Photo by adamgreenfield on Flickr.

Arlington is interested in using license plate recognition technology to better understand how people park at meters. A better statistical picture could lead to more effective management and a fairer pricing scheme that generates higher revenues.

County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman had asked the Department of Environmental Services about the use of installed parking occupancy sensors, how the sensors could improve the efficiency of meter enforcement or improve information available about parking space occupancy. Arlington staff reported their findings in a staff memo.

This would be an important step toward understanding parking in Arlington well enough to implement ideas like running the meters later at night, and setting parking meter prices according to occupancy.

Arlington found that Los Angeles and San Francisco are using installed occupancy sensors to improve parking meter enforcement and adjust parking prices according to demand respectively.

In Los Angeles, better enforcement and credit card acceptance means that parking revenues are dramatically up. There, drivers can use an iPhone app to see where parking spaces are available, and a webpage shows real-time occupancy. These data guide parking managers on enforcement targets as well as pricing guidance.

San Francisco’s Smart Park program has support from a US DOT grant. SFPark will collect parking occupancy data and adjust meter prices automatically to balance parking demand, ensuring parking availability even on blocks that are in high demand.

Arlington staff is currently looking at procedures to manually measure occupancy, a labor-intensive process that former DDOT director Gabe Klein pointed to as one of the biggest reasons performance parking hasn’t worked so far in DC. The time-consuming data collection process cannot be performed often enough to provide relevant information.

Arlington is also looking into a system similar to what DDOT has paid the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to use. License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology uses cameras and a database to record where and when cars are observed. According to Arlington County, the treasurer’s office and the police already own LPR equipment which can be used for occupancy counts.

Although this is cheaper than installing sensors at each parking meter, it has many downsides:

  1. Data collection has to be planned in advance, essentially deciding what data to gather and then designing routes for people to drive with the camera in order to ensure coverage.
  2. Data will most likely only be gathered when the meters are running and need enforcement, leading to the same information hole we have today where meters that aren’t running can’t tell you anything about how many people park outside of normal operating hours.
  3. Monitor coverage won’t be as complete as with continuously operating sensors. Essentially, with sensors, any possible view of the data could be supported, from information about late evening parking on weekends, to mid-day turnover rates and even special views like occupancy during street festivals.

Despite these drawbacks, collecting some data will help improve understanding of the usage of Arlington’s metered parking spaces. Within six months, Arlington plans to test different occupancy measurement technologies within six months, and expects by next spring to identify high density blocks for studying occupancy as a proof of concept.

Update: Arlington County parking manager Sarah Stott’s has responded with the following comments:

Thanks to Michael Perkins and GGW for helping to explain the importance of managing the curb space so that on-street parking spaces are available and utilized to their full potential to support local businesses. Unfortunately the article’s headline is inaccurate.

Yes, Arlington County is currently investigating a number of techniques and technologies for measuring parking occupancy. We have not, however, decided to use cameras for this purpose.

Second, the County’s goal in measuring occupancy is to collect data for the effective management of curb space and to devise parking solutions that are tailored to the community’s needs. Revenue generation is not the goal. This is evidenced by the County’s practice of measuring occupancy on non-metered streets where revenue doesn’t exist.

Lastly, Arlington County has no current plan to extend meter hours past 6:00 pm in commercial neighborhoods. This decision would be made with the community’s input and the support of data. We strive to make parking available and convenient for all. Doing so, will help to ensure that Arlingon continues to be a friendly place to live, work, shop and do business.