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Austin Parking Solution Shows Cities Can Drive Innovation

A citizen-centric parking payment platform in Austin, Texas, that works with connected vehicles’ in-dash systems and better manages curb space is a lesson for other cities on how to power ahead.

Smart Parking
Austin, Texas, recently became the first major U.S. city to allow drivers to use their car’s in-dashboard software to complete digital parking transactions. Working with Xevo, a leader in connected-car software and intelligent user experiences, city officials authorized a digital parking payment system that allows payments directly through a built-in Uconnect infotainment system (currently available in Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brand vehicles). Glide up to an open parking space in the city, and before you even pull out your phone, your car has communicated with the meter and paid for parking.

This digital breakthrough is just the most recent in a series of technological innovations in the Texas capital. In addition to in-dash parking systems, Austin decided to prioritize driver choice when it came to parking payments; motorists could still use the city’s own white label parking app, Park ATX, but officials also connected other commonly used apps. For example, motorists can now make a payment through Google Maps, using a credit card that’s already attached to their Google account. Officials also used data to manage the curb and inform physical parking infrastructure — removing meters and even multispace pay stations in areas where pay-by-app transactions were particularly high.

The city focuses its mobility evolution at the intersection of customer convenience and better use of its curbs and sidewalks. By moving from a single parking payment app to a platform that supports multiple applications, Austin is giving motorists choices they would not otherwise have. And in turn, by using that platform to connect more than just vehicles, the city will be able to better manage how curb space is used by self-driving cars, ride shares, scooters and more.

Jason Redfern, Austin’s parking enterprise manager, said what motivates the constant drive for innovation is the culture of Austin City Hall, where there’s an optimistic willingness to be the testing ground for new technology. But just as important is the user-centric focus, he said: “We want our customers to have a seamless parking experience. We want it to be easy for them to pay.”

This transition from app to platform already allows drivers to pay through Google Maps, or a Jeep owner to pay through the car’s dashboard. But according to Redfern, the city is already aiming for its next goal: using the platform to help manage commercial vehicle permitting, so that all types of parking sessions are captured in the same medium.

The shift carries with it more customer choice, more actionable city data and more ways to manage the curb. This determined conversion to a digital system not only lowered costs as more drivers used digital apps over physical parking infrastructure, but also provided more management data for the city. This means that Austin officials can now integrate data across uses — no longer thinking of parking, scooters, deliveries or other sidewalk activities as discrete areas to be regulated.

Redfern explains that officials are keen to understand what transactions are happening, and where. For example, city officials can analyze the data to determine citations by zone; they can then determine where to encourage more compliance and reduce penalties. And they will continue to use the data to thin the number of meters and pay stations, which reduces maintenance costs while encouraging contactless payments. Doubtless, equity implications will also be a consideration going forward, ensuring that the unbanked or low-income citizens have the same access to parking as others.

The Austin experience teaches us several lessons. One is that right within their own agencies, cities have innovators who, with the right encouragement and autonomy, can produce resident-oriented breakthroughs. We know that today’s technology can power transformations, if only governments are willing to see the future and take the risk to go forward. In some instances, change will require broad, imaginative thinking. “Innovation has always been a crucial part of Austin’s DNA,” said Mayor Steve Adler, and the integrated data platform is no exception to the city’s bold tradition.

As more infrastructure funding arrives in their jurisdictions, this is the moment for cities to power themselves — and most importantly, their residents — to a better future. Cities accelerate the speed of change by borrowing the necessary technological breakthroughs from each other.

Editor's note: This story originally indicated incorrectly that the Uconnect infotainment system is available in FIAT brand vehicles.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.