Wireless Parking Information Could Boost Public Transit Use

California uses wireless technology to tell commuters where to find parking in public transit lots.

by / November 3, 2008

It's afternoon, the air is warm and a grayish haze tints the horizon in the distance. Through your windshield you see the rear end of a sedan -- the first in a long line of vehicles inching their way down the highway. A look out your side windows and in the rear-view mirror shows that you're surrounded by other drivers. You sigh and wait for traffic to move. Slowly, maddeningly, it does.

You finally arrive at a city-owned parking lot, but soon realize you are no better off. All of the parking spaces are occupied.

This is a story people in many large and mid-sized cities may identify with. Congested streets, rush-hour stagnation, hapless drivers -- all are unpleasant byproducts of modern metropolitan living.

At least for now.

Public-sector forces in the San Francisco Bay Area are working to alleviate the problem by deploying wireless parking technology that informs people of parking space availability while they're driving or even before they get in their vehicles. These high-tech parking experiments are conducted with a few prominent goals in mind, including making it easier for drivers to hunt down spaces in today's urban jungles.

One example is a lengthy test conducted at the Rockridge Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, Calif., from December 2004 to spring 2006. This collaborative endeavor, which included the California Department of Transportation and researchers from the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, used high-tech gadgets to create a smart-parking management field test. Smart-parking devices help people find and pay for spaces. People used the technology to navigate an area of about 50 spaces at the Rockridge station as part of the test.

"We enabled people to make reservations via the Internet prior to the parking event," said Susan Shaheen, a researcher from California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways at UC Berkeley. "We also encouraged people to get off the highway on their way to work by providing them with real-time availability information via changeable message signs during peak commute hours."

Ground-mounted wireless sensors collected vehicular information in the parking lot through magnetic-imaging technology. This information was transmitted in real time to an electronic information network over the Internet that allowed the data to be viewed by drivers on their cell phones, computers, ground-mounted changeable message signs or other devices. Drivers could also use cell phones or PDAs to reserve spaces. Users could also reserve spaces through an interactive voice response system, known as Kate.

"The core technology is the parking information network, and we've developed that," said Rick Warner, CEO of ParkingCarma, the company that supplied the project's network that collected vehicular information from wireless sensors and made it publicly available on the Web. "Built it, scaled it and it's a patented technology that we're bringing to bear in a constructive way."

Project managers gauged the test's success by conducting 177 surveys of 35.8 percent of participants in February and March 2006. The surveys yielded interesting results.

Data from a June 2008 PATH research report includes:

  • Sixty-six percent of respondents indicated their commute stress was reduced thanks to smart parking, while 23 percent said it stayed the same and 5 percent said stress increased.
  • Thirty-five percent of respondents said their work-related BART use increased, and 53 percent claimed it stayed the same.
  • Smart-parking capability improved accessibility to the Rockridge station and encouraged 11.2 percent of respondents to use that station instead of one closer to home.
  • The combination of BART and smart parking reduced the average commute time for people going to work from 50.1 minutes to 47.5 minutes.
  • On average respondents traveled 9.7 fewer vehicle miles per month.

The report also states that, while smart-parking management systems have been implemented in European and Japanese cities, the Oakland BART project was the first

transit-based, smart-parking system implemented in the United States. Similar systems have followed at public transit stations in Maryland and Illinois.


Guided by Technology

Similar technology will support San Francisco's SFpark project, planned to start fall 2008 and end summer 2010. It's an ambitious undertaking -- in April 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city would be the first in the country to deploy smart-parking technology so broadly.

The project's scope encompasses about 25 percent of all metered spaces -- about 6,000 -- and about 11,500 spaces in parking garages. At the meters, wireless sensors will detect changes in magnetic fields created by parked cars and transmit the information to an electronic information network. These "smart" meters will replace existing ones and accept more forms of payment -- coin, credit, debit or smart card -- and they'll also transmit the payment information to the network. In the garages, parking information will be collected at the gates and transmitted to the network.

Currently San Franciscans have serious trouble finding legal spaces in the city. A chief goal for SFpark is to provide both city and federal government crucial data to support further expansion of smart-parking programs, if other public-sector entities want to follow suit.

In the past, the city has used technology from Streetline Networks, a local parking management technology company. In 2006, the company contracted with the city to help manage hundreds of on-street parking spaces at the Port of San Francisco. Streetline's wireless sensors monitored activity and told the city how often and when certain spaces were occupied. The data was collected over a wireless mesh network and transmitted over the Internet. The intent was to help San Francisco determine if parking price adjustments were necessary.


Looking Ahead

"In 2007, San Francisco as a region was selected to receive some federal funding as part of the Urban Partnership Program to test innovative ways to manage congestion," said Jay Primus, a manager of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The project's budget is $23 million, with the U.S. Department of Transportation footing $18.4 million and the city handling the rest. "So that funding is providing most of the funding for the pilot projects and really accelerated their timeline and made them a little larger."

When Primus said "projects," he was pluralizing the various locations in which SFpark will take place. It will comprise major commercial areas like Fisherman's Wharf and Fillmore, Chestnut and Lombard streets. He and his colleagues expect other cities to learn from SFpark's experiences. One of the most talked-about aspects of the project is how smart-parking technology will affect parking space pricing. The city can use the parking data to increase prices at peak commute times.

"Our plan is to gradually and periodically adjust prices up or down to help us achieve our availability targets," Primus said. He also said not all the mechanisms for drivers to receive parking information have been worked out yet. "But what is envisioned [is] that from your BlackBerry, you could access information via a map."

Planned distribution channels for parking information include: changeable message signs, static signs, the Internet and text messages. Primus said the text messaging is strictly for parking garages, where people could text a number to find out availability. They won't receive the texts automatically. Primus and his colleagues expect this data network to help citizens make informed travel choices and find parking spaces more easily.

The potential benefits are considerable. If drivers can find parking spaces fast it can lead to less congestion, frustration and pollution. The city would be better able to manage the public-parking system and its revenue stream. Consumers, however, might balk at above-average parking prices at peak commute times. But if so discouraged by that and low availability of spaces, they could use public transportation more

often, which would also reduce congestion, pollution and frustration.

"There is a real emphasis upon evaluation for the project, so we're planning to gather the data we need to evaluate the different expectations for the project upon its effects," Primus said. "For example, congestion, reliability, greenhouse gas emissions and so on."

There will likely be more chances in the future for cities and transit authorities to test smart-parking technology, if California's endeavor is any indication. Bob Justice is the project manager at the state Department of Transportation for the current phase of the smart-parking project deployed at the Rockridge BART station. He said similar technology is being deployed at five train station lots in San Diego.

"I would say it's becoming more accepted," said Justice. "I would still say it's in the early stages, but I foresee it over time, expanding and eventually being a viable service."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.