Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Shouldn't D.C.'s parking be a little easier in the 21st century?

May 3, 2012 - 01:58 PM
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(Photo: flickr/muohace_dc)

Finding parking tends to be a chore in any urban environment, especially in the popular neighborhoods downtown. Shouldn't technology have fixed the problem by now? D.C. has about 17,000 metered spaces overall and on some days, it feels like they're all full.

One helpful strategy may involve real-time parking meter data. The D.C. Council recommends the following in today's 87-page budget report in a section for the District Department of Transportation:

The Committee directs DDOT to provide an assessment of whether real-time parking meter usage data can be made available to the public on a real-time basis, including any reasons why such data should not be made available. DDOT shall also provide a strategy and timeline for making such data available. DDOT shall provide this estimate by October 1, 2012.

Real-time parking meter data would create a lot of potential opportunity for people in search of parking. Not only would a person at home be able to get a sense of how crowded streets are downtown, but down the road, there'd be potential for technology to identify open spaces for a person in the midst of traffic. Why couldn't a company use any real-time public data on meter usage to augment a GPS system to locate the open spaces? Urban transportation would be far easier. People already use real-time, GPS-based apps to help determine the crowding levels of bikeshare stations and to find the location of car-sharing vehicles. The same principles and real-time technology should one day be applied to the far more common and frustrating dilemma of finding a good parking space. Data from meter usage or from sensors (as some cities have considered) would help create a digital picture of how cars are utilizing the city's spaces.

The modernization of parking has been a slow but sure process of the last several years. Has parking become easier as a result? Yes and no. The District has allowed residents to pay for metered parking through the phones via Parkmobile, which is a sure convenience for the small fee of 32 cents. Our city has also begun looking at performance parking pilots — in which meter rates shift depending on time and demand — in Columbia Heights, H Street NE, and the Ball Park blocks. Advocates say performance parking will reduce congestion by creating more available spaces. Rarely do they dwell on the unfortunate reasons why, however. Performance parking is often simply more expensive for drivers who just want a place to leave their car. The D.C. Council hopes to implement performance parking in central D.C. before too long and currently looks to DC Surface Transit Inc. as a potential advisory body on how to proceed. "The Committee has heard repeated concerns from business representatives about the need for enhanced parking management in the District’s core," the Council writes in today's report, which will be discussed at 2 p.m. Other government parking strategies have included more enforcement and strategic use of garages.

The idea of real-time parking data has been floated around for years and some cities have begun attempting such ambitious tech. Consider San Francisco's SFpark, which it calls "the world’s most advanced parking management system ... [using] sensors, new meters, and demand-responsive pricing." San Francisco's thought: "Real-time information about where parking is available will help drivers find parking with less hassle." In 2010, Rutgers researchers talked about how to find vacant parking spaces not through the selected meters so much as algorithms to determine which physical spaces remain open via sensors and GPS. Over the next decade, especially as we gain more residents and plenty of traffic, D.C. would benefit from considering these possibilities, too.

The city's new parking manager, Angelo Rao, will definitely have plenty to focus on in his inaugural months.

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