RFID Monitors Parking Spaces for the Disabled

By Claire Swedberg

The English city of Westminster is using technology provided by Smart Parking to identify when unauthorized vehicles are parked in spaces reserved for specific motorists with disabilities.

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England’s City of Westminster is piloting an active radio frequency identification system to identify vehicles operated by disabled drivers, and to confirm that they are authorized to park in spaces allocated to them. The solution is part of a wireless parking-management system provided by Australian parking technology company Smart Parking.

The pilot, which was launched last year and is slated to be completed next month, consists of RFID-enabled SmartEye sensors installed in 64 of Westminster’s 193 parking spaces for disabled residents, as well as EPermit RFID tags in the cars of the motorists authorized to park in those spaces. The sensors detect a vehicle’s presence and forward that data to a dedicated server, where software then identifies the permit holder, based on the tag within the vehicle.

Smart Parking’s SmartEye is a wireless infrared sensor that mounts flush with a street’s surface and can detect when a vehicle has occupied a parking space.

Westminster is one of the busiest areas of London. Located on the River Thames, the city contains Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. “The diverse nature of Westminster and the many people who live, work and visit it creates high demand for the limited parking space available,” says Simon Morgan, the change officer of City Management and Communities (the directorate responsible for managing and maintaining the city’s infrastructure), and the project manager for the testing and deployment of the smart-parking system.

Generally, Morgan says, more than 80 percent of parking spots are filled when demand is high. “The problems of congestion and poor air quality are often compounded by the time taken for motorists to find parking as their drive around the city,” he explains. For disabled drivers, the problem becomes worse if able-bodied motorists park in the limited disabled spaces available.

To better manage the parking problems, Westminster installed Smart Parking’s SmartPark solution in 2013, beginning with a trial of 187 infrared sensors covering 144 spaces on five streets that experience high traffic volumes and have limited parking availability. The parking sensor system trial included SmartEye infrared sensors installed in the road’s surface at the center of the parking spaces, to detect whether someone was parked in each space. A nearby receiver captures the sensor data and routes it to Smart Parking’s content-management system, known as SmartRep, says Martin Hooker, Smart Parking’s project manager and solutions architect. The battery-powered sensors transmit the parking status data to the receivers via 433 MHz signals employing a proprietary protocol.

The ParkRight app, available for download from the iTunes and GooglePlay websites, makes it possible for someone to use a smartphone to view where available parking in Westminster can be found. The app guides a motorist to the chosen space and accepts payment for parking.

Following the trial project, the Westminster City Council deployed an additional 3,000 infrared sensors in 2014, with the intention of improving customer experience related to parking, as well as reducing “payment avoidance” and balancing parking distribution by increasing occupancy in under-occupied spaces of which motorists might otherwise be unaware.

In the meantime, the city council is investigating ways in which the technology could be used to ensure that disabled parking is available for qualified drivers. Since 2008, the council has issued tickets for 28,000 violations (vehicles parked in disabled parking areas without authorization), 1,500 of which were issued last year.

In the City of Westminster, the council has assigned each of 193 residential parking spaces for use by the vehicle of a specific disabled resident, typically in front of his or her home. To manage those sites, the council requires that a traffic officer, known as a marshal, visit each space on a daily basis to ensure that it is being used only by that resident. However, Morgan says, the council’s Parking Services department often receives complaints from permit holders that other vehicles are occupying their spaces.

The pilot focuses on the issue of non-permitted parking at individually assigned “White Badge” parking spaces. The solution includes an EPermit, Hooker explains, consisting of a 433 MHz battery-powered RFID tag that, when placed on a vehicle’s windshield, transmits a unique ID number every few seconds via a proprietary air-interface protocol. When a permitted car is parked in its assigned space, a SmartEye sensor with a built-in RFID reader captures the EPermit’s ID and forwards that information to the Smart Parking hosted server, where SmartRep software verifies that the car is authorized for that space. If the car lacks the proper EPermit, the software issues an alert to a parking marshal’s mobile device.

Westminster’s parking marshals use their mobile devices to access the SmartRep software and view live information regarding how parking spaces are being used. (Click on the above image to view a larger version.)

The pilot is still underway. “It’s a little early to make a complete value judgement,” Morgan states, “but as a technical proof of concept, the technology has worked.” The system is successfully determining when a permit holder is parking, he adds, and sends an alert to parking marshals if an unauthorized vehicle parks in a dedicated disabled space.

The Westminster City Council intends to conduct a customer survey to determine the technology’s effect on customer experience, Morgan says, “but current feedback [indicates] the technology has acted as a deterrent to people parking in contravention, and their bays have been freed up as a result.”

Following the pilot, Morgan reports, the council will consider rolling out the EPermit technology to the remaining 129 dedicated disabled spaces. In addition, the council plans to evaluate a version of the technology in which the system would detect when a vehicle arrives at and leaves a space, and then base the parking payments according to those times. All of these options, he says, will be discussed in March.

Smart Parking has parking solutions installed at dozens of locations around the world, according to Rob Weaver, the company’s contract and bid manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. However, the Westminster pilot represents the first to detect specific vehicles via RFID. Weaver says the technology to detect the presence of vehicles has been installed at 42 sites throughout 15 countries to date, with a total of 37,500 sensors currently in use.

Smart Parking designs and manufactures its own hardware, including the tags and readers used in the vehicle badges, as well as the road-mounted sensors. Westminster is now in the process of designing another function in its ParkRight app that would allow disabled motorists to identify disabled parking spaces for use by any disabled-authorized vehicle within their vicinity.