The parking revolution
Parking meets high tech
Ellicott City is a small historic area of Howard County, Md., and not the kind of place that would embrace space-age electronics to send signals out from under the pavement. But that's exactly what's happening with its parking system.
"When I was campaigning, I heard from a lot of merchants on Main Street in the historic district about a real concern about a lack of parking," says County Executive Ken Ulman. "They signed petitions. They wanted me to build a garage."
The county hired a consultant to conduct a parking study to see where the bottlenecks happened and why. They found there was actually plenty of parking, but it wasn't being managed efficiently.
"It was a function of when the meters were put in decades ago, nobody wanted to upset the merchants," Ulman says, pointing out that a lot of prime parking was available at no charge, while spaces further off Main Street required payment.
The city purchased a sensor-based system from Foster City, Calif.-based Streetline; it can tell when spaces are vacant and it can also tell parking enforcement officers when cars have overstayed their paid time. The system links to a free smartphone app that both directs drivers to open spaces nearest their destinations, and alerts them when their meter time is about to expire so they can make a payment and avoid a ticket.
The system went live in early 2013. Ulman says so far, revenue looks to be up and he anticipates more than recouping his $300,000 investment in the system. And from a public relations standpoint, the system has paid for itself in spades.
"The merchants I'm talking with are thrilled," he says, because the system has freed up prime spaces and eased the city's perceived parking crunch. "We are going to do an event with merchants this spring to learn what additional elements can be layered on to help them market their businesses — things like offering free parking on the eighth visit or letting restaurants give out passwords that act to validate parking charges through the system."
Other cities that are just starting out with sensor technology say they anticipate similar results. Brian McKelligett, parking services manager in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is currently testing sensors in several areas of the city.
"There are a number of potential savings we're seeing," he said just two weeks into a 90-day test. "We're seeing improving parking conditions already, and we've received calls from residents thanking us for the parking app in those locations."
It's also streamlined enforcement, he says. "It's a waste of resources and energy to have parking enforcement officers drive up and down looking for potential violations, rather than being directed to specific spaces."
And, he says, parking problems in town, particularly during peak night and weekend hours, have eased considerably. "We're seeing more revenue because it's efficient," he says. "People have the ability to find spaces instead of getting frustrated and driving off. They can find city parking locations quickly and very efficiently."