The Report

The Internet of Things: does it start with parking?

Posting in Cities

Cisco is partnering with smart parking technology provider Streetline to bring its networking know-how to building up cities' sensor networks. But that could be just the beginning.

They say trying something again and again but expecting a different outcome is a sign of insanity. If you've ever circled a few city blocks, over and over again, searching for a parking spot, you've probably felt your own sanity slipping away.

Looking for parking in crowded urban corridors is not just maddening, it's also a big contributor to carbon emissions and poor air quality. A 2006 study in Brooklyn, New York, found 45 percent of surveyed drivers were circling blocks, looking for street parking (sure, they could have paid $20 for a lot, but when street meters only cost $1, it's easy to see the rationale). In other cities, on average 30 percent of traffic in congested areas is comprised of drivers looking for parking.

Hardik Bhatt

Over the past few years, Streetline, a San Francisco-based technology company, has been busy deploying its sensor-based parking assistance platform in U.S. cities with the aim of cutting the time and frustration of finding an open spot. Now, Streetline is partnering with networking technology provider Cisco. So far, the collaboration has brought Streetline to two Bay Area cities, San Carlos and San Mateo, but that's just the beginning, says Hardik Bhatt, Cisco's director of Smart+Connected Communities program.

Cisco has long been working on building energy management projects, aimed at reducing energy demand and making processes more efficient. "But on the street," Bhatt says, "there are so many things that need to be managed, from parking to street lights, traffic lights" in ways that would improve public health and safety. "Having them all on one network helps, but if these networks can speak to each other -- so a fire hydrant sensor can speak to a parking sensor and to traffic light sensors, using machine to machine language, is where we are seeing the world is advancing."

This concept, which Cisco and others call the Internet of Things, is based on mesh networks of wireless, easily deployed sensors that transmit data back and forth using common machine to machine (M2M) protocols. Streetline has installed its sensor-based real-time parking application in 21 locations in the United States and Germany. Sensors are embedded into pavement near parking spots and constantly monitor the spot, transmitting data to the cloud when a spot is available. On the Parker app, "we have three categories, " says Streetline CEO Zia Yusuf. "Blocks that have less than 2 spot, 2+ [spots] and 4+ [spots]. We don't send you to a specific spot, we influence your decision to go straight, take a left or take a right."

Why Parking?
Can this appreciably reduce emissions and congestion? A recent Rutger University study showed the sensor-based information systems (both for parking, like Streetline, and for traffic alerts) do reduce greenhouse has emissions, though by how much isn't an exact science.

Smart parking applications aren't just for major urban centers. Reno (the "Biggest Little City"), Nevada, is testing Streetline sensors, installed by partner Siemens, in its up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. There, street parking has always been free, but the hotter the area got, the harder parking became, says Deane Albright, a Reno accountant and investor in St. James Brasserie, a brewpub near Midtown. He saw so much promise in the Streetline solution, he anted up to expand the original pilot so sensors would be installed close to the eatery.

"I think it's a great system, really state of the art," Albright says. Rather than installing parking meters to control parking and reduce the number of all-day parkers, Reno is testing the Streetline sensors to enforce a new two-hour parking limit. Streetline shares the sensor data with the city, and when a car overstays its welcome, an enforcement agent is dispatched to that spot – this saves the city considerable resources since it doesn't need to patrol these streets.

This is one of the benefits cities can derive from smart parking applications, while another is linking Parker or similar applications with dynamic pricing platforms, where meter rates go up or down based on demand for parking and drivers can decide where to park based on rates.

Zia Yusuf

"We see a very robust case in parking management," says Bhatt. "It's one of the issues cities are dealing with and it's also a revenue source for cities." In fact, parking is typically the second or third largest revenue source for cities, says Yusuf.

This spring Streetline received a $25 million line of credit from Citi to bring its technology to more U.S. cities  But as its parking sensor networks grow larger, so will the mountains of data they're collecting. Cisco's network gateways can help filter and manage the data from the Streetline sensors -- and, eventually, from other sensors deployed around the city -- so that only the most relevant and useful data will be routed to the applications.

"Streetline is proving to be the killer app, on the back of which networking technology can be deployed," says Yusuf. "This is part of a roadmap that we want to evolve with Cisco."

Where will that road take them? To Barcelona, perhaps. "On top of traffic management, the city is looking at trash can management," says Bhatt. "A lot of times the cans are only 10 to 20 percent full, but the collection trucks hold up traffic, so were looking to work with the collection company and put an ultrasound sensors on the cans, to see how full they are [before the collection trucks are deployed]."

Who knew the Internet of Things would start with parking? But Cisco, for one, is bullish on its potential. Next year "is going to be a tremendously exciting time" for the Internet of Things, says Bhatt. "This partnership is a good indicator that it's becoming serious."

Images: Streetline/Cisco

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure