Smart Parking In Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor often gets cited as the Midwest's quintessential early adopter city. The community has been developing a reputation for being on the cutting edge of trends from economic to social for decades. It therefore should have been no surprise for Ann Arborites to get out of their cars in June of 2009 to find fancy, space-age e-park Pay Stations in place of standard coin meters.

What could be surprising would be to learn that this innovative parking management tool was old news to European parkers a decade ago. In some of those cities, smart-meter technology has been the standard for nearly twenty years. More than a year after Ann Arbor's e-park overhaul, we examine just how cutting edge Ann Arbor is in the spectrum of parking technology, the community's response to the change, and what's next for downtown parking.

"The answer to what's coming next in parking management is always what's been working in Europe for years," says Andy Miller of Downtown Parking & Planning Associates in Kalamazoo who studies parking management and consults with downtown organizations nationwide on parking management. "They've been far ahead of us in all of that stuff."

The reason why seems to be a simple matter of culture.

"They seem to be more accepting of technology as a group," Miller says. "America is such a country of rugged individuals, we don't like to be told what to do."

Europe aside, however, in Miller's experience Ann Arbor's e-park system is exactly what it seems to be -- at the cusp of a national trend.

"As far as on-street parking management, the system in Ann Arbor is pretty darn cutting edge," he says. "I think more and more communities are going to go that way. The only thing standing is the way is that old parking meter is an icon. They are accepted technology."

It should be stated that the Ann Arbor system is cutting edge for its size. Charleston, S.C., for instance, began installing 'smart' meters in 2009. Portland, Ore. was a smart-meter pioneer, replacing nearly 7,000 traditional meters with 1,100 multi-space meters in 2002. In the three-year period that followed, the city saw an increase of $2 million in revenues.

Large cities, such as San Francisco's SF Park system, a pilot project that began in 2010 and was officially launched this year, incorporate the credit card and e-pay system with real-time on-street parking availability data. That is, sensors in the ground determine when a car has left a space and drivers can immediately find that vacant space online. Los Angeles has seen success with a similar program in its Hollywood District, and Washington D.C. and Salt Lake City are looking to follow suit.

SFpark Overview from SFpark on Vimeo.

In addition, the SF Park meters change prices in real time to adapt to demand. The highest demand spots become more and more expensive until an adequate level of parking is available at all times. Those who aren't willing to pay as much simply park farther away.

This sensor technology is getting a serious look by cities across the U.S., especially those wrestling with downtown congestion. UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup published a report that suggests that up to 74 percent of downtown traffic congestion is due to motorists cruising for parking spaces.

"Medium-sized cities have a greater challenge than big cities though," Miller warns. "In Chicago, you can charge $500 for one spot, so you can afford to support a whole system. The Vancouvers and the Seattles can afford more sophisticated systems. It's not quite as easy in smaller cities. Ann Arbor should be commended -- it's scary to be the first one with the new technology."

But Ann Arbor was far from the first city of its size to go to the credit card system. In fact, Kalamazoo went to credit card meters too early -- and the result was costly.

"It was brilliant thinking back in the early '90s," says Miller, who is also the former executive director of the Kalamazoo Downtown Development Authority. "But the technology wasn't ready yet. The meters worked so poorly we had to wait another whole generation until people were ready to try it again.

"It's not an easy thing to go with a new technology until it's better developed."

Ann Arbor's DDA was the fortunate benefactor of that lesson.

"The DDA's epark machines were acquired after talking to public and private parking operators around the country," says Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor DDA. "[We learned] about their experience with this identical equipment and with other similar brands of equipment, and how their patrons were responding to them. Also, we've been reading about these sorts of machines in the national parking magazines for years."   

According to the feedback received in a community survey of Ann Arbor e-park taken in the fall of 2010, the research and the timing has paid off. Seventy-nine percent of 364 survey respondents reported the e-park system was "Very Easy" or "Easy" to use as opposed to "Somewhat Easy," "Somewhat Difficult" or "Difficult."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the assessment of the system's ease was more positive by the youngest respondents, with more than 90 percent of drivers responding positively. Other survey responses, such as general satisfaction with various facets of the system returned similarly high marks.

"Overwhelmingly we've heard very positive feedback on the e-park machines," says Pollay. "We've also heard from patrons their appreciation that the equipment uses solar panels to operate, which is very much in keeping with our community ethos and commitment to sustainability."
The cutting edge of parking management, however, is a moving target. What's next for downtown Ann Arbor parking is already under discussion, even as the first rounds of feedback return from their survey.

"It may be possible in the future to include vacancy info for the on-street parking system," says Pollay, alluding to systems like SF Park, "but at this point we are working with different parking equipment manufacturers, so they are not compatible technologies."

Concern is also raised about the true usability of this seemingly excellent real-time parking data. As on-street parking vacancies would certainly change between a driver's departure from and arrival at a destination, the installation of on-street sensors throughout downtown could result in a rush of distracted drivers staring at their smart phones while circling city blocks.

Also, like the SF Park system, the Ann Arbor DDA has discussed the possibility of developing a demand-based parking rate structure to better manage on-street availability.  While pricing for demand management may not sound like a technological breakthrough, it's the technology of these electronic meters that allows the model to work.

"Pricing is a definitely an important management technique," says Miller. "As we go electronic, there's a lot more flexibility. You can even switch prices over after five o'clock on the same meters that have a lower demand during the day."

In terms of innovating parking management infrastructure, it seems that the largely accepted e-park meters are here to stay in Ann Arbor. Other progressive parking management methods implemented through those meters -- whether real-time on-street parking data, demand-based rates or the next big idea -- could be right on our heels.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


All photos by Doug Coombe


The many faces of e-park in Ann Arbor
Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor DDA
The many old faces of Ann Arbor street parking
Susan Pollay with an e-park Pay Station
The e-park Pay Station
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