According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), part of the US Department of Transportation, in 2009 a traffic accident occurred every five seconds in the US. A 2009 Texas Transportation Institute urban mobility report revealed that congestion cost the nation almost $90bn (more than $750 for every US traveller). And this was a cost that could be measured in more than dollars – the amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons (three weeks’ fuel for each traveller) and wasted time totalled 4.2 billion hours, nearly one full week of work per traveller.

In the past, overcoming congestion issues has required new, wider motorways, better parking and expensive road works, but the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry says a much cheaper, and more effective answer could lie in the palm of our hands.

The car park conundrum

The Urban Planning Association (UPA), covering the metro areas of New York, San Francisco, Miami, Florida, Minneapolis and Seattle, has focused its efforts on using what it calls "the 4Ts" to reduce congestion: tolling, transit, telecommuting and technology and is concentrating on the metro areas of New York and San Francisco.

It is now focusing its efforts on issues to do with parking, and it believes that smart phones could bring smart parking to the fore. Mobile technology is enabling intelligent parking systems to emerge, helping drivers park smarter, easing congestion and reducing city spending.

“Smart phones are coming into play, enabling intelligent parking systems to emerge.”

According to the UPA, circling for parking accounts for about 30% of driving in San Francisco, which is one of the most congested cities in the US. Los Angeles University of California professor of urban planning Donald Shoup, in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, says the American attitude is often "the more you drive the more chances you have of landing free parking". His theory is that there’s no such thing as a free park, however, and that other members of the community, such as developers, residents, consumers and employers, eventually pick up the tab.

This is where smart phones can come into play, enabling intelligent parking systems to emerge.

San Francisco’s SFpark

To improve upon the negative impact of congestion by reducing circling effectively in San Francisco, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) introduced SFpark. The project comes from a $19.8m grant from the US Department of Transportation’s urban partnership programme and from the SFMTA.

The programme uses more than 8,000 parking sensors affixed to metered and unmetered spaces. It also relies heavily on a new concept of pricing. A key goal of the programme is to ensure that parking pricing reflects the value of a space (based on demand from $0.25 to $6 an hour). SFMTA-owned garages and parking lots will cost up to $10 an hour.

To install the pricing system, San Francisco used a system designed by Streetline, which has technology to show open parking spaces on websites that can be accessed through smart phones (and other wireless devices). "We hope to help bring about remarkable changes in the way people think about parking and how they use their cars," Tod Dykstra, CEO of Streetline says.

With more than 450,000 registered vehicles in San Francisco – a figure that increases by 35,000 on work days – and about 250,000 unmetered parking spaces – competition for free parking spots is fierce and often frenzied. SFpark aims to ensure that at least one in ten spaces is free on each block. It is also investing in next-generation meters that support a range of payment options, from coins to smart cards and credit cards.

The next step with New Jersey’s ParkNet

SFpark is what Suhas Mathur, a PhD student at New Jersey’s Rutgers University describes as a "naïve system", because to monitor 6,000 spaces you need 6,000 sensors, which is expensive. His work with the Wireless Information Network Laboratory (WINLAB) on a system called ParkNet, which began in early 2009, aims to monitor and communicate available parking spaces at a significantly lower cost than SFpark.

“According to the UPA, circling for parking accounts for about 30% of driving in San Francisco.”

The goals for the project are two-fold: to provide information, so people can park more efficiently, and data, so governments can facilitate the correct pricing of meters.

"We’ve found a way that allows information to be collected and disbursed in close to real time via mobile sensors, which are attached to the side of moving vehicles such as taxis and public buses," Mathur says. "Vehicles collect information automatically as they drive by a space, which is sent over a wireless network and made available to people looking for parking at that time."

In this model information is sent and received over a cellular network. This will be specific to the user’s location. The system, however, has only been tested in New Jersey and New York over a period of two-and-a-half months. The result of this will be presented at the Mobysis conference in July 2010.

Mathur says the next step will be to carry out a bigger trial with a larger number of vehicles before the technology is commercialised.

According to Mathur, the experience the team has had so far working with New York’s authorities has been very positive. "New York has a number of bodies that issue requests for technical comments from the scientific community to improve things in their city, which is a very good model," he says.

The team is currently preparing to move to phase two and Mathur believes the project (if authorities are agreeable) could be rolled out within a year

A report entitled "The Skewed Economic Incentives to Drive in Manhattan", prepared for Transportation Alternatives in March 2007 by Bruce Schaller, deputy commissioner of planning and sustainability at the NYC Department of Transportation, came up with a similar conclusion to Shoup – that high-cost off-street parking has failed to ease congestion in Manhattan because the large majority of people driving in the CBD do not pay for parking.

“Smart phones and smart parking makes parking easier, and streets less crowded.”

Their study shows this particular policy has failed to stem traffic flow into Manhattan and recommends increasing the price of on-street parking and expanding the number of metered spaces to create a "sufficient vacancy rate" that will "sharply reduce the number of drivers searching for parking". It’s estimated that without free parking available, 19,200 fewer vehicles will enter Manhattan each day.

Prime spot finding with PrimoSpot

For PrimoSpot, arguably the most popular mobile phone application on the market for locating parking spots in the New York and Boston city metro areas, information is key to how these new parking systems work. It uses information on location, length of stay, and just how much time is saved finding a spot for its solution.

PrimoSpot contains parking information data that took two years to gather – it covers all parking spots, on-street, off-street, metered, unmetered and garages (and even bike racks) with photographs, prices and restrictions so that drivers can best decide where to travel to next, what spaces will work best for them and even what they will look like. The app is available on both iTunes and the Android phone.

Originally, city authorities were reluctant to get involved in the project but PrimoSpot’s growing reputation now means that cities are considering investing money into its technology. "We’re working with the Seattle Department of Transportation, helping it get its website up and running," Hill says.

“PrimoSpot’s growing reputation now means that cities are considering investing money into its technology.”

"They’re working with us as they don’t have a budget for mobile apps and we’re working with them to make sure their data is in shape."

PrimoSpot does not contain information on whether a space is free is not, but looking at the above projects, Hill says it is not out of the question. There are a couple of apps already attempting to this – SpotSwitch is one example but like the others, it is a very grassroots app that’s working closely with certain parts of specific neighbourhoods in New York.

"We are hoping to do crowd sourcing in the next month or two," Hill says. "But there’s no deadline right now. We’re testing in a month and two or three months after that it will be rolled out to the phone."

The smart future

Smart phones and smart parking makes parking easier, and streets less crowded. But it’s the gathering of data and partnerships between technology companies and city authorities that can potentially delay the progress of the technology (not to mention the question mark over whether or not crowd sourcing will really catch on).

Companies such as PrimoSpot are making great progress in this unchartered territory. "A lot of the cities have already agreed to work with us as it’s a great marketing opportunity for them, plus it has money saving advantages," Hill concludes.

Whatever the outcome, with these diverse initiatives and technologies attempting to ease our traffic woes, the future of congestion already seems far smarter than the past.