Everybody complains about parking, but nobody does anything about it.

Don’t tell that to the cities of San Jose or Los Angeles, both of which have ambitious plans to use advanced technologies for tracking parking spaces.

With a goal of clearing congestion by influencing drivers’ behavior, San Jose has installed 13 electronic message signs on major streets leading into downtown.

The signs are three lines deep, with the first two lines indicating how many parking spaces remain in two city garages in the immediate area.

The third line is available for a message of up to 30 characters that can be customized by transit authorities. Sometimes this could be a third city garage option. Sometimes it could be rerouting directions.

“There are so many factors depending on what kind of event there is downtown,” said Joe Garcia, division manager in charge of parking services and downtown operations for the San Jose Department of Transportation.

City staff looked at similar parking sign systems used in Germany, Garcia said.

San Jose staff members witnessed a more orderly parking progression at an evening dance with Mexican music held in late April at a downtown venue.

“It improved the traffic flow,” said Garcia. “It helped motorists get to the surrounding parking facilities without going to that decision point.”

City staff planned messages with simplicity in mind (don’t confuse motorists). It placed message signs on streets with a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour so there’s sufficient room to change lanes to head for another garage.

“What we want them to do is glance at it, know what they’re going to do and react,” Garcia said.

The parking message boards can work in tandem with electronic message boards on freeways going through the city and redirect traffic intelligently.

There are preprogrammed messages that can go on the downtown parking signs, such as information about changes to garage parking rates in the evening.

In the future, the city will take a look at “a more dynamic environment,” Garcia said, in which a staffer at the city’s traffic management center could compose messages for the third line of the signs, depending on events: gridlock, street blockages, accidents, etc.

The message boards connect via computer servers to get real-time readings from the computerized system at city parking garages, tallying the number of parking spaces available.

City staff did the foundation and conduit work for the first two signs that went on line last year. Contractors did that work for the next 11 signs this spring at a cost of $400,000.  

Another contract to install the signs, including software and a server to interact with the computers of seven city parking garages (representing 7,500 parking slots), was for $1.3 million, Garcia said.

San Jose staff helped Los Angeles in planning a more ambitious electronic messaging system due to be online by December 2010.

“We will be able to use meter technology and parking sensors on and off street to provide real-time advice,” said Amir Sedadi, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

The city, in conjunction with Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, will use a $15 million grant from the federal government.

Staffers are working on federal guideline prep work now and hope to issue a request for proposals in the next couple of months.

“We will coordinate on- and off-street parking,” Sedadi said. “We will able to do pricing to encourage people to use an off-street facility for a longer term and on-street parking for the short term. That should create turnover for the businesses.”

With real-time electronic readings of space use at on-street parking stations, staffers can adjust parking station prices based on the short-term demand.

In key downtown corridors, that will be a pilot project to study how parking price changes influence motorists’ behavior, Sedadi said.