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Smarter Parking in San Francisco

San Francisco's two-year pilot project will adjust parking prices based on time and location.

B&W photo of a parking meter
Terry Chay/Flickr CC
Donald Shoup believes that cities are making a big mistake by clandestinely subsidizing the true cost of on-street parking. San Francisco is intent on finding out whether he’s right.

Shoup, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the nation’s leading apostle for market-based parking policies. The title of his book summarizes his philosophy: The High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup argues that underpriced parking spots tend to be full, leading cars to circle in vain looking for spots -- adding to congestion, air pollution and distracted driving.

In San Francisco, as in most cities, parking prices haven’t been designed to test what the market will bear. At metered spots, the price is the same regardless of the time of day. Large chunks of the city have the same hourly rates, even though some streets are much more attractive to parkers than others. Parking on the street is cheaper than parking at less-desirable city-owned garages. “Drivers,” says Jay Primus of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency, “have every incentive to circle around looking for a cheaper on-street space.”

Primus is working to change that, with the help of a $20 million federal grant. He’s heading SFpark, a two-year pilot project that will adjust parking prices each month block-by-block and hour-by-hour. Starting early next year, if spots are always full at a certain place, prices will go up. If many spots are empty, prices will go down. Garage prices will be adjusted too.

San Francisco’s goal is to set prices so that there is one open space on each block. The idea is that most spots should be utilized, yet anyone looking for a spot should be able to find one quickly -- reducing the cars searching for parking.

To make SFpark work, officials will need to know which spots are occupied and which aren’t. They’re installing sensors to do that in real time. In both scope and technological sophistication, SFpark stands out as quite possibly the nation’s most ambitious smart parking experiment.

These sensors also come with a side benefit: If someone doesn’t pay the fare for a meter, the city will know it immediately. Parking enforcement personnel will use the data to know where to go to hand out tickets.

Greater parking enforcement efficiency, of course, may not be popular. Nor, for that matter, may be the higher prices to park. But SFpark includes consumer-friendly changes such as new meters that allow drivers to pay with credit cards or transit cards. Plus, any net revenue the project produces will be pumped back into the Metropolitan Transportation Agency to boost transit.

Whether those perks will be enough to satisfy parkers and businesses remains to be seen. Ultimately the success or failure of SFpark likely will hinge on politics and public opinion. “When it comes to parking,” Shoup says, “nobody likes to change anything.”

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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