Managing and reducing parking congestion through smart technology

Currently there are increasing population levels in Australian cities and a well-known negative impact on the urban environment of a larger population is an increase in congestion, on both major and minor arterial roads.

While there are many efforts being put into place to reduce congestion, one traffic factor that does not help in its reduction are the amount of drivers holding up traffic when looking for a parking space.

Siemens undertook a case study into modern concepts and technologies to reduce traffic congestion, in which they found that “drivers looking for a parking space account for over 40 per cent of all inner-city traffic”. This 40 per cent rating was on weekdays and that on public holidays it can jump up to 60 per cent.

Therefore, to reduce the negative impacts of vehicles looking for a park, adaptive technology could be used to advise drivers on parking locations, rather than older static signs that simply indicate which direction parking lots/bays are. Some examples of adaptive technology currently in use include smart signage, smart parking lots and more effective GPS technology.

Smart signage can be seen as the advanced version of the static “stop” and “give way” signs placed along many roads – the difference being that the new signs are adaptive, and change their message with the flow of the traffic. Therefore, other than simply advising of the correct way to approach a road, they may be used to provide drivers information on the amount of the congestion levels up ahead, time to a certain destination or alternate routes in the event of a accident.

In relation to parking, the signs could be used to inform drivers of the locations of the closest parking lots and how many spaces are free while they are on the approach to their destination.

One area where smart parking spaces are used increasingly is at large shopping centre car parks, such as Chadstone in Melbourne. The purpose of the smart spaces are to advise drivers looking for parking of empty spaces, through the use of coloured lights (for example, on for empty, off for full). However the technology is not very accurate, with many lot sensors not recognising that vehicles are parked, therefore the information is not transferred to the lights. This error in visual information can be frustrating for drivers, who are forced to decide whether to trust the next lot of visual information or just drive around looking for parking as normal. Additionally, one of the other downsides of this technology is that it is only helpful for those who have already entered the parking lot, not to those on approach.

GPS technology is a fairly broad term, however most drivers would relate the technology to their GPS navigators or apps such as Google Maps. The technology here is quite advanced; the recommended routes react in real time to the changing traffic conditions and redirect the vehicle. Currently Google Maps does not have a version specific to parking spot availability, but will inform drivers of the nearest parking lot.

While all three of these methods are effective at assisting drivers find parking, both the smart signage and smart parking technologies are generally implemented individually and haphazardly, while the GPS technology is only useful for drivers whose vehicles have built in navigators or who are actively running the phone mapping applications.

To increase the effectiveness of the technology they could be implemented together, as one seamless product. An example of how this could be undertaken is by using a radial network, whereby each technology is used at its most effective radial distance from the nearest car park of the drivers chosen destination.

As the diagram below demonstrates:

  1. When a driver enters their destination into their GPS navigator or app, the nearest car parks to the destination could be highlighted and as the driver gets closer the choice of car-parking locations will be narrowed down
  2. At this point the smart signage placed around the car parks can inform the driver of the amount of spots available in the nearest locations; as the driver chooses their preferred place to park the signage on the route updates them of the numbers of lots available
  3. When the driver, enters their chosen car park, the smart parking comes into effect and informs the driver of the bays that are free through the use of overhead lights, thus allowing the driver to quickly find a place to park

However it is important to note that, while informative, this method of implementing all three methods into one seamless product could be very data intensive, due to the amount of information that has to be collected and distributed to multiple sources in quick succession.

To counter this issue, methods need to developed that can be used to gather and distribute this data quickly and efficiently. For example, servers could be located within areas where the radial networks cross over or servers could be located within each vehicle entering the radial area, this way the data could be stored in micro-packets and shared in a peer-to-peer network; this second method may be possible with the continued emergence of electric vehicles.

As it is critical that information provided to drivers is up to date, in order to prevent further congestion (drivers receiving incorrect information may backtrack), it would be wise to only utilise methods like this in local suburbs or smaller city blocks, at least until the technology become advanced enough to be rolled out on a large scale.

Rosh Wickramasuriya, is a property officer at AusNet Services in Melbourne and an associate member of the Planning Institute of Australia.

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