Innovating Parking in Columbus: An interview with Robert Ferrin
A lot has gone right in Columbus in recent years. The Columbus metropolitan area now exceeds 2 million people, and its population is projected to grow to 3 million by 2050. This growth is hardly limited to size, as Columbus has become a hotbed for innovation and emerging technology—attracting educated young professionals and startups from around the world. Perhaps most impressively, in 2016, Columbus was named winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) first-ever Smart City Challenge. As part of The Challenge, U.S. cities could submit proposals for funding to develop smart transportation systems that leveraged data and technology to improve urban mobility. Nearly 80 applications and seven finalists later, the City of Columbus secured a $50 million grant from the DoT.
The Columbus Division of Parking Services embraces the spirit of innovation and the use of technology to create an optimal on-street parking experience in its urban neighborhoods.
One example is an innovative, intelligent parking pilot tested in Columbus’ vibrant Short North Arts District. In speaking about the pilot’s inception, Robert Ferrin, Assistant Director of Parking Services, said the objectives were twofold. “First, the smart parking pilot was designed to increase customer service by providing real-time parking availability to our customers in the Short North—our highest-demand parking area,” Ferrin recalled. “Second, we wanted to provide our team with more robust data analytics regarding on-street occupancy. We knew that type of data would help us tremendously with adjusting rates and our demand-based pricing methodology.”
More than a dozen solution providers proposed technology such as in-ground sensors, meter-based sensing systems, license plate recognition, and other camera-based constructs, various predictive analytics algorithms, and AI tools. As Ferrin recalls, “We shortlisted three providers with a variation of in-ground and metered sensors. Our decision was based on the merits of each proposal and past performance, rather than the technologies used.”
Through a rigorous vetting process, three companies were selected to participate in the pilot. Soon, the results would begin to tell which technology and which vendor could most accurately and reliably provide Columbus with the required data, while making the Short North parking experience more pleasant for drivers. Field visits and surveying kicked off the installation process in mid-September 2019 occurred from October 1st through the end of 2019.
Ferrin described the city’s evaluation process as having three components. First was the overall installation process, including the ease of installation, the infrastructure required, and the coordination amongst groups needed to make it happen. The second measure of effectiveness was the question of the ease of data procurement. As Ferrin puts it, “Is the system integrating with and providing robust data to our back-end data management team and our enforcement team?” The final factor, one that Ferrin identifies as “the big one,” was data accuracy.
Throughout the process, from installation until the pilot’s conclusion, Ferrin noted that Fybr, with its Smart City Platform, was an exceptional partner that was well-prepared for the rigors and challenges inherent in a pilot of this sort. “Fybr was quick to provide proactive troubleshooting where needed, proactive communications, and in the end, through our evaluation process, provided the City of Columbus with by far the most accurate results.” Ferrin added, “It helped to have an experienced partner that looked ahead and anticipated needs before they arose.”
Fybr recommended running regular ad-hoc reports and sharing them with the city’s Parking Services team, an idea that Ferrin appreciated. “To have the experienced Fybr team evaluating the data in addition to our team was definitely beneficial.”
Fybr’s portion of the installation involved positioning in-ground parking sensors in select locations in the Short North. Additionally, Fybr demonstrated other use-cases and applications of the Smart City Platform by deploying sensors at bus stops and loading zones to provide curbside management data and using sensors to monitor air quality in the pilot area.
When Ferrin reflects upon what’s been learned and the potential of a “smarter” Columbus, he’s quick to credit the partner vendors. “We have a huge debt of thanks to all three vendors for participating in the pilot. We had the rare opportunity to see what works best for Columbus in our environment. There was some risk on the vendors’ part, as they knew, in the end, we would only be moving forward with one of them.”
“What the sensors provide us is the ability to monitor occupancy on a daily basis, allowing us to form more robust averages as opposed to the more traditional methods.”
As parking data started to come in, Ferrin and his colleagues were very interested in what the numbers told them. “It was exciting to see if it validated our thoughts and theories about how the curbside was utilized,” Ferrin said. “Average occupancy was lower in a lot of cases than we had originally thought. For the first time, we can see payment data, that’s one piece of information. Then we can see our LPR data which provides moment-in-time accounts, and real-time occupancy data that we can look at day in and day out to find out if what we think is happening was in fact reality.”
Columbus’ current demand-based parking structure stipulates periodic adjustment of pricing, which will benefit from more in-depth data and a firmer basis of comparison. “Every six months we adjust our rates based on ongoing occupancy,” Ferrin noted. “What the sensors provide us is the ability to monitor occupancy on a daily basis, allowing us to form more robust averages as opposed to the more traditional methods.”
“We learned that there are intricacies to each technology considered for the pilot—there are pros and cons with each—the installation processes, the back-end data management systems, the accuracy, Ferrin said. “We also learned just how granular some of the data we could mine could be. We now have another tool at our disposal to better deploy finite resources. It was definitely educational for us.”
The learnings provided outside the traditional parking use-case were of immediate interest to Ferrin and his team, serving to disprove a long-held theory. “We knew anecdotally that we had issues with illegal parking and loading in our bus zones late at night.” Ferrin remarked. “And the data supported it.” But the data also provided further insight. “The sessions that were being captured didn’t line up with when the buses came and went. They were isolated and were very late at night. Now we had validation. From an enforcement standpoint, using this data we can be more targeted and efficient in our approach.”
After the Short North pilot ended, the Parking Services determined it would move forward with Fybr as a smart parking partner. Then a global pandemic unfolded.
COVID-19 has impacted some Parking Services operations, Ferrin notes. “As we’ve scaled back our enforcement due to COVID-19 safety guidelines, we’ve used the sampling of sensors in the Short North to determine compliance. So as meter revenue comes back, we’re able to get a quick gut check. What is that delta between payment and compliance? This sensor data helps us allocate resources smartly.”
The potential applications of Fybr’s sensor technology are far-reaching. What could in-depth data do for Columbus? Ferrin is optimistic. “Is it about availability for loading zones? What we’re calling flex zones. What are some of the other use-cases, and what are the funding mechanisms that pay for them? It’s exciting, and I look forward to where Columbus can take this technology in the future.”
Fybr proudly announces Linnell Gorden will be assuming the position of Senior Vice President, Software Engineering. Beginning with Fybr as a consultant in 2014, Gorden was initially brought on board to support the Java-based infrastructure in place at the time.
Camera-based image recognition systems are built on a simple premise- they are electronic “eyes” capable of recognizing unique items and capturing data. The unique item can be everything from a license plate number to a human face. Once recognized and captured, the resultant data can be applied to a wide variety of use cases, such as parking, traffic, or law enforcement. This simple premise is easy to grasp, and its outcome is a highly-desirable one. But as with many technologies, what works in theory under controlled conditions and what works in practice in real-world situations aren’t always the same.
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