Anyone who’s driven in a crowded downtown knows that parking can mean almost endless circling in the hunt for a space close to your destination. Technology that lets drivers find open parking spaces is already available, but it’s expensive and limited. Now engineers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have created a low-cost, highly effective solution to this urban problem.
A research team led by Rutger engineers Marco Gruteser and Wade Trappe used ultrasonic sensors, GPS receivers and cellular networks to find empty parking spaces and relay the information using Internet maps and navigation systems. They placed ultrasonic sensors on the passenger-side door of three cars and used them to collect data on empty parking spaces over a period of two months during daily commutes through Highland Park, New Jersey.
From this the engineers developed an algorithm that translated the ultrasound readings into revealing the number of available parking spaces — with 95 percent accuracy. Combining this with GPS data, they were able produce maps of occupied and unoccupied spaces that were 90 percent accurate.
Making detailed parking data widely available could alleviate traffic congestion as well as fuel consumption and carbon emissions. A study by Transportation Alternatives found that up to 45 percent of traffic in an area of Brooklyn was caused by cars circling the streets looking for parking. And in 2006, UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup calculated that, within a year, vehicles searching for parking in a small business district in LA consumed 47,000 gallons of gas and produced 730 tons of carbon dioxide.
To address the problem, cities like San Francisco have sunk millions into “smart parking” technology. You may have noticed it at airports or other locations, where information is conveyed via a screen that shows how many spaces are available on various levels of a parking garage. But the SFPark project only works with metered and slotted parking spaces. Plus, with an estimated cost of $500 a year per parking spot to install and maintain, the 6,000 spaces it covers constitutes only 25 percent of the city’s total — and at a cost of up to $3 million.
The Rutgers team set out to create a lower-cost alternative that can work for both metered and unslotted parking spaces. The engineers developed a prototype technology platform that uses a $20 ultrasonic sensor and a $100 GPS receiver. They’ve also devised ways to enable the sensors to better measure the size of parking spots and not be fooled by people, trash cans and other objects in the vicinity. And though the team used Wi-Fi to transmit data on open parking spots, the information can easily be sent to cars via a cellular connection or GPS receivers.
The researchers replicated the New Jersey test with more than 500 cabs in San Francisco. Afterward, they concluded that downtown could be covered using only 300 cabs and their system could provide the same data as SFPark — but with a cost-saving factor of about 15 times over the current fixed-sensor system.
The system isn’t ready to be rolled out across the US. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.
City planners are also looking at Robotic Parking Systems to alleviate urban parking problems. Instead of on street parking, urban areas can benefit from automated parking garages that can fit twice as many cars in half the space of conventional type garages. The smaller footprint along with fully customized facades make the garages easy to fit into any neighborhood.