Pebble Sidewalk Labs scaled

Could a simple parking sensor improve our cities?

Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s innovation business, has created a low-cost, real-time sensor to manage and understand how parking spaces are used in an effort to kickstart better placemaking.

Aimed at property developers, local authorities and car park operators, Sidewalk Labs’ Pebble provides users with real-time data about parking space availability and a dashboard to help them analyse historical parking patterns.

The system consists of two parts:

  • Pebble sensors, small 2.8 inch discs that stick to the ground and collect anonymous availability information
  • A solar-powered ‘Pebble gateway’ that can be strapped to a pole wirelessly

For developers, data gathered from Pebble could be used to create shared parking zones and build less parking. That can be particularly useful if, for example, a restaurant that serves customers in the evening and an office whose car park is only used during the day can use the same space.

A lack of information is a “big hurdle” to using car parking space efficiently, Nick Jonas, senior creative technologist at Sidewalk Labs, wrote in a blog post announcing the sensor. Insights that fill that data gap and pinpoint areas where car parks are not needed could reduce costs considerably for developers.

More efficient use of space would lead to better placemaking that responds to real needs from residents and workers, replacing unneeded spaces with more housing or amenities.

The future of parking

Although Sidewalk Labs makes a point of tackling current inefficiencies, developers and city planners also have to consider how needs will change in coming years. If ride sharing continues to grow and if driverless cars take off, there will be a much smaller need for parking space.

Research by MIT, published last year in Nature’s Scientific Reports, found that replacing private cars with self-driving and shared ones would eliminate the need for 86% of parking spaces in Singapore, for example.

After all, cars are parked about 95% of the time. Replacing privately owned cars with autonomous vehicles would substantially cut the number of cars idling and taking up space, potentially opening up swathes of land for other uses.

A Knight Frank study last year calculated that government owned car parks in the UK could accommodate 2.1 million homes – seven years’ supply. Not all of this would be suitable for development, and some of it provides essential support for nearby amenities, but the research also found that 91% of public sector surface car parks have another car park within a five minute walk. Two-thirds of car parks do not support any retail centres.

That could be a significant opportunity to re-think public space, especially if demand for parking does fall in the future.

The challenge for developers is meeting today’s demand for car parking in new buildings and public spaces while incorporating enough flexibility to repurpose that space in the future.

Pebble was created as a solution for the first half of that challenge, and the insights technology like that can generate could give developers an indication of when that space needs to be converted into something else.

Jonas said: “We think a low-cost, easy-install, privacy-preserving way to measure parking and kerb space can help get any number of new ideas for more sustainable and innovative cities off the ground.”

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