Parking Could Be Smarter With Low-Tech Fix

The last time I saw Jeff Petry, he was dressed as a Star Wars Jedi master. Fortunately for his family and colleagues at the city of Eugene, it was Halloween. He was meeting another city official in a downtown coffee shop, no doubt putting the finishing touches on the city’s revised downtown parking plan.

After almost a decade, the city has determined that the Force is finally with downtown. They have reinstalled the parking meters for the downtown core, but the new parking meters will be smarter. Petry’s job title has been expanded to Parking and Technology Manager, so his staff has been working hard on the technology part.

“Soon, downtown Eugene will be using more advanced parking technology than any other city in the Pacific Northwest,” Petry promised. The new parking meters accept coins, credit cards, smartphone, and smart car payments. The system soon will be tied to a smartphone app. App users will be able to plug their meter remotely, be reminded when their time is running out, and ask for help to remember where they parked.

If this all seems a little bit like science fiction, there’s more. The new parking meters have sensors to detect whether there’s a car in the space. Open spaces will be shown in real time on the smartphone app so that drivers will know where to look for a parking space. These parking meters are smart enough to pocket any extra money paid by a departing motorist, but the city has chosen not to turn on that capability.

Public parking garages and surface lots will soon be added to Eugene’s emerging smart grid for parking. This spring, parking garages will get exterior signage that will display in real time whether spaces are available.

“The meters will generate very valuable data,” Petry told me. “We’ll be able to track occupancy, time of day, average payment, etcetera. We will tie this on-street parking usage data with our off-street system to analyze the parking pulse of the city.”

Not all the downtown parking improvements involve gizmos and spreadsheets. The garages recently got a significant scrub-down, efficient new LED lighting, and better directional signage.

When Petry recruited artists and writers to post their work at the landings in the Overpark stairwells, it wasn’t to distract people from the steel-and-concrete structure, or even to entice motorists to use the stairs for exercise. It was to help them remember where they parked, to minimize any fear or frustration when they return. Each floor is now painted a different color to jog the memory too.

On Halloween, I petitioned Petry for one small change that hasn’t yet occurred. I think I understand why, but I have a low-tech solution that should work.

If the city wants to make the parking garages a bit more attractive, the simplest way would be to extend the first hour of free parking in the Parcade and the Overpark.

“Free” produces a different experience than any sort of discount can provide. For those who loved downtown’s free parking for the past eight years, a bit more free time in the garages would make the return of meters easier to accept.

I understand that changing signs and updating everything from downtown merchant brochures to websites would be a colossal hassle, for just a few extra minutes of free parking. But those few extra minutes could create a colossally different experience for anyone coming downtown to meet for an hour or a quick lunch.

It seems like an hour should be enough time, but only if you can click your heels together to get where you’re going. As far as I know, ruby slippers have not yet been added to the current technology.

So I’ve come up with a low-tech solution. Simply set the clocks at the entrance of the garages a few minutes fast. It’s not a fancy fix. No fanfare required. Drivers pulling in at 11:55 AM will be pleasantly surprised to see their entry time marked as 12:10 PM.

That will work until Jedis master the “fold space” ability.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.