Monday, March 7, 2011

No Parking: Data-Driven City Life Rolls Along Slowly

"We will look back at this time and the flowering of technology as one that transformed parking. The closest comparison would be the invention of the cash register in the 19th century, which totally transformed commerce."

-- Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planner who studies parking, transportation and land use.

Shoup was quoted in a recent USA Today story on how new mobile apps and in-car technologies are changing the way people look for parking spaces. A related story focused on one particular mobile app: "Parker" from a company called Streetline. But what the app-maker calls "smart parking" is just a stepping stone in the company's vision for building "smart cities" -- using "live data from the real world to support sustainable development and transform the way people live and work."

More from the company's website:

"Imagine if cities could speak to us -- if they could give us live status updates on traffic patterns, pollution, parking spaces, water, power and light. Imagine how that kind of information could improve the economic and environmental health of the city, for residents, merchants, and visitors. Imagine how it could improve working conditions and productivity for the people who maintain the city."

Imagining these data-driven cities of the future turns out to be the easy part.

Tech-minded urban planners and entrepreneurs have been noodling about wired "info cities" for ages and ages. One far-sighted friend of mine, Geoff Halstead, even launched a business along the same lines as Streetline -- but Geoff's focus back then was traffic rather than parking.

Mobile carriers were beginning to integrate location information with every cell call -- mostly to help emergency responders with 911 calls. But the commercial potential of this location information looked like it would sprawl out faster and farther than a suburban strip mall. "This whole infrastructure will be built," Geoff told Business Week at the time. "And behind it will be a huge opportunity to offer position-based traffic services."

That was more than a decade ago -- when those of us who were tinkering with early version of mobile online services thought we'd have iPhone-like devices in hand within a couple of years. Alas, the mobile Web evolved far slower in the United States than a lot of us expected.

These days I frequently refer to an online traffic service very much like what Geoff had in mind in the late 1990s: It's my Google Maps app.

Mainstream mobile technology and services are now accessible, affordable and robust enough that companies as big as Google and as small as Streetline once again seem to be hearing the virtual "cha-chings" of those 19th-century cash registers that Professor Shoup mentioned above. This time I just hope the idea has enough change to park.

(Picture above: iStockPhoto)

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