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How London plans to eliminate the search for a parking spot

This week, the City of Westminster, one of London’s local councils, will start embedding the first of 3,000 sensors into the streets. They will be in the ground by the end of March, making London the world’s first major city to adopt the long-heralded “smart parking” revolution.

The idea is simple. According to the council, motorists spend an average of 15 minutes searching for a space in Westminster—which with Parliament, the main shopping district, and dozens of tourist sites, has a legitimate claim to be the heart of London. If drivers know where the empty spaces are, they won’t have to cruise the streets looking for one. 

Other cities, most famously San Francisco, have experimented with “smart parking” and companies from France to America are developing the technology. But San Francisco turned off its sensors on 30 Dec. 2013, and is now evaluating the results of its pilot program. Westminster is going full steam ahead, bashing in 50 sensors a day with a team of three men. Boroughs in Manchester and Birmingham are also trying out the system.

Each sensor in the ground detects when a car is parked on the street above it. The council releases the data to the public through a smartphone app. Results from a pilot program in 2012 were encouraging: The proportion of occupied parking spots that weren’t paid for dropped from 12% to under 10%, a sign that more people were paying for parking, says Kieran Fitsall, the parking services development manager for the council. (Some proportion of spots will always be unpaid for, because some vehicles are loading or unloading, dropping people off, or have exemptions.)

The first generation of sensors protruded on the surface; the next will be flatter. City of Westminster

Westminster has 10,000 parking bays that visitors can use (plus more for residents only). The first phase of the program will see 3,000 sensors, each with a battery life of five to seven years, installed in visitor bays in the most congested areas of Westminster, which include Mayfair, Soho and the theater district, at cost of £650,000 ($1.07 million). Based on the results, the council will probably expand the program to the other 7,000 bays that visitors can use.

The list of benefits is long: Apart from reducing traffic, fuel consumption, and emissions from cars, it boosts the local economy as people spend more time in shops, restaurants and offices rather than on the street. Though the app could be used to catch drivers who’ve overstayed their paid parking time, Fitsall says Westminster has no intention of doing so. Nor does it plan to use the data to change parking prices in higher-demand areas, as San Francisco did.

Fitsall says the data will ultimately be fed into London’s transport information network, so when commuters look up how to get into town, they’ll be able to see driving and parking times just as they can now get train journey times and walking distances to stations. That could make London a model for other cities. 

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