Smart Parking Systems Make It Easier to Find a Parking Space

From an airport system that directs drivers toward open spaces to cities' replacing meters with pay stations, technology is changing the way we park

PHOTO: Baltimore/Washington International Airport

BWI Airport's smart parking system guides drivers to open spaces.

”Parking is the industry that everyone hates,” says Kim Jackson, executive director of the International Parking Institute, in Fredericksburg, Va. ”But we’re the industry that…no one functions if we’re not there.”

The industry is there—on the streets and in our pockets—in a big way: it employs more than 1 million people and generates about US $27.5 billion in annual revenue in the United States alone, according to Jackson. And now the industry is undergoing a revolution, applying new technology to achieve municipal and corporate objectives.

Some cities use regulations as a weapon to discourage people from parking downtown or as an incentive to use mass transportation. Others use them as a means to raise money. (Washington, D.C., has a reputation for aggressive parking enforcement, last year issuing more than 1.6 million tickets, which generated $66.1 million in revenue.) Boulder, Colo., is taking an altogether different approach, however. Boulder has been trying to improve the parking situation and reduce the number of tickets for residents and visitors alike for more than 40 years by taking what Molly Winter, director of parking services for the city, says is a holistic approach, using advanced technology and novel ideas.

”People tend to view parking negatively,” Winter says. ”What we really try to do is manage the [parking] resource, which is an integral part of the economic success of any area. To create a ”customer-friendly parking experience,” as Winter calls it, Boulder is removing its electronic parking meters and replacing them with solar-powered, wireless pay-and-display stations. Drivers now buy the right to park anywhere they can within a specific parking district for the chunk of time they purchase. Boulder thus follows other cities, including Portland, Seattle, and Manchester, N.H., that have moved away from a pay-for-space approach to a smart parking system. Drivers also have payment options—cash or credit card and soon a prepaid card. ”People, given more payment options, tend to pay for what they use, rather than the change in their pocket, and then the tickets for overtime parking go down,” Winter says.

Boulder also has the Downtown Gift Card, which can be used to pay for municipal parking as well as to go shopping, see a movie, and dine at a restaurant. Such cards are a way to make parking an integral part of the whole experience of a visit downtown.

Finding a Spot at BWI Airport

Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport also strives to make parking less painful. The airport installed a smart parking system for its hourly and daily garages, which combine to offer 13 200 parking spaces.

Sensors embedded in each parking space at BWI detect whether the space is occupied, with that information fed into a central parking management system.

As drivers approach BWI on their way to departing flights, they see signs showing the availability of parking at the airport’s garages. As a passenger enters a garage, signs indicate the total number of parking spaces available and the number on each level. At the levels, there are additional signs that tell the passenger how many spaces are available per row. A light over each space indicates whether it is available: green for open, red for occupied.

BWI was the first airport in the country to use smart parking technology, says Jonathan Dean, spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration. The technology came to BWI after Maryland’s transportation secretary saw it in use while on a trip to Europe.

”The smart-park system helps the airport manage the parking inventory,” Dean says. ”The technology allows the airport to obtain accurate up-to-the-minute data.”

Importantly, it helps keep the garages open to their true capacity. ”Surface lots and other parking facilities must close at 75 percent to 80 percent of capacity,” Dean says, ”because at that point they essentially become full. At BWI, we can run to virtually 100 percent capacity.”

One would expect such a system to be expensive. ”The extra costs were about $450 per space,” Dean says. ”But it really pays for itself through increased utilization and improved quality of customer experience.”

Passengers love the system, he says, since it makes going to the airport less stressful. ”It really takes the guesswork out of parking,” he says.

Other airports including Jacksonville International, in Florida, Dallas–Fort Worth International, and Logan International, in Boston, have installed smart parking systems in some of their garages. At Logan, a nightly inventory of the parked cars is conducted—which means if you forget where you parked, someone can tell you where you left your car.

Smart Parking in Virginia

Fredericksburg, Va., has embarked on a high-tech approach to on-street parking. Fredericksburg is a city of about 20 000 residents with a downtown historic district made up of shops, restaurants, and other businesses whose livelihood depends on not only local patrons but also visitors who like to park in the street in front of the establishments.

Fredericksburg removed the downtown parking meters in the late 1980s as part of a beautification effort, and free two-hour parking was allowed in the hopes of attracting tourists as well as local shoppers.

The city employs two part-time officers to enforce the parking time limit. Until recently, they used a chalk-mark system, whereby an officer marks a car’s tire with a piece of chalk and returns a little more than two hours later to see if the tire has moved. The simple chalk method, used worldwide, is easy to cheat on, however. According to Fredericksburg Police Chief David Nye, people would erase the chalk mark or move the car a little to alter the position of the mark. In addition, many parkers would just gamble that the officer wouldn’t make it back before they left, since an officer couldn’t patrol the whole city in less than four hours. Only about 30 percent of the city was actually being actively patrolled, Nye says. Furthermore, with the parking fine only $10, tickets weren’t much of a deterrent.

As both illegal parking and merchant complaints increased, the city was at a crossroads. City officials, investigating their options, came across autoChalk, a digital imaging system that takes photographs of parked cars. The system can snap photos while an officer is traveling at 25 miles per hour, explains Bill Franklin, president of autoChalk’s developer, Tannery Creek Systems of Concord, Ont., Canada.

A parking officer drives down the street taking several detailed images of each parked vehicle, including its license plate. Each image is time-stamped, and a GPS system notes its location. Optical recognition software examines the vehicle and assesses its shape, size, and color.

A little more than two hours later, the officer drives down the same street. AutoChalk’s software compares the current parked cars against its stored imagery and alerts the officer to any matches that indicate a possible violator. If officers wish, Franklin says, ”They can zoom in on the wheel, zoom in on the valve stem, the license plate, or anything else in the photo” to ensure it is the same vehicle.

If the violation is confirmed, the officer can either write out a ticket there or, at the end of the day, return to the station, where all the information is downloaded and tickets are processed, printed, and mailed out.

AutoChalk has increased efficiency in Fredericksburg, Nye says, allowing an officer to cover in 35 minutes what he used to take four hours to do. And, Franklin says, the system reduces adjudication problems: ”If someone comes in complaining about a ticket and says, ’That wasn’t my car,’ the parking officer can say, ’Well, it sure looks like your car. You drive a blue Honda with a rust spot behind the rear wheel, right? And your license plate is this number, right?’ ”

Fredericksburg is the first U.S. city to use autoChalk, which cost the town $100 000 the first year, including the price of a new SUV and $13 000 in equipment and maintenance expenses. The city tried out the system in January, and began full service on 9 July, but not without controversy.

”It’s been called Robo Cop or Star Wars,” Nye says. ”Some have complained that it’s not right for our city. That it’s not friendly. That it doesn’t fit into our downtown historic feel.” But whereas the police used to receive two letters per week from visitors angrily complaining about receiving parking tickets, the police now get none.

The first month autoChalk was introduced, parking violators were just given warnings. Now the first ticket is still a warning, along with a map with locations of all six free parking lots and the one paid parking garage. The second and third tickets are now $15 each, and the penalty begins to escalate with the fourth ticket. As of last month, only two people had received four or more parking tickets.

About the Author

IEEE Spectrum Contributing Author and IEEE member Robert N. Charette is a risk-analysis expert in Spsotsylvania, Va. He dissects software failures and successes daily in The Risk Factor, his blog for Spectrum Online.

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