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San Francisco to Smarten Parking Meters for Demand-Based Pricing

As part of pilot project, prices will adjust based on demand, drivers can pay with credit cards and stay parked longer.

San Francisco's plan to track the availability of metered parking spots and adjust prices based on demand can be likened to the Goldilocks and the Three Bears adage: They shouldn't be too high, they shouldn't be too low, but "just right."

In a pilot project mainly funded by the federal government, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which oversees the Municipal Railway (Muni) and all the city's surface transportation, will start installing 8,300 wireless parking sensors this summer. The goal of the demand-responsive pricing project is to even out parking availability, thereby reducing the need to circle while driving. Less driving would consequently reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's very appropriate for the federal government to sponsor this research, because every city on earth can learn from it," said Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and author of The High Cost of Free Parking. "You can't manage what you can't measure, and that better management will have a whole cascade of benefits."

To help evaluate demand trends, the majority of the sensors will be placed at metered parking spaces, while some others will be installed at entrances and exits of city-owned garages and in unmetered spaces. The sensors' installation requires no construction, as they'll be fixed to the pavement with an epoxy, according to SFpark, the SFMTA's parking management system.

"SFpark is based on the principle that if parking prices are set just right, at least one parking space will be available on every metered block," according to the SFpark website. "Moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to parking prices will mean that some people will choose to park a few blocks away from their destination, to drive at different times, to combine multiple trips into one journey or to choose another way to make the trip, such as public transportation."

Parking Tickets to Decrease?

Meter rates -- which currently range from $1 to $3.50 an hour -- will increase or decrease in concert with parking demand, depending on the time of day and area. Prices will range from 25 cents an hour to $6 an hour in pilot areas. During special events like baseball games, hourly prices can temporarily exceed that $6 limit. However, in city-owned garages, which SFpark says are underused, prices are likely to decrease. Overall, meter prices will likely rise, but this increase will be offset by longer time limits, which will translate to fewer parking tickets, according to SFpark.

The wireless, electromagnetic sensors will detect and report whether a space is occupied -- and for how long -- in real time. That parking availability data will be reviewed monthly and depending on the results, prices will increase or decrease incrementally -- by no more than 50 cents at a time. The adjusted price information will be transmitted to SFpark meters, which will adjust their prices.

Other features of the pilot program include the ability to use credit and debit cards at spaces with the new replacement meters, as well as prepaid parking meter cards and traditional coins. Using this payment option at metered spots should be safe, SFpark stated, as the system meets Payment Card Industry's strict data security standards. And for those concerned about their privacy when parking at a sensor-attached meter, there are no cameras or other imaging equipment. "The sensors do not and cannot capture any personally identifiable information about vehicles or drivers," according to SFpark.

Most of the project's costs will come from a $19.8 million U.S. Department of Transportation Urban Partnership Agreement grant, while the remainder -- 20 percent of the total cost -- will be provided by SFMTA, according to SFpark.

"While several cities have implemented some elements of SFpark, San Francisco is the first city to put in place a full parking management technology and policies," according to the city transportation agency.

After the pilot phase and further public outreach, SFpark could be expanded throughout the city. The SFMTA and U.S. Department of Transportation will also conduct and evaluate how successful the approach is in improving parking availability and driver convenience, reducing congestion (including circling and double parking), reducing greenhouse emissions, improving Muni performance and improving commercial vitality.

"Surveys show that drivers in San Francisco are more interested in parking availability and convenience than in the price of parking," according to the SFpark website. "Right now, some people from the region and from the city don't shop in San Francisco because they feel parking is too hard to find."


Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.
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