Streetline Unveils iPhone Parking App, Seeks to Take Guesswork out of Finding a Spot

12/22/10Follow @wroush

It’s a universal urban experience: You’re zigzagging around the crowded city streets in your car, looking for an empty parking spot. The person in the passenger seat tells you to go right. You think you’ll have better luck if you go left. An argument ensues—as pointless as it is bitter, since neither of you has any actual data.

That’s exactly the situation that a new iPhone app called Parker attempts to eliminate. A San Francisco startup called Streetline unveiled the app today in Los Angeles, where it’s tied into an existing network of sensors embedded in city streets and parking meters in the Hollywood area. As you cruise along Hollywood Boulevard, Parker can show you a real-time count of the number of empty parking spots on each nearby block, helping you find a precious empty space faster than you otherwise would.

Streetline launched the app in a ceremony this afternoon with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and city council president Eric Garcetti. “Sometimes it feels like more movie stars have been discovered in Hollywood than parking spaces,” Garcetti said in a statement issued before the event. “This app will help drivers save time, reduce traffic and air pollution, and make visiting Hollywood even more enjoyable than it already is.”

Parker iPhone appFor now, the $1.99 app only works in Tinseltown, and only on the iPhone. But the four-year-old startup has already built sensor networks in other parts of Los Angeles, as well as three other cities, and Streetline CEO Zia Yusuf says he hopes the debut of the Parker app will inspire more cities to ask for the technology, which was originally designed to help with parking enforcement.

Cities like Streetline’s system because it can tell parking officers how long a car has been in a given spot—which, for better or worse, means they can be more efficient about giving out tickets. The added revenue from writing more parking tickets more than makes up for the cost of installing the system, Yusuf says. But sharing the sensor data with consumers “is going to add a whole new dimension to the value of this information, and that is going to start accelerating [deployment],” he predicts. “I hope citizens will say, ‘I would rather go to a city where I can get real-time parking information than a city that doesn’t.’”

The 30-employee company, which has backing from Palo Alto, CA-based Sutter Hill Ventures, is part of a global “smart cities” movement organized around the idea that metropolises could function far more efficiently if infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water mains, and power lines were loaded with sensors that spit out real-time data. (In fact, IBM named Streetline the “world’s smartest startup” last month at Smartcamp, an entrepreneurship competition in Dublin.) The company’s parking sensors contain magnetometers capable of sensing a car’s presence, along with cellular radio equipment that uploads the information to a mesh of nearby repeaters and gateways, which pass it along to servers on the Internet. The sensor packages fit inside reflectors that can be glued to the pavement, or placed in recessed cans for snow-prone areas. There’s also a version that fits inside coin-operated parking meters.

Streetline has long pitched the sensors primarily as a way for traffic and parking departments to get smarter about enforcement; in a live webcast demonstration last week, I watched as the number of open parking spots in the area of Hollywood and Vine started out at 328, then dropped to 321, then rose to 325. But Yusuf says the plan was always to open up this information to consumers, once enough people owned GPS-equipped smartphones like the iPhone.

The Parker app doesn’t pinpoint individual spots that are unoccupied—that might prompt drivers to race one another to open spots, with unsavory results, Yusuf says. Instead it shows the general number of open spaces on each city block, with icons reading “>2″, “2+”, or “4+”.

Given that 30 to 40 percent of the traffic in many downtown areas consists of drivers looking for parking, according to some studies, simply showing drivers which streets have the most open spots could dramatically reduce congestion, Yusuf contends. With better information about parking-spot occupancy, cities could also manage congestion more actively—for example, reprogramming digital meters to charge more when parking is scarce. “It’s essentially a real estate play,” says Yusuf. “You have thousands of parking spots that are not priced correctly. With dynamic pricing cities could not only get more revenue, but allocate resources better.”

Streetline has deployed sensors in downtown Los Angeles as well as L.A.’s Chinatown and Studio City neighborhoods. There are also Streetline sensor networks in Sausalito, CA, on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and in a few commercial parking lots in Salt Lake City, UT. The company could have waited to introduce Parker until even more cities have networks to tie into the app, but “it’s always a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Yusuf. “We intend to add other cities where we are deployed pretty quickly, and we’re doing a bunch of pilots. As deployments increase, your ability to find parking will increase.”

The company expects to introduce a version of Parker for Android phones in the first quarter of 2011, and it also wants to work with car companies to allow access to the parking data from in-dash navigation systems.

Other startups such as SpotScout and ParkingSpots.com have attempted to ease urban parking woes through a combination of metering and mobile or Web-based alerts, but Yusuf says Streetline is the first to make information about on-street spots available to drivers in real time. The app can’t yet direct drivers to commercial lots with open spaces, but that would be an easy upgrade, he says.

“We think this will change parking forever,” Yusuf says. “Three to five years from now, people will say, ‘What do you mean, you used to drive around looking for parking? Didn’t you just get the information from your phone?’”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • David L

    The added revenue from writing more parking tickets more than makes up for the cost of installing the system.

    That may be true in the very short run, but it’s not sustainable. Once drivers eventually realize that they are 100% certain to get a ticket when they park illegally, they will stop taking the chance, and ticket revenue will drop to near-zero. Unless the goal is to maximize available parking with no regard for ticket revenue, they will want to strike some sort of equilibrium between ticket cost and probability of receiving a ticket.