Poor parking provision not only causes stress for drivers but leads to congestion on roads
Poor parking provision not only causes stress for drivers but leads to congestion on roads

The technology fixing Britain’s parking problem

New technology may be outdating car parks in the UK

Rachel England
Thursday 09 February 2017 14:33

Most drivers are familiar with the headache of parking: spending what feels like hours circling the streets looking for a space, wasting time and money in the process. Now, the extent of motorist’s misery has been revealed, with new figures showing British drivers waste an average of four days a year looking for a place to park.

According to the British Parking Association, drivers spend an average of 5.9 minutes looking for a space, with 44 per cent of those polled calling the endeavour a ‘stressful experience’. Nearly half of people (some 48 per cent) are frustrated by the lack of spaces in their area, and 59 per cent are angry with bad drivers taking up multiple spaces with a single vehicle. It’s no surprise, then, that UK Car Park Management’s new app CPM is doing so well – the app rewards motorists with a tidy £10 ‘commission’ for reporting illegally-parked vehicles.

But this isn’t a sustainable solution to Britain’s parking problem, which has gained prominence in recent times. Poor parking provision not only causes stress for drivers but leads to congestion on roads, contributes to pollution levels and – crucially for councils – impacts on revenue. The more time spent circling around looking for parking, the less time drivers are paying for it.

Councils are investing huge sums of money in tackling the issue – Leicester, for example, last year unveiled a £2.2m plan to shake up the city’s public car parking – but the most efficient solutions could prove a great deal more straightforward thanks to big data and smart technology.

There’s already a huge raft of information about global parking availability in existence, thanks largely to London start-up Parkopedia. Since the company’s creation in 2007 the company has amassed a trove of data ranging from static information such as car park capacities and opening hours to dynamic data that includes real-time availability and surrounding traffic flow. The company has a team of four PhDs working on developing predictive algorithms that calculate, with up to 95 per cent accuracy, the indication of availability at a car park ahead of arrival – another example of machine learning amid our increasingly digital existence.

This kind of technology depends almost exclusively on localised factors, though, which is why sensor-based innovation likely heralds the future of public parking – for the immediate future, at least. Here, flush-mounted, anti-slip sensors are installed in bay parking spaces which then detect whether the space has been occupied by a vehicle. Real-time data is sent back to a main system which informs drivers of nearby parking availability via app and electronic signs around the city.

The technology first came to the UK in the City of Westminster in 2014 starting with a pilot scheme of 3,000 spaces which was soon rolled out to the borough’s remaining 7,000 on-street parking spots. Meanwhile, Wales’ capital, Cardiff, is soon set to unveil Europe’s first citywide deployment of bay sensor technology following a successful pilot in 2015.

“This kind of big data simultaneously provides a solution to the problem it’s monitoring,” says Jim Short, technology sales manager at Smart Parking Limited, the company responsible for the schemes in Westminster and Cardiff. “Pollution sensors monitor pollution but don’t do anything about it. Parking sensors monitor the parking situation and – if the data is shared in the right way – contribute to streamlining the issue. Take Westminster, for example. Parking space occupancy normally sits around 60-70 per cent, regardless of the time of day. Contrary to what people might believe, the area has sufficient parking resources, it’s just that people can’t find it. This technology remedies that.”

According to Short, sensor-based parking is likely to become the norm in the UK in the next few years. “We use apps for everything. We don’t ring up to order a pizza anymore, we use an app. Soon enough the notion of driving around in your car looking for a space will be just as outdated and seem just as bizarre as manually ringing a takeaway.”

But twiddling with a smartphone app while you’re behind the wheel is not conducive to safe driving, which is why some companies are skipping apps altogether and moving straight on to built-in vehicle technology.

“Real-time data displayed through a car’s on-board navigation system is our preferred method of finding a parking space because it minimises driver distractions,” says Parkopedia’s head of operations Christina Onesirosan Martinez. “We currently supply this data to 13 car makers. There are very few cars being manufactured now that don’t include this kind of technology – it’s basically standard in new vehicles.”

Of course, new vehicles now boast technology far more futuristic than built-in navigation systems, and the role of park assist technology and autonomous driving can’t be overlooked in the UK’s ongoing parking battle.

Ford recently unveiled a raft of new technologies – due to be fitted to its cars by 2018 – that aim to make the act of parking itself considerably quicker and easier. According to the car manufacturer, 15 per cent of drivers avoid parallel parking altogether while almost half of those surveyed would rather travel further from their destination that attempt to parallel park. It’s hoped, then, that Ford’s system of on-car sensors and wide-angle video feeds will quell some of these fears, reducing congestion in parking areas and, hopefully, doing away with the shoddy parking that reduces availability for everyone else.

But innovators are looking even further ahead. Elon Musk predicts that fully autonomous cars will hit the roads by 2023 and trials are already underway in Milton Keynes to test the technology’s viability on British roads.

The impact driverless cars could have on our parking problem is significant. If a car is able to technically look after itself, there’s no need for it to sit outside a shopping centre or cinema until its owner is ready to leave. Instead, experts envisage a world where the car will instead take itself to a specially-designated high-efficiency parking garage. Without the need for customer stairs, elevators and alleyways for access to individual cars, the space required for such car parks is drastically reduced. Audi is working on such a concept in Massachusetts and has found these garages require 60 per cent less space than traditional car parks, while ParkPlus in Colorado is working on deploying a fully automated parking garage serviced by a ‘robotic valet’ which can park up to four times as many cars in the same amount of space as a human-led counterpart.

Will we see this kind of innovation in the UK? It’s perhaps a bit too early to tell, says Martinez. “The technology would work, of course, but there’s a cultural factor at play here. Valet parking in the US is widely adopted and people are happy to hand keys over for their car for someone else to park – autonomous parking is just an extension of that service. In the UK we don’t have that mentality and drivers like to know where they parked their own vehicles.” But, she adds, a change to this mind set is quite feasible, noting that long-stay airport parking would be a natural starting point for this kind of tech in the UK.

“Ultimately, parking issues aren’t a new phenomenon in the UK,” she adds. “The advent of tech innovation means we’ve just become more aware of it. The good news for motorists is that we take parking seriously here. Unlike other countries, most UK councils have a dedicated parking department, rather than just bunging it in with transport management. We’re definitely ahead of the times, here, and things are set to change for the better very soon.”

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