Parking Pain Relief

Startups are attempting to make parking easier using wireless technology.

On most peoples list of least-desirable experiences, hunting for a parking space probably falls somewhere between paying taxes and having a root canal. That may soon change, however. A half-dozen or so startups are racing to provide wireless technology that will bring parking into the age of the Internetand in the process, reduce traffic congestion and give cities a revenue boost.
Companies like ParkingCarma, Streetline Networks, and VehicleSense, mostly located in the Boston and San Francisco Bay areas, are developing small wireless sensors that can tell if a parking space is occupied or not. Glued to the street, or buried an inch or two below the pavement to escape being scraped off by snowplows, these ultra-low-power devicesthe companies say their batteries will last a half-dozen or more yearscontain magnetometers that detect when a car arrives or leaves.

Soon, that data may enable drivers to glance at their in-vehicle navigation system and see the exact location of available parking spots on the street, or in nearby parking garages, and pay to reserve them using a cell phone.

Whether these systems will be widely used by regular drivers is unclear. Rick Warner, CEO of Emeryville, California-based ParkingCarma, believes they will. Theres powerful consumer pain in the hunt for parking places, he says.

Thats clear to anyone whos ever looked for a spot downtown. It takes eight minutes, on average, to find a parking place in the central areas of U.S. cities, according to Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the book The High Cost of Free Parking.

Most likely, drivers wont have to pay for parking information directly. The startups are pursuing a wide range of channels for distributing the data. Besides bidding on government contracts from cities and regional transportation districts, which are keen to boost parking revenues, they are also targeting companies that make parking meters, such as Reino International, and systems integrators like Scheidt & Bachmann that specialize in parking. Other customer targets include large parking operators like Standard Parking.

But the startups also hope to sell their parking information to digital and wireless content distributors. XM Satellite Radio, which is already using its satellite channels to deliver traffic and weather information to motorists, is demonstrating a system that shows drivers the location of nearby parking garages, along with the number of spaces they have available. XM collected the data directly from parking garages and is not working with any of the parking startups. But with 6.5 million subscribers, and hopes of reaching 9 million by the end of the year, XM could become a major channel for parking information. Until more parking data is actually available, however, the parking system will remain only a limited demonstration. To make it work, says XM Chairman Gary Parsons, we need more content.

Thats where the parking startups come in. They hope to collect a wealth of parking information via their wireless sensor systems that can then be packaged and sold. But for now, most of the startups remain in the trial phase. For example, ParkingCarma recently ran a 14-month test at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) parking lot in Oakland, California. By posting availability information on large signs next to nearby highways, and letting commuters reserve paid parking spots from their cell phones or over the Internet before they left home, parking spots were filled 75 percent of the time. Before the test, the same parking spaces were in use only 10 percent of the time. BART hopes to expand the program, but so far has not announced plans to implement it on a wide scale.

Relieving Congestion

Cities stand to benefit in other ways. Across the bay from Oakland, wireless sensors at 250 parking places near Fishermans Wharf tell the city of San Francisco how often, and at what time of day, those spaces are occupied. The sensors, from a San Francisco-based startup called Streetline Networks, will help the city figure out if it needs to adjust its pricing, and where it should deploy meter maids. Thats potentially valuable information: right now, only 5.4 percent of parking violations in San Francisco receive tickets.

Streetlines sensors are deployed in whats called a mesh network, where each sensor acts as a repeater as well as a sensor. Data is passed wirelessly from sensor to sensor, until it reaches a collection point at the edge of the network. Once a network of sensors is in place, a city could easily use it to transmit data that has nothing to do with parking, says Tod Dykstra, CEO of Streetline. In many cities, for example, 10 to 15 percent of fire hydrants dont have enough water pressure to fight a fire, which means the fire department has to regularly dispatch trucks to test each hydrant. Thats a tremendous waste of resources, Mr. Dykstra says. We can monitor that full-time at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Streetline, ParkingCarma, and other parking sensor companies also believe they can help cities deal with traffic congestion downtown. On average, 30 percent of the traffic in U.S. downtowns is hunting for parking places, says UCLAs Mr. Shoup. Cities recognize congestion is a problem, says Mr. Shoup, who sits on Streetlines board, but hardly anybody links it to cruising for parking.

In some ways, cities themselves have helped create the problem, by pricing on-street parking far below prices in off-street lots. Surveying parking prices near city halls in 20 U.S. cities, Mr. Shoup found the average price for an hour in a lot was $5.88. An hour at a meter averaged only $1.17. Thats a mistake that most European cities have avoided. An hour of parking on the street in downtown Munich, for example, will set you back as much as 5, or $6.37.

