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San Francisco Goes Wireless and Real-Time to Reduce Traffic

Check your smartphone to find a parking meter.


By Adam Stein

When I last wrote about San Francisco’s innovative plan to reduce congestion through market-based pricing of parking spots, I assumed some of the more futuristic features of the system were still a long way off. Well, turns out I was wrong.

The city is already installing a network of wireless sensors in the asphalt based on the “smart dust” technology to come out of UC Berkeley. Once in place, battery-operated “bumps” will not only relay information about open parking spots to drivers via street signs and smart phones, they’ll also convey real-time information about congestion and traffic and flow to city planners.

San Francisco is way out in front of this issue, but other cities are cautiously dipping their toes in the water. In New York, parking meter rates will double during peak hours in certain neighborhoods, beginning this fall. Although a fairly modest change ($2.50 an hour really isn’t all that much for parking in New York), city officials hope the price hike will cut back on double parking and congestion in high-traffic corridors.

And Washington D.C. just approved two pilot programs of its own. More expansive than the New York program, D.C. will adjust rates on a monthly basis to achieve the desired balance of available to occupied spots. Most of the revenue from the program will be used “solely for the purpose of non-automobile transportation improvements” in the affected areas.

Parking policy might seem like a minor matter, but the numbers tell a different story. Professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking reform, has conducted research showing that drivers cruising for parking are responsible for up to 30% of traffic in central business districts. In one small area studied, cruising burned an additional 47,000 gallons of gasoline per year.

Price increases inevitably encounter resistance from consumers. But if the promises of variable-price parking live up to the hype — reduced traffic, improved city services, and less time spent hunting for spots — this could end up being a change that residents demand.

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

Image by Peter DaSilva for The New York Times.

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Wont checking your cell/smart phone while driving increase accidents.

This is all a great idea but until the wireless devices can all speak a common language I do not believe that it will get the use it would require to make a signifcant impact for many years.

Maybe they should add it to the list of features on the iPhone. then at least a million people every week would be joining the ranks.

Posted by: Mike on 16 Jul 08

That's so cool. What a great way to reduce traffic congestion in large urban zones. I live in Portland, OR and although it's not a huge city, there are areas that are impacted and as more people move here, traffic concerns grow among city dwellers. I, however, think that most of here in the next ten years will be driving electric cars and sharing one per family, so fuel at least won't be too much of issue. Funny thing when it comes to parking, I always set this intention consciously and even sometimes say out loud, "Okay, there will be a parking spot available to me as soon as I arrive." Lo and behold, it never fails. --Cheryl Janis, writer of Planet Pink n' Green -

Posted by: Planet Pink n' Green on 16 Jul 08

Hi all,

I live in Edinburgh, Scotland and we already have parking meters paid by cell phone. I think this system would work here but is this actually avoiding a larger issue?

In Edinburgh parking is at a premium like most cities, but it has long been an observation of mine that there is many hundreds of meters of kerb-side that could be used for parking, but is zoned off.

Perhaps if city planners where to stop artifically creating a problem, a technology wouldn't be required to help cram more people in?

An interesting theory though, it'll be interesting to see how it works!

Posted by: Sandy Bloomer on 18 Jul 08



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