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Data-Driven Parking in Baltimore Saves Money, Boosts Equity

Baltimore’s innovative parking strategy rooted in human-centered design looks beyond individual parking spots and toward a more equitable use of city roadways.

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Peter Little, the executive director of the Parking Authority of Baltimore City, oversees a large portfolio — including 13 city-owned parking garages, two dozen surface parking lots, residential and disabled parking permits, and 12,000 metered spaces. Yet he describes his responsibility as remarkably straightforward: “making parking work” by finding and implementing innovative solutions. He broadly defines this mandate, encouraging biking and bus services because they too help parking work.

Little has continuously demonstrated that parking is not just an everyday operation that the city runs, but an opportunity for innovation and human-centered design to improve the quality of life for Baltimore residents. He previously implemented a virtual parking permit system that ties license plates to residential permits as opposed to stickers manually placed on dashboards, which saves time and effort for parking enforcement officers and residents.

This focus on the larger goal explains why Little describes his demand-based parking approach not as a way to raise revenue, but rather as a method of optimizing curb usage and decreasing traffic congestion (from cars idling or driving around looking for parking spots). He believes this process also increases the time that patrons spend shopping and dining since they can more easily park. The Baltimore demand-based parking program continuously collects anonymized parking occupancy data, which Little’s team analyzes to optimize meter rates. Hourly parking meter rates are adjusted every six months to meet the city’s goal of having 15 to 25 percent of parking spots available at any given time.

Little increases rates in areas where there is more than 85 percent occupancy, in increments no greater than 25 cents per hour every six months. Where occupancy is low, the Parking Authority will reduce rates by 25 cents. Little’s team places stickers on the parking meters to clearly signal the price changes.

Equity for end users is an important concern for city leaders. Little hopes that demand pricing will open more parking options, similar to the way transportation officials view the benefit of HOV lanes. In addition, cities should consider how extra revenues from appropriately priced parking can be distributed to support transit options in underserved areas. If lower-income residents in a city more often take public transit while parking meters are underpriced, then the outcome is inequitable, since those driving could end up paying less for greater convenience. In Baltimore, low-income people of color make up the majority of transit riders; with higher fees from parking meters, the increased city revenue can be funneled toward improvements in public transit and access to and from underserved areas.

Baltimore is not the only city to adopt dynamic pricing. San Francisco implemented a demand-responsive pricing program in 2011. The city conducted a study in 2015 to analyze the impacts of the program and saw success in achieving ideal parking spot occupancy rates of 60 to 80 percent, increases in transit ridership and decreases in traffic congestion.

Little and the Parking Authority of Baltimore continue to push the envelope with parking innovation. They have found ways to increase city revenue, enhance efficiency, improve equity and more, all by harnessing new ideas and the power of data and technology. Over the past few years, cities have seen dramatic increases in ride-sharing, deliveries and shared micromobility, all of which compete for curb space. These increased demands highlight the importance of optimal pricing of curb space as a planning, congestion and mobility tool.

Parking agencies face substantial challenges, not just in parking but as part of the larger mobility and customer service framework. A fully digital system will work across modalities, from transit to parking, and provide digital insights to manage and fairly price curb space. And even Little with his entrepreneurial bent sees many additional changes and challenges, including how to handle electric vehicle charging, setting pricing from IoT-generated data and computer-assisted parking counts, plus possible event pricing so city curbs more fairly recoup their event expenses. Thankfully, Baltimore leaders have already proven that they can meet these types of challenges with flexibility and fairness.

Kamya Jagadish, dual MPP/MBA student at the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, co-authored this article.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.