The smart city solution that takes the frustration out of the parking

The smart city solution that takes the frustration out of the parking

Meet the Waterloo company that is making it easier to find a spot — even in the country’s most congested cities.

We’ve all felt it: That unique brand of frustration that bubbles up when you’re looking for a parking spot. You’ve got an urgent errand. You scan the block for an opening. An Uber Eats delivery car grabs the last space. Should you circle around again? An impatient driver honks. Is it better to pay for a lot within three blocks of your destination? Or find a spot for free on a side street that’s at least a 20-minute walk away?

“Parking is not something you think about until you have to find a place to park,” says Dan Mathers, president and CEO of eleven-x, a smart-city company that has developed a next-generation parking system.

Mathers has made it his job to think a lot about parking — and how to make the process less frustrating. He knows drivers spend anywhere from three to 15 minutes searching for the right spot. All that cruising around, he says, exacerbates gridlock and increases fuel consumption. In the United States, traffic congestion is responsible for eating up an estimated 3.1 billion gallons of gasoline each year; 30 percent of that gets guzzled while looking for parking. That adds up to an extra 9.3 million tons of carbon emissions annually, according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITPD), a global nonprofit that specializes in sustainable urban solutions. Plus, it’s a safety issue: “One in five traffic accidents are people looking for parking,” says Mathers. The challenge for municipalities is to reduce emissions by getting people to drive less, while at the same time better managing their current parking infrastructure.

“Problems with parking are unavoidable. They’re built into the urban fabric,” says Matthias Sweet, associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. “Now that traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels, the challenge is even greater.”

Mathers agrees. “Every city manager in the world wants to reduce congestion and increase sustainability. And every driver in the world wants to find a parking spot anywhere, anytime.”

Mathers, a tech veteran with stints at IBM and Celestica, co-founded eleven-x with two former senior tech leaders at BlackBerry in 2014. Their background led them to explore the Internet of Things, a network of devices that can send and receive data to each other. The startup’s early products were used to measure indoor air quality, groundwater levels in underground aquifers and trash levels in city bins. “We found that the smart parking market was the biggest area where we could have the biggest impact on improving the quality of people’s lives,” he says.

The Waterloo-based company hopes to grant all those wishes using eXactpark, eleven-x’s patented underground sensor-based system. Each sensor, designed to handle harsh Canadian winters, is embedded in the pavement underneath a parking stall and can track and send parking info in real time. The granular, anonymized data, such as occupancy rates, duration and turnover, can help cities better understand the relationship between parking demand and supply. And drivers can apply filters, such as “paid,” “accessible” and “walking distance” in the eXactpark app, allowing them to suss out available options.

The common perception is that there is never enough parking. But, as Mathers says, that’s rarely the case. There are as many as 4.4 parking spaces for every car in the country, the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) has found. “Every driver has their own set of parameters on what makes a good parking spot, whether they’re aware of them or not, and this shapes their parking experience. You usually hear people say it’s a negative experience,” he says. “We want to make it a happy one.”

Since installing its first sensors in Stratford, Ont. in 2018, eleven-x has been deployed in 17 cities and post-secondary campuses across North America, including a 5,000-sensor operation in Arlington County, Virginia and, last fall, a pilot project in Toronto’s notoriously congested core. The pilot is small, just 36 sensors on the east side of Spadina Avenue, between Dundas and College Streets, but that’s big enough to demonstrate the tech’s capabilities, says Faiyaz Patel, Toronto Parking Authority’s director of on-street operations. “We have approximately 21,500 on-street stalls in the city, and because eleven-x’s tech is very scalable, it’s easy to see how it could help us going forward.”

Some cities are already wired up. In late 2021, as part of a larger smart city initiative, Oakville installed 1,200 eXactpark sensors around the eight-block downtown commercial district on Lakeshore Road East. Occupancy info is available on both the app and the town’s website, and digital signs direct drivers to open spots.

“It’s been a big success,” says Margaret Boswell, a manager in Oakville’s municipal enforcement department. “We’ve been able to shift drivers from areas of high demand to underutilized spaces nearby.”

Oakville is also looking at more granular data collected by eXactpark in the hopes of better managing parking inventory and programs. The town generally conducts parking surveys every three to five years. “But the data provided observations for limited dates and times as a proxy,” says Boswell. “Now, we get it in real-time. It’s the perfect springboard to better policies to redistribute parking to underutilized areas.” The hope is that the initiative will significantly reduce parking stress.

The future of parking will only be more complex. Hybrid work has upended traffic patterns. E-commerce has increased demand for curbside loading zones and food delivery vehicles. Ride-hailing requires a spot for passengers to get on and off. Coming soon are more EV charging stations and more bike lanes.

“There are 350 million municipally owned and operated parking spaces in Canadian and American cities,” says Mathers. “That means there’s an enormous opportunity to start making changes.”

eleven-X is one of eight companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.

Illustration by Monica Guan