City Tests Out Parking Sensors, But So Far Just For Space-Finding App

A line of yellow parking sensors, each roughly the size of a hockey puck, lines a block of East 187th Street in the Bronx. Photo: Noah Kazis

New York City took a significant step today toward modernizing the way it allocates scarce curbside parking spaces, but it remains to be seen whether the city will embrace the full potential its new parking tech.

At a press conference in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx this morning, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca announced the installation of 177 parking sensors. Using magnets, the sensors can detect not only the presence of a vehicle, but the moment individual cars enter or leave spaces and the “magnetic signature” of individual vehicles. The sensors can be linked to parking meters and to enforcement officers in real-time.

The city hopes to use this batch of sensors to test out a smartphone app showing drivers how many on-street spaces are open on a given block. But more transformative changes like using the sensors to rationalize parking pricing, as in San Francisco, or to beef up parking enforcement as is common in Europe, aren’t yet in the works for New York City.

For the next three months, the city will just be checking to see whether the sensors can stand up to “the rigors of the streets of New York,” said Sadik-Khan, including inclement weather and street-sweeping.

If the sensors are tough enough, the city expects to unveil its parking app sometime around April. For a given stretch of spaces, the app will tell drivers whether there are fewer than two spaces available, two to three, or four or more. “We’re making it easier for drivers to park,” said Sadik-Khan. Neither the parking regulations in the area nor parking enforcement will change, she said.

A mock-up of a potential design for DOT's parking app was presented at a conference last November. At that point, Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan promised that the sensor technology would also be used to dynamically price on-street parking.

Vacca applauded the efforts to make parking easier. “We want people to come to Arthur Avenue,” he said, referring to the nearby Italian commercial corridor. “When you can’t get that parking space, you want to turn around and go back where you came from.”

Other cities around the world use parking sensors to do far more than lead drivers to an open space, however. San Francisco’s SFPark program, for example, uses similar technology to price on-street parking in line with demand: Parking rates are raised or lowered to ensure there’s usually one space open per block. Los Angeles’s ExpressPark system, launching this spring, will add enforcement into the mix, using the sensors to guide traffic officers to the areas where they’ll be most needed. In Paris, both traffic enforcement officers and drivers receive a text message when their meter has expired, a policy that the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy identified as helping reduce the use of private automobiles there.

New York has its own program, called ParkSmart, to align curbside parking prices with demand, and the city has shown interest in the full range of applications for parking sensors. When the Bloomberg administration notified companies in 2010 that the city was interested in next-generation parking tech, DOT hoped to not only use sensors for dynamic pricing and enforcing meter violations, but to crack down on placard abuse as well. And last November, Sadik-Khan told a tech conference that New York City’s smart parking technology would be used to manage the price of parking. But it’s not clear from today’s announcement whether data from the new sensors will be used to help set meter rates.

When asked whether those functions were still being pursued, Sadik-Khan said, “That’s not the intention right now.” She did say that once the city had parking data reliably coming in, there will be “all sorts of opportunities.”

The pilot project was paid for entirely by three vendors potentially interested in bidding on a larger project: Streetline, ACS, and IPsens. The sensors, which go two to a space, cost $250 each, though the city would likely get a bulk discount if it pursued a large-scale implementation.

  • Mark

    The city should not be supporting the development of an app that would only be used while driving.   There is no safe way to use this app, and it should not be developed or deployed.

  • Lisa

    They just look like an added hazard for cyclists to me

  • Vacca’d

    Just what we need…more drivers looking at their phones.  “I was looking at my phone!” can become the new “I didn’t see him!”

    By the way, does Vacca believe that this program should first go through a lengthy community board process?  I, for one, would like at least 90 days notice before these sensors — radical changes to the street — are installed.

