A high-tech revolution is driving the parking industry

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Ah, parking. How many four-letter words have been uttered, how many blood pressures have spiked upward, how many hairs have turned gray in searching for you, paying for you?

Spread across an exhibit hall of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center this week is the promise of newfound serenity:

Parking meters that can be fed from afar, rendering quaint those pockets full of quarters; computer-controlled signs that point you to the closest available space, sparing you those time- and gas-wasting laps around the garage; even technology that rescues you when you've forgotten where you parked.

"Not so long ago we were operating out of cigar boxes," said Casey Jones, transportation chief at Boise State University and the new board chair of the International Parking Institute, which is holding its annual convention here.

"When you talk to a lot of our members, one of the top items is technology," said Cindy Campbell, his predecessor. "It's not just about revenue generation. It's about customer service and convenience."

At one kiosk there is a parking meter by Digital Payment Technologies that is so far advanced from the standard no-armed bandit that it probably should have a different name. It allows you to pay with your cell phone or by inserting a credit card (or with bills or coins if you're nostalgic).

When your time is nearly up, it calls or texts you and asks if you want to stay longer. No more rushing out of those riveting office meetings to feed the meter.

If the meter malfunctions, it calls the repair person and reports what's wrong.

Oh, and it operates on solar power.

Green technology is sprouting throughout the parking industry. Multiple systems now exist that use sensors to keep track of where spaces are filled and empty and instantly display the information on signs that guide drivers to the nearest open stall.

A sign displays the number of spaces open on each level of a garage and instantly updates the count when someone comes or goes.

"It helps reduce carbon monoxide emissions and customer frustration," said Brian Veshecco of Trans-Tech, an Erie-based sign company. "It's really quite the hot thing in parking."

A variation of the technology is overhead LED lights that are installed at each space and show red when the space is occupied, green when it's empty and blue for handicap parking. A driver can peer down an entire row to see if a space is open.

How about letting robots park your car?

Boomerang Systems of Morristown, N.J., displayed a robotic garage at which drivers pull into an entrance-level stall, punch in some information and have their cars whisked away on wheeled, computer-controlled pallets that shuffle and arrange the parked cars in all of the garage's available floor space.

"It's like a computer playing chess, thinking ahead to its next move," said Woody Nash, company director of global business development.

The system doubles a garage's capacity. A new garage can be built at half the size of a conventional parking deck and without the ventilation required because the car engines are off.

"I don't have to hunt around for a parking space or worry about who's lurking around the corner," Mr. Nash said.

It takes 45 seconds to 4 minutes for the robots to retrieve a car, but you can call ahead to have it ready when you arrive -- yes, there's an app for that.

Those meter enforcers who wander around in time-restricted parking zones chalking tires? So 20th century. Autochalk, made by Tannery Creek Systems of Ontario, uses digital imaging equipment mounted on a vehicle to record the identifying features and location of cars. When the enforcement officer makes a return trip, it sounds an alarm when it finds cars that are over the time limit.

The company says the device can scan thousands of vehicles per hour at speeds up to 30 mph.

"This is coming," Mr. Jones said at a display of a charging station for electric cars. The devices are starting to show up in parking lots and garages and enable drivers to use their smart phones to locate a station, make an appointment, pay for the electricity and receive a text message when the charging is complete.

And who hasn't looked at a sea of cars in a vast lot or garage with that sinking feeling? A mall in Santa Monica, Calif., photographs cars with license-plate recognition technology. If a shopper loses a car, he or she types the plate number into a kiosk, which serves up a photo and the car's location.

"We're taking our cues from other industries," Mr. Jones said, noting that consumers routinely use automated systems to book flights, hotels and other purchases. "Our business is no different. We understand that our customers demand it, want it. We are a people business."

The convention, which wraps up today, has attracted nearly 2,500 parking professionals and 225 vendors from 25 countries, making it the largest in the institute's 49-year history. Pittsburgh might be a tough place to park, but evidently it's a great place for a parking convention.

"I think we'll be back," Mr. Jones said.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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