Fort Worth is a testing ground for smartphone applications that soon may be used by throngs of motorists to find parking spaces -- and someday pay for them simply by touching the phone's screen.
As more people embrace mobile technology, the next few years promise to be an exciting time in the transportation world because many observers feel that phone app developers may finally do what government hasn't -- reduce congestion without forcing taxpayers to fork over big bucks for new roads.
But that innovation could come at a price. Safety officials worry that motorists will find new ways to become distracted while driving -- a phenomenon that already causes 3,300 crashes and 408 deaths per year in Texas.
"Our hope is guided parking for customers will become a pleasant experience. We want consumers to be guided to a spot and then pay for it. It is no different than the in-car navigation experience," said Zia Yusuf, CEO at Streetline Inc. The company's new iPhone app, Parker, began monitoring metered parking spaces at a few spots in Fort Worth last week.
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"Thirty percent of traffic in a city is caused by people looking for parking. Four years from now, your teenagers will say, 'What do you mean you used to look for parking?'"
Another company, Parking in Motion, has launched an app called PIM that shows motorists information about more than 80 parking lots and garages in Fort Worth and many other cities. The app provides instant access to each parking area's occupancy, rates, hours and payment options.
This comes as Texas lawmakers are looking to toughen state laws against distracted driving. During this legislative session, a bill has passed the House that would prohibit texting, instant messaging or e-mailing on a phone while driving. Simply reading a text or e-mail would still be allowed.
Using a cellphone, whether talking or texting, is already prohibited in Texas school zones, and drivers under 18 can't use a phone for any reason -- except to make an emergency call -- while behind the wheel.
Till now, most of the attention has centered on using cellphones to talk or send texts or e-mails. But safety officials are becoming increasingly concerned about other uses, including apps that provide real-time traffic conditions, driving directions and now parking.
"My concern is, Are people going to be doing these things while the car is in motion? That's exactly what we're talking about not doing in our don't-talk-and-text campaign," said Tracie Mendez, manager of the driver behavior program at the Texas Department of Transportation. "We don't want to promote people doing that. It's dangerous."
Mendez said the issue is sensitive even within the Transportation Department, where she serves on committees that are looking at ways to use technology to improve customer service. For example, the state's famous "Don't Mess With Texas" campaign is working on a phone app that residents could use to report a litterer. But, Mendez argues, does the state really want drivers typing in a license plate number on a touch screen while they're driving?
How the apps work
Fort Worth wound up on the cutting edge of parking apps because it's in a fast-growing major metro area, where city officials and Sundance Square representatives are receptive to trying new technologies, officials from two phone app companies say.
Last week, San Francisco-based Streetline completed the installation of sensors -- each about the size of a takeout coffee cup lid -- on the ground at several metered parking spots downtown on Fourth Street, one block to each side of Main Street. The sensors detect whether a car is parked in the spot and send a signal to a receiver on a nearby pole, which sends the data to the app.
IPhone owners can download the app for free and select from a small number of cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Fort Worth. A Google map will then display icons of how many spots are available -- for example, if four spots are open, a circle with the number four and a plus sign is displayed.
An Android version of Parker is scheduled for release in May, Yusuf says.
If the test in Fort Worth is successful, sensors could be installed on many other parking spots downtown -- although it's unclear who would pay installation costs.
Parking in Motion, based in Santa Monica, Calif., uses a different tactic to relay parking information -- in Fort Worth and up to 300 other cities.
After downloading the free PIM app, users start by pressing a "locate" button, and the program finds their location using global positioning information on their phone. Users then type in a destination, and icons showing available parking -- including rates and payment methods -- pop up.
The company is working on providing payment options over the phone, CEO Sam Friedman said.
Parking in Motion doesn't use sensors but instead relies on a variety of information, including data provided by parking lot and garage owners, he said. The company makes its money by licensing its system to automakers and navigational device manufacturers, he said.
"We've specialized in getting really good data about parking facilities, meter locations, real-time information across the country, and putting it into navigation devices," he said. "Fort Worth is a very big target market. We're very interested in how it plays out there."
Friedman isn't overly concerned about safety issues associated with motorists using apps. He believes that the issue will become moot as more cars are built with navigational devices that include real-time traffic and parking information.
"We obviously always encourage drivers to not do it while driving," he said. "The iPhone app isn't the be-all and end-all. The in-car navigation device is much easier to use while you're driving. The end goal is getting it in the car, so it can be streamlined into the driver's experience."
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796