Finding parking in Pittsburgh to go digital

| Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, 10:42 p.m.

A dynamic, digital way to better find parking spots in Downtown will debut on New Year's Eve, when parking will be at a premium.

Envision Downtown will pilot new signs along Fort Duquesne Boulevard on Thursday that tell drivers how many spaces are available in the nearest garages. Three LED television screens, mounted on poles and picking up Wi-Fi through an attached hotspot, will display the number of available spaces next to the name of the garage, but if it's full, will direct the driver to the next closest facility.

“We think we've hit on something really unique,” said Sean Luther, executive director of Envision Downtown. “We're not aware of any other city doing parking garage wayfinding exactly like this, but it's also a trial for us, too.”

The system relies on data from the ParkPGH app, a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust funded by the Benter Foundation that launched about five years ago. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust estimates the Park PGH app has been used more than 550,000 times this year, but the new signs are a way to keep drivers off their phones as they search for spots.

Each sign costs about $6,000 to assemble. After a pilot program though the first weekend of 2016, the signs will be moved indoors to ensure they hold up against the elements. Then they'll be put back out in mid-January for six to eight weeks as a longer trial.

The Benter Foundation, a supporter of Envision Downtown, financially supported the sign project that Luther said cost about $75,000. Strip District firm Deep Local developed and designed the system, which Luther said could expand to include more signs.

Right now, it will encompass the garages in the Cultural District including Sixth Street and Penn Avenue, Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Sixth Street, Theater Square, Ninth Street and Penn Avenue, and Smithfield Street and Liberty Avenue. If those garages are full, the signs will suggest drivers head to the Grant Street Transportation Center.

Benter Foundation founder Bill Benter said he was inspired to support the project during his travels abroad in cities such as Montreal and Bordeaux, France, that have similar signs. Traffic Downtown is worsened by cars that turn onto a street expecting to get into a parking garage, he said, and wind up getting caught on the one-way stretch of Penn Avenue in an attempt to turn around.

“We thought if people could be more efficiently directed looking for parking, it would ease congestion and make coming Downtown a more friendly experience, and less stressful,” Benter said.

The LED screens are supposed to be bright enough to be seen through winter weather conditions and durable enough to withstand them.

Merrill Stabile, owner of Alco Parking, which owns the garage at Sixth Street and Penn Avenue, said he thinks the app and signs help make the city more navigable.

“Anything that makes the city more user-friendly is a good way to go,” Stabile said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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