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D.C. tests new parking technology to help drivers find space, pay more easily

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Long ago, in the tender years of baby boomers, the futuristic Jetsons had cars that parked themselves. Now, as the shadows of boomers grow long, some cars can just about do that.

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Ah, you say, but can they find a parking space?

Well, yes. In less time than it took for the visionary self-parking Jetson vehicle to become a reality, so, too, will come help finding that elusive space.

"That concept really is a futuristic concept, but I firmly believe it will be happening soon," said David Palmer, marketing director for Parkeon, a company that manages parking systems.

Parkeon is one of four companies that will install innovative pilot parking programs in the District next month as the venerable parking meter speeds toward obsolescence.

Three of the systems scheduled for trial runs will have sensors in each parking space that communicate with a central control device. That control box will keep track of whether a space is occupied and, if it is, whether the vehicle's occupant has paid to park there. And three of the systems will give drivers the option of paying "the meter" by cellphone.

All four will allow payment by cash or credit card. One system will ask drivers to enter their license plate numbers at the control box when they pay, and parking enforcement officers will be able to use handheld or car-mounted scanners to determine who has paid and who will get a ticket.

Those same sensors that talk to the control box soon could talk to you, too, guiding you to available spaces.

"Washington is taking the lead in this country and almost throughout the world," said UCLA professor Donald Shoup, author of "The High Cost of Free Parking." "Washington has started its [parking] reforms at just the right time, when there's so much new technology available."

Hunting for parking produces more than frustration. Shoup studied a 15-block business district in Los Angeles and determined that cruising about 2.5 times around the block for the average of 3.3 minutes required to find a space added up to 950,000 excess miles traveled, 47,000 gallons of gas wasted and 730 tons of carbon dioxide produced in the course of a year.

The answer, he said, is balancing the cost of on-street parking with that of garage parking. That is something the District has sought to do, and a goal that could be better achieved with parking-space sensors that provide feedback on turnover and duration of vacancies.

Real-time data on available spaces would help drivers even more. Before that can happen, a complete inventory of available spaces must be made and the real-time link to your vehicle has to exist.

"It could happen with a [Global Positioning System], like TomTom or Garmin," Palmer said, or it could come through a commercial Web provider or cellphone application. In addition to helping guide drivers to a space, such technology could alert them that their parking time was about to expire and let them add more time by cellphone from wherever they might be.

With money to be made by the company that creates that final link, Palmer said he is confident it will happen soon.

"Definitely down the road," agreed John Lisle, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. "We've made data available for third-party apps in other areas that are useful to the public. That [help in finding a vacant parking space] would be very useful, so long as people aren't driving around staring down at their cellphones."

The four pilot programs are expected to be in place by July 19, beginning a 90-day trial that will help guide the District's long-term strategy. The new systems will be installed on Independence Avenue SW; on Wisconsin Avenue, Jenifer Street and 44th Street in Friendship Heights; in the 1400 block of U Street NW; in Foggy Bottom; and near Nationals Park in Southeast Washington. In each instance, tops of parking meters will be removed and the poles will display a number corresponding to the space. Using that number, drivers can enter the information required to park, either by cellphone or at a control box.

This has been a year of innovation for D.C.'s parking systems. In January, the first meters that accepted credit cards were installed at five locations. In April, the option of paying by cellphone was offered at 700 spaces in three areas of downtown: Union Station, Dupont Circle and the area of K and I streets and New York Avenue NW.


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