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The Old Parker’s Almanac: The Forecast Calls for Cloudy with a Chance of Parking


(It) strives to be useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor.

  • Robert B. Thomas, Editor and Founder, writing about The Old Farmer’s Almanac in 1829

For 225 years, The Old Farmer’s Almanachas been published without interruption.  It includes information about Astronomy, Gardening, Recipes, Advice and more.  But it is perhaps best known for its Long-Term Weather predictions.


According to the Almanac, the forecasts are derived from a secret formula developed by its Founder in 1792 and still stored today in a black box in Dublin, New Hampshire.


While scientific study has estimated the accuracy of the Almanac’s predicted weather deviations to be ~50% (a coin-flip), this hasn’t harmed the Almanac’s enduring charm with 3 million annual print readers and 50 million online viewers.


Even the Almanacitself states that “although neither we nor any other forecasters have as yet gained sufficient insight into the mysteries of the universe to predict the weather with total accuracy, our results are almost always very close to our traditional claim of 80 percent.”


The same can be said about The Old Parker’s Almanac– also known as parking occupancy algorithms – 200 years later. If you read trade magazines, company websites, proposals, marketing materials, or attend parking conferences, you hear more and more vendors touting “algorithms”, “predictive analytics”, “asset-light” detection systems and “lean infrastructure” as a way to inform motorists where they can find a parking space today.


Just like with Mr. Thomas’ Black Box in Dublin, New Hampshire, these “Cloud-based” Black Boxes ingest historical data about highly variable phenomena (payments, citations, sample surveys, traffic counts, special events, weather and more) and attempt to use it to precisely inform you about the future.


But just like the weather on a wedding day in the month of May, 50 or even 80 percent accuracy won’t do you much good.  When a motorist drives downtown searching for a parking space, just like a bride deciding whether to move her wedding indoors, they insist on the latest, real-time information (most likely from their smartphone), not stale data from last week, last month, or last year repackaged as “analytics”.


If these “pseudo-scientific” efforts were simply humorous diversions like The Old Farmer’s Almanac, there would be little harm in the effort.


But just as the failed, high profile sensor projects of a decade ago set the “smart” parking industry back years, today’s “predictive” efforts are doomed to over-promise and under-deliver and run the risk of a similar wave of setbacks.


As any of you who download an app with high expectations only to have it fail to meet them after 3 or 4 uses know, once it fails to deliver you simply ignore or delete it.  That will be the fate of parking guidance apps that don’t display real-time, up-to-the-minute occupancy information.


So why do vendors keep pushing these solutions on their clients?


Because accurate vehicle sensors haven’t been available.  In the absence of what was really needed – a sensor that delivers 99%+ accuracy within a few seconds of a status change – vendors have worked themselves into knots trying to deliver proxies for this data.


It is a function of how valuable this information is, and how hard it has been to collect it, that so many companies have spent so much time and money trying to “guess” where a car is right now rather than simply observe it.


But fortunately that is changing and cities no longer have to rely on so-called educated guesses.  


The latest sensors are accurate and flexible enough to be installed in the ground, on a pole, or on the curb; in a metered space or just a time-limited one; and transmit changes in occupancy within a few seconds.  They can be installed in motorcycle separators to manage two-wheelers, in truck stops to detect tractor-trailers, and can read permits with active RFID tags.  They can even be deployed as part of a system to reserve premium on-street parking spaces.


Data from the sensors feed mobile apps, webpages, in-car dashboards, variable message signs, smart meters, enforcement handhelds and dynamic pricing engines to help motorists find spaces right now and to help city staff better manage on-street parking.


Once a city has installed accurate sensors, it can unlock a host of valuable Smart Parking benefits in addition to guidance including providing free time on arrival, supporting graduated meter pricing, implementing special event pricing, zeroing out remaining time, directing enforcement officers, and using comprehensive data to make better policy decisions.


If you’re interested in offering these features in your City, leave The Old Parker’s Almanacon the shelf.


Mike Nickolaus is the President & CEO of CivicSmart and a 30-year veteran of the on-street parking industry.  He can be reached at mnickolaus@civicsmart.com.


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