August 2008

Find parking spots on the web

Cruising around the block looking for a spot to park is commonplace in the city. Wireless mesh networking will nearly solve the problem saving millions of gallons of gas, limiting emissions, and saving time.

San Francisco will plant wireless sensors in 6,000 of its 24,000-metered parking spaces this fall. They will announce, via the web, cell phone, and signage which of the spaces are free at any moment.

The system uses a wireless sensor embedded in a 4-inch-by-4-inch piece of plastic, fastened to the pavement adjacent to each parking space.

The New York Times reported San Francisco is installing the market-priced parking system, devised by Streetline, a small technology company that has adapted a wireless sensor technology known as "smart dust" that was pioneered by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. It gives city parking officials up-to-date information on whether parking spots are occupied or vacant. The embedded sensors will also relay congestion information to city planners by monitoring the speed of traffic flowing on city streets.

The heart of the system is a wirelessly connected sensor embedded in a 4-inch-by-4-inch piece of plastic glued to the pavement adjacent to each parking space.

The device, a "bump," is battery operated and intended to last for five and 10 years without service. From the street, the bumps form a mesh of wireless Internet signals that funnel data to parking meters on to a central management office near the San Francisco city hall.

Streetline has technology that will display open parking spaces on web sites that one can access through wireless devices like smart phones. They are also developing a low-cost battery-operated street display that will be able to alert drivers to open parking spots nearby. Drivers may even be able to pay for parking by cell phone, and add to the parking meter from their phones without returning to the car.

The San Francisco project is part of a more ambitious sensor network that will use technology for a range of services. It will be possible to monitor air quality as well as deploy noise sensors that act as sentries for everything from gunshots to car crashes.

Advocates assert wireless sensor technology is now so inexpensive and reliable that it is practical to use for essential city services.

"The broader picture is what we're building is an operating system for the city that allows you to talk to or control all the inanimate objects out there to reduce the cost and improve quality of city services," said Tod Dykstra, chief executive of Streetline.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said he thinks San Francisco will rally behind the sensor technology and will expand it to all of the city's on street and parking garage spaces in 2010.

"There isn't a person who hasn't experienced the travails of going around the block multiple times searching for a parking space, using gas and wasting time, and generating greenhouse gases," he said. "It will scale in people's consciousness to the point that the public will demand more."

A study released in June by Transportation Alternatives, a public transit advocacy group, reported people circling the blocks generate 28% to 45% of traffic on some streets in New York City.

SFpark, part of a nearly two-year $95.5 million program intended to clear the city's arteries, will also make it possible for the city to adjust parking times and prices.