Data shows fewer parking spots relieve congestion

The hunt for a parking space on a city street can cause as many headaches for the municipality as it does for motorists. To ease that pain, cities are using data and analytics.

Take the nation’s capital, for example. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) uses a cloud-based tool from Conduent that collects data from multiple sources and translates it into actionable information that DDOT can use to set demand-based pricing in the heavily traveled Washington, D.C., neighborhoods of Chinatown and Penn Quarter. Applied to about 1,000 meters in the area, the ParkDC program resulted in a 5 percent improvement in parking availability and a 12 percent boost in occupancy at underused areas in 2016-2017, its first year.

Conduent’s tool, called Merge, takes data from about 450 sensors that monitor the 1,000 parking spots, plus payment data from meters and mobile apps along with ticket-issuance data and blends it using algorithms that can predict where people park, how long cars stay and when meters need maintenance work. The company makes quarterly recommendations to DDOT about adjusting rates to influence demand and make parking more available.

DDOT Associate Director of Parking and Ground Transportation Evian Patterson said occupancy data alone isn’t enough. “It only gives you theoretical occupancy. We say it’s occupancy by proxy,” he said. “The data shows how much a person has paid. It doesn’t show how long they remained in the space. You can make inferences from that when you put the data in aggregate to say, ‘In general, here’s some occupancy on certain block spaces.’”

Under the District’s five-year contract with Conduent, the company handles Merge, revenue collection, reporting and meter maintenance, which helps the District with preventative maintenance, Patterson said. “When you have meters that are low on battery life, instead of waiting for them to go out, the vendor or contractor can get out there and change batteries ahead of time so we’re not left with an out-of-service meter that a customer can’t use.”

ParkDC also has its own app. Launched in 2016, the ParkDC app provides real-time parking availability and rate information for those neighborhoods. It uses a traffic light color code and percentages to show drivers where they are most likely to find a spot.

Pushing this information out to the public is a main reason why the ParkDC program is so successful, said Brett Peze, vice president of parking and mobility solutions at Conduent. “Simply changing prices doesn’t really work,” Peze said. “You have to make sure that motorists know where there is less expensive, available parking, and that’s what really influences their behavior.”

And that behavior is important because drivers looking for spots can contribute to congestion and affect public safety.

“Parking, when not managed properly, can really contribute to congestion and a lot of mobility issues in cities," Peze said. "When it is managed correctly, it can promote traffic flow, it can reduce congestion and it can promote economic development and vitality. [It] also has a real impact on safety in cities, because such a large percentage of accidents are tied to distracted drivers that are looking for parking.”

In November, DDOT announced plans to expand the program to include the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, and the agency’s associate director of traffic operations and safety, Soumya Dey, told the Washington Times that DDOT is considering giving a “data-driven upgrade” to the District’s remaining 17,000 parking spots. The National Parking Association named ParkDC its Innovative Organization of the Year for this work.

Parking is in the midst of a paradigm shift, Todd Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada, wrote in a Planetizen blog post this summer. Specifically, government officials are understanding that it makes more sense to reduce parking supply, set more efficient regulations and incentivize the use of non-automobile modes than to provide abundant, free parking. Data analytics supports this.

The new paradigm “includes strategies such as improved user information, more convenient payment systems, and improved travel options,” Litman wrote. “This does not assume that vehicle parking should be eliminated and everybody forego driving, but it does recognize that parking is costly and abundant parking encourages driving and sprawl, so virtually everybody benefits from more efficient parking management.”

The growing importance of parking data is evident in the recent formation of the Alliance for Parking Data Standards. Created by the International Parking and Mobility Institute, British Parking Association and European Parking Association, its mission is to develop and maintain a uniform global standard that would let organizations share parking data worldwide.

Stateside, D.C. isn’t the only city recognizing parking’s role in overall transportation management. Other places are using parking data to take aim at the immediate issue of, well, parking but also related problems such as environmentally harmful emissions from cars circling for spots: Here’s a look at some of those efforts:

  • San Francisco’s SFpark – During a two-year pilot test of this demand-based pricing system that uses networked meters, parking availability improved even as the economy, population and demand grew, according to a report by the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency. “The amount of time that we achieved the target parking occupancy (60 to 80%) increased by 31% in pilot areas, compared to a 6% increase in control areas,” it states.

  • Pittsburgh’s ParkPGH – Developed by the Pittsburgh Cultural District in 2010, this smart parking solution uses historical and real-time data to provide drivers with spot availability. Parking inventory is updated every 30 seconds, and motorists can see areas most likely to have open spots on a traffic light color-coded map available online or via a mobile app.

  • King County, Wash.’s Right Size Parking Calculator – This tool lets users estimate parking use at a specific site based on a model using local parking data correlated with factors related to the building, its occupants and its surrounding. “The calculator can help analysts, planners, developers, and community members weigh factors that will affect parking use at multi-family housing sites,” according to the website. Users select the parcel or parcels they want to study on a map, and the parking/unit estimate appears. They can manipulate the tool further to get more specific or broader information.