Cities across the country are implementing innovative parking strategies using new technologies in an effort to improve parking experiences for citizens as well as make parking fee systems more cost effective.

From California to Washington, D.C., mobile apps and other technologies are revolutionizing the parking industry. And government leaders are partnering with private industry in metropolitan areas to tailor new parking innovation to their unique needs.

Now, they have a handful of payment options and revenue per meter has gone up. Our return on investment has been short and positive.” – Casey Jones

No more driving around for blocks and blocks and circling back in a vain attempt to find an open space.

No more quarters dribbling onto the street or getting stuck in coin operated meters or having to be repaired and monitored for hours by paid staff. The meter readers are still around. But they are more likely to come directly to an expired or broken meter, than circle the blocks themselves looking for red “expired” flags.

Now, in some cities, arrows can point to a block with unoccupied spaces. Or, spaces can be selected online and paid for in advance. Some systems can send a text message to a phone when a meter is about to expire.

“Nothing’s worse than having a bad parking experience,” says Casey Jones, chairman of the International Parking Institute, a trade organization for public and private parking professionals. “The more we can integrate our piece of the experience with the reason people are coming to downtown in the first place, and make it the same kind of quality experience, we create loyal patrons and bring people downtown.”

Ten years ago, what’s being dubbed “smart parking” didn’t exist. But with the advent of so many new technologies almost instantaneously, cities are incorporating credit card kiosks, meters that take credit cards, parking sensors that tell where spots are available, and other interactive strategies. The IPI will break them all down in “Parking Matters: An Insider’s Guide to Parking for Local Governments,” a free report due out later this spring to help parking officers sort through the technologies.

“The advantage to the cities is that through the use of technologies we can vastly improve the parking experience,” Jones says. “That is significant when cities are showcasing themselves.”

The Federal Highway Administration has begun a grant program to help fund some new technologies, and cities and towns themselves are ponying up money, which they hope will make their parking fee systems more cost effective.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago and smaller cities such as Santa Cruz, Calif., and Lexington, Ky., are among metropolitan areas around the country implementing the new innovations which can result in a cleaner environment (less driving around and around seeking parking) and fewer frustrations for citizens and visitors.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, has launched “Parker,” a mobile app that scouts out street parking spaces and lets drivers know where they are available in real time.

Dan Mitchell, senior Transportation Engineer for L.A., says the system currently keeps track of 800 spaces in Hollywood and 200 spaces in the Studio City section, along with information on off-street lots, rates, locations, hours and their payment methods. The on-street parking spaces each have sensor implanted in the street, which senses whether the space is occupied and sends that information to a central location, which then puts out the information to the application.

The system, according to Mitchell, “lets us understand how parking is being utilized,” and will have an impact on a planned expansion of the system into “L.A. ExpressPark,” which will price the spaces based on motorists’ demand for them – the more attractive a space, the more it will cost. That will have two affects, Mitchell said, it will result in higher turnover in the popular parking spots, and cheaper spots for cost-conscious parkers. The rates will range from $2 an hour to as high as $6 an hour for the primo spots.

“Some areas are in much higher demand than others,” he said. “People are driving around and around the blocks hunting for a parking space because they are (now) much less expensive than off-street parking.”

A similar system already is in place in San Francisco, and is getting mostly good reactions from drivers, according to news reports. The most expensive spot is $4.50; the least, a buck. About a quarter of the 27,000 metered spaces in San Francisco have the sensors, and the prices can be adjusted remotely. The city also has reduced prices at off-street parking lots and garages.

Las Vegas is another city where congestion on the “strip” has led to frustration for visitors and natives alike. Las Vegas has just finished mapping out every parking place in the downtown area, according to Brandy Stanley, Parking Service manager of the City of Las Vegas, some 50,000 spots – both public and private. Now, the city is in the process of figuring out what to do with that information and is looking at what new technologies to adopt first, specifically in setting up interactive, real-time signs to point to available parking.

“Our biggest parking problem is it’s difficult for people to figure out where the parking is,” Stanley said. “We have 40 percent more spaces than we need but we’re not communicating to the people coming downtown where they are. It’s a nice problem to have. We don’t have to build so much parking.”

In Washington, D.C., which has a reputation for parking enforcement efficiency, on-street parking is available by cell phone, mobile app, credit card and, yes, even coins.

Soumya Dey, deputy associate director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the city was getting “beaten up” in the press several years ago because of old, cranky meters that didn’t work much of the time, limit payment options and in inefficient way of fixing broken meters which relied on customer complaints.

After a study, Dey said the capital city now offers multiple ways for parkers to pay for their spots, including credit cards, mobile phone apps and toll-free numbers.

“Pay by cell was launched city wide in 2011,” he said. “This technology has real promise in D.C. It’s one of the most successful pay-by-cell launches. We have had about 1.6 million transactions since July, 2011. There are 6,500 transactions a week and it is immensely popular. Thirty percent of the revenues are coming in pay-by-cell.”

With cities like Las Vegas and Washington attracting millions of tourists each year, the parking payment systems have to be simple and easy to understand. Dey says that hasn’t been a problem in Washington, where parkers have come from every state in the country, including Alaska and Hawaii (the pay-by-cell system requires license plate numbers to verify that the vehicle parked at the space is the same one being paid for).

The key, he said, is to mount an aggressive public relations campaign to get the word out to travel agencies and travelers themselves about the new ways to park.
Based on the popularity of the cell phone system, Dey said his only wish is that the city had done it sooner.

Michael Drow, senior vice president of technology integration at Standard Parking, one of the country’s largest private parking companies, said it is important for municipalities to decide what their goals are for parking before heading willy-nilly into new technology.

“Just because there’s a new thing out there doesn’t mean it’s right,” Drow said. “Who are your constituent groups — retail shoppers, people working every day, residential? All have different needs and operating characteristics.”

He added, “There is a lot of technology out there today. A lot of it has more sizzle than meat.”

IPI’s Jones, who is director of transportation Boise State University in Idaho, said “smart” parking meters that take credit cards have been cost/effective on his campus, even with the cost of the new meters being more than the old ones. “At the end of the day, in return on investment terms, we’ve paid for those meters already in a year.”

His theory is that if people have the means to pay for all the hours they intend to park, they will do so, rather than put all the coins they have into the meter and “roll the dice” if the amount is not enough to last their entire stay.

“Now, they have a handful of payment options and revenue per meter has gone up. Our return on investment has been short and positive,” he said.