Self Aware Parking and Connected Cities

May 10, 2018

Peter Guest

A redefinition – Not Smart Parking, but Self-Aware Parking and not Smart Cities but Connected Cities. 

The final day of PIE took on a very different format this year, with a full day symposium on the topic of Smart Parking and by extension Smart Cities. The last day of a big show is often a bit of a dead zone; who hasn’t done the last shift at an event and found that the speakers outnumber the audience? Notwithstanding, Eric had boldly decided to think big and set out the room for 200. When I looked round after the opening talk the tables were full and people were bringing in extra seats.

The keynote speech was given by Akshay Pottathil from the Center for Information Convergence and Strategy at San Diego State University. Akshay’s opening remark was to redefine the terminology for the day changing Smart Parking to Self-Aware Parking and Smart Cities to Connected Cities. 

He described connected cities as communities that can access and analyse these data to support and improve the lives of their citizens. I am not sure how clever the systems are on how they use the data that they collect. What I remember most is the vision of just what the future holds for us was when he started to regale us with the scary bits. 

Connected systems are accessible systems, and if you can look at your data, and “steer” the system, so can malefactors. At one level someone gets your personal data and your bank balance; not nice but survivable. Next up the hackers take control of your autonomous vehicle and up pops the message, “pay up or we drive you off the next bridge”

When we talk about this stuff we sometimes think that “tomorrow” will happen, well, tomorrow. Reality is rather more prosaic. The average car is ten years old and business fleets turn over vehicles about once every 15 years: I shudder to think how old some of the parking equipment that I see is. So, even when the technology is totally sorted, it will be a decade or more before the bright new tomorrow arrives; by which time of course I suspect that Elon Musk, or his successors will be trying out the first “beam me up, Scotty” type systems!

The next presentation came from Las Vegas’s Information Technology Director Michael Sherwood, supported by Parking Services Manager Brandy Stanley. Vegas has created a Smart Cities Innovation District which covers the center of the City and extends to cover all the different activities and community profiles in this city of 2.4 million souls. This of itself is pretty smart; it’s not just the tech savvy millennials who are being exposed to and by inference, product testing the new stuff, it’s everyone in every type of land use activity, and education level.

Of course, Las Vegas’s biggest claim to “Smart City” fame has to be their fully autonomous bus service, which distinguished itself on Day One with a collision. The bus was innocent of all charges but showed that it lacked one important, and basic, device, a horn to warn off the vehicle that backed into it!

LV is using a system of smart signals to improve traffic flow and reduce both delays and, by reacting to air sensors that are linked to the signals, stop the build up of pollutants in busy areas. Coming from London, I was surprised that the starting point for all this appears to be a system based on stand-alone, vehicle-actuated junction by junction control. Area-wide Urban Traffic Control systems which minimize total traffic delay in a city, and, by implication, total pollution have been around since the 1960s, so seeking to manage delay and pollution on a point by point basis seems of dubious worth. If you are pushing traffic through one point in the name of clean air, but as a result of conflicting movement are getting delayed, and polluting, upstream, I am not sure where the benefit is. But perhaps,
I misunderstood.

Another initiative touched on is smart street lighting, where street lighting responds to pedestrian movement and so only illuminates the places where people are. Obviously this reduces power consumption and light pollution. However, with the energy levels of LED lighting I wonder how the sums add up when comparing the added cost of the control gismo with the relatively small extra energy cost saving achieved?

So, even when the technology is totally sorted, it will be a decade or more before the bright new tomorrow arrives.


I think that Mike and Brandy gave a good summary of what Smart Cities should deliver. My take on their list is:

Real-time insights, that is hard data, and meaningful data on what’s happening;

Predictive Analytics; much of what happens in cities is cyclical and repetitive and if we can understand what happens in a given set of circumstances then we can be aware of and plan ahead.

Data Driven Decisions; use the information, don’t wing it and hope.

Increased Citizen Engagement; if you want people to do something tell them, and tell them why, and listen to what they say and modify your actions accordingly.

Operational Efficiencies: that’s the desired outcome, and you should be able to measure this to validate the process.

One point that we forget at our peril is the increasing urgent problem of suitably trained staff. Sure, people are developing and selling this stuff, but apparently it is increasingly hard to get people with the right skills to keep it all working.

Our next speakers were a quartet of gurus from the parking technology and University world: Bob Harkins from the University of Texas, Dale Denda from PMRC, Sara Blouch who moved from in-house parking manager at Ohio State to CEO of Campus Parc when the university outsourced its services. Finally, Brian Wolf from Parker Video Intercoms completed the line up. 

One of the important points here was to bottom out some of the “facts” surrounding how we perceive what is going on in the world. For sure, those pesky millennials are moving into the inner city and not buying cars. But move on a few years and they got married, had kids, moved to the suburbs and bought cars, meaning that urban sprawl and growth continues just as it has been for ever. At least that’s what Dale thinks, and if he is right, far from disappearing under the twin threats of Uber and autonomy, our industry can look forward to a growth of 20 percent or more in the next decade or so.

And finally, Smart Lighting by Ben Easterling of ATT and Mike Nickolaus of Civic Smart. Light columns house multi-colored LED lamps, CCTV, Wi-Fi. intercoms and PA systems. So, using just a light pole we can do things like monitor people who are on the street, or in public spaces when they shouldn’t be. And we can monitor parking spaces and by linking with payment systems we can detect offenders and automatically generate citations. Big brother truly is watching.

Is this a good or a bad thing? I guess that it depends on who is watching the screen. Interestingly, I am working in another country where ANPR based violation detection, with the citation sent to the driver’s cell phone, is now planned.

One final comment, with the exception of Michael Sherwood, who did mention in passing that they had very quickly dropped some technologies, not one speaker raised any concerns or uncertainties about the reliability or accuracy of the terabytes of data being spewed out by their technology. I remember Julie Dixon’s graphic description of the reality of the bay detector trials in SF Park and as someone once said “Those that do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”. 

Peter Guest can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk