The supply of road and parking space – often the majority of space in modern US cities – has to be assiduously managed by municipalities if the citizenry is to benefit from available capacity. Failure results in rapacious parking costs and, perhaps most frustratingly, a lack of any space at all.
Innovative mobile applications have in recent years worked alongside global governments to manage the demand of our transportation space, sharing data, real-time alerts and optimized traffic routes. “Waze’s mission is to save five minutes of driving time everyday for our users,” says Paige Fitzgerald, program manager at Waze. With Waze, now present in 33 cities around the world, users can input info hands free and receive alerts of the location of traffic hazards, potholes, missing signs, police cars and more. The company has taken their vision a step forward now with their Connected Citizen program, where all information is crowdsourced – even the maps – and communicated between citizens and city. “Each city and country has unique mobility challenges,” says Fitzgerald, “this is why we are working with ten different cities across the world, of which LA is one of the most important.”
This kind of urban penetration is proving to be incredibly valuable, and Waze has begun working with governments to exchange their data. “Governments have integrated our data into their traffic centers,” says Fitzgerald. “They surface Waze alerts in real time; when a user makes an alert, that’ll go to the government instantly.” In return, governments can announce construction projects and pre-planned road alterations through Waze. A key example of how these partnerships work for the betterment of society can be seen in Waze’s participation in Hurricane Sandy, when push notifications were provided to the White House. Recently, the NYPD has tapped the app to notify the public about speed limit changes, as well.
Assistance from the private sector is all but in demand because infrastructure across the US is notoriously unmaintained. Add the pressures of growing urban populations and this becomes an urgent issue. “All of our major systems are in high demand,” says Tilly Chang, executive director at the San Francisco Country Transportation Authority. “We have significant problems, and there will be further challenges as we develop.” Conditional pricing, she says, could be a feasible way to manage the demand of urban infrastructure. “If we enforce peak-period pricing, this can help mitigate the impact of congestion building up on the network,” she says. Because San Francisco doesn’t have carpool lanes, such conditional pricing could be effective. But these schemes are more stick than carrot, and thus shouldn’t be offered alone. Using an incentive reward program for the Bay Area Rapid Transit, she says, the city can encourage commuters not to travel during peak periods in return for credits. “If you use another station or a bus service,” Chang says, “you can be eligible to win a reward.”
Parking and transportation management is fundamental to managing demand, and offering valued price programs and incentives are core tools. Providing discounts for those who are using or operating car share systems is effective, as well as making garages cheaper to attract cars off of on-road parking spots. In the city of Oakland, for example, parking limits have also been expanded to incentivize garage usage, but more needs to be done. “We didn’t get ride of time limits effectively,” says Matt Nichols, policy director at the Office of the Mayor of the City of Oakland. “We started with four hours in downtown than expanded to eight.” To ease congestion on roadways, Oakland went beyond car sharing programs, which were “not successful,” even though the program included electric vehicles. Another program, more successful, included the the city government provision of 1,000 free bus passes for major companies in the downtown area to incentivize bus services, which are traditionally viewed as transit for the poor. “The bus passes were very popular, but it was hard to get all employees involved,” says Nichols.
Combining parking and transportation management could diffuse a lot of the additional expenses. And a lot of cities are implementing parking pricing schemes, some integrated with technology. Priority parking spaces are on the street, and their management is key to structured city planning. “People double-park, creating congestion, which makes vehicles drive further to find spots, creating more greenhouse gas emissions,” says Alex Demish, senior partner at San Francisco MTA. “But if you can provide one or two available spots on every block, then there will be downstream economic benefits.” San Francisco’s ambition to free up street space would require about 25 meters of supply per block. In a two-year project, San Francisco will work to “define the lowest price possible, allowing rates to vary by block and time,” Demish says. “This is done through a handful of technology, including in-ground sensors in each space, that communicate when cars enter and exit. There will also be sets of the next generation of parking meters supporting Wi-Fi communications,” he continued. Hitherto such parking price controls were very hard to implement because the communications didn’t exist. A lot of third-party applications are already plugged into this government feed. Parking rates began changing in 2010 when the city saw that they needed to control areas in full. This was done by reducing rates of off-street parking by only 4 percent, and on-street by 12 percent. The results have been clear: city blocks are full 45 percent less of the time. “We are trying to move away from feeding money into the city by trying to give you something for your space,” Demish says. “If we achieve those services for pricing, then we can achieve the rate.”
Ideally, we should be moving toward an era when cities work to decrease parking spaces in exchange for parks. But, for now, there is a “free for all” in terms of parking management. To allow better travel time and better prices is difficult. Parking has, thus, become a “third-rail” topic, the thought leaders contest. The answer could be “primarily on incentives,” namely carbon and gas taxes, but technology can help, too. “We consider Waze to be a part of this initiative,” says Nichols, sharing his vision. “We want to have a multi-modal transport platform where we can share data with each other. We are really working to standardize and aggregate data to be accessible by the private and public sector.”
In this form, then, the electric vehicle (EV) is far from a panacea; it’s merely just another form of transport that can be added to a multi-modal mix. EV drivers can expect their vehicles to be counted along with the rest. “Road infrastructure is going to bear the use of these vehicles too,” says Chang. “We want to adopt the vehicles, but not give you free pass on the carpool lane.” Through this lens, a car is a car, and still needs to be taxed for its impact on infrastructure. “We should be charging a road usage fee,” Nichols suggests, as an alternative solution. “This will make up for a loss in gas tax. All vehicles need to pay fairly for what that vehicle needs.” Indeed, Chang concurs: “We are not paying our fair share and are not responsible for investing in our infrastructure. This is why we have such a large backlog of maintenance.”
She cites an example in Norway, which has the highest penetration of Tesla EVs per capita. “They have a 100 percent import duty,” she says, “so they can afford to give exemptions for EVs. The fact remains here that none of us are paying for our impact on the road. We need to have better transit policies in San Francisco.”
Across the Bay in Oakland, Nichols foresees that municipal bonds should work harder to deliver the city’s vision, which is establishing more accessible and diverse transit. “I think the critical issue is that we need to face equity issues,” he says, “even for underfunded infrastructure investment, we need to change who we are delivering it to.”
Still, the policy side needs to greatly focus on how it communicates with the public if it is to understand equity issues. How a customer gets information about parking, its benefits and the rationale to pricing programs should be top priority for municipalities.