Cornell researchers may have just revolutionized the morning commute

For many of us, it’s been months since the last time we commuted to the office. However, as businesses and workplaces all over the country slowly reopen their doors, tons of people are returning to their usual morning commute. For those of us who drive to work, one of the most frustrating aspects of our daily AM ritual is finding a parking spot.

How many times have you found yourself circling the blocks endlessly in pursuit of somewhere, anywhere to park? It’s an especially major problem in cities and urban areas, where offices are often located in highly congested, traffic-filled areas. However, a solution courtesy of Cornell University may soon be on the way. 

Researchers at Cornell have developed a new type of “smart parking” software that assigns drivers pre-determined parking spots based on travel time and numerous other considerations. The team behind this software feel their technology can potentially revolutionize morning commutes, and car travel in general, for millions of people. City streets will be less congested, environmentally harmful car emissions will go down, and Bill in marketing won’t spend 40 minutes trying to find a parking spot after going out for lunch.

The software, after accounting for cruising time and walking distance from the assigned parking spot, charges customers an “efficient” price. 

In a simulation using San Francisco parking data, the software was able to decrease the time spent per vehicle looking for a parking spot by 64% in comparison to other parking strategies.

“One of the key issues that causes congestion and extra emissions is cars cruising to look for parking,” says senior study author H. Oliver Gao, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of systems engineering at Cornell University, in a press release.

“Imagine if the parking garage was equipped with a smart software – they know where their empty spots are,” professor Gao, also a fellow with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, explains. “Drivers would come to an area and know which parking garage still has spots, and if you have software telling you the quickest path it will save you a lot of time, and it will also bring business to the parking garage.”

In crowded areas, it’s estimated that people driving around looking for parking accounts for 30% of congestion and traffic. On average, drivers in such areas spend 7.8 minutes looking for a parking spot. 

Still not convinced parking is a major cause of congestion? Consider a somewhat dated, yet no doubt still relevant, study on the Westwood Village region of Los Angeles from 2006. That research concluded that cars in this area drive over 950,000 extra miles per year looking for parking, expending 47,000 gallons of gas and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

This isn’t the first piece of parking software ever developed, but pre-existing parking apps rely primarily on satellite navigation systems and sensors attached to parking spots and cars. Most of these apps are less than ideal, in the researchers’ opinion, because parking spaces can fill up quickly, and multiple people may start driving toward one spot that’s already been filled anyway.

This new software, which ideally should be implemented as a smartphone app, accounts for many more factors. Walking distance, driving time, and parking spot availability all play a role in which parking spot customers are assigned. Moreover, the pricing structure is very interactive; prices are influenced by drivers’ wait times, but if someone is willing to pay extra, they can also be prioritized.

The idea is that drivers will tell the app what is most important to them (saving money, saving time, as close as possible to their destination), and then the software will find the ideal parking spot for those purposes. 

Professor Gao envisions his software as a popular app in the future that connects parking garages with drivers, while simultaneously providing customers with the easiest routes to their destinations.

Beyond just individual commutes, this software can also help solve the larger problem of inner-city road and highway congestion. More cars finding parking spots means fewer vehicles stuck in traffic jams as well.

“Smart parking can actually help mitigate congestion and reduce emissions,” professor Gao concludes. “When the car goes in the parking lot, it improves the on-road traffic.”

The full study can be found here, published in Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review.