Carnegie Mellon University's 'smart parking' moves ahead

Drivers circle city streets daily in some neighborhoods, searching for signs a parking spot will open up a car starting up, a garage without its "full" sign turned on or someone with arms full of packages walking with purpose toward a row of cars. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University hope to put an end to such hunts.
They're developing what they call "smart parking" technology, slated for trials in spring in San Francisco, which would determine which spaces are open and tell drivers via cell phones, Web sites or electronic message boards where to go.

"A large fraction of cars in a city are just circling, looking for a place to park," said Robert Hampshire, an associate professor at CMU's H. John Heinz III College of Public Policy and Management, a member of the team developing the technology.

Hampshire is a technical adviser to the SFpark program in San Francisco that is testing sensors that can tell when a space is occupied. "This technology can make that much more efficient."

Master's degree candidates at Carnegie Mellon recently finished programming the Web site and an iPhone application that will tie into the sensors and show which spaces are open, Hampshire said. About 17,000 sensors are being deployed in neighborhoods around San Francisco.

The sensors will be tested with about 6,000 metered parking spaces starting in March, said Judson True, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

"Fundamentally, it's a better way, a smarter way to manage what will always be a limited supply of parking in a dense urban area," he said.

While San Francisco demonstrates and tests the technology, Port Authority of Allegheny County is seeking $5.5 million in federal stimulus money to start a similar project here.

The money was included in an $80.5 million application for a highly competitive grant, pitting Pittsburgh's project against others from around the country. Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the authority brought in CMU as a partner to see how much money they could get and what could be accomplished with it.

It's not clear which streets, garages and lots would get the system, though the grant application said the project would focus on the Downtown-to-Oakland corridor. Port Authority officials hope the system could direct people to buses or light rail by showing them when and where parking is scarce, Ritchie said.

Even if the federal grant doesn't come through, other money sources are being sought, Hampshire said. Carnegie Mellon's "Traffic21" initiative, funded by the Hillman Foundation, is giving money for projects that can move transportation technologies from labs to the street. If funding is found, the sensors could be installed next spring at the earliest.

Some of the technology has been deployed in Pittsburgh. The 10-story Rivers Casino parking garage on the North Shore has sensors at each level that monitor cars entering and leaving. A digital display beside each level's entrance shows customers how many parking spots are left on that floor, said casino spokesman Jack Horner.

Other versions of smart-parking systems let drivers pay for parking from their cell phones and use the phones' GPS system or information entered by drivers to tell where they parked. Another uses numbered spaces and multispace meters similar to those in Oakland to track which spaces are occupied. Pittsburgh most likely would get a sensor-based system like San Francisco's.

"The lessons learned in San Francisco will show us how they'll work here," Hampshire said.
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