Europe: High-Tech Parking Paradise

Several European cities have already made great strides toward high-tech parking. In Dublin, a combination of technology and stringent parking enforcement has essentially eliminated the hunt for parking. Using 20-year-old induction loop technology that monitors cars going into and leaving parking garages, rather than individual spaces, the city tracks how many spaces are available in each garage, and makes that information available by cell phone and over the Internet, as well as on large signs on the streets. That encourages motorists parking for extended periods to put their cars into a garage, says David Traynor, a city manager who works with parking. So does the citys policy of clamping a metal boot around the tire of cars whose meters have expired. The fee to have it removed: 120more than $150.

Not surprisingly, there is no problem finding parking on the street in Dublin, Mr. Traynor says.

In many ways, Europe is ahead of the United States in implementing parking technology, says Peter Guest, vice president of the British Parking Association. Most European cities have done away with individual parking meters, replacing them with so-called pay and display machines, which serve multiple parking spaces. And a number of cities, including Paris, allow people to pay at those machines with credit cards. Paying for parking places by cell phone is also rapidly becoming commonplace in Europe, says Mr. Guest, although its taking longer to catch on in the United Kingdom.

And Europe is way ahead of the U.S. when it comes to installing high-tech systems to monitor the number of available spaces in parking garages. These directed parking systems put wired sensors, rather than wireless ones, at every parking space, and not only let operators boost revenue by filling every space in a garage, but provide large directional arrows that let drivers quickly locate open spaces. Siemens Intelligent Transportation Systems has installed dozens of these systems in Europe, mostly at airports, including one that monitors over 15,000 parking spaces at the Munich airport. While an American company, Dayton, Ohio-based Regent Systems, has deployed similar systems at airports in Baltimore and Jacksonville, Florida, the technology has not yet caught on across the U.S.

The sensor startups, however, aim to propel the U.S. into the lead in parking technology. In doing so, they face a number of hurdles, including the issue of intellectual property infringement. Several companies already hold patents on parking technology, though few have commercialized these technologies. There are quite a few patents on detection of parking spots, says Boston University engineering professor Tom Little, some of whose students have launched a parking sensor startup called ParkSens. All of these companies are at risk, at some level, from current patent holders.

Its possible, however, that the patent issue may turn out to be an advantage for some of the startups. Streetline holds a patent for wireless mesh networking for parking data collection, and ParkingCarma has three patents pending in the area.

Cities Are Reluctant

There are other challenges, as well. Municipalities are really hard to sell to, says Jeffrey Bussgang, a general partner at venture capital firm IDG Ventures Boston who follows wireless technology. They move slowly, and purchasing decisions tend to be political and often arbitrary. So while Mr. Bussgang says hes positive about the idea of wireless parking sensors as a consumer, hes pretty negative about it as an investor.

Steve Reale, a principal at Levensohn Venture Partners in San Francisco who has looked at the high-tech parking market, is also concerned about the slow pace of municipal purchasing. He believes, however, that once one large city adopts the technology, there will be a cascading effect. This is a huge market opportunity, he says. Its going to take some time, but investors will make money.

So far, the only parking startup to generate significant revenues is Berkeley, California-based Sensys Networks, which sells wireless sensors for use at intersections and on highways, as well as for parking. The company, which received an undisclosed amount of venture funding from Com Ventures and Siemens TBB, expects to earn as much as $3 million this year from its traffic sensors. The other companies have been funded largely by angel investors.

At least two of the firms are looking to change that, however. ParkingCarma plans to raise $5 million in a first round in the next six months. Streetline, which has raised $250,000 so far from individual investors, including Internet and computing pioneer Gordon Bell, is also planning a Series A round.

ParkingCarma and Streetline also hope to ink some deals. ParkingCarma is going after an expanded contract with BART, as well as three major municipalities, by the end of the year. Streetline says it is talking to nearly a dozen cities, including one very large one it declined to name.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based VehicleSense, on the other hand, which has raised $750,000 from angel investors and VC firm IncTank, is waiting to seek more investment until it has some signed contracts. The company hopes its bid on a federal project aimed at helping long-haul truck drivers find a safe place to rest will bring in some revenues. VehicleSense President Kareem Howard wants to put wireless sensors on parking spots in truck stops, so drivers who know they have to stop soon can find a space to sleep. We can tell them that the next truck stop has three open spaces, Mr. Howard says, but if they go another 50 miles, there are 20 spaces available.

If these startups succeed in getting cities on board, they could be at the forefront of a dramatic change in the parking industryand just maybe, make drivers a little less harried.
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