To follow the theme of Smart Cities, the topic of Smart Mobility is the intersection of information and communication technology (ICT) with transportation systems. The common name for Smart Mobility in transportation circles is Intelligent Transportation Systems or ITS.

On February 6, we generally discussed Smart Mobility but emphasized on one local application of ITS: San Francisco’s SFPark program.  For most ITS applications, the focus so far is on safety, efficiency, and performance.

However, many of these applications are already familiar and we don’t even consider them “smart.”  The next wave of ITS might include performance-based metrics and data analytics that weren’t available over the past 100 years.  More widespread sensors and digital connectivity will allow two-way communication and higher degrees of automated management.

SFPark itself is an integrated parking and congestion management system.  Drivers circling from parking are a major source of congestion and emissions in SF, and the program aims to make parking availability more transparent.  A system of sensors in parking spaces helps produce a real-time map of parking availability downtown, so drivers know where they are likely to find parking.  This new system of sensors also allows for dynamic pricing of parking spaces – a tool that can provide cities with a new way of managing curbside congestion.   By pricing the parking space based on demand (an application of economic theory), the prices can trigger parking behavior that leaves at least one space open at any time.  The accompanying new meters also let people seamlessly pay by cell phone or credit card, and prices are adjusted every 4-6 weeks to manage demand.

We also discussed some of the implementation challenges of the program.  The discussion of the system was quite rich, and here are some of the biggest insights that emerged.

  • Technology is not the only piece of smart mobility – institutions, unions, personnel, etc. are major factors in how the technology gets integrated into the system.  For public uses, these are often the most formidable.
  • To implement these systems, you need an immense project management system because it’s a complicated system of vendors.
  • Major security and privacy barriers to fully utilizing data.  Currently, most data can only be used at aggregate level, and data ownership is a huge issue.  In addition, resources are needed to run high-level analytics on the growing database.
  • It’s unclear how to make SFPark financially sustainable.  Currently, it is fueled by grants as a pilot project, but full cost recovery hasn’t been figured out.  After SFPark, initial data suggests that revenues from citations have gone down, while revenues from parking itself have gone up.
  • The sensor and meter system has to be flawless, due to public scrutiny and accountability, and there are technical issues in power, protection, and interference that require a lot of resources to address.