Two of California’s great cities are driving experiments in “smart parking spaces.”

They will steer the latest interactive technologies to inform motorists where to park their jalopies — and at what price.

“I think many cities are watching San Francisco and Los Angeles to see how this experiment works,” said Dan Mitchell, senior engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Both cities are beginning two-year pilot projects that will infuse supply-and-demand principles in parking pricing with an assist from wireless technologies.

In selected busy areas, both cities are installing sensors in parking spaces. The sensors will give real-time digital information about whether a space is occupied and for how long.

The system is designed to recommend a parking price increase if a given block at a given time is jammed with parked cars. The idea is set the pricing at a level that will keep 10 to 30 percent of spaces in a given area vacant.

That is intended to curb the gas-burning, time-consuming process seen every day in Los Angeles and San Francisco (and thousands of other cities)  — motorists circling city blocks, praying for a space to open up.

“By properly pricing both on- and off-street parking in a coordinated manner, based on supply and demand, the final cost of their trip will increase, thus encouraging motorists to leave their cars at home or to park outside the Downtown core and use public transit to their final destination,” reasoned an October 2009 LADOT report.
In January, San Francisco began installing sensors in pilot project areas.

Jay Primus, manager of SF Park, envisions a summer launch for real-time data beginning to flow.

By the summer, the sensors in the pilot areas will be wired into an integrated system and real-time data directed to a Web portal for drivers to tap into.

“The goal of SFPark is to make parking easier to find,” said Primus. “Once you get there, you’ll find it easier to pay. The spaces will be easier to find, creating more availability. The drivers most of the time will find spaces and they won’t be tempted to double-park. We will match people up to spaces.”

SFPark, part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, has a motto of  “Circle less. Live more.” (See more information here)

The SFPark Web page includes a testimonial from a renowned advocate of supply-and-demand parking prices, Donald C. Shoup, author and professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Your pilot programs will help all cities learn how to manage parking to reduce traffic congestion, energy consumption and air pollution,” wrote Shoup in 2008. “If San Francisco can solve its parking problems through better management and advanced technology, every city on earth will pay attention.”

The pilot project is funded by a federal grant of $24.75 million, which pays for parking sensors, new meters and stations, variable message signs and computer systems and servers to make it all work and store data.

The SFPark pilot will apply to about 6,000 of San Francisco’s 25,000 metered parking spaces.

About 1,500 spaces in peak, towaway zones will have sensors embedded, flush with the pavement. Other sensors will be epoxied onto the surface of the parking space in a durable way, Primus said.

Sensors include magnetometers that sense the localized distortion of the earth’s magnetic field by a couple tons of parked steel and chrome. The pilot will evaluate how those instruments work.

During the pilot period, Primus envisions four-week intervals to crunch figures on demand and availability and adjust pricing by day, time and location. The pilot will use the opportunity to test special-event parking, Primus said — perhaps during the parking crunch of a baseball game at AT&T Park along the San Francisco waterfront, hard by downtown.

The data will not be communicated parking space by space so as to avoid the urban spectacle of multiple Web-connected motorists dueling over a lone available space. Instead, the Web portal will display the number of spaces available in a given block or perhaps a nearby parking garage, Primus said.

“It will be a live data feed open and free to the public,” said Primus, adding that he looks forward to cell-phone developers creating applications to find practical uses for the data.  

Later in the pilot project, the data will be used to create parking advisories transmitted on electronic variable message signs in those areas.

In Los Angeles, the Downtown LA ExpressPark Project is expected to start circulating real-time data in 2011. It is tied in to a larger transit improvement plan to create high-occupancy toll lanes in freeways cutting through downtown.

ExpressPark, estimated at $15 million, is one of 16 initiatives contained in a $210.6 million federal congestion reduction grant submitted by LA DOT, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Caltrans.

Also in the Los Angeles mix are plans to explore public-private partnerships in operating a parking meter system. Mitchell didn’t envision that affecting the pilot project to evaluate how sensors work with an integrated parking data system.

The pilot project applies to about 5,500 spaces of Los Angeles’s 40,000 metered parking spaces.

In early returns of some new machines, LADOT is finding some public acceptance. Staff estimated 50 percent of parkers are using bank and credit cards at new, modern pay stations and enhanced parking meters, where such payment is capable, according to the October report to Los Angeles traffic commissioners. Using cards that way reduces the use of coins — and reduces the incentive for parking meter theft and vandalism.

When the service is available, LADOT found few parkers were taking advantage of the capability to pay by cell phone for a small fee.

Because of their added complexity, pay stations require about the same amount of staff effort in collection and maintenance as an equivalent number of old-fashioned parking meters, according to the report.