Smart parking: less pollution, less congestion

Smart parking can change cities, but only if public and private partners collaborate.


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Parking is one of the cornerstones upon which smart cities will be built across the UK. It offers the opportunity to reduce pollution and congestion and enable new mobility solutions such as car sharing, self-driving and electric vehicle infrastructure. But to achieve that, the UK parking sector has to modernise and enable rather than hinder, as it does today, these much-needed developments.

Connected transport systems are a critical part of the plans for UK smart cities, and parking is firmly at the heart of those developments. Connected mobility – and with it, greater operational efficiencies and improved revenues, improved user experience through aggregated transport information, digital ticketing and better connected inter-modal transport – relies on parking becoming smart.

The battle for access to the kerbside, which will only intensify as more businesses demand a share, must be addressed. And parking charges need to be reduced or, if appropriate, increased to nudge driver behaviours for the better.

These are all issues that smart parking can solve. In cities where parking has been made smart, the benefits have been clearly demonstrated. For example, in San Francisco’s SFPark initiative, the time taken to find a space decreased by 43 per cent as a result of less circling, and vehicle miles driven in pilot areas dropped by 30 per cent. Greenhouse gas emissions, as a result, also dropped 30 per cent. Total traffic volume decreased by eight per cent. At the same time, on-street parking availability improved by 22 per cent during peak periods. What UK city would not want to realise those benefits?

With technology that digitally connects vehicles to roads, and the associated insights delivered by the resulting data, it’s now becoming possible to recognise individual motorists and their behaviours, and to use this information to better manage traffic flows.

Today, however, a host of challenges stand in the way of making that vision a reality. Many of them are created by the structures in place for the management of the nation’s parking assets. At present, 75 per cent of the country’s parking lies in the hands of a multitude of bodies including the DfT; The National Assembly for Wales; county councils, unitary authorities and metropolitan districts; the counties and county boroughs; London borough councils (or the City of London); and TfL.

This structural issue needs urgent attention to ensure that the UK’s parking network is smart-city ready,  and that future benefits can be realised.

Achieving a truly connected transport system requires substantial capital investment (in digital solutions more than in physical assets) and a singular vision that no one body can achieve on its own. The current state of fragmentation has meant that consumers find themselves managing a proliferation of apps and payment mechanisms as they move from one location to the next – an experience that is anything but satisfactory. Moreover, all those bodies responsible for the nation’s towns and cities are unable to access crucial data to enable today’s demand for smarter environments. 

Such implementation could help deliver reduced pollution, reduced congestion, simpler and more efficient transport planning and ticketing and supports the implementation of new mobility solutions including car sharing, EV charging networks and the management of on-demand ride hailing and increased deliveries.

But that is unlikely to happen with today’s outdated infrastructure in place that often rely on disconnected , anonymous cash and card transactions at payment machines.The NCP proposal is a simple one. A nationwide partnership between public and private sectors would provide the means for a new approach to parking.

Firstly, we need to create an open market for smart parking solutions in the UK. A key starting point is to end the exclusive nature of local authority mobile payment parking solutions and allow consumers to chose their preferred means of finding spaces, parking and paying for them across the country.

Providers will then have to compete in a consumer marketplace for their position – a much tougher game than when competing for a contract. Competing on-and off-street parking businesses (digitally enabled as they must become) will have to provide unified data to the towns and cities they serve, as well as using and accessing that data to enable customers to find and pay for spaces more easily. Both cities and citizens will benefit.

This would not remove the ability to manage and set prices or manage operations or physical infrastructure from the existing public bodies. But it would enable private sector businesses to offer a seamless parking experience in both public and private environments. Customers could find spaces, on or off the street, and pay for them through the provider of their choosing.

Secondly, we need to harmonise regulation across the public and private sectors. For example, acknowledging that public bodies should be free to use camera-based enforcement in parking – as they do now with all other forms of traffic infringements.  There should be no material difference here with private firms.

At the same time, this would bring into line other disparities. For example, the same VAT regime could be applied to both on-street and off-street parking – acknowledging that the “product” is in the same marketplace either way as far as the consumer is concerned.

These changes would drive the market to implement parking solutions fit for the 21st century at a far greater speed than any single regulatory or public body could, enabling the rapid adoption of much-needed new mobility solutions.

They would also put in place a platform on which parking providers, automotive manufacturers and technology providers can create the new services that will bring innovations which deal with the issues of environment, congestion and costs that we face as a nation.

The precedent has been set with innovations used elsewhere. At its core, SFPark enabled private business access to a public APIs and open data for all parking across San Francisco meaning parking became more readily available and a dramatic and positive environmental impact could be realised.

While this initiative is in a single city, it does offer the UK a clear direction of travel. The technology and tools exist. The will to create such a platform is clear from the private sector. A collaborative approach could make smart cities a reality and parking a cornerstone of their development – delivering benefits to local towns and cities, consumers, the national purse and the planet.

Max Crane-Robinson is commercial director at NCP.

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