in years past, with a magnetic stripe system, it is possible for the ticket encoding to be scrambled or erased by strong magnets (such as MRI machines in a healthcare facility), other magnetic stripe cards or cell phones which could result in ticket errors at a pay-on-foot or in the exit lane. Fortunately, technological developments have decreased the likelihood of this to occur. For example, Designa has the data interleaved so that gaps in the magnetic coding (caused by scrambling) do not affect the reading of the ticket. One would think that the most obvious disadvantage of a magnetic stripe system would be not having the ability to read QR codes to process prepaid parking reservations, QR code validations or temporary QR code credentials. That would be an incorrect assumption, at least in the Designa Blue Edition+ product line since virtually every hardware model comes with a QR code reader as standard equipment. I cannot, however, speak for every other product line on the market, so if you envision the need to potentially process QR codes for any PARCS application, make sure that the equipment you select has this feature.

Barcode: Pros

One reason barcodes are so widely used in a variety of applications is that they are simple. Each grouping of lines represents a number, so all that is needed for data to get from one application to another is the numbers in the appropriate format. As a result, if multiple disparate systems are in a given environment, it can be easy to create ways for them to communicate with one another. Another advantage of a barcode system is that many web-based validation applications support the ability for a ticket number to be entered and validated using an off-the-shelf barcode scanner. At least in the Designa Web Validation system, this workflow is virtually foolproof, because everyone knows how to scan a barcode. Magnetic stripe scanners, particularly scanners that read center stripe media, are much less common and familiar to most workers.

Barcode: Cons

The primary drawback of barcode parking systems is that all validations must be performed by a device or application that is connected to the parking network. The reason for this is that the data represented by the barcode is a static number, & the only way to mark that in the system as validated is for it to communicate with the server which marks it as dated. There is no other way for a barcode ticket to be validated. If you are in charge of a parking operation, & having an individual type a ticket number or scan a barcode to enter the ticket number is not efficient enough during peak times, DO NOT install a barcode parking system. Using either an online validation device, such as the Designa ODS120 (which communicates the ticket # to the server where it is validated) or the Designa MCBC Offline Validator (which prints a barcode validation on the parking ticket) is the only other way to hand bulk validations in a barcode system without issuing chaser tickets. The next most significant drawback is the same as the most significant advantage of a barcode system. Barcode technology is versatile and simple to produce & to reproduce. Virtually everyone has access to the technology to copy & distribute a barcode ticket in their pocket, purse or on their hip (if you’re a nerd like me): the smartphone. If implementing a barcode system, it is essential to make sure that failsafe processes are in place to reduce the chances for fraudulent tickets to be processed by the system.

In summary, both types of systems have their selling points and their drawbacks. If you are considering implementing a new PARC system, it is wise to carefully consider all the facts of both system types and determine which type of system makes the most sense for your operations.