The Road to Smart Parking

POSTED BY Adam Wears
It is estimated that in the next decade, the number of people living in urban areas will rise significantly. While this will have a myriad of consequences for the world, nowhere are these consequences more apparent than when it comes to vehicle usage, where a growth in urban population figures is reflected, not just through an increase in the number of urban vehicles, but also through the concurrent rises in congestion, lost productivity hours, and harmful carbon emissions.

To mitigate against these impacts, cities and municipal transportation agencies around the world have begun exploring the possibilities and potential of smart parking, which describes parking facilities that have embraced smart technologies for the purposes of optimising their operations – whether in terms of throughput, revenue and costs, or the scale of services offered.

While public and private parking facilities are in abundance in most major cities, particularly in North America and Europe, the fact remains that by and large, these operations are woefully inefficient. The scale and complexity of most parking facilities means that the average driver often spends several minutes attempting to locate a parking space; resulting in unnecessary congestion, emissions, and time wasted, while the stress and distractions inherent to searching for a parking space can contribute to collisions with parked and moving cars.

The basic function of most, if not all, smart parking systems is the provision of accurate, real-time data to drivers regarding the location of vacant parking spaces; this is only possible, however, if the system itself knows each space’s current occupancy level. Sensors such as surface & flush mount sensors and overhead sensors are among some of the most commonly used technologies to allow operators to gather information from several dozen spaces simultaneously, while at the same time, utilising existing overhead infrastructure such as lampposts. Indeed, sensors are perhaps one of the most cost-effective and reliable smart parking solution.

Driver guidance systems are also vital, as they communicate the information gathered by the sensors to the drivers. The most used driver guidance systems are dynamic message signs (which are also commonly used to communicate information about opening times, closures and parking charges), overhead indicators (usually displaying a red ‘full’ light and a green ‘vacant’ light) and, more recently, mobile apps. 

Despite the increasing implementation of smart parking technologies, this trend does not come without challenges of its own. Indeed, the vast majority of cities were built before the advent of smart technologies, meaning that the main challenge for cities that wish to retrofit their existing parking infrastructure with smart parking technologies is less about the singular practicalities of installing the requisite sensors, hardware, software, etc, and more about ensuring a managed, orderly transition to smart capabilities that minimises disruption for existing stakeholders, ensures that new systems benefit the whole, and mitigates threats to system integrity and data security. It is also important that cities avoid solutions that will quickly become obsolete, or worse, result in the ‘corporatisation’ of city governance and a technological lock-in; that is, vendors and private organisations proposing technologies that result in the city becoming dependent on them for future support. 

Security is another important concern. Where security issues are not taken into consideration during the initial planning and implementation phases, this can lead to an increased number of threats not just to the integrity of citywide infrastructure, but the security of citizens’ data; which is gathered by smart parking systems in forms such as licence plate numbers, registration details, financial information, and movement patterns. This, in turn raises also questions regarding privacy and the public’s consent. For the most part, the public must be informed about the data that these systems will gather about their lives, spending habits, movement patterns and the like. If the public is not notified about these activities and the situation is embroiled in controversy in the future, this will undoubtedly diminish any form of trust or public backing that the public has not just for the offending system but smart systems in general. 

Our latest whitepaper, How Smart Parking Is Accelerating Change in Cities, assesses the current smart parking landscape, analysing key technologies and highlighting potential implementation challenges.

Download the Whitepaper: How Smart Parking Is Accelerating Change in Cities
Related Research: Smart Traffic Management