Sacramento plans solar-powered ‘smart’ parking meters

by Tony Bizjak and Ryan Lillis, Sacramento Bee

Seven years after introducing parking kiosks downtown, Sacramento officials say it’s time for an even more expansive upgrade of downtown parking ‘ starting with solar-powered parking meters that drivers can pay via cellphone.

The plan to purchase and install nearly 6,000 "smart" meters later this year is part of an ambitious effort to catch up with fast-evolving parking technology and make the crowded downtown and midtown parking scene less of a hassle for workers, shoppers and tourists.

The goal: Go cashless for those who don’t want to fish around for change or hike to a kiosk that takes credit cards.    

"Who carries around $4 in quarters?" asked Sacramento city parking manager Howard Chan. "We want to make the experience more convenient and pleasant, so people will come downtown, and won’t feel we are after them."

Officials say they intend to solicit bids this summer from parking meter companies for an estimated $3.5 million worth of solar-powered meters that accept credit cards as well as coins, and send drivers a text warning when their meter time is nearly up.

The meters ultimately would be accompanied by a city payment program that allows drivers to tap a meter’s number into a cellphone, punch in the amount of time, and have the cost deducted from the driver’s credit card. The driver could add extra time later via cellphone without having to return to the meter.

Parking officials say their multiyear modernization effort may include launching a cellphone app that tells drivers which parking garages have spaces available, and how many. The app eventually could help drivers find on-street parking spots.

New technology also could allow the city to change parking rates ‘ at street meters and in garages ‘ in real time, depending on demand.

While that would mean higher prices for parking spots in popular areas, experiments in San Francisco and other cities indicate it also helps officials pin rates at levels that ensure a few parking spaces remain available on every block.

"There is finite parking supply, and sometimes too much demand for it," said Jay Primus of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency. "What drivers and store owners want is to quickly find a space close to your destination, and not be forced to circle around (the block) senselessly."

Such demand-based pricing can reduce street congestion, cut down on pollution, improve transit reliability and make intersections safer for pedestrians, he said.

Sacramento and other cities also continue to look for ways to cut down on abuse of disabled parking placards, considered one of the biggest problems in many downtowns. People who are not disabled use placards to park free for hours at meters that otherwise would be used by paying drivers.

In addition, Chan said, Sacramento is exploring ways to get tougher on drivers who habitually collect parking tickets but don’t pay them.

"The whole point of controlling parking is to create capacity and turnover for businesses," said Jerry Way, the city’s public works director.

Way said the city plans to make the changes slowly.

"We want our system to augment, not cripple, the downtown experience."

The city’s last big effort to modernize its parking ‘ the installation of green kiosks on many downtown and midtown blocks ‘ received mixed reviews.

The kiosks take credit cards but are inconvenient because parkers must get a sticker and go back to their car to attach it inside the window.

Chan said the city installed the kiosks because they allowed credit cards, but they serve as an example, and warning, of how fast new technology can become old.

Ian Webb, a freelance camera operator from Folsom, was feeding a kiosk on J Street in midtown on Friday so he could run into Mike’s Cameras for equipment. A line of coin-fed meters was closer to the store, but Webb said he rarely carries change and had to move his car to be near a kiosk when his time at the coin meter had expired.

Webb said he has parked at spaces in San Francisco where he could pay with a credit card at individual meters, and liked the convenience. The option of paying with his cellphone "would be ideal."

"I’m looking for anything that can save as much time as possible and be the most efficient," he said.

Solar-powered meters also could mean cheaper maintenance, Chan said. Currently, city workers install new nine-volt batteries in every parking meter twice a year.

"It’s not very green," Chan said. "We buy batteries by the pallet."

The new meters could alert officials when they malfunction. The city often doesn’t know a meter has broken down until a driver contests a parking ticket from a failed meter.

Chan said he will ask the City Council on Tuesday for approval to put out a request for proposals from meter manufacturers. He said he hopes to choose a provider this summer, and to start installing meters late in the year.

The initial plan is to replace the green kiosks on many downtown and midtown blocks, moving some of those kiosks to new locations. City officials also plan to replace many of the older single-space meters with smart meters over time, Chan said.

Merchants in downtown and midtown applauded the upgrades.

"When people already have the option of parking in suburban lots, coming downtown is going to present a challenge," said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. "Anything we can do to have a more reliable system and utilize the latest technology is a good thing."


Sacramento officials want to solicit bids from parking companies ‘ including Duncan Solutions, which makes the Liberty electronic meter, shown at right ‘ for an estimated $3.5 million worth of new meters featuring technology such as:

‘ Internet connectivity to allow parked motorists to receive a text message or email before a meter runs out or to accept payment via cellphone, like with an iPhone- or Android-based app.

‘ The ability to notify parking officials when a meter is out of service or has been vandalized, compromised or stolen.

‘ Card acceptance, which would allow payment for parking via a credit or debit card, or a city-run payment program.

‘ Solar cells to enable wireless communication.

‘ Timers that would change parking prices at different times so hours of high-demand, such as weekday mornings, could be charged at a higher rate.