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Parking Apps Proliferate, But Can They Solve The Problem Of Traffic Congestion?

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Yesterday, we received a press release from a company called Pango, which makes an app that allows motorists to pay for on-street parking. (The company's demo video is embedded above.)

If you live in a city of any size, this isn't especially newsworthy. Products like Pango have been rolling out for years: some work through apps, some make use of simpler text-to-pay features. In fact, we've seen municipalities deploy more than one such system, perhaps to see what works best.

No, the question here isn't about novelty, it's about ease of use and impact on the community. How do such products measure on those fronts? Not as well as we'd like.

On the one hand, Pango and its many, many competitors do make it easier for motorists to pay for parking. Some apps and services are simpler to use than others, but all keep drivers from having to scrounge through coat pockets and seat crevices for increasingly hard-to-find quarters.

Also, many of these products claim to generate greater revenue for municipalities by simplifying the parking payment process. That seems logical and good: when everyone pays for parking, cities and towns have more to spend on schools, parks, and other important programs. And in theory, those programs can be supported by workers who used to spend a lot of time checking and emptying parking meters.

On the other hand, payment apps don't do anything to address the much bigger issue of traffic congestion. A recent study by the International Parking Institute suggested that 30% of folks driving through downtown areas at any given time are on the hunt for parking. In the process, they're wasting gas and polluting the air.

To fix that problem, technology needs to go one step further. In fact, two steps. Oh heck, let's make it three.

First, cities need to roll out more effective traffic management programs. As we speak, IBM is working on such an initiative that can make traffic predictions based on a range of data, including roadway accidents, public transportation capacity, construction projects, and police activity.

Second, smartphones need to become ubiquitous, and the apps on those phones need to feed geolocational info to the aforementioned traffic management software -- kind of like an always-on Waze. How that can happen while protecting individual privacy, we can't say. (We just claim to be writers, not software engineers.) 

Third -- and perhaps most importantly -- we need greater on-the-ground systems like the ones developed by Streetline. These keep tabs on open spaces so that commuters know where they can  park, saving time, energy, fuel, and frustration.

That said, communications technology is advancing very, very quickly, becoming exponentially smaller and more mobile in the process. Vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-grid, and autonomous systems could have a hugely beneficial impact on traffic -- especially in light of new data suggesting that U.S. driving has been on the decline for nearly a decade. Stay tuned.  

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