Everyone who drives has had the frustrating experience of circling the block in search of an elusive parking space, or pulling into a garage to discover that it is full. All that time spent driving around in search of parking wastes time and gas — and emits even more of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
That's where "smart parking" comes in — the use of wireless technology and smartphone apps to make parking far easier, from directing you to open spots to facilitating online payments.
Streetline, a San Francisco-based startup, makes sensor technology that can detect the metal of a car, which allows Streetline to track the occupancy of parking spaces in real time. Consumers can download the free Parker app on their smartphones and use it to discover how many parking spots are available on a given street.
The company makes money by selling the battery-operated sensors to cities, universities, hospitals and shopping centers that are eager to reduce their parking problems. So far, the sensors are up and running in just a few locations, including Hollywood and Studio City in Los Angeles, the Metro stations in Washington, D.C., and downtown Asheville, N.C.
"I live in Hollywood, and there are so many tourists, nightclubs and restaurants that it's really hard to park," said Bruce Gillman, director of public information for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "But it's gone over really well with people who have smartphones and are into apps."
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Parker currently is "live" for consumers only in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco. Streetline said it is in discussions with several other Bay Area cities, though it declined to identify them.
"In cities like Los Angeles, there's a real interest in using technology to make the city operate more efficiently," said Kelly Schwager, Streetline's vice president and head of communications. "In smaller cities like Asheville, it's really about revitalizing a shopping district. Merchants know that if parking is a hassle, shoppers are not coming."
The city of San Francisco has embarked on a similar project known as SFpark. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees all surface transportation, has installed wireless parking sensors in congested neighborhoods like Fisherman's Wharf and Fillmore in a pilot project that covers 7,000 of the city's 28,800 metered spaces and 12,250 spaces in 15 of 20 SFMTA-managed parking garages.
Based on parking demand, SFpark meter rates may vary by time of day, day of the week, and even block by block. Consumers can access information via the free SFpark iPhone app.
The parking industry — one that many consumers love to hate — is a $25 billion business in the United States, and the International Parking Institute says that technology designed to improve traffic flow is the industry's next big thing. Investors are paying attention. In June, Streetline raised $15 million in a second round of funding from Fontinalis Partners, RockPort Capital and Sutter Hill Ventures.
Bill Ford, the chairman and CEO of Ford Motor, is a founding partner of Fontinalis Partners, and he has spoken widely about the challenge of "global gridlock." There are about 800 million vehicles on the road today globally and at least two billion projected by 2050, so the time consumers spend stuck in traffic and looking for parking is certain to skyrocket.
"Streetline is one of 600 companies that we looked at in the intelligent transportation space," said Ralph Booth of Fontinalis Partners, who serves on Streetline's board. "If you think about parking, the legacy hardware is 50 years old, and there have been incremental changes. But with GPS routing and tracking applied to mobile technology, you can do away with the old hardware and connect closely with consumers.
The types of solutions that Streetline has created (have) ubiquitous applications in the urban landscape."
Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles, spent a year studying 15 city blocks in the Westwood Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, near the college campus. He discovered that the average driver spent 3.3 minutes looking for parking, and often circled the block two and a half times before finding a space. In a year, that resulted in 47,000 gallons of wasted gas, 950,000 wasted vehicle miles and 730 tons of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere.
"It happens all over the world," said Shoup, who prefers to get around by bicycle. "If you go to Mumbai or Cairo or Rome, everyone is circling for parking. It pollutes the air, it slows down mass transit, it creates gridlock and it's dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists."
STREETLINE'S PARKER APP:
Currently available for the iPhone, Android smartphones and compatible tablets, the Parker app offers real-time information on available parking spaces, updating automatically as cars park or leave. It also allows users to pay for parking in select cities via mobile payment partners, and helps them keep track of where they parked.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Parker is currently "live" only for consumers in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood. But the company behind the app says it is in discussions with several other Bay Area cities.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.