IntelliMeter uses sonar technology to reset meter when car moves out
WASHINGTON - In the exasperating quest for street parking, victory comes in tiny increments -- the stray 20 minutes left on the meter by the driver who just pulled away, for example.
A Bethesda company, IntelliPark LLC, wants to take that small pleasure away. It is marketing a parking meter called IntelliMeter that uses sonar technology to detect when a space is occupied and resets the meter to zero every time a car moves out.
"You take away that free lunch, but on the other hand that's tax revenue," said IntelliPark chief executive Glen A. Hellman.
The company is one of several exploring technologically savvy parking systems as a way for municipalities to control street congestion and bring in extra revenue at the same time.
Major cities such as New York and Baltimore have installed "smart parking" systems in some areas that allow for easier payment with credit cards, smart cards or even cellphones.
In Georgetown and Arlington, drivers pay fees at one multi-space box on a block or print out receipts they put on their dashboards.
The next wave of parking technology is expected to go a step further by networking the meters and giving local officials daily or weekly reports about what's happening on the streets.
Another company, InnovaPark LLC of Westport, Conn., uses magnetic sensors to monitor spaces.
Neither company's system is in wide use. IntelliPark has installed its meters in Reading, Pa., and InnovaPark has installed its system in a few towns in California. Hyattsville in Prince George's County is expected to start a pilot project using IntelliPark's sonar meters next week.
IntelliPark charges $175 for a meter -- comparable to conventional parking meters -- and $7 a month more to lease the vehicle sensors.
While a main selling point is the chance to collect more money from each meter, Hellman said the network of sensors also can help cities better manage street parking by cutting down on street congestion and reducing the amount of fuel wasted by motorists hunting for spaces.
A million miles racked up in hunt for parking
According to a study of a 15-block area in Los Angeles over a year, drivers racked up almost 1 million vehicle miles cruising for parking spots, said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"That's two trips to the moon, just hunting for cheap parking," he said.
Low-power radio devices on the IntelliMeters send information to a central hub, where city officials can analyze parking patterns, adjust rates to encourage turnover in high-traffic areas and monitor how effectively city workers enforce parking laws.
A city could offer a built-in, five- to 15-minute grace period on every meter to give parkers a chance to get change or run quick errands. But it could also prevent meter feeding by locking out additional payments for a car that has been parked for the maximum time allowed for a space. A driver could beat the system by pulling out of the spot, driving around the block and returning to the reset meter, but Hellman said inconvenience should be a deterrent.
Based on tests, Hellman said, revenue increases an estimated 20 percent from zeroing out the meters in low-traffic areas and as much as 50 percent in high-traffic areas. The system in use in some parts of Baltimore, in which drivers buy time from a box on the sidewalk and put receipts in their windows, has increased revenue by 25 percent.
"We know how a standard meter works and what options we have, but what we're curious about is what the new improvements could be," said Hyattsville City Treasurer Robert W. Oliphant. "There's a whole lot of data you can get out of those meters."
The city of Pacific Grove, Calif., installed the magnetic InnovaPark system last year, and revenue increased $180,000. With a total operating budget of $15 million, City Manager James J. Colangelo said, the system has been a success, despite complaints from some tourists.
"That is one of the joys of parking, to pull up to metered parking where there's time left," Colangelo said. "You feel like you have good karma that day, and now you don't get that feeling. But I'm much more willing to throw a few more quarters in than to fight for a spot."
Pre-ordered parking spaces?
IntelliPark's operation is small so far. The company has eight full-time employees, and a third-party manufacturer makes its parts.
Hellman works in the Bethesda office of his primary investor, Carlton Capital. Outside investors, including Carlton and Winston Partners, co-founded by President Bush's brother, Marvin P. Bush, have invested $5 million to $10 million since 1999.
With a patent for the sonar technology in hand, Hellman said, the company will add a sales and marketing division and research and development employees by the beginning of next year. The next phase of the project will add a component that allows customers to pay remotely and reserve parking places on their cellphones.
"I'm not going to look to expand until I see we're in a position of strength, until we have a major metropolitan customer," Hellman said. His rule for working with a company "is to keep it as small and run it as lean as I can until I have a model for success that's respectable," he said.