Milton Keynes’ wireless journey to stress-free parking

Brian Matthews, Milton Keynes Council’s transport innovation lead, tells Gill Hitchcock how wireless trials and links to an Open University data hub will prevent parking meltdown.

Milton Keynes Council has a problem. The Buckinghamshire town is growing, with its 230,000-strong population of about expected to increase to more than 300,000 over the next decade.

The issue facing the council is how to create a sustainable infrastructure to handle this rapid expansion.

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Take parking. Drivers already jostle for spaces at peak times, even though provision is generous with some 250,000 spaces – far more than in many cities. Despite this, between 5,000 and 6,000 spaces remain empty each day.

The cost of providing these spaces is enormous. Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at Milton Keynes Council, estimates the land value of each town centre space at between £10,000 and £15,000, without the annual maintenance cost of between £200 and £300.

“People in Milton Keynes have got very used to being able to park in spaces very close to where they want to be,” he says. “Our challenge is to how best to get them to be able to access spaces that are empty, but perhaps not exactly where they want or expect to be.”

Meanwhile, the local authority has joined forces with the Open University, which is located in Milton Keynes.

This week will see the official launch of the MK data hub, an OU-led project aimed at tackling key demand issues in transport, as well as energy and water management.

The hub, which supports the acquisition and management of vast amounts of data relevant to city systems from a variety of data sources – including transport data acquired through satellite technology – is part of MK:Smart.

This is a £16-million collaborative initiative, part-funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and led by the OU, to develop solutions to support economic growth in Milton Keynes.

Spaced out

So how will this address the parking problem?

“Well, first of all we have been thinking about how we get better information to drivers, so they can be aware of the availability of spaces. We have tried a variety of options, all basically around sensor technology,” says Matthews.

“If the council can identify in real time where a space is, and get that information to drivers, they can make informed choices about where to park.”

He acknowledges that this might mean drivers not being able to park right outside the station or shop of their choice, but that the guarantee of a space at the end of their journey could be attractive.

Milton Keynes Council started the work two years ago by using television ‘white space’ – bandwidth that became available when the analogue signal was switched off. It placed sensors in parking spaces to detect when a vehicle was present, and for how long.

“It doesn’t take much power to operate the sensors on that bandwidth, and we get very useful information out of this.” says Matthews. “But we have 25,000 spaces and no matter how low you get other costs, the [equipment] maintenance is still an enormous investment.”

As a consequence, Milton Keynes is looking at other options through two live WiFi trial.

“The first is looking at the turnover of spaces, and how we can feed that information to drivers. We have deliberately chosen some spaces that have special categorisation, such as no parking after 8.30am, or a two-hour restriction,” says Matthews.

“The second is perhaps because of Milton Keynes’ geography. We have surface parking, not multi-storey parking, which means open highway parking often on very long roads. That allows us to use surveillance, with cameras placed on lampposts. And rather than having a sensor in each bay, this system allows us to see several hundred vehicles each hour.”

According to Matthews, the second option is showing the most promise, and on 9 June 2016 the council submitted a funding application to the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership to help it invest further.

Mapping motion

The MK data hub is key, says Matthews, because all the data collected via the council’s sensors are fed into this central hub. This means that the data management aspect of the council’s trials is already established.

“The data from our sensors goes into the central hub and will available for developers of apps which will then give out the information to drivers, or as real-time information for buses, or to inform the control of traffic signals,” he says.

“In a certain part of Milton Keynes, we might want to set the traffic lights to help get people to a particular area, so we can manage our road network better.”

The trials have another year to run, but they have already demonstrated that the council can take datasets, put them into the hub, and make them available for the council or individuals to use.

“One example is that we have launched something called the Milton Keynes Motion Map,” says Matthews. “It’s a platform that takes data and gives the user a real time view of transport movement, which will have all sorts of applications like traffic management for city planners, and to help the public avoid congestion.

“We have also put sensors within buses on some routes, so the bus can tell the hub how many people are on board, whether there are pushchairs or wheelchairs on the bus, its running time and expected time of arrival.”

Ultimately, Milton Keynes’ wireless trials are about enabling the council to manage its assets in better ways.

“This will enable us to plan our resources in the future,” says Matthews. “For sustainability and environmental reasons, we can’t keep building roads and car parks.”

Image credit: Flickr – Sam Saunders


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