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California Cities Turn to Internet of Things to Solve Parking, Traffic Problems

Palo Alto, Redwood City and Los Gatos will use advanced sensor technology to improve downtown parking and pedestrian safety along school routes.

A possible future exists where an out-of-towner, late to a concert in Palo Alto, Calif., simply consults the in-console dashboard in his or her car for directions to an open parking spot instead of driving in circles searching for one.

But that’s a ways off. For now, the city is setting up a sensor network that will relay general information about downtown parking capacity. Following a pilot project that began early this year, Palo Alto has signed a $100,000 contract with VIMOC Technologies to install 545 sensors around the city. The majority of them, 500, will be used to give a real-time look into which parking spots are vacant in the downtown area, while 45 will be used to count pedestrian and bicycle traffic along walking routes to schools.

And that’s just the beginning. VIMOC is also conducting pilot projects in the nearby communities of Redwood City and Los Gatos, while San Francisco just announced its own Internet of Things (IoT) project last week.

The VIMOC-run platform through which the sensor data will flow is both scalable, meaning it can be increased to accommodate up to 30,000 sensors, and flexible, so it can accommodate different types of sensors.

A key application would tell citizens where parking is or isn’t open. Drivers could check a website or phone app before leaving home to see which parking areas generally have spaces open during a certain time of day or during a specific type of event.

The sensor project will largely be used to guide city decision-making. Palo Alto has a program where it encourages children to walk or ride bicycles to school, as opposed to driving — a program that makes safe pedestrian routes a necessity.

“Part of the safe routes program is engineering, so we’re looking at specific paths and roads and streets, and making sure that we have the right engineering components to make them safe places,” said Palo Alto Transportation Manager Jessica Sullivan.

Knowing which routes receive the most school foot and bicycle traffic tells the city where crosswalks should be placed and how traffic signals should be timed. Basically, engineering decisions will be better-informed and hopefully more effective.


Palo Alto, Calif., will install 545 sensors around the city, the majority of which will be used to give a real-time look into which parking spots are vacant in the downtown area. Photo courtesy of VIMOC Technologies.

The parking sensors are catching on in multiple jurisdictions — Redwood City wants to install more than 180 of them in its own downtown core before the end of 2015. They consist of both magnetic and optical components, according to VIMOC Chief Executive Officer Tarik Hammadou. When a car pulls into a parking spot above a sensor, the metal will trigger the magnet. The magnet then “wakes up” the optical sensor, which confirms that there is a car in the spot.

“I can give you a statistic of each parking spot, how often … [it is] vacant as opposed to occupied,” Hammadou said. “So all this is crucial for the city planning more parking spots.”

That’s compared with the status quo of sending people out to do manual counts.

Hammadou thinks the sensors could act as an attraction for businesses as well. Aside from improving parking, VIMOC is exploring ways to work advertising into applications that run off of the sensor data.

“Let’s say somebody is directed to a specific parking spot, and there is a popup on your phone saying, ‘I have discounts today, I have sales today,’” Hammadou said.

Another possible municipal use of parking sensors is a better system of parking enforcement, according to Redwood City Assistant City Manager Aaron Aknin.

“We may want to at some point look at guided enforcement for our police officers, so that instead of chalking tires, they could look at how long somebody has been in a spot and whether that’s a potential violation,” Aknin said.

The interest in the IoT along the tech-heavy western corridor of the Bay Area presents one more benefit. Because multiple cities, often connected by the flow of commuters, customers and visitors, are testing out and installing sensor networks, nearby communities have easy examples of how the various IoT concepts work.

When a city considers a project of its own, its staff can look at a neighbor city’s system and get a better idea of what the network is like.

“We have very risk-adverse contracts and processes, so I think that’s the hard thing for these companies … navigating that process, which is something VIMOC has been able to do by sort of selling these little trials,” Sullivan said.

The regional interest in sensor networks also means cities might be able to connect their systems in the future, allowing them to solve problems for populations that are not confined to the limits of one city.

“If you look at Bay Area commuting patterns, you’ve got people traveling 20 or 100 miles every day to go to work, and so this is not a problem that we can solve in a silo,” Sullivan said.

As use of road sensor networks increases, drivers should become better acquainted with their uses and benefits.

“I think in general our residents tend to shop in the same places or go to eat in the same places,” Aknin said. “So as this type of technology becomes more familiar, I think people will know it’s being used in nearby places and they’ll become more comfortable with it.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.