This article originally appeared in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
Until now our favorite strategy for parking in Princeton came from a friend who advised that when you drive into town you skip any open spaces on the fringes and head directly to where you want to go. You might just get lucky there. If you don’t then you can work your way back toward the fringes.
Now we have a new strategy, advanced by a start-up company founded by a Princeton graduate student, and seeking participants in a trial that will occur through the central business district this summer. The concept: Smart parking meters, equipped with cameras and capable of communicating with motorists’ cell phones to alert them to open spaces and to allow them to reserve a space before they even get to it.
Possumus, founded by Arash Sadeghi, who is just completing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Princeton, has contracted with the municipality to purchase the time at up to 10 meters around town for the first pilot program of its technology. The legacy, coin and card-operated meters at those locations will be temporarily replaced with Possumus’ smart meters. The pavement in the parking spaces will also be marked with temporary stencils, alerting the public that these spots are reserved for the pilot program.
The smart meters will be equipped with a beacon that changes color as its status changes. A blinking green light means that it’s available to anyone participating in the program; red indicates that it has been reserved for an approaching motorist or that no parking is allowed at that time. When the motorist parks, the rate and time limitations for that spot will be displayed on his cell phone — no craning your neck to find a street sign. When the motorist leaves, the meter stops and the charge is posted to the driver’s account.
What happens if someone overstays his allotted time in, say, a metered spot with a two-hour limit? When the system is fully implemented, the smart meter could also be the meter maid (or meter man). But first it could send an alert to the motorist. The Possumus engineers will use the pilot program to test the timing of the alerts and the best means to deliver them (text, e-mail, or call).
The town might also utilize a progressive pricing strategy. You are in a two-hour spot, but you could be offered a chance to stay another hour, but at a higher rate. Ultimately if you stay too long, your account will show the cost of a ticket. What if an interloper jumps into a spot ahead of the person who has reserved the space? Another ticket is issued — the meter’s camera has captured the license plate number.
To some it may sound like Big Brother. To Sadeghi it sounds like E-Z Pass, which millions of motorists are already comfortable with. To find out for yourself (and to provide valuable feedback to the Possumus crew of engineers and computer scientists who will be ensconced in a house on Elm Road over the summer), register to participate in the pilot program online.
This study follows on the heels of a town-sponsored parking survey, which concluded at the end of May and will be discussed at a public meeting at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street on Wednesday, June 14, with an open house from 5:30 to 6:30 and a presentation at 6:30 p.m.
We met up with Sadeghi after we both had circled Palmer Square for a few minutes searching for parking spaces (an exercise that contributes to traffic congestion). Born in Iran with educator parents who moved back and forth to Great Britain (where Sadeghi earned a degree in physics at Oxford), he was a “tinkerer” growing up. “I was in the habit of almost getting electrocuted,” he says. He is now clearly passionate about parking meters, which thankfully will run on solar-powered rechargeable batteries.
One good thing about his meters is that they are cheap — one-fifth the cost of a “legacy meter,” he says, with no moving parts and no need for expensive, weather-resistant coin receptacles and card readers. In a town fully equipped with Possumus meters, there would be no need for meter patrols. Nor would you need meter maintenance or coin collection people.
Smart meters would also allow smart management of parking spaces, always a scarce resource in a downtown area. “You could do congestion pricing,” Sadeghi says, within a certain distance of a stadium on the day of a big game, or throughout downtown Princeton during Reunions weekend. The changes could be made remotely from a command center, as opposed to sending a worker out to change each legacy meter manually. Or you could open up an entire lane of a street for a special event by turning all the meters on the street to red.
Another capability: Optional tie-ins with merchants who could offer to pick up a customer’s parking charge with, for example, the capture of a QR code.
At age 32 Sadeghi, who has been involved in several medical-related startups in Great Britain, is well aware of the entrepreneurial pitfalls. In the case of his smart meters, he anticipated that one hurdle could be municipal officials. He has been pleasantly surprised by the support of the mayor Liz Lempert, engineer Deanna Stockton, and others.
The Possumus press release announcing the pilot program quotes Lempert: “As mayor, I’ve worked to incorporate technology into government operations … We are also committed to fostering creative and novel technological solutions to municipal challenges.”
The best solutions, Sadeghi says, “are based on real time data.” He could go on with more details, but our meter is about to expire. To avoid a ticket we would need to pop a few more quarters into the slot right above the sticker saying “no meter feeding.” We decide not to. As Sadeghi says, “the merchants hate meter feeding,” which is hard to enforce with legacy meters. But, he notes, meter feeding is impossible with his smart meters.