Wireless Sensors to Modernize Parking

By Naomi Graychase

August 28, 2007

They can tighten parking policy enforcement—even tell motorists in transit where to find a spot.

According to Tod Dykstra, CEO of Streetline Networks, a young company focused on city infrastructure technology, U.S. cities are missing out on billions of dollars in potential revenue due to ineffective parking policies and enforcement. Dykstra cites studies conducted by the International Parking Institute, the U.S. Census, and other sources, but if you've ever circled the block for an hour looking for a spot so you could run a ten-minute errand downtown—or taken your chances by not putting money in the meter once you finally found a spot—then you know what he's talking about. By implementing its wireless sensor networking technology in the form of Meter Monitors and Vehicle Sensors, Streetline hopes to change all that.

 

The San Francisco-based company, founded in 2005, recently deployed pilot projects of its CiT (City Infrastructure Technologies) Platform in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been fielding requests from other major cities across the country. The San Francisco deployment covered 16 city blocks. In Los Angeles, 100 spaces in the Toy District, an area in downtown LA that is known for being particularly tough on parking equipment, are currently being monitored.

 

"We're working on generating results in these cities that will appeal to other cities," says Dykstra. "We expected to start with smaller cities, but we've gotten so much interest from larger ones that we've been working on those accounts. The products we're building will be easy to expand and roll out for larger cities."

 

Streetline's products incorporate components from several OEM vendors, including Dust Networks SmartMesh products, which are based on Dust's Time Synchronized Mesh Protocol (TSMP) and provide reliable, low-power wireless connectivity.

 

Streetline's sensors come in two varieties, Vehicle Sensors, which can tell when a vehicle is physically occupying a space and for how long, and Meter Monitors, which report how much people pay, when and how they pay, how much time remains on a meter, and whether the meter is broken, among other things. The Meter Monitors provide two-way networking to standard, single-space parking meters without requiring wiring or modifications to the meter housings. In most cases, they simply plug into existing meter data ports.

 

The low-power sensors and monitors, which can run for up to 18 months on one AA battery and last for up to a decade, help cities track usage and vandalism, and provide real-time information about arrivals, departures, and occupancy. The cities use that information to deploy resources more effectively. Since studies show that only about 5 percent of parking violators receive citations, a city that could re-route its meter readers to known problem areas could potentially increase revenues from citations—or increase compliance—significantly. In either case, the city receives a revenue bump.

 

"The sensors that are networked are completely self-contained," says Dykstra. "One glues to surface of the street. They are inexpensive to deploy. With one, there's some road work involved to protect them from snow plows. We can sense when cars arrive, when they leave, and how long they stayed. We can network them so that you can understand how much people paid, the time remaining, if they are broken, and so forth. We can also add time to the meter over the air so people can pay with a cell phone."

 

The benefits of the systems include financial rewards, but also policy changes, which Dykstra says will ultimately improve the quality of life for city drivers. The idea being that if violators are abusing parking spots by staying over their limit, then they will be deterred from doing so if citations are issued, thus generating better turnover. Adjusting the pricing of meters based on usage is another technique that can help cure bottlenecks.

 

"There's less congestion. Less particulate emissions. Parking is a public resource, but it's a constrained resource," says Dkystra. "It's something there isn't a whole lot of so you want to achieve the most access for the most people given your capacity. The purpose is to allow people to get somewhere and do something, and ideally leave, so that other people can use the spot. It creates an economic benefit to the city by increasing sales tax revenue and by creating a more vibrant downtown area."

 

Standard pricing for the Vehicle Sensors is $300 per space, plus $10 per month for data management; for Meter Monitors, $150 per meter and $10 per month for data management. Dykstra expects that each city will negotiate its own rate, however, based on the volume of its order.

 

While the Streetline systems don't require access to Wi-Fi, Dykstra points out that in cities where muni wireless is available, a mutually beneficial relationship will result.

 

"Muni Wi-Fi is potentially great for delivering all sorts of city services that are broadband in nature. The focus of what we're doing is much lower power, but Wi-Fi is totally complimentary and can provide a backbone network for us. Wi-Fi doesn’t need us and we don’t need Wi-Fi, but from the city's point of view, the combination of the two is likely to make a lot of sense. If you get your muni Wi-Fi and you get your Streetline network, then the combination of the two gives you revenue from one side to find applications on the other side. It's a partnership."

 

In addition to the more broad-minded tactics that cities adopting Streetline's technology can take—more effectively pricing meters and directing enforcement to reduce congestion, generate more revenue, increase turnover, etc.—there is also an appealing potential benefit for drivers.

 

"We can tell you where the parking is right now," says Dykstra. "Streetline's business isn't delivering to the end user, but I personally have this information in my cell phone right now, so we would publish it in other ways."

 

While no deal is yet in place, and the deployments need to be more widespread before the information is meaningful, in the not-too-distant future, drivers in LA, San Francisco, and other major cities may be able to check their iPhones, PDAs, or cell phones to find out where the empty parking spots are, which would spare them the headache—and additional exhaust emissions—of circling the block.

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