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Mobile App Finds Available Parking

A map displays the user's location and the number and location of parking spaces available in downtown San Carlos, Calif., in real time.

Christmas shoppers circle the block, scanning the curb for vacant parking spaces, holding up traffic, increasing frustration, congestion and emissions, and perhaps finally deciding to get out of downtown altogether to shop at a big box store with acres of parking. But in something dubbed a "smart parking" pilot, San Carlos, Calif., is hoping to reduce congestion, increase the appeal of downtown businesses and literally curb its traffic.

The city of nearly 30,000, just south of San Francisco, embedded 100 radio frequency (RF) plugs in parking spaces along its shopping and restaurant district, in a partnership with Cisco and Streetline. The plugs sense when a vehicle is present or absent, transmitting that data via RF to a central collection point linked to San Carlos' free citywide WiFi network. The information then travels to the Internet, and thus to Android and Apple mobile devices wielded by shoppers. 

The Parker App


The free "Parker" app displays a map with the user's location, the number and location of available parking spaces, parking rates and time limits. Voice guidance can also alert motorists to available spaces. 

 The free app, called "Parker", features a map displaying the user's location and the number and location of parking spaces currently available. The app also provides detailed information about parking rates, time limits and more. Voice guidance alerts motorists to available spaces to make the parking experience even smoother.

San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said that if the pilot -- expected to run about a year -- is successful, it could expand to additional spaces. According to Moura, the neighboring city of San Mateo is also in a pilot with 135 spaces, and several other Bay Area cities are also interested.

Moura says the detailed data provided by the system will help city planning. "It's refreshing to have actual hard data on when people are downtown." In the past, he said, parking management was done by guesswork or sending people with clipboards to sample parking availability. "You don't have to do any of that anymore with this technology. You know exactly how many spaces there are at any time of day and which block they're in. And I think that really changes the discussion when you start talking about development downtown."

Ready access to parking data might also help people align their shopping trips with better parking availability, further reducing traffic during the busiest times of the week.

Moura said the city has fielded some concerns from the public as the plugs were installed, notably about privacy. But there are no privacy implications with the system, he said, as it only indicates if a vehicle is present or absent with no identification capabilities.

 According to a spokesperson from Streetline, the system is a "software as a service" model. A flat monthly fee includes the hardware, the network, the apps, and maintenance of the system. Streetline also said that a new pricing agreement will provide funding options with no upfront cost to cities. 

While San Carlos' system is very new, Moura is excited about the system's larger implications for cities and counties.

"This may open the door for a broader discussion, not just in San Carlos, but in a lot of cities, about how else you might deploy sensors in a community," he said. Beyond spotting empty parking spaces, Moura thinks that sensors could be useful in monitoring water and sewer systems, for example.
Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.