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Parking 2.0

Meters go high tech

4 min read

For decades—even as new technology has made vehicles safer, more ­efficient, and more comfortable—parking meters have remained largely unchanged from the time they were invented early in the last century. You know the routine: pull up to the curb, fish in your ashtray for a couple of coins, and insert them in a street-side meter that is essentially a ruggedized egg timer.

But now, a host of new smart parking technologies are helping municipalities meet their twin aims of collecting ­revenue for city services and preventing a small number of cars from monopolizing a limited number of parking spots. These advances are also benefiting motorists by making the tasks of finding a space and paying to park less of a hassle.

Some of the changes are admittedly incremental. For example, earlier this year, St. Petersburg, Fla., installed 40 solar-powered smart meters made by Cale Systems, in St. Bruno, Quebec. They allow drivers to pay for parking with coins, credit or debit cards, or smart cards preloaded with money.

The machines are wirelessly connected to a central server and to wireless handheld General Packet Radio Service, or GPRS, devices for parking enforcement agents. The agents use the devices to get real-time information about which spaces should be empty because no one has paid for them or because a driver’s allotted time has expired. The machines replaced so-called pay-and-display systems that required the driver to walk to a central dispenser, pay for time, then return to the car to put a receipt indicating when the time is up on the dashboard.

”There were a whole bunch of technical hurdles we had to deal with to make this work,” says Edward Olender, vice president for product and support at Cale Systems. A major one was ensuring that the system’s central server doesn’t shut down to save energy—thereby breaking the wireless link between the server, the terminals, and the handheld devices carried by enforcement agents—when there isn’t actual data going back and forth.

Other parking schemes being introduced are more exotic, using wireless communications to let drivers pay for parking in advance, reserve a space, or add additional time from wherever they are. Some municipalities even let motorists own and operate personal meters. Several companies, including Ganis Systems, in Nes Ziona, Israel, produce palm-size gadgets designed to hang from rearview mirrors. When drivers park, they turn the unit on and money is automatically debited from funds preloaded onto the machine or onto smart cards that drivers insert into the devices when they pull up to the curb.

The benefits for drivers include being charged by the minute instead of by larger increments that frequently mean paying for more parking time than necessary. And because the in-car meters can be programmed to reflect the city’s parking rules, motorists don’t have to worry that misleading street signs will prompt them to park where they shouldn’t or to overstay their welcome. After successful pilot tests, cities like Buffalo, N.Y., and Aspen, Colo., made in-car meters—which sell for roughly US $60 each—available to all their residents.

”Personal parking meters will never completely eliminate street-side meters,” says Tim Ware, Aspen’s parking director. ”Cities will never get universal enrollment of area residents, and you’ll always need to keep something in place for visitors.” That’s why the resort town, renowned for its ski slopes, still uses conventional pay-and-display metering in addition to the in-car meters.

The most radical new smart meters are located not on the streets or inside cars but in drivers’ computers and cellphones. If companies like Acme Innovation, in Emeryville, Calif., have their way, most parking transactions will happen long before a motorist pulls up to a curb or into a lot.

A recent field test of Acme/Parking- Carma’s Smart Parking service allowed motorists to select parking spaces and reserve them hours or even days in advance simply by logging on to a special page at the company’s Web site. The page displayed in real time the number of ­available spaces remaining on future dates. Drivers arriving at a lot without a reservation could call a smart parking ­hotline from a cellphone to get permission to park if space is available. Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), which owns the Oakland lot where the field test took place, says it plans to make the service available at several of its park-and-ride locations [see photo, "Vacancies"].

Another technology that uses drivers’ cellphones to make parking more convenient is NextPark, created by Voicebit, in Oulu, Finland. The service allows ­drivers, after having set up a prepaid account, to pay for a set amount of parking time with a phone call. When time is about to run out, the service alerts drivers by sending text messages to their cellphones, giving them an opportunity to call back and pay for more time. After a successful 2001 trial in Oulu, the service was launched in Helsinki and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2005.

It’s important, says Charles Komanoff, a New York City�based activist who advocates strategic pricing of auto­mobile use, that these parking technologies come to urban and suburban areas so that the highest parking rates can be in effect in high-volume locations during high-volume periods. Applied ­intelligently, he says, the fees can help revitalize a city.

Komanoff cites municipalities like Pasadena, Calif., where the installation of new parking meters and reinvestment of the revenues in maintaining public spaces ”have provided all kinds of amenities.”

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