SFpark featured in the Economist Magazine
Spot prices – New systems will make finding parking spaces easier and help to reduce congestion
September 17, 2008
The gold Hyundai whips around a double-parked van on Haight Street, San Francisco, before blocking traffic with a shameless U-turn into an open parking spot. Soon, if a new pilot programme succeeds, such shenanigans may become as rare as a parking place is today in some cities. SFpark is a $23m experiment in using technology to manage the city’s kerbside and off-street parking.
The Department of Transportation has contributed $18m towards the project as part of its efforts to find new ways to cut congestion in big cities. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, thinks parking should be made easier to find so as to help public transport flow more freely and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide spewed out by motorists in their endless searching for somewhere to stop. In a study of a 15-block business district near his campus, Dr Shoup found that in just one day drivers roaming the neighbourhood in pursuit of parking spaces had cruised more miles in aggregate than would a single car driving all the way to New York.
The SFpark project will begin early in 2009 with a new network of pavement sensors in 6,000 of San Francisco’s metered parking spaces and 11,500 of its off-street car parks and garages. These sensors will detect when a space is taken and relay that information to a central database. From there, information about vacant parking spots will pass to drivers in several ways. The most basic will be through a network of road signs that will indicate areas with parking places. Eventually, however, officials want to provide web and mobile phone services that display the availability of parking block by block on a colour-coded map, much like the traffic maps now offered by Google.
The city also plans to make parking metres capable of two-way communications. This will allow them to accept credit and debit card payments, seek maintenance and (perhaps to less acclaim) alert Lovely Rita when a parking ticket needs to be issued. Crucially, such metres can also be changed remotely to charge different rates according to demand at different times of the day. “If you get the price right, nobody will have to cruise,” adds Dr Shoup.
SFpark plans to select contractors for the project this autumn. A number of companies, like Streetline Networks, VehicleSense, Sensys Networks and ParkingCarma, already have detection systems at work. Streetline’s technology, for instance, comes out of research at Berkeley into “smart dust”—networks of small, cheap, low-powered sensors. The company’s pavement sensors will run for more than five years on two AA batteries. Like those from other companies, they detect a disturbance in the magnetic field from a hunk of metal (that is, a car). Data can hop from sensor to sensor until it makes its way to a gateway, a small box sitting on top of a streetlamp or traffic-signalling box. From there, it can travel to the central database via the mobile-phone network or municipal Wi-Fi.
Streetline’s sensors have already been tested in parts of San Francisco and by the end of the year they will be deployed in 3,500 parking spaces in Los Angeles. Tod Dykstra, the company’s chief executive, hopes eventually to create networks that monitor other bits of a city’s infrastructure too, including traffic flows, street lamps and water mains.
VehicleSense is testing its wireless-sensor networks in parking areas along Interstate 95 in south-eastern Massachusetts. The idea is to give fatigued truckers better information on where they can pull off the road to get some sleep. Kareem Howard, the company’s president, points out that technology can go only so far towards relieving congestion and helping drivers find parking spaces. “It will be interesting to see if San Francisco has the political will to raise the price to where it needs to go,” he says.