Smart parking: A launchpad for intelligent transportation

In 2007 city drivers in a pint-sized 15-block district in Los Angeles drove more than 950,000 miles, emitted 730 metric tons of carbon dioxide, and burned 47,000 gallons of gas … searching for parking.

There’s a good bit of irony at work in those numbers, considering that there are an estimated 4.5 parking spaces per vehicle in the United States, including three surface parking spaces per vehicle. Of course, don’t tell that to an urban driver searching for a parking spot in a busy city.

Some six years after the L.A. study, parking is still a major issue. A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Parking is Hell,” included an interview with UCLA parking expert Donald Shoup and highlighted the high cost of free and cheap parking -- economically, socially and, increasingly, environmentally.

Cities have historically addressed congestion and outsize growth by expanding off-street parking. But with dwindling land availability, strapped municipal budgets and construction costs of $20,000 to $50,000 per space for a typical downtown parking garage, it’s easy to see why cities are increasingly opting to make more efficient use of their existing parking infrastructure. Doing so also opens up opportunities to create increasingly walkable and transit-friendly urban areas as infill development can convert excess surface parking and garages to buildings and green spaces.

In particular, smart parking, in addition to promising near-term reductions in emissions and fuel use, turns out to be an ideal test bed from which to kick-start a full transportation system overhaul. All the key components of an efficient, responsive and adaptive parking system -- data management, software development, innovative pricing, sensors, smartphone integration, public-private partnerships and viable, profitable business cases -- are also at the heart of a fully integrated, multimodal transportation system. Such “Intelligent Transportation Systems,” or ITS, are broadly characterized by three I’s: instrumentation (the hardware to collect and transmit mobility data), interconnection (the network to share that data), and of course intelligence (the user-facing programs and efficient processing algorithms that put the data to work to enhance personal mobility).

Data Management

Quality data is the core around which any optimized parking system is built. For the data to be usefully processed by software developers, data owners (e.g., parking structure owners, municipalities and transit authorities) have to make it transparent, available in a standard format and ideally centralized for one-stop access. Different data owners (municipalities, private garage owners) overseeing different functions (on- and off-street parking) tend to have their own dataset formats.

Next page: Managing the HIPE