Friday, January 7, 2011

Smart Parking Spaces

Two California cities are driving experiments in “smart parking spaces.” They will use the latest interactive technologies to inform motorists where to park their jalopies — and at what price.

“I think many cities are watching San Francisco and Los Angeles to see how this experiment works,” said Dan Mitchell, senior engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Both cities are beginning two-year pilot projects that will infuse supply-and-demand principles in parking pricing with an assist from wireless technologies. In selected busy areas, both cities are installing sensors in parking spaces. The sensors will give real-time digital information about whether a space is occupied and for how long.

The system is designed to recommend a parking price increase if a given block at a given time is jammed with parked cars. The idea is set the pricing at a level that will keep 10 to 30 percent of spaces in a given area vacant. That is intended to curb the gas-burning, time-consuming process seen every day in Los Angeles and San Francisco (and thousands of other cities) — motorists circling city blocks, praying for a space to open up.

“By properly pricing both on- and off-street parking in a coordinated manner, based on supply and demand, the final cost of their trip will increase, thus encouraging motorists to leave their cars at home or to park outside the Downtown core and use public transit to their final destination,” reasoned an October 2009 LADOT report.

In January, San Francisco began installing sensors in pilot project areas. By the summer, the sensors in the pilot areas will be wired into an integrated system and real-time data directed to a Web portal for drivers to tap into.

“The goal of SFPark is to make parking easier to find,” said Primus. “Once you get there, you’ll find it easier to pay. The spaces will be easier to find, creating more availability. The drivers most of the time will find spaces and they won’t be tempted to double-park. We will match people up to spaces.” SFPark, part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, has a motto of “Circle less. Live more.”

The SFPark Web page includes a testimonial from a renowned advocate of supply-and-demand parking prices, Donald C. Shoup, author and professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Your pilot programs will help all cities learn how to manage parking to reduce traffic congestion, energy consumption and air pollution,” wrote Shoup in 2008. “If San Francisco can solve its parking problems through better management and advanced technology, every city on earth will pay attention.”

The pilot project is funded by a federal grant of $24.75 million, which pays for parking sensors, new meters and stations, variable message signs and computer systems and servers to make it all work and store data.

The SFPark pilot will apply to about 6,000 of San Francisco’s 25,000 metered parking spaces. About 1,500 spaces in peak, towaway zones will have sensors embedded, flush with the pavement. Other sensors will be epoxied onto the surface of the parking space in a durable way, Primus said. Sensors include magnetometers that sense the localized distortion of the earth’s magnetic field by a couple tons of parked steel and chrome. The pilot will evaluate how those instruments work.

In Los Angeles, the Downtown LA ExpressPark Project is expected to start circulating real-time data in 2011. It is tied in to a larger transit improvement plan to create high-occupancy toll lanes in freeways cutting through downtown.

ExpressPark, estimated at $15 million, is one of 16 initiatives contained in a $210.6 million federal congestion reduction grant submitted by LA DOT, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Caltrans.

Also in the Los Angeles mix are plans to explore public-private partnerships in operating a parking meter system. Mitchell didn’t envision that affecting the pilot project to evaluate how sensors work with an integrated parking data system.

The pilot project applies to about 5,500 spaces of Los Angeles’s 40,000 metered parking spaces.

In early returns of some new machines, LADOT is finding some public acceptance. Staff estimated 50 percent of parkers are using bank and credit cards at new, modern pay stations and enhanced parking meters, where such payment is capable, according to the October report to Los Angeles traffic commissioners. Using cards that way reduces the use of coins — and reduces the incentive for parking meter theft and vandalism.

When the service is available, LADOT found few parkers were taking advantage of the capability to pay by cell phone for a small fee.

Because of their added complexity, pay stations require about the same amount of staff effort in collection and maintenance as an equivalent number of old-fashioned parking meters, according to the report.

Special Report

Wars in 2011
(part 5 of a 7 part report)

Nature had it in for Haiti in 2010, but it may be politics that batters the small island country in the coming year. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere began the year with a devastating January earthquake that killed more than 300,000, a deadly cholera outbreak, and a tortuously slow reconstruction process, which remains way off the pace and beset with difficulties. A November 28 presidential election, which should have led to the election of a new, legitimate government, remains wedged in an impasse over allegations of fraud. The winner won't be decided until a run-off vote is held in January, but protests have already erupted over what some saw as the unfair exclusion of certain candidates in the second round. At least a dozen lives have been lost in the street clashes so far.

Already, Haiti was on the verge of a social breakdown. Today, more than 1 million Haitians remain homeless in the ruined capital. The government, whose ranks and infrastructure were devastated by the earthquake, has no capacity to deliver services or provide security. And international aid groups and U.N. peacekeepers can only plug those gaps temporarily. Relief work has also been hampered by a lack of funding. Despite big promises from international donors, dollars have been slow to trickle into the country.
This precarious situation will make for an enormous challenge if and when a new government does at last come to power next year. The run-off election will mark a year since the earthquake, with little improvement in the everyday lives of Haitians, whose patience is running out.

Tajikistan, a land of striking beauty, grinding poverty, and rapacious leaders, could well become the next stomping ground for guerrillas -- Central Asians and other Muslims from the former Soviet Union -- who have been fighting alongside the Taliban for years and may now be thinking of returning home to settle scores with the region's brutal and corrupt leaders.

Run since 1992 by Emomali Rahmon, a post-Soviet strongman, Tajikistan has been hollowed out by top-to-bottom corruption. A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks has an American diplomat noting that "From the President down to the policeman on the street, government is characterized by cronyism and corruption. Rahmon and his family control the country's major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large."
Not surprisingly in such an environment, most public services -- including the health system -- have all but collapsed. The economy survives on remittances from migrant laborers in Russia, and roughly half of the country's population lives below the poverty line. It is a dangerous brew for instability.

In recent months, the Tajik government has attempted to crack down against Islamist insurgent groups who have crossed the border from northern Afghanistan, but to little effect. There is rising concern in Washington that Tajikistan will become the new theater of operations for Islamic militants, and might offer a convenient route for insurgent penetration of other volatile or vulnerable parts of Central Asia -- first off, Tajikistan's desperately weak neighbor, Kyrgyzstan.

In the coming year, it's easy to imagine Tajikistan sliding further and further toward a failed state as the government quietly cedes control of whole sections of the country to militants. Even if the Afghan militants were out of the picture, however, Tajikistan's democratic prospects would look bleak. As the American cable put it, "The government is not willing to reform its political process."

Live Long and Prosper....

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