Parking isn’t found often in downtown Ocala. Unlike many downtown areas, Ocala doesn’t have a parking garage, so many drivers find themselves circling the Ocala Square multiple times before finding a spot.
A new app called Parker aims to change that with a network of 190 sensors.
City employees worked through Monday night into the early morning hours to install a sensor into each of the parking spots downtown, including reserved, metered and free-two hour spaces.
The sensors, described as hockey-puck-looking objects, network with each other to send data to repeaters, which are tiny black boxes attached to light poles.
When a spot becomes available, the information is sent to the central gateway, which then returns the signal to the mobile app.
This process takes place 25,000 to 50,000 times per minute.
Chip Rich, community improvement administrator for the City of Ocala, came up with the idea to implement Parker, which is normally used in densely populated areas such as Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
“(Ocala) is not like many other large metropolitan cities,” Rich said. “Parking is more of a premium in a compact area in my mind. So although it’s nice to have this in other larger areas, I think it’s a perfect fit for our area.”
People shopping at boutiques and dining at the Square will no longer have to search for parking.
Instead, they will type the address of their destination into Parker and let the app tell them verbally where to turn for nearby parking. The app will then save the selected parking spot location to help drivers find their car if they forget where it is parked.
The entire project has been in the making for three years and cost the city of Ocala $38,000. This is cheaper than building a parking garage, which is what some residents were hoping for.
City of Ocala public information officer Jeannine Robbins said, “The goal of this project is to raise parking awareness.”
The project isn’t meant to fix what some residents think is a “lack of parking” problem but rather navigate drivers toward spots that already exist.
Rich thinks there is enough parking and hopes the app will help residents learn about parking patterns, durations and availability — while also acting as a 24/7 study to assist the city with future parking decisions.
Similar studies that record the same data over an extended period of time use human labor, which would cost significantly more than $38,000.
Rich sees this technology as another way Ocala can continue leading the way in innovation.
He recalled, “In 1995, we [the City of Ocala] installed the first fiber-optic network, so we try to lead in innovation and implementation.”
Last year, Ocala was among the first cities in north central Florida to begin paying for metered parking through another app known as Passport, which is now linked through Parker.
The app is set to go live by mid-March, but it is available for download now.
Other cities in the area, including Gainesville, never seriously considered implementing Parker, when mentioned in the past, because of the price tag, according to marketing and communications supervisor Chip Skinner.
Rich said he is hopeful the city will expand its use of the sensors in the future.