Smart Parking Offers Mobile Opportunities

Business opportunity is often found by easing friction, and that has been the case in solving one of the longest-running problems plaguing drivers, finding a parking place. But as Kati Rubinyi discovered, helping people park can create a different kind of friction where the rubber meets the road.

Entrepreneurs are looking to smart parking for some smart opportunities.
Many products and services around the world help cities and building owners dynamically monitor vacant parking spaces, and offer access to those spaces more efficiently. Information about which spots are occupied is mapped and overlaid with other data such as pricing and transmitted to drivers, typically through an app.
There is a range of variations in the parking management process based on how the empty spots are sensed, how the information is transmitted and accessed by drivers, and what companies do with the resulting analytics in order to increase efficiency.
Kurt Buechler, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Streetline, the company behind an app called Parker, sees managing the value of parking as part of the transportation, and indeed, the commerce system: “Both on street and off street (structured) parking have many constituencies: retail merchants, car companies, building owners, drivers, city governments and the public at large. For the most benefit, the ideal is for parking to be integrated in real time with traffic management.”
One of Streetline’s clients is the Los Angeles Department of Transportation program called LA ExpressPark. LA ExpressPark alerts drivers about available spaces on their Smartphones, and distributes demand through the pricing of parking spots.
Guiding people to available parking places decreases cruising for a spot, thus alleviating traffic, fuel consumption and pollution. Drivers also have information about where parking is cheaper, so they can (and do) choose to park further from their destinations to save money.
The majority of the funding of startup costs for the successful program – 88 percent of the $18 million - came from a federally funded Los Angeles Congestion Reduction Demonstration project. Starting in 2012, prices were adjusted according to demand, and most time limits at meters changed – for example from one hour to two hours. Some four-hour time limits were instated in areas where there were no retail establishments. The hours of enforcement also changed according to demand.
“We lowered the price of parking overall for drivers and occupancy went up. The distribution of parking is better,” explains Peer Ghent, project manager, LA Express Park. “The public might think it’s about the LADOT getting more money, but that’s not the goal. We wanted the available spots to be better utilized, and we achieved that. Revenue increased slightly by about 2 and a half percent.”
Ghent says theweakest link in the system is sensing which spots are occupied. Car companies including Ford are developing parking sensors built into cars, but until that technology is widespread, Smart Parking will depend either on cameras, or more typically for street parking, the more cumbersome solution of physical sensors built into roads.
The sensors are accurate about 95 percent of the time, but can be thrown off by interference from other vehicles, resulting in false readings. They started out looking like highway reflectors, but Ghent explained that in parts of downtown L.A., the city uses a front-end loader for some maintenance and cleaning work, and the sensors were getting destroyed.
Flush mounted versions replaced the original ones. They look like hockey pucks, with their tops in line with the surface of the road. The sensors have a battery that’s supposed to last five years but sometimes they need to be replaced sooner. Vendors take care of that.
In the case of sensors supplied by Streetline, who are a vendor to the Express Park program, the units, locked in potting material, are entirely replaced. The sensors, costing approximately $250 to install and $10 per month to operate, are likely a necessary evil for at least the next five to ten years.
Peer Ghent sees a time where the monitoring of spaces will be achieved through lower maintenance and equipment costs. Built-in sensing connected to GPS technology, would make the system more flexible, and easier to fine tune for better efficiency. “There is a lot of brainpower working on this problem”, Ghent explains.
Streetline’s Buechler corroborates the notion: “Hardware is hard, but a parking system without hardware would be like having an airline without planes”.
In the US, the leaders in this type of sensor-based on street parking management strategy are San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ghent’s department is working on expanding the Los Angeles program to include Hollywood and Westwood.
Globally, Streetline runs 25,000 parking spots across twenty-five cities, and is testing the program in five European cities including Berlin and London. While on-street smart parking is not yet a worldwide trend, its popularity is growing. In China, EZPark operates at a large scale in major cities although it’s geared to the more straightforward problem of off-street, structured parking. The company tracks the number of cars entering and leaving parking garages, typically with cameras or other counters.
         Culture is a factor in what approach works where. Paolo Dobrowolny, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based startup MonkeyParking, was working in his hometown of Rome, Italy when asked if he ever thought to try to solve the formidable parking challenges there.
“We thought about it,” Dobrowolny recalls, adding, “Even if parking in Rome is definitely an issue people are more likely to risk a ticket than paying money to solve the problem upfront. That is probably because most of the time the enforcement won’t happen. The lack of enforcement is also why we have cars parked in crazy ways all around the city.”
Back in the more controlled setting of San Francisco, MonkeyParking has been experimenting with parking management concepts that avoid sensing infrastructure altogether, building its products on crowd-sourced information in a way more in keeping with the model of Airbnb.
MonkeyParking’s first offering was a misguided attempt to allow customers to bid on public parking spaces about to be vacated by other members. Last year, the company was prohibited from allowing anyone to bid on, or accept bids, for public parking spots. Cities were not on board with the company’s argument that the service was about selling information, not public space. The crackdown occurred where the company was operating, in San Francisco, and pre-emptively, where it had plans to operate, in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
Moving forward, MonkeyParking will try to make the most of the name recognition achieved when its controversial practices were widely reported in the press. Thanks to the adaptability of the firm’s parking management technology, so light on infrastructure, MonkeyParking is turning over a new leaf by now focusing on privately-owned parking.
In areas of high density, like San Francisco, MonkeyParking will help homeowners rent out their driveways. More dubious is an idea to rent out space in front of driveway curb cuts. It may take some time to fine-tune the use-cases, but the effort to distribute parking at the micro level could be very practical in, say, residential parking structures. In fact, building owners started contacting the company because they had an asset that was 10 percent empty. MonkeyParking plans to help owners make better use of that 10 percent while nimbly serving drivers who need a place to park.
The company’s CEO explains: “If someone has a parking space in their apartment building and they are gone the day, they could rent their parking spot out to another resident, for example, if he or she has a plumber who needs a space for a truck for a couple of hours.”
The goal of distributing parking according to demand and making the most of non-utilized space is clearly a good idea for cities and drivers, and property owners. Turning the distribution of parking into a smooth flowing business model is another challenge, and for MonkeyParking, Dobrowolny admits it will be a process of trial and error.
The company is working out its marketing strategy as it experiments with new product offerings, such as facilitating parking at sporting events. They’re hoping a fine-grained focus to distributing access to parking could in the future be applied to other amenities, like electric charging stations.
“Parking is an on-demand service. You want to find the closest and most affordable parking spots, and our system helps drivers do that,” Dobrowolny asserts, adding, “Renting out your driveway is a lot easier than, say, renting out your house on Airbnb. And by helping people rent out driveways and other privately owned parking we’re adding new parking capacity where there wasn’t any.”
For all the latest mobile trends, check out The Open Mobile Summit 2015 on June 29-30 in London.

MonkeyParking Rents Parking Spots
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