After circling block upon block in search of a rare vacant parking space, or scrounging for quarters at a blinking meter, many drivers may arrive at a common thought: There's got to be a better way of doing this. UCLA professor Donald Shoup, an authority on parking management and author of "The High Cost of Free Parking," agrees. "We have neglected parking as a policy issue for far too long," he says.

In Washington, D.C., five possible solutions for smarter, more efficient on-street systems are being put to the test. These pilot programs are helping to place the District among a handful of U.S. cities -- including San Francisco, Redwood City, California, and others -- at the leading edge of parking technology, according to Shoup.

The goal of these pilot programs, which employ credit card payment systems as well as smart phones, mobile applications, text messaging and occupancy sensors embedded in the pavement, is to "identify the best technology and solutions to improve the parking experience for motorists in the District." The pilots were slated to run through the end of October.

With the right tools and policies, however, Shoup argues that parking management can deliver benefits beyond just parking, to actually create better streets. The idea is to make some parking spaces available when and where demand exists by setting up what's called performance-based pricing. Revenue collected from meters can then be channeled into services such as tree planting, sidewalk maintenance, security and public transportation.

Ideally, Shoup explained in an interview, performance-based pricing schemes balance supply and demand for parking such that each city block has only one or two parking spaces open at any given time. Higher occupancy rates (i.e. no open spaces) indicate that the price of parking is too low. Lower occupancy rates, on the other hand, suggest the price is too high.

A proper balance will encourage turnover in areas with high demand -- busy shopping districts, for example -- while minimizing traffic congestion and pollution caused by drivers circling an area on the hunt for an open spot. In addition, reasons Shoup, the cost of parking should be high enough to make more people seriously consider alternative transportation options, like walking, biking or taking the bus, while allowing drivers to find parking when and where they really need it.

New technology has a key role to play in putting these theories to work in the real world, making it easier and less labor-intensive for cities to adjust parking time limits and pricing, notes Shoup. Smarter, more connected meters can afford the city more flexibility to vary price by time of day and day of the week, and also to "fine tune" pricing "beyond neighborhood or area" in a way that reflects the actual competition for parking on a given street, says John Lisle, a spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation, which is running the D.C. pilot programs.

As DDOT Director Gabe Klein observed in a recent post on the agency's official blog, parking management is "an industry that is changing weekly/monthly," partly due to the entry of information technology firms in a market that historically has been mostly about the hardware. At the same time, rising consumer adoption of mobile devices and smart phones opens the possibility for two-way communication between parking systems and drivers.

The Washington, D.C. pilots include a pay-by-phone system from Verrus Mobile Technologies, which lets drivers who sign up for the service charge parking fees to a credit card and extend parking time over the phone. They can also opt to receive a text message reminder before the meter runs out.

ParkMobile also operates a pay-by-phone pilot, but unlike Verrus' system, this one offers a mobile application. Drivers can call ParkMobile's toll free number or use a mobile app (free for download during the pilot) at the start and finish of their parking "session" to pay for the exact time actually used (rather than estimated increments of five or 10 minutes at an old-school meter). Parking enforcement officers can view license plate numbers and allotted parking times on handheld devices that are wirelessly connected to a database.

Parkeon and Duncan Solutions, meanwhile, are operating pay-by-space meters that serve multiple, numbered spaces in a given area. Drivers enter the number of their spot at the machine, and pay for it via credit card or cash. Parkeon also offers a pay-by-phone option.

In another pilot, operated by Cale Parking Systems USA, drivers enter their license plate number at a meter that handles multiple parking spaces and can pay by coin or credit card, either at the machine or over the phone. According to the DDOT, parking enforcement officers can tell who has paid for parking by electronically reading the tag numbers. Later this year, the agency plans to start offering in-car meters, which drivers would switch on or off. Down the road, said Lisle, data from occupancy sensors could potentially be made public and shared with third-party application developers, so motorists can find out parking availability in real time simply by checking an app.

Of course, there's no guarantee that any or all of these systems, and accompanying pricing schemes, will have the desired effect. Shoup noted that a targeted 85 percent occupancy rate (equivalent to 1-2 vacant parking spaces per block) has remained out of reach in London for years, despite plenty of schemes to achieve it.

That said, DDOT aims to implement a citywide pay-by-phone system by the end of 2010 or early 2011, and it is collecting feedback from residents. Data collection will be an important piece of the puzzle for some time to come. "You cannot tell the right price for parking," Shoup explains, "without looking at the results."

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