How sensors and computers and phone apps are revolutionizing the way cities handle their parking spaces.

They're in the ground all over the country, in parking lots and city streets. They're small and unobtrusive little guys, like small discs flat on the ground or the reflector bumps like you might drive over when crossing lanes. These are simple devices with a straightforward task, and they're about to have a huge impact on the way drivers in U.S. cities park, just by knowing when cars are parked over them and when they're not.

"It's an industry that’s been completely overlooked from a technology perspective," says Zia Yusuf. He's the CEO at Streetline, a company that specializes in implementing what are being called intelligent parking systems. These are wirelessly connected networks of sensors and computer systems that accurately track the availability of parking spaces and enable variable pricing that changes with demand. The idea is to better inform drivers about where they can find parking to help reduce congestion on streets, up to a third of which has been blamed on drivers searching for open parking spaces.

"The impact on all of us and the impact on cities is pretty profound," says Yusuf.

On a regular street, drivers can circle around and around looking for a spot, which means one more car on the road (and driving slowly, at that), and one more combustion engine emitting greenhouse gases into the environment. The goal of intelligent parking systems is to know where parking is available and to let the driver know as well, making it easier for cars to find their way into parking spots.

Another goal is to understand just where parking is in demand and when. For cities, this information can be extremely useful.

"This is a piece of real estate that isn't priced appropriately, that isn’t allocated appropriately," says Yusuf. "Parking is generally the second or third largest source of revenue for a city. So there's a significant financial impact to this."

With connected metering systems and the embedded ground sensors in parking spaces, cities can, in real time, know which streets are packed with parked cars and which streets have plenty of empty spaces. Knowing this can help the city change pricing on the streets to encourage drivers to either avoid high-priced (and highly congested) areas, or, it's also hoped, to consider a transportation option that doesn't require parking in the first place.

This system is based on the ideas of UCLA professor Donald Shoup, laid out in his well-known urban planning tome The High Cost of Free Parking. San Francisco recently became the first major city to act on the advice of Shoup, implementing its SF Park system. On-street parking spaces and city-owned garages are equipped with meters so the city can track occupancy rates and adjust pricing throughout the day. The city installed the system in 2010 and began varying its pricing last summer. The goal is to redistribute the demand for parking throughout the city. Web and phone applications make it easy for drivers to locate parking spots that are both open and at the desired price point.

The system is currently in a test phase in 7,000 of the city's on-street parking spaces, and more than 12,000 spaces in city-owned garages, part of a pilot phase that runs through the summer. The project was largely funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it's expected that more of the city's metered spaces and garages will fold into the system after the pilot.

Other cities have been paying attention to San Francisco, and now a handful have implemented their own intelligent parking system pilot projects. Streetline is behind many of these projects, including pilots in Boston, Fort Worth, New York, and Washington, D.C. [Streetline recently launched another pilot program in Indianapolis, a city we recently covered for its parking privatization efforts.] These are mainly small implementations, with a few hundred parking spaces linked up in each instance. But later this spring, Streetline will unveil its largest program yet, an intelligent parking system in downtown Los Angeles called ExpressPark made up of 6,000 on-street spaces and 7,500 spaces in city owned parking facilities. Most of the sensors are already in the ground, and the city is getting ready to start turning the dials on this newer, smarter way to control parking in its downtown core.

Like SF Park, L.A.'s system is part of a federally subsidized program aimed at reducing congestion. With $15 million in federal funds and $3.5 million in local money, the project is expected to begin operations in May. Just a few weeks ago, crews could be seen drilling on streets in downtown, leaving a string of little holes down the side of the road like an unpleasant golf course. The implementation of the sensors is the easy part. Changing parking habits is a tougher knot to untie.

"Our goal is similar to SF Park," says Peer Ghent, ExpressPark project manager at L.A.'s Department of Transportation. "It's a combination of two things: demand-based pricing and improved parking guidance. We're trying to get better utilization of the downtown parking spaces."

The pricing has been a sore point for drivers who worry that meter fees will skyrocket as soon as the switch is turned on. Ghent says the city passed an ordinance related to the project that limits any meter price increases or decreases to 50 percent. If officials decide the pricing needs to shift more than that, they'll have to get city council approval.

But Ghent insists it's not about making the city more money. Rather, it's about using pricing to encourage parking in underutilized areas and discourage parking in high demand areas – and maybe even convince some drivers to leave the car at home and hop on a comparatively cheaper bus. But in Los Angeles, as in many cities, many people will still choose to drive. Another key part of intelligent parking systems like these is making it easier to park for those who need to.

ExpressPark will be linked up with the mobile phone application Parker, which will help direct drivers to nearby parking options, with details about pricing, availability of spaces and even deals offered by parking facilities. The app also allows users to re-up their meters or set timers. Eventually, Yusuf says, users will be able to use the app to reserve a parking space along with their dinner reservations. [There are a number of other such applications aimed at helping drivers find parking. The Atlantic Cities recently published this list of five great parking apps.] Yusuf says Streetline is currently in talks with auto manufacturers and navigation providers about integrating the Parker app into in-car navigation systems.

"Our intention is to make this part and parcel of your daily life, so you don’t have to think about it," Yusuf says.

The other intention is to get other cities to follow on the heels of San Francisco and Los Angeles in installing these large scale systems. Streetline is already partnering with IBM, which includes the system in its smart city product line. But for now, most cities are likely waiting to see how well intelligent parking systems actually work.

L.A.'s ExpressPark is a one-year pilot program, solely located in a 4.5-square mile section downtown. Ghent says the system may be spread to certain other parts of town, but they'll have to wait until they see how the first year goes.

"The thing that we're going to have when we're all done with this is either a validation of Don Shoup's work or evidence that it doesn't work. We have to consider all possible outcomes of this thing," Ghent says. "Right now, we're very confident, otherwise we wouldn’t be spending all this time and energy on it."

Image courtesy: Streetline

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