All city drivers dread the routine: reach downtown destination, hunt desperately for a parking spot, curse the driveways and fire hydrants.

In San Francisco, however, parking is about to be made easier, thanks to a new network of GPS wireless sensors that will be installed next to the city's parking meters. The sensors, designed by the local technology company Streetline, will beam data on parking availability to the offices of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which, in turn, will make the information available to the public.

It is a tech-savvy solution in a city where cars circling for parking spaces account for as much as 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts. Not only do parking hunters create congestion and pollution, they delay public transit and endanger bicyclists and pedestrians. The Atlantic spoke with Nat Ford, Sr., executive director of the SFMTA about how technology is making San Francisco a smarter city.

What is the current state of parking and traffic congestion in San Francisco?

Here in San Francisco, we have 47 square miles and 700,000 citizens--and the city actually grows immensely during the course of the day, as it's the center of most of the commerce and tourism in the area. So we have as many as 1.3 million people in the city during the course of the day. With that comes a great number of automobiles, and it has created congestion issues that impact our pedestrians, our bicyclists, and ultimately our transit system because it delays trips.

So it is a challenge. And a great deal of the congestion is created by people circling the streets, looking for a parking spot.

What information will the wireless sensors provide to the city?

They're going to provide real-time information about where parking is available. Ultimately, we can use it to implement demand-responsive pricing. By adjusting parking prices based on the time of day, location, and availability, we hope to keep 15 percent of the city's parking available at all times. And another benefit--clearly, less circling around means less greenhouse emissions, which is part of the whole environmental strategy on this.

Can you walk me through how the sensors will work? When a car pulls into a spot, what happens next?

The sensor transmits a wireless message to digital readers we've installed, and that information is then wirelessly provided to us in the form of a database--a graphic interface that we'll be able to use to observe the availability of each parking spot. We did an inventory of all of the parking spots in the city a few months ago, so we have that clearly documented.

So the sensor can tell when a car arrives and also when it leaves. And then you'll analyze which times of day the space is in use and how long a car stays?

That's exactly right. We also want to provide real-time information to drivers, either through their cell phones and PDAs or through the navigation systems in their automobiles, so that they know where parking is available. Then they will stop circling the block looking for a parking spot.

How was this technology developed?
We came up with the concept initially. SFpark began because the Urban Partnership program was looking at ways to deal with congestion pricing. I think we were the only city that came up with an idea other than having drivers pay a toll to come into the urban core. So we submitted the application, and it got so much attention that different companies came to offer us technologies.

What will the smart phone app look like? Does it exist yet?

We are not going to develop the app. We think that the private market will take care of that. What we will do from our side is make the information we're receiving available to the rest of the world through our open government projects. And then some smart person out there will start developing applications to spread that real-time information. We have a similar situation with our transit operation--we provide real-time data through our Next Muni system, and we have seen numerous applications designed to spread that information.

How else is San Francisco using GPS technology?

All of our transit vehicles are outfitted with GPS, so we have real-time information on vehicle location, and that helps us manage the system. As we replace all of our transit shelters over the next two years, we're going to set up displays that provide vehicle prediction information right there where people are waiting. We also have automatic passenger counters on 30 percent of our vehicles, and coupled with the GPS information we're receiving on vehicle location, we're able to pull information about ridership sampling.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What does ridership sampling do, and how does it benefit the city's overall plan for transit?

We added the automatic passenger counters about two and a half years ago as part of a transit effectiveness project.  What we wanted was granular information about where riders were getting on and getting off, their origins and their destinations. Obviously, we have a limited number of buses and trains, so the idea was to do an intensive analysis of our ridership. Then, using that information, we wanted to redesign the system so that we could carry more passengers more efficiently. It was the first time in at least 25 years that the system had been redesigned. We ended up reallocating resources. We eliminated some routes, we created new routes, we merged some routes, we changed frequency on certain routes, and we did all of this on one day: December 5th of last year.

Do you have preliminary findings on the results of the redesign--are you carrying more passengers? Is it more efficient?

The transit effectiveness study was a once-in-a-generation change. It gave us the ability to make the changes that needed to be made, because we had the objective data.  We were able to immediately see a savings of $3 million annually. And we actually increased the number of service hours we provided. The early indications show that it was successful, although like all transportation systems, we're still dealing with a bad economy.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline that are going to take advantage of wireless or automatic technologies?

We also have SFgo. We are replacing all of our aging traffic signal infrastructure. The entire corridor on our 3rd Street light rail line is already networked to control travel times. The trains actually drive the traffic signals in the corridor. This has sped up the travel times not just for trains but also for buses and automobile users.

We also have cameras that help detect congestion issues. We have crosswalks that actually register if someone is in the crosswalk and hold the traffic signal. And so between SFgo, SFpark, and GPS on our transit, we're moving to a holistic transportation solution. We like to call it integrated mobility management.

Given the studies on the dangers of texting while driving, do you see any conflict with the fact that parking information will be available to drivers on their smart phones?

I think that's a great observation. But one of the challenges we have right now is that people are distracted looking for a parking spot. So if we're able to provide that 15 percent availability, then we hope you won't be in a situation where you're circling around the block looking for a parking space, creating a safety hazard with that activity. If we're able to do this, we think we'll cut down on some of the anxiety that's caused by looking for a parking space when there's not one available.

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