Boston to install “smart” parking meters across city, spreading pay-by-phone options

(DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)
(DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

Boston’s parking meters are going to get a lot smarter over the next few years, eventually letting drivers find open spots and feed the meter with their smartphones.

The citywide upgrade could also let the city get a better handle on how much street parking it actually controls, and even raise more money for the government by charging higher prices at times of extreme demand.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh detailed the plan to swap out all of Boston’s parking meters as part of a sweeping transportation policy initiative announced Wednesday, which includes plans to beef up bike lanes and cut the number of traffic deaths.

Boston is in the very early stages of replacing its parking meters with “intelligent” versions that are connected to the Internet — the city hasn’t yet sought bids from companies who could supply the technology, for instance. But Boston does expect the switch to take place over the next two years, with a price tag estimated at $6 million, officials said Wednesday.

“Let’s be honest: Parking and traffic is a problem in the city of Boston,” Walsh said. “But it’s an issue that we’re looking at and tackling right now. It’s not an easy one to solve.”

Boston’s quest for next-generation parking meters comes amid a broader push to harness the spread of smartphones and increasingly powerful cloud computing technology to improve the workaday annoyances of urban parking, from the stressful hunt to find an open spot to the decidedly old-school stash of quarters needed to pay the fee.

Researchers from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, who have tested parking-spot-finder technology on the school’s campus, say the average American spends about 50 hours per year just looking for parking, wasting fuel while increasing air pollution and traffic congestion.

Boston already has rolled out a pilot program in the Back Bay neighborhood, called ParkBoston, that lets drivers pay for their metered spots with a smartphone app. San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles also have tested projects that tap into smartphone technology to make parking more convenient, and Boston officials have looked at those efforts as signposts as they prepare to upgrade Boston’s parking tech.

Entrepreneurs across the country have also taken aim at parking problems. Services like Spot, based in Boston, help private parking-spot owners rent their spaces to other drivers for a fee. Others, including a San Francisco-based startup called Luxe Valet, which lets users pay for an on-demand valet to retrieve their car and park it in a nearby garage.

Another class of parking apps have been less successful at finding a market, particularly those that attempt to illegally build private markets on top of public roadways. Boston moved aggressively last year to shut down a Baltimore-based startup called Haystack, which was attempting to let drivers pay each other for access to an about-to-be-vacated city parking spot.

It’s not clear if the existing Park Boston app will be expanded to cover all of the new smart meters once they’re installed, or if a new application will be developed. The plans will become clearer once the city decides which technical specifications it’s looking for and starts finding suppliers.

But the idea is to build a parking-meter system that will be able to handle many more years of technological advances, said Kris Carter, a program director at Walsh’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

“You could imagine a future where we don’t even need the meter, where the car’s paying for itself and we just have a GPS that pings the cloud, tells the city that that car’s there, it’s paid,” Carter said. “We’re not quite there yet, but that’s the goal. And we want to set up the infrastructure that allows us to be in that place, whether it’s five or 10 or 15 years from now.”