Remote Controlled

Will a new generation of curbside sensors end our parking problems -- or help the government monitor our every move?

The company has taken preventative measures, he explained: "We're never going to give motes opposable thumbs."

As fanciful as my Planet of the Electronic Apes scenario may be, it contains a speck of earnestness. There is, I believe, an unavoidable trajectory of logic that follows from the possibility of a sensor-covered world. I perceived this last week as I spoke with experts in my favorite area of the arcane: urban parking policy studies.

"I call it the Goldilocks Principle," said Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA and America's main academic guru in the field. "Listening to the Goldilocks story, children learn that the porridge shouldn't be too hot or too cold. With parking spaces, prices shouldn't be too low or too high. If there are a few vacant spaces, the price is just right."

He's come up with a system -- like many others in our complicated, connected world -- in which the more details we know about something, the more finely we can tune the system to work precisely as we wish.

For a business district to be easily accessible by car, Shoup says, parking prices should be high enough so it's possible to go to a downtown store just as they do in television sitcoms -- drive up, find a streetside space in front, and walk right in. This principle -- that prices should be set to exactly the point that there's enough to go around for those who really want the commodity -- seems obvious when it comes to lettuce or computer mice.

But the idea of closely monitoring empty and full parking spaces and subtly adjusting meter prices so each block remains 15 percent empty was a principle untried anywhere in America -- until last month, when Redwood City approved a plan, developed by the city's downtown development director, Dan Zack, to do just that.

"We're going to have the most pure Don Shoup system in the country," notes Zack, who was told last year by city fathers to develop a cheap way to manage parking for a commercial redevelopment plan in downtown Redwood City. Shoup believes he's come up with one that's not only cheap, but that will also create a more dynamic downtown.

In research into parking patterns in downtown Pasadena and the Los Angeles business district of Westwood Village, Shoup and graduate student Douglas Kolozsvari found that business owners tended to fret mightily about how hard it was for customers to park in front of their stores, while simultaneously viewing storefront, curbside parking spaces as a great spot for themselves and their employees to park, 9 to 5.

"If you manage it correctly, you solve a lot of problems people are complaining about," notes Kolozsvari. "I think the largest deterrent to customers parking is a full parking spot, rather than a priced parking spot. If you know you'll never find parking in an area, you'll never go there."

Business owners are rarely interested in higher parking rates in front of their stores. They see it as another way the city General Fund is taking money out of their pockets. With this in mind, in 2003 Shoup and Kolozsvari co-authored an article in the planning journal Access that examined an Old Pasadena revitalization scheme in which the money never traveled far from the meter itself. In other words, increased business-district parking fees were used exclusively for localized investments such as sidewalk steam cleaning, security guards, lighting, repaving, and the like.

By the Shoup/Kolozsvari analysis, this scheme was integral to the recent retail boom in once-decrepit Old Pasadena. Conversely, they felt, these principles also applied to the decline of once-popular Westwood Village, which had erected new multistory garages in response to what business owners perceived as parking pressures. Now, Shoup notes, Old Pasadena merchants love their high parking fees.

So in Redwood City, Shoup and Zack have recommended that credit card- friendly parking meters be installed, and that rates be increased from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour, with no limit on how long a motorist can park. "At first the merchants went crazy about the cost increase," notes Zack. "When we told them about how there will be no time limits, that we'll be power-washing the sidewalks, they were in. When we had a City Council meeting, merchants came to support it."

Peering down the road, Zack adds, "With Elizabeth Sullivan's product, they'd know when you leave and charge the credit card for what you use. Because we're charging a market rate for parking, we're going to get that efficient spread, where you always have a few empty spaces. Because of that, we're able to get rid of time limits. You can park as long as you're willing to pay for. Time limits only serve to inconvenience you.

"A lot of shoppers don't mind paying. What they don't want is to pay a ticket."

Zack is doing only what efficiency-minded managers of organizations, systems, products, and policies are doing everywhere these days: obtaining as much fine-grained information as possible about their target, then adjusting levels, specifications, and plans to a feather's edge that makes things happen just so.

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