Parking: Can Technology Tackle the Great Unsolved Urban Challenge?

By Greg Fiorindo

Greg is the Senior Vice President for the Americas at Streetline, where he's helping municipalities and universities solve transportation problems and become more sustainable. He has also worked for innovative companies like Salesforce.com and Oracle in sales, sales management, professional services, and general management roles. Greg holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics, Business Administration, and Spanish Language & Literature from UC Berkeley.

New technology now exists to tackle one of a city’s most pressing issues: parking. Communities large and small including Los Angeles, New York, Indianapolis, and Fort Lauderdale are among the first users of new sensing and guidance technology that is changing the way motorists find and pay for parking.  In addition to these larger metropolises, smaller suburban cities like San Carlos in Northern California are using the technology and seeing the impact it can have in many areas.

San Carlos is situated in the heart of Silicon Valley between San Francisco and San Jose.  The City’s 28,615 residents make up a thriving downtown community with a variety of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques.  With a motto of “The City of Good Living,” the city is aiming to also be the city of good parking.

Through a partnership with Cisco and Streetline, the City of San Carlos is now using a network of sensors and software applications to assist drivers in finding available parking, and help the city manage their parking assets more effectively.

Finding Parking

In a city-wide survey, it was found that more than half (57%) of respondents agreed that there is not enough parking in downtown San Carlos.

This is a common sentiment in many cities across the country. However, using parking studies, and more recently real-time parking data, many cities are finding that they generally don’t have a lack of available parking; drivers instead have the perception of scarcity due to a lack of information.

So, just how does this technology work? For motorists, data from parking sensors is pushed to a smart phone application, websites – and soon in-car navigation systems – to show available parking options around a given area. In addition to on-street parking spaces, motorists can access information about nearby parking lots and garages, as well as useful parking policy information such as time limits, or special restrictions like EV charging stations, ADA spaces, or commercial loading zones.

“There is no doubt that San Carlos has a parking problem.  The system alleviates that with the real-time, on-street information but also by highlighting the off-street lots.  Oftentimes, spaces are available in these lots while motorists pack Laurel Street waiting for a street spot to open up” said Lisa Costa Sanders, City Planner for City of San Carlos.

Improving the City Ecosystem

For the city, the parking sensors provide a detailed look at parking activity in terms of occupancy, turnover, length of stay, etc.

In addition, the city receives bi-weekly reports that analyze key trends and activity. By looking at the historical data and real-time data, cities like San Carlos can make informed, data-driven policy decisions related to optimizing enforcement hours, extending or reducing time limits, changing rates, or re-allocating permitted spaces.

ParkerSmaller cities and universities like Reno, Ellicott City, Clemson University, and San Mateo are also using this technology in similar ways. By offering a new service like parking guidance, these cities, towns, and universities can reduce parking congestion and optimize utilization of their parking real estate. The impact of this technology on parking-related driving times and emissions is becoming clearer. A recent study by Streetline in several metro areas, for example, compared motorists using the parking guidance app Parker to motorists looking for parking without guidance for nearly 30 trips. The drivers looked for parking near the same destination at the same time of day. On average, those using a parking guidance app reduced their search time by 43%. Additionally, the total vehicle miles traveled for those using the guidance app were reduced by nearly 21%. And, motorists using Parker saved money, as well; by using the information available within the app, motorists were more likely to find less expensive parking options, still within a reasonable distance from their final destination.

Cities are competing to attract talent, and many are implementing programs to make their downtowns more desirable. However, without the ability to access these downtowns, people will not be able to enjoy all that cities have to offer. As part of a complete streets/multimodal transportation strategy, smart parking can help to optimize space usage and facilitate access to downtown commerce areas. This improved access has the potential to make a city more competitive and improve the local economy.

It’s estimated that motorists looking for parking causes up to 30% of city traffic. A study by IBM found that reducing traffic congestion by 10% could increase GDP by 2%, and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) found that the same 10% reduction could create 132,000 jobs in their region alone! With lower congestion and better access to parking availability, more people are able to visit downtown, giving stores higher foot traffic and increasing revenue for the city.

These positive impacts can attract job seekers, entrepreneurs, tourism, and residents to spur further growth. For cities like San Carlos, this means happier residents and visitors, more prosperous merchants, and a more inviting, vibrant community.

Beyond Parking?

Parking is just one aspect of city life where sensing & networking technology is having a significant impact.  The Streetline network, once deployed, has the potential to enable cities to deploy other “smart city” applications such as light & temperature sensing, noise & pollution sensing, and water pressure & level sensing.

“We see the smart parking system as just the beginning in using technology to improve city efficiency.  The ‘connected’ concept can carry over into street light monitoring, wastewater monitoring, and a host of other applications,” said Sanders.

While we’re just at the beginning of this journey, the technology is advancing to make the promise of a “smart city” closer to reality.

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