The future of parking: No meters, open spots and dynamic rates

WASHINGTON — Everyone has done it: You circle and circle and can’t find a parking spot on the street. It can make you pull your hair out.

But parking experts envision a day when this no longer is necessary: Every block will have an open spot or two. Cars will automatically communicate with smart meters to show you to the open spot, park for you — then pay seamlessly — like an E-ZPass. Parking tickets will become very rare.

This is the vision of David Cummins, a senior executive at Xerox State and Local Solutions, which builds, operates and maintains speed and red- light cameras, parking meters and ticketing in cities across the nation.

Locally, Xerox has contracts with the District of Columbia, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, among others.

“[In] the future of streetscapes in cities, parking meters won’t be part of the equation,” Cummins says. “Confusing signage that none of us understand won’t be part of the equation.”

Parking tickets will decline because of trends that we already see today. Apps such as ParkMobile and Pango allow drivers to pull into a spot, enter a code and pay for the meter. The app flashes and sends you an email to warn you as the time is about to expire.

But some drivers still enter the wrong zone into their devices and receive tickets. Some parking officers also enter the wrong zone into their machines and write bad tickets. In the future, this won’t be the case, because smart vehicles, smart devices and smart meters could all talk to each other.

“Tickets for overstaying the meter will go away,” Cummins says.

There’ll still be tickets for public safety violations, such as parking in front of a fire hydrant, he acknowledges. “But ultimately, yes, a decline in overall parking tickets,” Cummins says.

Such a scenario could create problems in the District, where $80 million to $90 million is raised annually through parking tickets. Each year, the city writes more than 2 million parking tickets. The most common ticket is for an expired meter, which usually happens when someone overstays the meter.

How will D.C. overcome this loss in ticket revenue? Demand pricing, also known as dynamic pricing.

It’s a new concept in parking policy, in which the city charges a variable rate based on demand. DDOT has tinkered with the idea near Nationals Park, charging higher rates during games than at other times of the week. But this concept would take it a step further and fluctuate the price you pay to park in real time.

The theory is there is more demand for parking than spaces available in Washington, so the supply is being undervalued and prices need to reflect the demand for the specific location.

“We’ve tried this in Los Angeles, where it was all done with algorithms. Basically, a pricing engine,” Cummins says. “We found pockets of congestion and other areas where no one parks. We’re going to find the same thing, I’m sure, in Washington, D.C., as well.”

If this concept seems familiar, it’s probably because Transurban uses a similar concept, called dynamic tolling, on the 495 Express Lanes.

Transurban uses algorithms about how many people are using the toll lanes and how much traffic is on the Capital Beltway main lanes to determine a toll.

The goal is to guarantee a congestion-free trip on the Express Lanes at 65 mph at all times, even when there is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the free lanes.

With dynamic or demand pricing for parking, the supply is the parking spots and the demand is the number of vehicles looking for spots. If the demand is high, or there are not many spaces open, then the meter price will go up. If there is not much demand, or there are several spots open, then the meter price will go down.

The goal is to guarantee that at any time, any spot, any day, there are one or two open spots per block. Generally, the goal is to have 85 percent of the spots occupied and 15 percent of the spots open for drivers looking to park.

“People assume this means, well, there are never any spots, so the price to park will just go up everywhere,” Cummins says. “In fact, in Los Angeles, 60 percent of the spots actually had a decline in parking rates. Only 30 percent had the rates go up.”

It will be several years before such a concept ever comes to D.C., but it’s also a vision that will shape the next debate on how to solve parking problems inside the District of Columbia.

The issue could also affect the overall traffic problem, as experts suggest that up to 30 percent of urban traffic could be attributed to drivers looking for parking spots on the street.

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