San Diego Installs Data-Gathering Sensors to Boost Parking Efficiency

City officials say they plan to post historical parking data on the Web that helps predict the likelihood of an open space in a certain area.

(TNS) -- San Diego is beginning to embrace a technology revolution that’s making it easier to find parking spots in major cities across the nation.

The city recently installed sensors in 200 Hillcrest parking meters to see how often they are occupied, which could be the first step toward using data to vary meter rates and free up more spots like Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston have done.

San Diego has also begun allowing people to pay for parking with their cell phone at 2,100 of the city’s 5,700 metered spots. The service, called Parkmobile, includes an option alerting drivers with a text message when their meter has only 15 minutes left.

The city, however, has no immediate plans to follow the lead of other cities that allow people to see a map of nearby available parking spaces on their phone and then reserve a spot by paying ahead of time.

Instead of real-time information, San Diego officials say they plan to post historical data on the web that helps predict the likelihood of an open space in a certain area.

In addition, some neighborhoods won’t benefit from the new technology because the city plans to install occupancy sensors only inside parking meters, unlike some other cities that have also installed them in the ground.

So neighborhoods without meters, such as La Jolla, could be left behind when it comes to advances in parking efficiency the city is hoping to make.

San Diego has often been criticized as behind the times regarding parking enforcement technology. It was one of the last major cities in the nation to replace its old-fashioned parking meters with modern devices that accept credit and debit cards in 2014.

But the city appears to be focused on catching up.

And that is likely happening just in time, with San Diego officials embracing more dense development in the city’s urbanized areas where parking spaces are already scarce.

The sensors installed in Hillcrest are a pilot project that could spread across the city and allow San Diego to generate the kind of healthy churn of parking spots that has always been the goal of parking meters.

Merchants and shoppers don’t love that parking costs money, but it’s better than allowing cars to monopolize prime parking spots and force others to park farther away or avoid an area completely.

The sensors will help the city better understand demand for parking spaces, patterns of usage and how to meet the typical industry-wide goal of 85 to 90 percent space utilization.

That level of utilization means you will almost always have one available space per block, so someone looking to make a quick stop can do so.

“The data collected will allow the city to determine the actual utilization of each meter equipped with the sensor,” said Jonathan Carey, the city’s parking program manager. “Occupancy data will assist the city and community parking districts in making decisions on rates, length of stay limits and hours of operation, with the goal of achieving 85 percent utilization.”

Whether San Diego follows the lead of other major cities in varying parking rates will depend on an analysis of the data once the pilot project is complete in roughly six months, Carey said.

Los Angeles has had so much success with the approach since it was launched in 2012 that the city continues to expand it into additional neighborhoods.

"They went from $2 an hour everywhere to as cheap as 50 cents and as expensive as $6," said Kurt Buecheler, senior vice president of business development of Streetline, the company that installed many of the sensors in Los Angeles.

Seattle launched a similar program in 2015 and Boston followed suit a few months ago.

The reason sensors are needed to gauge occupancy rates, instead of simply using each meter’s transaction record, is that meters don’t operate around the clock, some people park but choose not to pay, and cars with handicapped placards park for free in metered spots.

The sensors in Hillcrest were installed a couple months ago. But the company handling the program, IPS Group in Sorrento Valley, recently added cameras to make sure the sensors are accurately tracking the occupancy data and otherwise working properly.

Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, said he’s excited to see the city embracing new technology and innovative solutions.

"I'm encouraged and I'm looking forward to these proactive change," he said.

Nicholls said the local parking district has recently begun experimenting with lower parking rates in certain areas, such as Normal Street. And meters in Hillcrest will soon begin operating from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., a shift from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Nicholls said he’s open to the idea of varied pricing, but would prefer strategically lowering prices only, not increasing them.

"I don't think we want a computer determining that the right price at a certain meter is $8," he said.

Nicholls said varied pricing would probably work better in downtown than Hillcrest, where free parking in residential areas is one block away from each of the main commercial districts.

"Raising rates would force people to park deeper into the residential areas, which isn't helpful," he said.

Nicholls said he hopes the city decides eventually to have real-time data available on smart phones about where parking spots are available.

"That would be a huge step," he said. "You could analyze that data and come up with policies that could take advantage of it, but you could also put signs on exit ramps saying this many parking spots are available on this street."

Nicholls said such information would also debunk the common misperception that parking is scarce in Hillcrest.

"Managing parking is our biggest challenge, so if we could have a sign or app telling people where the parking is I think that would solve a lot of problems," he said. "There is parking, you just need to know where to look."

Carey, the city official, said there are no plans to make such real-time information available and declined to say why. Instead, the city will post models based on data.

“The city is working to provide potential parking availability data via the web,” he said, suggesting it might be available this summer. “The availability will be derived from historical transactional data to predict the likelihood of an open space based on trends in usage.”

Another potential use of the sensors would be automatically resetting a meter when a car leaves the parking space, which prevents another driver from pulling into the spot and taking advantage of time left on the meter.

Carey said the city hasn’t made any decisions on how to handle such situations after the pilot is complete. But during the pilot, meters will not be reset when a car pulls out.

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.