ExpressPark Aims to Give Smarts to Downtown's Parking Spots

The streets of Downtown should get a whole lot smarter in 2011 as implementation work gets underway on ExpressPark, an ambitious parking management system that designed to give the citys Department of Transportation and the public a real-time view of 5,500 on-street and 7,500 off-street parking spaces.
The department will use that data to alter rates at ExpressPark zones throughout Downtown, raising or lowering them up to 50 percent in order to achieve a 70 to 90 percent occupancy rate.

While that aspect of the program has gotten the most media attention, project manager Peer Ghent says it's only a piece of the puzzle. "The part that's never been done is the management system to integrate all these different systems," he says of the smart meters, parking sensors and web interfaces included in the project.

The city's parking meter technology has already gotten smarter in recent years. Pay stations were deployed on some Downtown blocks in 2008, and earlier this year the city deployed 10,000 smart parking meters across the city. The new technologies allow drivers to pay for their parking with a credit card and are more resistant to the tampering that has plagued traditional meters. Requirements for ExpressPark call for cell phone payments to be added to that mix.

ExpressPark's most noticeable addition will be the installation of sensors in those 5,500 on-street spaces that will communicate their availability back to the management system. That data will then be communicated in real-time to message boards on the street, a website that the city will set up and the regional 511 traffic information system. The requirements even call for ties allowing both pricing and availability data to find its way into in-vehicle GPS systems.

Despite the ambitious aims, Downtowners won't see a lot in the way of torn-up streets. Construction will take place to install the parking sensors, but most of the rest of the work will take place behind the scenes. "The meters themselves are not challenging," says Ghent, who calls the hardware and software on the backend "the real guts of the project."

Those new parking meters installed this summer may stay, or they may not. The city is leasing the units currently on the streets, and it will be up to the winning bidder on the ExpressPark project to recommend what hardware the system should use. Those new units will be purchased instead of rented.

The program is federally-funded as part of Metro's ExpressLanes project, aimed at congestion relief on the 10 and 110 freeways. Proposals are due in two weeks from companies interested in implementing the system for the city. A winning bid will be chosen in February, and installation is required to be completed by October.

While Ghent and the city hope that ExpressPark's smarts will make parking simpler and reduce the time drivers spend looking for a space, the program won't solve all of Downtown's parking woes.

State law mandates that drivers with handicap placards can park free and for an unlimited time at any meter, so no amount of rate tweaking will affect availability at spots currently filled by placard parkers.

The system also won't eliminate traffic crunches around major events. "If there's a Laker game, it's going to be congested regardless of what we do," Ghent notes.

Still, Ghent thinks the system has a lot of promise. "If somebody can get excited about parking meters, this is the time."


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