Opinion

IBM: Let us solve D.C. parking problems

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The Great Recession has not been particularly kind to American cities. Unemployment is still painfully high, while tax revenue -- including sales, property, income and corporate tax revenue -- is woefully low.

As many major cities wrestle with budget shortfalls, critical infrastructure investments have been postponed or abandoned altogether. The upshot for many urban dwellers is that the quality of life is deteriorating. And if it hasn't yet, it will.

In the District, the situation is so grim that Mayor Vincent Gray has devised a controversial plan under which a whopping $70 million in new revenue will be generated by expanding a traffic camera program and also expanding the hours of alcohol sales. His plan also calls for $102 million in cuts.

It's an awkward situation: The more difficult it becomes to live in a city, the less attractive it becomes to new residents and businesses, and, ultimately, the less likely the city is to increase tax revenues. And the less money the city has in its coffers, the less likely it is to make quality-of-life improvements that will encourage new economic development.

But this is not an inevitable outcome.

One major drain on most commuters' personal happiness is traffic, and an estimated one-third of traffic is caused by people driving around in pursuit of a parking spot. According to IBM's 2011 Global Parking Survey, drivers spent an average of 20 minutes looking for a desirable place to park their cars. The same survey found that 6 out of 10 drivers had, at some point, abandoned their searches for a parking space altogether.

Traffic can't be eliminated, but it can be more efficiently managed -- even in cash-strapped municipalities where there is little or no money for new investments. IBM has teamed up with Citi and Streetline to offer financing so that cities can implement Streetline's Smart Parking system with no upfront cost. The Smart Parking technology allows cities to install a network of low-powered wireless sensors, which can detect cars in individual parking spaces. The sensors collect data that can be shared with drivers as well as local traffic authorities.

Consumers can access the data through an online application called Parker (available on smartphones, tablets and on GPS devices in the near future, too) which helps people find available parking spaces in nearly real time. The app could potentially help cities generate more revenue from public parking meters by simply informing drivers of where there is parking available. In the Sydney, Australia, suburb of Parramatta, where a digital parking meter project was recently proposed, the city found that there were up to 2,000 parking places available during peak capacity, despite drivers' belief that there weren't any spaces available at all.

Equally important -- if not more so -- local transit authorities can use the information to gain a better understanding of the relationship between local transportation systems and parking patterns. The data could be used for improved transit scheduling, planning economic development, infrastructure projects as well as merchant services.

By making parking smarter, municipal governments are in a position to improve traffic flow, reduce pollution, increase revenue and make cities a little more livable. Most taxpayers would probably agree that it's a better option than issuing more traffic tickets to help close budget gaps.

This is just one concrete example of how IBM and partners are helping cities become smarter, improving their return on investments in infrastructure and citizen services that reduce costs and increase revenues across all city functions such as public safety, transportation, water, and social services, to name a few.

Gerry Mooney is general manager of IBM's global Smarter Cities initiative.

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