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New Parking Tech in Columbus, Ohio, Ditches Decals, Hangtags

The lively Short North neighborhood in Columbus is getting a new parking modernization plan that will include virtual permitting, mobile payment options and license plate recognition technology.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Short North, a neighborhood on the edge of downtown known for its lively dining and shopping scene as well as its desirable housing, is bustling with urban activity. Its dense layout is great for pedestrians, but it can also be a place where parking demand outpaces availability.

About eight months ago, however, the city unfurled a new plan that could help fix this, or at least make parking and permitting easier for those who must do it. This plan is a parking modernization program that includes virtual permitting, mobile payment and license plate recognition technology for enforcement.

“What we’ve seen in the past few years is more mixed-use, dense development, which is great for the city, but creates friction,” said Robert Ferrin, assistant director of parking services in Columbus. “And friction in the transportation system usually plays out in the curb-lane. So our job was to balance the needs of residents and businesses and employees and visitors with a finite resource being on-street parking. We launched this modernization program to be more efficient and responsive to the community, and enhance customer service."

One piece of the program involved scrapping resident parking decals and hangtags for a virtual permitting system that uses vehicle license plates as documentation. Also, the permit application process migrated to an online platform, eliminating the need for in-person trips to the city’s downtown parking offices. Essentially, everything can be done online, from learning if one is eligible for a permit to submitting documentation, Ferrin told Government Technology.

The old guest permit hangtags — which were often lost, stolen or damaged — have also gone away, placed in a virtual system the resident manages via an online account that requires entering their guest’s license plate into the system.

For visitors or shoppers wanting to park on the street, smart meters also now accept mobile payments and can be programed for dynamically priced parking rates, allowing the city to encourage a better distribution of parking by offering it at different price points. Motorists can use the ParkColumbus or ParkMobile apps to pay for street parking. The system alerts the driver when the virtual meter is running out of time. This system too, is based on license plate data. Enforcement officers are equipped with license plate readers that can immediately determine parking validity.

The system — by its nature — is able to collect reams of data related to where parking is most in demand, where or when parking citations are generally written, and for what offenses. The data has led to the department making informed decisions about how to structure dynamic pricing so that some areas of the district have a higher — or lower — parking rate than others.

“We want to make sure parking is readily available. And it’s about pricing, in a lot of ways,” said Ferrin. “The sweet spot for us is 60 percent to 80 percent occupancy. Above 80 percent, on the street, you start to get the feeling there’s no parking and you start to get aggravated.”

The automated virtual parking system was launched last year at a local hospital campus as a test pilot. The larger Short North neighborhood project was launched earlier this year.

The city plans to roll out mobile parking upgrades in its downtown next year, and it will launch a similar virtual parking platform in its University District in 2021. Columbus manages some 4,500 smart parking meters, which allow parkers to pay via the swipe of a credit card. Those were introduced in 2010.

The newest modernization system launched in Short North has translated to increased compliance, with an increase in “metering revenue” and a decreased number of citations issued per officer, officials said.

This is all allowing for the city to invest some of that meter revenue back into the neighborhood in the form of parking improvements or even in parking or transit assistance for workers in the area, as well as offering parking validation incentives for businesses to drive customer activity.

If there’s a broader mission and message to all of the urban modernization unfolding in the neighborhood, however, it’s the benefit of offering a range of transportation — and parking — options. 

“In Columbus, historically — like most places — if I want to go someplace, I must drive there,” said Ferrin. “We’re trying to change the narrative, little by little, and say, if you want to go to Short North, we all do. … You don’t need to bring a car there. There’s all these other options. But if you want to bring a car, there’s options for you.”  

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.