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Downtown streetlights getting smarter

Could help with parking, but isn’t Big Brother

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City planners are looking to an old, ubiquitous standard – the streetlight – to harvest helpful data downtown thanks to enhancements using sophisticated technology.

Smart streetlights could soon even direct motorists to convenient parking spots and more, say officials with the city’s Office of Innovation.

The initiative is part of the Smart Streetlight Technology program, a pilot project involving the city, CPS Energy and two prospective vendors — international tech giants AT&T and Itron.

“I look forward to seeing the results,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “The possibilities – from energy savings to valuable data collections that will inform city services – are extraordinary.”

The ongoing endeavor entails mounting an array of high-tech sensors on CPS Engery streetlights in three innovation zones  — downtown, the South Texas Medical Center and Brooks. The gadgets will collect environment, flooding, ambient noise and temperature data. At least in the pilot program, only downtown lights will include the parking sensors.

Vendors are also equipping the LED photocell lights with digital connections to CPS Energy’s Smart City grid, to help with more efficient management and maintenance.

Keen observers might spot some sensors on a few streetlights on Market Street between South Alamo and Bowie streets, and César E. Chávez Boulevard between South Alamo and Interstate 37.

The sensors aren’t some invasive, Orwellian undertaking, city officials said. They’re not cameras.

“They just detect the presence or absence of on-street parking,” said Smart City Coordinator Emily Royall. “They don’t do anything like reading license plates or recording the make and model of vehicles. They just tell us whether a space is vacant or not.”

Data from the parking sensors could provide the most user-friendly benefit for folks seeking parking downtown, said San Antonio’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard.

“We really want to look at how people are parking downtown, to help us determine real-time parking, and what areas are used more than others to help direct our transportation policy,” Royall added.

The project’s genesis began in 2018, when Dillard and his team examined ways to use technology to improve city services, starting with the innovation zones.

“When we asked the communities about challenges that we might address with technology, we heard pedestrian safety, environmental quality, downtown congestion, and parking,” Royall said.

After studying other municipalities where streetlight sensors collect various data, city staff worked with CPS to find prospective vendors interested in showing San Antonio their capabilities in the free pilot.

“This project really has two components,” Dillard said. “CPS needed to have the smart-streetlight-control system installed, so they’re piloting that technology. And, we developed five ‘use cases’ for streetlight sensors to collect data different city departments could use to improve planning and policy.”

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams called the project “a great example of how the right coordination between the city of San Antonio and CPS Energy will help create workable solutions to turn the challenges of developing a smart city into new opportunities for success.”

Different sensors on each of the pilot streetlights collect real-time stats on temperature, air quality, ambient noise and flood control; parking apparatus are only implemented downtown.

“Since the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently downgraded our clean-air rating, that’s important to get more information about where and when pollution occurs to mitigate that,” Royall said. “With temperature sensing, we’re looking at the urban-heat-island effect, which can raise temperatures up to two degrees. The city’s new shade-equity plan and tree-planting initiatives can help with that.”

She added, “We’re partnering with the San Antonio River Authority on the flood data. Their goal is a predictive flood model that can create an algorithm that predicts flooding when a rainstorm is detected.”

Both AT&T and Itron devices were installed last fall – all except the parking sensors, which are only on the 30 pilot streetlights downtown. Those were placed in late January and early February.

Ideally, they can push data into the city’s extant parking app, SAPark, which currently allows users to pay for parking and add time.

“We could feed the sensor data to the app, so that you could check for available parking spots before you make the trip downtown,” Dillard said. Parking information, like data from other instruments, would be available through the city’s online portal, data.sanantonio.gov.       

“We care about all the cool things we may get from these features, but we are particularly interested in seeing where the hiccups can occur,” he added. For instance, in early February, work on a city bond project closed part of a street where some parking sensors had just been installed.

“Luckily, the vendor was willing to shift those sensors to another area,” Dillard said. “That’s another reason we’re doing this, to find flexible and innovative ways to pivot when things change – and city operations are constantly changing.”

Dillard said testing should conclude this summer.

Then, city staff will decide whether to contract with AT&T or Itron to expand.

“If it’s successful, then we need to ask if residents think it is worthwhile to include in the city budget,” he said.

syerkes@localcommunitynews.com

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