In congested commercial and residential areas, circling block after block to find an empty parking space can be tedious and irritating.
But in downtown Los Angeles, one of the more innovative programs in the nation is making the hunt less irritating.
The city Department of Transportation's L.A. ExpressPark program manages 6,300 public parking spots in Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the Civic Center and central business district. The spaces are outfitted with wireless sensors and smart meters or pay stations that accept coins as well as credit and debit cards.
The technology tracks the use of parking spaces, where open spots are available and periodically adjusts rates based on demand. Real-time data is uploaded to ExpressPark's website and free cellphone apps — Parker and ParkMe — which motorists can use to find parking and prices, both curbside and in off-street lots. A third app, ParkMobile, is a payment mechanism for 1,800 downtown meters.
The high-tech management system in downtown is augmented by 27 digital street signs that advise drivers about traffic congestion and empty spots in municipal lots and garages. This year, the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority added a 511 call-in site offering parking information from the program.
One of ExpressPark's main goals is to price spots so that several spaces always remain available on each block to reduce traffic congestion caused by motorists hunting for parking.
A UCLA study of a 15-block area of Westwood Village determined that the search for parking resulted in motorists traveling almost a million extra miles a year. The average hunt took about 3.3 minutes, but in the late afternoon and evening the typical search lasted up to 12 minutes. Other research shows hunting for parking accounts for up to 30% of urban traffic.
Since operations began in June 2012, ExpressPark has lowered the average parking rate and increased the occupancy of spaces. Revenue from the program has risen about 2.5% and traffic congestion caused by motorists searching for a place to park has been reduced.
"L.A. has under-promised and overperformed," said Donald C. Shoup, an urban planning professor and parking policy expert at UCLA.
Funded by $15 million from the federal government and $3.5 million in city money, ExpressPark joined a growing number of innovative parking systems in California and elsewhere. The funds were used to hire Xerox as the main contractor. Streetline Inc., a Bay Area firm, supplies sensors and communications technology as a subcontractor.
For fiscal year 2013-14, ExpressPark's spaces generated $13.1 million, or a little more than 20% of the total collected from the city's 37,380 metered parking spaces.
The number of ExpressPark users is difficult to determine, however. Streetline says the number of subscribers to its cellphone apps is confidential. City officials estimate that the ExpressPark website will have about 39,000 views this year, up about 30% from 2013.
Before the program started, the City Council set parking rates by zone, usually charging $1 to $4 an hour. Meters operated from 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day except Sunday.
With ExpressPark, the enforcement hours for many meters were extended until 8 p.m. because of parking demand. Time limits on parking also were increased from one hour to two or four hours at many spaces to encourage their use.
ExpressPark periodically adjusts prices up or down for specific spaces based on occupancy data. Those rates have ranged from 50 cents an hour to as much as $6 a hour for a handful of coveted spaces on Bunker Hill.
The lowest prices generally are 8 to 11 a.m., and the highest are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., said Peer Ghent, ExpressPark's project manager. From 4 to 8 p.m., prices vary, in part based on demand associated with major downtown events.
Demand-driven pricing can create some oddities. At times, it is possible to pay $3 an hour for parking on one side of a street, which has more businesses and traffic, and 50 cents an hour on the other, Ghent said.
During the program's first year, 59% of the meter prices were decreased and only 29% were increased, Shoup said. The average meter price fell from $1.95 an hour to $1.74, and average parking occupancy increased 17%. Because of increasing demand for downtown parking since then, the average meter price is now $1.81 an hour.
The traffic benefits of programs like ExpressPark can be undercut, in part, by scofflaws and drivers, including those in government vehicles and those with disabled placards, who are exempt from paying for parking or complying with time limits on spaces.
Program officials have found that police cars, government vehicles and cars with disabled permits regularly occupy 25% of the spaces in the downtown ExpressPark area.
"The biggest impediment is disabled placard abuse," Shoup said, noting vehicles displaying such permits aren't subject to time limits and payment requirements. "L.A. is worse than other places. Drivers with disabled placards park seven times longer than the average parker who pays the meter."
Still, ExpressPark is considered a success, Ghent said, and will be expanded next year to cover 500 parking spots in Westwood and 900 spaces in Hollywood. There are preliminary plans to have the system manage 700 to 900 spaces in Venice by 2016.
Experts predict that parking management systems will continue to evolve with mobile and global positioning technology. In the future, they expect motorists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to pay for parking from inside their cars, using cellphones or onboard navigation systems. Rather than rushing back to feed the meter, drivers would be able to add time to their space remotely on an app.
"Eventually," Ghent said, "meters could be gone."