Using smarts to find parking


It's easy to plan a trip around the world from your chair, thanks to the Internet, but it's impossible to know if you'll find a parking spot when driving to any congested downtown -- whether it's San Jose, Palo Alto, San Francisco or beyond.
Urban planners estimate as much as 80 percent of traffic on some city streets comes from frustrated motorists cruising around in search of a place to park.
This is where technology can help, at least in the eyes of more than a hundred experts who gathered Wednesday for a conference on ``smart parking'' organized by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and held at the offices of Cadence Design Systems in San Jose.
Within a few years, it will be common to reserve a parking space online before leaving home.
If you haven't booked in advance, the navigation screen in your car's dashboard will display the nearest available street or garage parking.
When you find an open space at a meter, you won't have to fumble for coins. Instead, you'll punch the meter's ID number into your cell phone. A sensor in the pavement will detect when you leave, and your credit card will be charged for exactly the number of minutes your car was parked.
No more running to feed the meter when your appointment runs long, or overpaying and involuntarily giving a gift to the next driver in your spot.
You might even park in a fully automated garage, where you leave your car on a pallet in the entrance and a robotic system slides the pallet into the equivalent of shelving for vehicles. When you return and swipe your parking stub through a reader, the system retrieves your vehicle. It is, in effect, a bigger and more complicated version of those rotating racks at dry-cleaning stores.
Among the Bay Area projects underway, or due to start soon:
• San Jose is putting big electronic signs on the fringes of downtown, giving motorists up-to-the-minute information on which city-owned parking garages have vacancies. Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez, who spoke at the conference Wednesday, said the city hopes to eventually put the information online and include privately owned garages.
Many office buildings close their parking garages on nights and weekends, according to Chavez, when parking is often at a premium because of special events. An online system that steers drivers -- through the Web, by cell phone or through in-car navigation screens -- to those garages would give owners an incentive to remain open.
sparkparking.pngPalo Alto is completing an agreement with Spark Parking of Emeryville to test electronic parking meters and pavement sensors that would allow payment by cell phone.
Bad news for scofflaws: The system can send an alert to parking enforcement officers whenever a car pulls into a metered spot and doesn't pay, a much more efficient approach than sending officers around town in search of expired meters.
Spark plans to charge cities about $20 a month per meter for the service, an amount cities could recover by issuing just one or two more parking tickets a month.
• Redwood City will switch to fully electronic parking meters in May and will use the meters to implement a step that's considered revolutionary in the placid world of parking: variable pricing.
Parking rates in downtown Redwood City will vary from 25 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour depending on both location and time of day. Rates will adjusted up to four times a year to achieve a goal of 85 percent occupancy.
That percentage is considering to be parking perfection. If occupancy is higher, there aren't enough empty spaces, and drivers will spend too much time hunting for a spot. If occupancy is lower, cities are losing money from unused meters.
• San Francisco's Port Authority, which owns parking meters along the Embarcadero, is about to test sensors from Streetline Networks that will report how often metered spots are occupied, and for how long. The Port Authority will use the information to figure out where rates should be raised and lowered.
The sensors resemble raised pavement markers, also known as Bott's Dots, and form a wireless network with each other, so cities don't need to install any additional equipment. Streetline Networks, based in San Francisco, says the sensors are so power-efficient that they will run for eight to nine years on two AA batteries.
• BART is running a field test with ParkingCarma of Emeryville at BART's Rockridge station in Oakland. The station's parking lot has 50 spots that can be reserved online through ParkingCarma's Web site. Drivers arriving without a reservation can ask for permission to park by sending a message through their cell phones.
ParkingCarma says it will expand the service to several parking garages in San Francisco, which it won't yet name, by summer.
Of course, there's always a downside to progress.
By automating payment, it will be easier for cities to raise parking rates.
It's not practical now to charge $5 an hour at a parking meter -- no one carries around enough quarters. That's not an obstacle when paying by cell phone or credit card.
True market-based pricing could be scary. Well-heeled venture capitalists running late for a power lunch at Il Fornaio in downtown Palo Alto would probably be glad to pay $50 an hour at a parking meter on University Ave. The rest of us might have to do a lot more walking.
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