St. Charles, Mo., Wants to Build an App to Ease Parking Stress

The city is hoping a federal grant will help fund the development of a GPS app to guide drivers to open parking spaces in the busy downtown district.

by Mark Schlinkmann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / June 25, 2018

(TNS) — To smooth traffic through the parking-tight downtown St. Charles, Mo., local officials want to create a smartphone GPS app that could guide drivers to available spots for their vehicles.

St. Charles County is seeking an $800,000 federal grant to help pay for the system, which could be the first of its kind for a city in the metro area.

The county and St. Charles city, which helped prepare the proposal, would each kick in $100,000.

"We're hoping that cuts down on traffic congestion so people won't be circling around" as much looking for parking spaces, said Amanda Brauer, the county's manager of roads and traffic.

The county is involved partly because it has an interest in improving parking for visitors to its government buildings, which aren't far from downtown stores and the Main Street historic district and its numerous shops and eateries.

Parking gets even tighter when there's heavy activity at the county courthouse.

Officials estimate that the plan could reduce emissions in downtown St. Charles by about 35 percent.

That's important because the grant being sought would be from a pool of money reserved for St. Louis area projects that reduce air pollution.

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the area's regional transportation planning agency, decides which proposals get such funding each year.

Matt Seggerman, project manager for St. Charles' engineering department, said a company would be hired to install sensors to gauge which parking spaces are in use and which aren't. Another option is to put in cameras to come up with that data.

The information is sent to a database to be collected and analyzed for display on smartphones.

The number of open spots available in given areas also might be listed on "dynamic message" boards set up on nearby Interstate 70 and Highway 370 interchanges or on major arterial roads.

Unlike many other business districts in the region, St. Charles doesn't have street parking meters. But it does set a two-hour limit for many of its street spaces.

The grant application says potential partnerships could be pursued in future years with nearby private facilities with large parking lots such as the Ameristar Casino and the Streets of St. Charles development just south of I-70.

Gary Means, a member of the International Parking Institute's executive committee, said various cities around the country have begun offering apps to pinpoint available parking or are trying them out on a pilot basis. Among the cities are San Francisco, Washington and Boise, Idaho, he said.

"That's just starting to catch on," said Means, who heads a city-county parking authority in Lexington, Ky. "The younger generation is all about apps and using their mobile phones."

His agency is testing 28 parking space sensors in garages it runs.

In addition to St. Charles, officials in at least two other area cities are considering developing an app showing where parking is available — Belleville and St. Louis. "We have a lot of parking but it's not in plain sight," Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said.

The St. Charles plan also would provide a separate app-driven shuttle service using five-passenger electric vehicles for the various large festivals held every year along the St. Charles downtown riverfront.

They would ferry people to the festival sites from more remote lots at places such as the St. Charles Convention Center and the Family Arena. Users could also summon an electric car by phone or by simply hailing them on sight.

The Festival of the Little Hills held in the late summer typically draws 300,000 people while St. Charles' Oktoberfest and Fourth of July Riverfest events each pull in 75,000 to 150,000 visitors each year. Meanwhile, the Christmas Traditions observance gets around 100,000 over four to five weeks.

Seggerman said the shuttle idea could result in bringing even more people into the festivals. "I don't know how many customers we lose because of our parking," Seggerman said.

That part of the St. Charles plan follows the lead of a free electric-car shuttle service begun on a pilot basis in Kirkwood last fall. It started up again this month and will continue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through the end of the year.

Donna Poe, executive director of the sponsoring Downtown Kirkwood Special Business District, said people can call for a ride or wave a driver down. Tests are underway on a smartphone app that could be put in use later this year, Poe said.

©2018 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.