Engineer Infrastructure & Reshape a City 2

Posted Friday, October 27, 2017 at 11:13 AM

"Using smart technology, engineers are helping shape cities through small projects with big impacts."

Engineer Infrastructure & Reshape a City 2

PostedFriday, October 27, 2017 at 11:34 AM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
Engineer Infrastructure & Reshape a City 2

Engineers are constantly creating and improving technology that impacts our lives - even though it is not always easy to predict the impacts.  Like a pebble tossed in a pond, a technology created for one purpose can send ripples through other areas of society.  One example of this is how smart phones have led to changes in urban planning.

Smart phones have begun to revolutionize travel, in many ways. Mapping apps literally tell us how to get from point A to point B - and how long the trip should take. Game and productivity apps make riding more enjoyable and practical than driving in many situations, and ride-sharing apps let us coordinate travel so that fewer people even need to drive.

This creates opportunities for engineers and city planners to begin tackling one of the most inefficient - and annoying - uses of space in modern cities and towns: parking. 

A 2011 study estimated that there are roughly a billion parking spaces in the United States - about 4 spaces for every car in the country. If you put them all together, they would cover more area than the state of Connecticut. That’s a lot of paved land that just sits empty a lot of the time.

The search for parking is a major contributor to travel time and emissions. Studies have estimated that 30-60% of the cars in downtown areas are actually just circling in search of a parking space. This pumps CO2 into the air and can lead to driver frustration and accidents. It’s not just downtown either - think of the grocery story on Friday afternoon or the mall right before Christmas.

Trends in car use spurred by engineering achievements, such as the development of ride-sharing services and self-driving cars - along with people choosing more environmentally friendly modes of travel, have many cities rethinking parking policies. And engineering is helping to make that happen, too.

San Francisco wanted to reduce congestion downtown and in several other areas of the city. So planners worked with engineers to pilot a system of variable pricing for parking. This relied on special meters that could automatically adjust rates depending on demand. The goal was to price parking in such a way that there would always be one or two empty spots on congested streets. The electronically connected meters also helped drivers find parking spots via signs, a 511-phone service, and the Internet. The SFPark project was very successful, with significant drops in circling and emissions in the pilot areas.  Many other cities are now considering similar projects.

In Ventura County, California, city planners wanted to start charging drivers to park in what were previously free spots. To overcome complaints by local merchants and residents, engineers found a way to make smart meters link to and broadcast the city’s wi-fi network. This set-up free wi-fi for everyone in the area. And by charging for parking, traffic congestion went down and the overall neighborhood become attractive.

Since many infrastructure projects are large construction efforts, it is easy to lose sight of how engineers working with city planners can adapt smart technology to reshape a city one street at a time.

How might new technology change travel and parking in your community?


Photo by Benjamin Earwicker found on

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