Sensors Turn Parking Meters Into Parking Helpers

In the small California city of Walnut Creek, parking sensors offer data access and visibility for public and private parking services.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 02, 2014

The act of parking a car has not seen much innovation throughout the past century, but that is starting to change. That's good news for cities, where some studies have found that up to 50 percent of traffic comprises drivers searching for an open parking spot. As wireless sensors became more affordable, rugged and configurable during the past decade, they have helped to spawn a new approach to metered parking spaces, enabling cities and private parking services providers to charge dynamically, based on demand, while also making it easier for drivers to quickly locate available spots, thereby reducing congestion.

In 2006, the city of San Francisco launched a seven-year pilot project in which it embedded 8,200 occupancy sensors next to on-street parking spaces throughout the city, in order to better track patterns and evaluate its meter pricing scheme, with the goal of setting meter rates based on demand patterns. This work began with a small pilot conducted with Streetline Networks (see SF Uses Wireless Sensors to Help Manage Parking).

The ParkMe app shows the availability of metered on-street parking, as well as two-hour prices.
During the pilot phase, drivers could use a smartphone app known as SFPark to quickly find open metered spots, based on sensor data collected over a mesh network and sent to the cloud via a gateway. The SFPark app used an application programming interface (API) to access and continually update the data, as did similar apps such as ParkMe. (When the sensors' battery life began to reach their limits last year, the city discontinued its sensor-based metered parking spot data collection—to the chagrin of drivers who had regularly used the parking app.)

Currently, dozens of cities throughout the United States are installing their own smart parking applications, using occupancy sensors that communicate wirelessly with smart parking meters. The market has become more crowded as well, with several meter and parking services companies—such as San Diego-based IPS Group—now offering smart meters that communicate directly with occupancy sensors embedded in roadways.

While most of these smart metering systems are installed in public parking areas, Walnut Creek, Calif., is unique in that not only its government, but also a local private parking service provider, Regional Parking, have installed IPS occupancy sensors at metered parking spots in private garages located in busy sections of the city's downtown corridor. These sensors forward data showing parking spot availability to the cloud, where the information can then be accessed by parking application developers to create apps designed to alert drivers to the availability of open metered spots. The occupancy sensor includes a magnetometer and a short-range wireless connection between each sensor and associated meter, according to IPS Group. (The company has not responded to multiple requests for more detailed information regarding the specific standards and protocols the sensors employ.)

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