  • Ian Dutton

    City Council Transportation Committee Agenda, Jan 18, 2013. James Vacca, Chair:
    1. Resolution condemning cancelation of all subway service between midnight and 6am daily due to budget cuts. HEARING CANCELLED
    2. ADDED: Resolution to amend city vehicular code to read: “Any motor violation received while racing in response to a mobile app which finds parking shall be considered null and void.”

  • @8f996ad67f04aec5edcfbc5070d76441:disqus  youve never been in a car with a passenger?

  • rhoderider

    I have to agree that the benefits of more efficient parking do not seem to outweigh the costs associated with distracted driving.

  • Ed Ravin

    I’m skeptical that the sensors will survive NYC traffic. This reminds me way too much of the city’s efforts in the 1990’s to install plowable roadway reflectors on city streets – at least half of them were gone six months later.  And the reflectors were level with the pavement, the photo above suggests these sensors are not.

    Also, does the $250 (!) cost include installation?

  • Danny G

    Worth trying.

  • Danny G

    Worth trying.

  • vnm

    If this might help reduce the amount of time people spend circling block after block just to find parking, it’s worth pursuing. … If the DOT can somehow find a way to avoid encouraging drivers to fiddle with their iPhones while they are behind the wheel.  New cars often/mostly(?) have GPS screens built into the dashboard. Maybe there’s a way to incorporate the parking availability data into GPS on-dashboard displays. Would that be better than on handheld devices?

  • Anonymous

    Yeah technology! What would we do without you?  You’re so good to us.

  • Common Sense

    To solve the problem of distracted drivers checking the app as they circle for parking, they should eliminate four parking spaces on every block, two on each side of the street.  People could pull in to these empty “waiting zones,” check their phones and then wait for as long as it takes for a parking space to open up. 

  • Anonymous

    Rather than waste $500 per parking space, why not just raise the price of street parking $0.05 per hour every week until equilibrium is reached. 

    Instead of having magnets inform parking enforcement officers of people parking at expired meters (or in bike lanes, or double parked) just create a iPhone app where citizens (presumably on foot) can take a picture of violations and submit for consideration for ticketing.  Those pictures with a clear license plate image and some context (plus location, date and time from metadata) will lead to a ticket.  Areas underserved by croudsourced ticketing get increased officer patrols, the patrols displaced by the citizen inputs. 

  • Eric McClure

    @MattyCiii:disqus , that’s the killer app!  You could pay a 10% commission to citizens for recording and submitting violations, creating an entire enforcement army to whom the city would have to pay neither salaries nor benefits (ticket-writing agents could be redeployed to enforce moving violations).  And your average schmo with a smartphone could earn a little extra coin, spurring the local economy.  Plus, I would be all over the miscreants who daily park six feet from the fire hydrant near my place.

  • Permit Parking NOW

    The vast majority of parking in NYC is non-metered residential parking which has no limitations on who can park there and for how long.
    Rather than spend money on this silly application which will have a limited effect, spend the money to fight Albany (and City Hall) to introduce permit parking city-wide restricting residential parking to legally registered and insured cars of city residents.
    The impact on meters paces would make this unnecessary application go away…whgile reducing circling for free spaces; traffic into the city for free spaces, raise tax revenues, reduce car insurance rates, etc…

  • Andrew

    @0b917caeb15a15ebbaa9e63014d64296:disqus So what do people do if they want to use their cars to, you know, travel into the city to visit friends or relatives who live in residential areas?

    And how do you deal with rentals?

    If only the city had never gotten into the free parking “business”…

  • Glenn

    In other countries this information is displayed on street signs and guides the driver to quickly find the nearest spot, including paid parking.

  • Ian Turner

    If this can reduce cruising, it has benefits for pedestrians. Likewise if it encourages people to check for parking before departing, in which case they might choose not to drive in the first place. The main thing is that the app should not be used while driving, but only while pulled over, e.g. at a fire hydrant or loading zone. Ideally, this would be enforced using GPS.

  • Larryplan2000

    I wonder: Snowplow -1 / Sensor – 0.

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