Parking Sensors – Do You Need Them?


Parking Sensors – Do You Need Them?

A municipal client recently asked, “Should we install parking sensors?” As a parking professional who has been involved with several sensor implementations, I get asked this question almost on a daily basis. The following recounts a recent discussion:  
There is no simple answer to this inquiry, and while I hate responding to a question with another question, in this case, I usually counter and ask, “Why do you think you need sensors?”
Sensor marketing can be overwhelming, and it all sounds great, but when it comes to an actual application, you must evaluate the overall return on investment (ROI). You also must ask, “What are you trying to achieve” with a parking sensor in order to determine if it is the best solution for your municipal agency.
I have heard simplistic responses and extremely complex objectives for why an agency needs sensors. In the end, most want to find an easy method to communicate on- and off-street parking space availability to the general public.
Can parking sensors provide this service? Absolutely!
However, it can also be a very expensive endeavor. You need to do your homework and thoroughly understand the commitment and costs associated with an investment in sensors. In most cases, a municipality must justify the infrastructure investment.
One often-pitched promotion is that sensors will help make your enforcement officers more efficient. Let’s be honest: If your enforcement officers are not currently efficient, there may be a more root problem that needs to be evaluated, rather than providing a directional guidance tool.
I mean no offense by this, but sometimes we need to look within our own operation and seek improvements before we implement another tool or “Band-Aid” intended to make the situation better.
Sometimes the sensor solution can sound like that magic elixir that we are all looking for to solve our operational woes. Maybe they will, but I would implore any agency that before investing in any type of technology (sensors or otherwise), look within your organization and your operational structure to ensure that you are already working most effectively. Minor changes within your organization could significantly improve performance similar to some of the benefits highlighted by the sensor offerings.
Now in terms of reliability, the sensors have come a long way over the past few years. The web applications provide users with probability ratios of available parking or enforcement potential. This has proven an effective resource, but in some cases, such as in California, legislation has changed requiring hands-free operation while driving. How effective can the web application be when I am driving and should not be looking at my phone to navigate to the recommended nearby parking space?
This shows why we in the parking industry should be thinking bigger picture and recognize how parking is a key element of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).  
For years, parking has been relegated to the mundane: a stable revenue provider that doesn’t cause too many waves. As technology evolves, transit and sustainability and the overall impacts on ITS have grasped a wider audience; we must ensure that parking continues to become a key factor in this cycle.
When we discuss a “First Mile/Last Mile” strategic plan, parking is essential. We want people to make key transit decisions before they even leave their home in order to encourage alternative modes of transportation or allow them to plan for the “last mile” of their journey. These parking applications are crucial for the purpose of planning the route.
 I suggested that we consider ITS, because as a driver, if I am planning my route to head downtown, it’s not really about parking availability on-street. What I really need to know about is off-street availability and prices. If I am a commuter or heading to a special event, the chances of finding an on-street space by the time I reach my destination are fairly slim. Therefore, knowing the off-street parking availability and available rates is what is likely to have the biggest impact on congestion.  
The web applications should focus on the available rates and the on-street parking rate should be priced in a manner to encourage short-term parking to promote turnover and transition.
Rather than installing on-street parking sensors per space, consider alterative technology solutions that can support your enforcement personnel to make them more efficient in the field. For example, what about different types of enforcement vehicles that encourage maneuverability, or license plate recognition (LPR) equipment that can minimize manual chalking of tires and supports time limit zones and can enforce metered time zones as well.
These types of on-street solutions can prove to be more cost-effective for your enforcement resources.
As a sidebar, if you are using in-space parking sensors to enforce timed parking zones, you need to be certain of the accuracy and latency of the sensor equipment that is measuring the actual time zones.
This information is imperative to ensure that you are issuing legitimate citations.
If you haven’t already, you may need to build in an enforcement threshold or cushion before a citation can be issued. For example, if the vehicle is in a 30-minute zone, do you know the latency and accuracy of the reporting sensors? Should the citation be issued at minute 31 or should it be more like minute 45?
The precision of the timed zones sensors is essential to ensure that accurate citations are issued and that the system can withstand a technical/engineering challenge. You should be independently sampling and validating the accuracy and reporting of your parking sensors to ensure a valid operating system.
When I ask why the municipality is interested in sensors, one of the more popular responses from the municipality is that they are interested in the meter reset. Without question, this is a revenue driver proven by the cities that have implemented this feature. The monthly service fees and hardware costs are cheaper when integrated with a parking meter; however, these systems are not perfect, either.  
As with most parking technology, accuracy is not 100% for the integrated meter and sensor. If any vendor tells you they achieve 100% accuracy, challenge them to prove it. There are too many anomalies in communication systems alone that cannot provide 100% performance. And forgive my skepticism, but I haven’t found any vendor system that is perfect.
It’s about finding the vendor system that best meets your needs and provides the customer service delivery that meets your expectations. But, I digress …
Municipal agencies that utilize the meter reset have argued that the revenue benefits they receive far outweigh the challenges. Therefore, this is one of the rare occasions that I would agree with on-street parking sensors. The end justifies the means.
The ROI will be covered by the increased revenue from the meter reset. But you have to go into this with your eyes wide open and understand the negative impacts that can be perceived by implementing the meter reset.
One of the most common arguments is that the time has already been paid for, and the agency is double-dipping. We could argue both sides, just do your homework and be prepared to defend your approach. Be sure that you check the vendor references and specifically ask about system performance and faulty resets and the impacts on your agency.
So, when I get asked, “Parking Sensors — Do You Need Them? don’t expect a simple answer. It is a drawn-out assessment that is specific to your individual agency needs. You should be asking yourself: Why am I considering sensors, and are there alternative solutions that can address my objectives and goals for a lot less money?
But if you should receive a bucket of federal funds, you still need to be considering the long-term for your investment dollars. (The SFpark on-street parking sensor model did not prove to be sustainable.) Many more questions need to be asked and answered, but that is the key to your solution.

Talk to your peer group, find out what other cities have experienced, check references and understand the operational impacts of your technology decisions. Most important, look within your own operation before you start installing new solutions.

Julie Dixon is President of Dixon Resources Unlimited, consulting services specializing in municipal parking. She can be reached at

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