Nearly 20,000 new cars and motorcycles hit the roads each month in Karachi, whereas, the bustling metropolis sees more than 3.5 million vehicles on its roads on a daily basis. The inability to ‘house’ vehicles in designated parking areas add to the already-intense chaos on the roads and this situation isn’t isolated to just Karachi; the hassle is found in every major region of the world. Parking is a huge problem globally and it’s only a small indication of how messed up and ill-planned the overall transportation infrastructure is. What makes this space a bigger challenge, is how conservative, almost stone-age-worthy the people in this industry are.
Every zone requires parking because people have to get from place to another. Deplorably, the government has been unable to find a solution to resolve this menace, forcing motorists to park as-and-where-there-is-space, jamming roads and creating constant havoc. Having designated parking spaces in Karachi is a luxury and having it ‘driven’ by technology is almost a dream. Or is it?
The parking situation becomes worse in the downtown area of the metropolis. A legacy route ecosystem warping into a maze around old buildings and landmarks, unable to integrate with any modern-day infrastructure planning, makes it difficult for cars to locate parking, which means everyone including the businesses, suffer. Government and relevant civic authorities thus far seem unable to control the mess and their efforts have been relatively futile. The ‘solutions’ that they have come up with, include building parking plazas, notably one in Karachi worth PKR 650 million and one in Rawalpindi worth PKR 440 million. However, both are grossly underutilized while more cars arrive on the road every month.
As populations span wider and across cities, there can be no effective utilization of space without data. And data needs to be acquired through technology touchpoints. But even the data is just one part of the solution. What is done with that data towards better planning, management and incentivization to make the parking process more efficient, is what matters.
There have been various implementations of smart parking solutions around the world. These include, but are not limited to, Automatic Pay Stations and Barriers, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) Parking Management System, communicating real-time information with apps for user interaction and Robotic Parking Systems.
How Can Parking Be Made Smart?
Smart spaces are physical spaces where Consumer Electronics (CE) devices with varying resource availabilities work together to realize user-specific automated scenarios. An effective utilization of this technology would be to develop a system which can inform motorists about available parking slots in real time, and guide them towards the nearest one.
Its implementation would require combining WiFi with a network of sensors which could then quickly pass information to a host server. The system would use geomagnetic sensors to detect the occupied parking spaces and GPS for navigation. The host server enables control of multiple parking spaces and the information is updated in real-time to optimize the process. The server would then compile the information before sending it to the user to inform about the available parking options via a smartphone app.
The successful implementation of such a configured system can save time and give the user a better experience. It can also help parking spaces generate revenue by following the parameters of the sharing economy.
Again, in terms of space management, once the parking trends are studied and documented, prices can help to incentive usage during peak and off-peak hours.
Steering Inspiration from Nearby Countries
Parking meters and parking plazas have been around for decades in the western world and smart parking augments their functions by use of smartphones and specialized sensors. The amount of manpower needed to facilitate cars into timed parking spaces and manage their security and integrity just doesn’t add up.
IBM and Cisco began investing in the concept of Smart Cities a long time ago; parking is just one, small component of the entire puzzle. When Streetline launched their parking, it was serious disruption in a really backward space.
The Road and Transportation Authority (RTA) of Dubai has successfully installed 2,000 sensors and 59 overhead cameras in the Regga area, covering 1,936 parking lots. The system is called SENSIT and the parking is paid for through an app or via SMS. In Qatar, the Qatar Mobility Innovations Center (QMIC) provides comparable services and solutions for parking and traffic.
Similar efforts have been made by Huawei in China. The company has installed magnetic vehicle sensors to facilitate street parking. The sensors are connected through NB-IoT technology, requiring minimal bandwidth to connect to the central database. Smart Parking Limited, a Parking technology company operating since the early 2000s, has introduced their own patented technology to cities in Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, in India efforts like Parkwheels employ smart cameras, RFID systems and a mobile app to build smart parking spaces. The solution is currently being rolled out across 20,000 parking lots across the country and over 30,000 cars have been tagged by their RFID system.
Not all efforts have been successful, however. The government of Sri Lanka tried introducing an app called Tenaga in Colombo. It was to combine with parking meters but it was met with disdain. The app has very low ratings on the Play Store and the initiative is seen by some as an excuse to further tax the population.
All these initiatives have one thing in common: government ownership. If the government itself isn’t one of the stakeholders, no city can deploy anything close to these solutions.
Irfan Rehman, the CEO of Al-Rehman Technologies, says they have a smart city solution ready to be implemented, however the concepts they pitched were never implemented because they never had the government onboard. “There was never any interest [show by the government] in solving parking problems.” It’s never the technology that is the challenge; it’s the people.
Izhar group of companies installed rotary parking in certain areas of Lahore in 2016. In February 2018, the Islamabad Police and JS Bank partnered to introduce smart parking, using QR codes, in Islamabad’s famous Itwar Bazaar.
LePark is a smart parking solutions company in Lahore that provides off and on street parking in various areas including Anarkali Bazaar. They use a prepaid subscription service coupled with RFID tags for off street parking in lots and commercial areas. For on-street parking they use handheld terminals that issue receipts with barcodes; the payment is done by cash. The company charges flat rates of Rs. 30 for a car and Rs. 10 for a motorbike, compliant with the rules set by the Government of Punjab. Off street parking lots have an average of 200-400 parking spaces and the peak parking hours are between 5pm and 9am; (post and pre-work hours).
Rehan Waheed Khan, Senior Manager Operations at LePark, says the company operates by customizing the size of the parking. If sufficient place isn’t available, smart parking cannot be implemented. The requirements are determined through a survey done by their traffic engineering department.
Khan believes that smart parking can solve a lot of traffic issues in Pakistan but the government and general population is slow to accept change and want the old systems to stay as long as they possibly can.
Moreover, the FWO (Frontier Works Organization) has recently collaborated with Jazz to enable RFID payments at toll plazas on the M-2 motorway. The RFID payments could be used for parking at shopping malls and parking plazas as well.
Moreover, two shopping malls in Karachi have implemented intelligent parking guidance system; Lucky One Mall and Dolmen Mall Clifton. These car park management solutions are designed to save time and energy.
The system gathers information through sensors installed in the parking lot and is connected to indicator lights fixed prominently above each parking space. The light turns red while a vehicle is parked and automatically turns green when the space is vacated. This light is prominent enough to be visible from a distance, so drivers are aware of the vacancy.
The data is also sent to a server which displays it on a numeric screen hung right at the entrance of the parking space to guide the drivers entering the lot. The configuration mentioned above is currently operational but confined to malls. Now it’s time to take this a step forward in order to facilitate the general public.
This will include building new parking structures in addition to turning the existing ones smart, if any. This would reduce the need of human resources and increase security.
Taking Smart Parking to the Next Level
A lot can be done to provide suitable parking spaces for people in Karachi. The inspiration for this will obviously come from places like the examples mentioned, where smart parking systems have helped solve a lot of problems.
The availability of parking spaces near subway stations and bus rapid transit system (BRTS) stops has significantly reduced traffic congestion on roads in major European cities like Munich, London and Graz. Real-time information is displayed through flash signs, given the option the commuters prefer abandoning the road in favor of trains or buses.
Most of Pakistan’s 207.7 million people are concentrated in its major cities. Smart parking solutions will definitely benefit the country as the population continues to explode. It is not a question of if, but when the solutions will be implemented here because without them, gridlocks will continue to choke the system.