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San Francisco Tests Dynamic Curbside Parking
Adam Stein, 12 Jun 08


Congestion pricing failed to gain approval in New York, but other cities are quietly pushing forward with plans to bring innovation to a more prosaic but no less important part of the transportation puzzle: parking.

The struggle to find a good parking space in a city is so commonplace as to have become a cliché. But really what it represents is a market failure. Parking spots, like roads, are an odd sort of beast: the supply is fixed, but the demand fluctuates greatly by day and by hour.

For most goods, pricing aligns supply with demand. But the price for parking is inflexible. Most spots are free. Others are metered at an artificially low rate. Residential permit parking creates odd local monopolies. Private lots skim those willing to pay the most.

The traditional solution is to increase the number of spots, providing yet another subsidy to drivers and pushing yet another cost onto everybody else. More importantly, fiddling with supply doesn't really work any more so than building an extra lane on a highway relieves congestion. Oversupply of parking encourages driving. Undersupply creates a lottery system, in which people circle endlessly looking for a spot or choose to park illegally. In either case, the result is more congestion, more carbon emissions, and less livable cities.

The key to solving the puzzle, as Alex notes, is information. And for consumers, that information must ultimately be embodied in price. Which is what makes San Francisco's $23 million experiment in dynamic curbside pricing so intriguing. According to streetsblog:

The underlying premise of SFpark is that the city wants to reduce driving, and will not attempt to do so by building more parking. Nor does the city want to suffer from parking shortages, manifested as double parking and congestion caused by cruising for spots. Instead, SFpark will raise meter prices so that demand is reduced to equal the existing parking supply. During peak periods, meters will be priced high enough to ensure some parking is always available. During off-peak times, meter prices will go down, so that most spots are used. The idea is that if you really have to drive, you shouldn't have to cruise around or risk a ticket. Along with an easier time finding parking during peaks, and lower prices when and where there is lower demand, other carrots for motorists include easing time limits during periods of low demand, enabling payment by cell phone, and delivering text messages to drivers when their meters are running out.

The "smart-meter" program will encompass 6,435 spots--roughly one quarter of San Francisco's curbside parking. The pilot program will undergo a year of trials and adjustment, before being considered for rollout to the entire city.

Others will be watching closely. Although congestion pricing is dead (for now) in New York, the city is charging ahead with its plan to replace all the old-style parking meters with more intelligent Muni meters by summer of 2009. Although the smart meters are presently programmed to behave a lot like the old, dumb meters, the groundwork for dynamic pricing is quietly being laid. As with congestion pricing, it's only a matter of time before someone flips the switch.

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

Photo by Flickr/Thomas Hawk, licensed by Creative Commons.

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There's a reason reducing illegal parking isn't a political winner: most cities actually use parking tickets for revenue collection and don't want to actually solve the underlying problems. Parking meters are usually another means of getting to issue more parking tickets, which is why some cities make it illegal to feed a parking meter that isn't your own.

Posted by: Philip Welch on 13 Jun 08

How about an example of how this works? Does the price go up while you are parked? Is the meter smart enough to know when demand in the area is high or low? Since your ability to park will be based on the size of your wallet, won't this just produce class separation?

Posted by: Chachi on 13 Jun 08

=v= We are largely conditioned to think of roads and parking as "free" and "just there," but in fact they cost an awful lot. The revenue collection that so many motorists hold in such disdain is not enough to pay what the parking space actually costs the city.

For comparison's sake, consider how much higher the "fair market value" of parking is at any downtown parking garage, and even that gets subsidized by cities under the outdated notion that parking is something to encourage.

Posted by: Jym on 13 Jun 08

Chachi, I'm not entirely sure how this is going to work in practice, although the most obvious ways to manage supply and demand is to adjust the cost of a spot and also the maximum allowed park time. The technology actually exists to dynamically sense the number of available spots available in an area at any given time, which opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities: phone-based instructions to the nearest open spot, real-time pricing, etc. I have to imagine, though, that some of the more futuristic scenarios will not be part of the initial experiment.

As to the question of whether dynamic pricing produces class separation: it seems like someone asks this whenever anyone proposes raising the price of anything. In this case, I'm guessing the answer is no. Public transit is disproportionately used by the poor, and a policy that tilts the balance away from individual car ownership and toward mass transit would generally seem to be progressive.

Posted by: Adam Stein on 16 Jun 08

It's bad enough that city authorities increasingly reject providing more and better infrastructure, and instead have elected to pursue the likes of congestion charging to stop people travelling. Now when the popular mood forces an abandonment of congestion charging, you celebrate introducing it through the back door, in the form of increasing parking charges. Just because you place 'dynamic' in the title cannot hide the fact that it's a fiscal measure aimed at redcuing people's mobility. What's to celebrate in that?

Posted by: Alastair Donald on 21 Jun 08



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