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Get Ready for a New Kind of 'Smart Meter'

<p>Startup company Streetline has developed a way to help drivers reduce their endless circling for parking spaces and help cities bring in more revenue from parking meters.</p>

Have you heard about the "Internet of things"? It's a relatively new idea to me, although I note that the phrase gets about 2.2 million Google hits (at last count) and it has its own Wikipedia entry and a YouTube clip or two. As best as I can tell, it means that many things -- cars, buildings, the electric grid, appliances, smart phones, cash registers -- could be equipped with sensors, networked and thus able to communicate with one another and, of course, with the rest of us. To bring the concept down to earth, think of RFID codes on supermarket items that tell grocers when to restock, GPS phones equipped with Urbanspoon software that identifies nearby restaurants, or the work of startups like Historic Futures that help companies trace the origins of everything in their supply chain.

Or "smart" parking spaces. Streetline is a San Francisco-based startup that wants to equip parking places with sensors and software so they can to talk to cars and the people who drive them. The company's service is being pitched as a sustainability play -- as a way to reduce traffic congestion, gasoline use and carbon emissions -- but its success will more likely depend on whether it helps cities realize more revenue from parking meters, either through more effective enforcement or dynamic pricing of parking.

Still, for anyone who has circled a block endlessly looking for a spot, the idea has appeal.

"You can stand up in a room of 10 people or 1,000 people and ask them if they have had trouble finding a parking place and just about everybody raises their hand," Zua Yusuf, the chief executive of Streetline, told me when we met recently in San Francisco.

"The carbon impact, the pollution impact, the congestion impact -- it's just been completely ignored," Zia says.

Zia Yusuf

Streetline has deployed what it calls "ultra low power mesh sensor networks" in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sausalito, CA. What this means is that the company has installed sensors in the ground at parking places which "know" whether a car is parked there, as well as sensors on meters that "know" whether there's time remaining or not.

They can sense whether a meter is broken, too -- information that is not likely to find its way to City Hall by other means. "The willingness to report broken meters is close to zero," Zia says. "For consumers, a broken meter is heaven." All of this real-time data is transmitted to the Internet where can be seen by city parking officials in detail and made available, in a summary form, to drivers.

You can see why this information would have value, can't you? Parking enforcement officers (aka, meter maids) would know right away where cars are parked at meters have expired. They'll use their time more efficiently. Even better, when a city government understands when and how often spaces are used, it will be able to price parking accordingly -- more like airline tickets, with prices rising during peak periods and declining when spaces have less value.

The economist Tyler Cowen, writing last summer in The New York Times, argues that free or too-cheap parking fails to capture the value of a scarce resource:

Car owners may not want to hear this, but we have way too much free parking.

Higher charges for parking spaces would limit our trips by car. That would cut emissions, alleviate congestion and, as a side effect, improve land use.

…Manhattan streets are full of cars cruising around, looking for cheaper on-street parking, rather than pulling into a lot. The waste includes drivers' lost time and the costs of running those engines. By contrast, San Francisco has just instituted a pioneering program to connect parking meter prices to supply and demand, with prices being adjusted, over time, within a general range of 25 cents to $6 an hour.

Or as Zia told me:

It's a 20 foot by five foot piece of real estate. Multiply it by 20,000, 30,000 spots in a city and that's a significant amount of real estate. It's not priced efficiently. It's not allocated efficiently.

But without data, there's no way for cities to know what their parking is worth.

Streetline now figuring out how to transmit its information to consumers. Rather than direct them to individual spaces, it expects to highlight blocks where there are more than four available spaces, others where there are more than two, and others with less than two. They don't want to send people racing for a particular spot, or ask drivers to rely on data that could be out of date in a few seconds.

Zia says that Streetline wants to go beyond parking. Its network could be put to many uses -- finding broken streetlights, checking the water pressure in fire hydrants, sensing air quality, managing traffic congestion. "You let the city talk to you," he says.

Success will depend, among other things, on whether cash-strapped municipal governments can generate enough revenue from the data to justify the costs of operating Streetline's networks. Zia says: "The business will scale if I can sell this for no upfront costs -- which is now what we are doing -- and a modest fee per month per sensor, that can be made up with either smart pricing or smart enforcement."

IBM, which has been doing lots of marketing around Smart Cities, has held "Smart Camps" around the world to identify enterpreneurs and startups with potential to solve problems around water, transportation, health care and the environment, and Streetline was a winner of a competition held in Silicon Valley. The company is one of nine finalists competing next week in Dublin to be named IBM's Global Entrepreneur of the Year.

Here's a 2009 video from Good magazine and IBM explaining how Streetline works. This was made before Zia became CEO.

Photo CC-licensed by Nahh.

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