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What is Parking’s Role in ‘Smart City’ Revolution?

December 6, 2017

Cassius Jones

Those of us in the parking industry know the crucial role that parking plays in urban environments. Congestion, travel mode choice, vehicle miles traveled, and car ownership are all impacted by parking prices and availability.


Getting parking right – pricing it at market rates and ensuring information transparency between parking supply and drivers – has shown to meaningfully improve urban environments. It seems obvious to us that “smart-parking” solutions – such as sensors, smart meters, mobile payments and others –will be an integral part of the “Smart City” revolution.


But not everyone thinks the way we in the industry do.


I had a chance to talk with Parking Today Editor John Van Horn a few weeks ago when he visited the San Francisco offices of Smarking Inc. Parking Analytics. John shared with me a story about a recent Smart City convention he attended.


The short version of the story is this: The parking industry was massively underrepresented at the convention. When John talked with conference attendees about parking, some were enthusiastic but offered only a skin deep understanding of parking’s role within the broader Smart City ecosystem.


Others were openly antagonistic around parking and the parking industry, arguing that the cities of the future would not need parking.


While I was not at the convention with John, his experiences are not foreign to me. I have some version of this conversation with a friend or acquaintance on a weekly basis. Autonomous vehicles will simply zoom around the streets and never park. Personal car ownership is a thing of the past.


If I think about it, I mostly agree with the sentiment and direction expressed by the parking nihilists at the Smart City conference – albeit with some significant caveats.


I also try to exercise some humility when prognosticating about the future of urban environments. Before joining the parking industry, I worked as an analyst at a bank. I took the job right out of college and came into the position with a full head of steam, but learned the hard way that predicting the future was easier said than done (I sold my Tesla stock at $100 / share).


It’s with this in mind (predicting the future is hard), let’s focus on the here and now – that the importance of smart parking and parking reform becomes such an obvious area of focus for Smart City evangelists.


You’d be hard-pressed to find a component of the urban mobility ecosystem that, through reform and technological improvement, would yield such massive benefits to society at such a low cost as fixing and improving parking would.


It’s no surprise that all seven finalists in the U.S. DOT’s Smart City challenge (https://cms.dot.gov/smartcity and https://cms.dot.gov/smartcity/7-finalists-cities) included parking reform and improvement in their proposals.


This is because parking – like all mobility and transportation – is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end. No one parks their car just to park. They park their car to go to work, to shop at a store, to eat at a restaurant … I could go on and on and on.


When you improve parking, you improve access to almost everything a city has to offer.


When the City of Aspen, CO, raised parking prices by 50% during the summer of 2016, sales tax receipts increased by 17%. Higher parking prices caused the downtown core to be less congested, increasing access for those willing to pay the higher prices associated with parking downtown. More people chose to bike, walk, or use car-share to get into town, increasing store traffic. Lastly, fewer folks arrived downtown by car, causing restaurant patrons to buy more alcohol, typically the highest margin item on the menu.


Another element that makes parking such an ideal candidate for urban revitalization is just how poorly it’s been managed in the past. America’s love of personal automobiles has caused overbuilt and largely free parking to plague our cities and towns.


Given the uneven distribution of demand for trips, where will the autonomous fleet servicing commuters go during the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. lull? Circling around empty looking for passengers?


Through digital wayfinding we can prove that ample supply exists, and adjust or eliminate minimum parking requirements. Increasingly convenient payment options allow drivers to pay a fair price for the valuable real estate a parking space represents.


Certainly, the future of autonomous vehicles requires the parking industry to adjust our assumptions around personal car ownership and its impact on overall parking demand. Even still, if we assume that 100% of the cars of the future belong to automated fleets, we know that travel demand is not evenly distributed throughout the day. It mirrors the entry and exit patterns evinced by any garage – peaking during commute hours and locally around events and holidays.


Given the uneven distribution of demand for trips, where will the autonomous fleet servicing commuters go during the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. lull? Circling around empty looking for passengers? If this scenario plays out we are likely to see even more congestion and higher vehicle miles traveled than we currently do – something our cities and planet cannot afford.


I think the future of parking looks a lot like fleet management. Where garages are high-tech hubs servicing a mix of personal and fleet-owned vehicles. Where parking prices and inventory will be digitized and where “connected” vehicles query a database for the most convenient parking given varying price points.


I certainly could be wrong. At the time of my writing, Tesla is trading at $343 / share – I’ve been wrong before. This is why I spend less time thinking about the distant future and more time thinking about the opportunities that lie in front of us.


After all, there is too much benefit to be had by improving parking management right now. Smart City evangelists should follow suit.


We cannot wish the parking problems away. Autonomous vehicles will not be the answer to all of our problems.


Individuals looking to improve their city in the foreseeable future would be wise to strike up a conversation with a parking professional. They might be surprised to learn just how much parking reform can do for a city – benefiting drivers and non-drivers alike.


Cassius Jones is Head of Enterprise Accounts at Smarking Inc. Contact him at Cassius@smarking.com.



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