A Texas Transportation Institute urban mobility report from 2009 revealed that congestion costs the US almost $90bn a year, more than $750 for every American traveller.

This cost could be measured in more than dollars – the amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons (three weeks of fuel for each traveller) and wasted time totalled 4.2 billion hours, nearly one full week of work for each traveller.

Parking pioneers – SFPark

"A Texas Transportation Institute urban mobility report from 2009 revealed that congestion costs the US almost $90bn a year."

According to StreetSmart, a world leader in telemetry-enabled parking management solutions, studies have shown that between 30% to 50% of congestion is caused by drivers looking for spaces that do not exist.

Reducing traffic and city centre congestion is an ever-increasing problem in cities all over the world. But one city, San Francisco, with the support of a federal grant and StreetSmart’s technology, has invested in a unique scheme that could radically transform city centres and substantially reduce congestion: SFPark.

SFPark is pioneering the world’s most advanced parking management system, and with 8,000 parking spaces as part of the pilot scheme, it is the biggest in the world to date. Sensors, resembling hockey pucks, are installed in on-street parking spaces and detect whether a space is full or empty.

The data is uploaded wirelessly and transmitted to a network operations centre where data is analysed, dynamic parking rates set and information on which spaces are vacant is made available to the public, via an app called Parking Genius. Spaces both on the street and in car parks, as long as they are under the jurisdiction of the SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency), are available under the SFPark scheme.

"SFPark is pioneering the world’s most advanced parking management system."

"The programme has been going since April of last year (2011) and so far more than 40,000 people have downloaded the app, so we’re pretty encouraged by that," said Paul Rose of the SFMTA.

"The pilot programme will be complete sometime this year (2012) and then we will be able to study the results and determine how to move forward. Although this hasn’t been done before, we believe we will see benefits throughout the city because of it."

StreetSmart has its sensor technology in operation all around the world, including other parts of the US, such as California, Texas and Pennsylvania, as well as other countries, such as Israel and China, but nowhere is there a deployment bigger than San Francisco’s SFPark.

Urban environment challenges

"To get up and running in around 8,000 spaces is no small undertaking," said StreetSmart’s Kirby Andrews, who says the greatest challenge of the project is its sheer scale, closely followed by the complexities of the urban environment.

"This represents a different challenge block by block and includes radio frequency and electromagnetic interference – AC current or DC current – trolley cars with power lines overhead and unseen infrastructure," said Andrews.

"Reducing traffic and city centre congestion is an ever-increasing problem in cities all over the world."

"So the challenge is to have a system that is robust enough to operate in these various unforeseeable, difficult environments – but that’s where our company’s strength is. During the initial trial results were 90% accurate, but now the figure sits at 95% with system reliability at 99.9%."

Andrews explains that there are three important components to the system: the sensor, which is embedded in the road surface and contains a radio, a battery (which runs for approximately five years) and requires two seconds between one car leaving and another arriving, the local area network (comprised of the sensors communicating with a collector and then a gateway) and the network operation centre, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia. It is here that approximately one million records are processed each day.

Each element of the system is stand alone, so is not reliant on any existing infrastructure. The parking metre is part of San Francisco’s infrastructure and part of the project, so a dynamic pricing model can also be tested.

The meants the system is one which can be rolled out anywhere, and Andrews is aware that the world is watching to see the outcome of the SF Park project.

UK sensor technology start-up

While the US is leading the way in smart parking technology, a start-up company in the UK called Deteq has developed new technology, called Smart Sensor, at the Sussex Innovation Centre, in Brighton, in a bid to reduce the burden on the country’s 13 million parking spaces.

With funding raised from Finance South East in 2011, CEO Adrian Bone has developed the system with John Bartington, a specialist in sensor technology at the University of Essex in Colchester.

While the company can’t divulge the exact details as it is currently filing a patent for the technology, the system relies on new sensor technology – 7cm-wide patches, which are low in cost and low-powered – that, once stuck to the centre of each parking area, wirelessly sends information to a base station.

"One of the unique aspects of our system is that we are using new technology in the wireless space that manages lots of different pieces of data very easily," said Bone.

"Each piece of information is just nine bits of data for every car that goes over a sensor. So, for example, if we’re dealing with 1,000 spaces on a system, we will not create bottlenecks of information, which is one of the main challenges of a system such as this."

Both Bone and Bartington wanted to create a unit that was cheap, almost disposable (bearing in mind that roads get replaced every four to five years) and not constrained by infrastructure. The system informs drivers where vacant spaces are via a smartphone app, and trials are currently ongoing at the University of Sussex.

"There is so much potential for this technology," said Bone. "Reducing congestion and increasing revenue for councils through a reduction in traffic wardens and dynamic pricing is just the start of what can be achieved."

Park Assist from Australia

Further afield, an Australia-based company, Park Assist, has created the M3 System, which allows drivers to use their smartphones to locate their car as well as find a free parking space.

Each space is monitored using high-resolution CMOS digital cameras, which include LED-based space indicators that change colour depending on whether the parking space is vacant or occupied.

There are now 75,000 units rolled out across Australia, Europe and the US, and the company claims drivers find spaces in 50% less time with the system in place and more use the car park, meaning increased profits for clients.

For each of these companies reducing the time drivers take to park their cars and increasing clients’ revenues is the goal, but it is the hotly anticipated results later on in 2012 from the SFPark project that have the potential to change the game of parking on a global scale.

"Around the world there are literally millions of drivers wanting to find a space near their destination and they are going to spend 20 minutes circling the block, burning gasoline, slowing down traffic flow and disrupting the environment," said Andrews.

"This goes on every day in any city and the increased traffic, fuel waste and lack of productivity is incalculable. If we could give drivers the tool that could permit them to know there’s no parking if you turn right, but plenty if you turn left, that would change parking and improve all of our lives."