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

Matt Huffaker, an assistant to Walnut Creek's city manager, says that he believes Walnut Creek is the only U.S. city in which the smart metering system is being used by both public and private entities, and where the occupancy data collected from both systems is being pushed to the cloud, to be accessed by app developers.

"When we first came up with the idea [of adding sensors to meters to enable a real-time availability app for drivers], we thought about doing our own app," says Bob Powers, Regional Parking's owner. But he soon realized that opening up parking availability data to mobile application providers who focus on a much larger geographic area, rather than just Walnut Creek, would enable a greater number of drivers to take advantage of the system.

Today, every time a parking meter receives a signal from the sensor indicating its assigned parking spot is occupied or available, the meter transmits this data to IPS Group's cloud-based server. From there, IPS also forwards the information to ParkMe Inc., a Santa Monica, California-based provider of parking information systems. Using both specific metered parking spot data such as this, as well as information about parking available in garages lacking metered spots (determined by counters at the ticket gate), the ParkMe app—which is also available for in-car navigation systems—allows a driver to identify available parking in towns and cities around the world, as well as at scores of U.S. locations.

Any ParkMe user, regardless of whether he or she is a Walnut Creek resident, can use the app to find available parking within the city.

The sensor system rollout did not proceed without hiccups, Powers notes. "When we first put the sensors in, around 2010, we had some issues that we could not figure out," he says. "Sometimes, people would call and say they paid the meter, but that [while they were away] the meter had reset itself." As a result, these drivers were issued citations that they would contest. "The cool part is, with this technology, you can call up the parking history and see where they were parked, exactly how much they paid, when they paid and when the meter reset." Based on this information, he explains, Regional Parking could waive the citation if the customer should not have received it. "Sometimes, we'd also issue them a gift card," Powers adds.

To determine what was causing the false reads, Powers examined the parking sites. In one case, there was a large metal drainage grate next to a space. The presence of that metal, he says, was causing the sensor to falsely determine that a car had left the parking space, and to thus reset the meter. But for other parking spots, the cause of the issue remained a mystery. A small tweak to the sensor communication protocol has solved that problem, Powers reports. Rather than sending a reset command to the meter whenever the sensor detects that a car has left the parking space, it waits and performs a second check a few seconds later. If the space is still unoccupied—confirming that the vehicle has, in fact, vacated the spot—the sensor signal triggers the meter to reset.

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