Just like every other city in the world, San Francisco has a parking problem. The pricing mechanisms are crude and, the city says, too much traffic is generated by people looking for a parking slot.
In a bold experiment aimed at trying to deal with the problems they perceive, city officials have come up with an initiative called SFpark, which will introduce a demand-responsive parking regime that aims to even out parking availability and so reduce search times and so reduce greenhouse gases.
The city has about 25,000 metered spaces, about 250,000 free street spaces and about 105,000 paid places in off-street parking facilities. In total, there are just over 380,000 or so places where a car can be parked.
The problem, as the city sees it, is that some streets are over-subscribed, with drivers circulating to find a space while other streets have spaces to spare. Presumably, the observed behavior is because those drivers who are circulating want to use a space close to their destination, rather than have the inconvenience of walking from a more distant but available slot.
Funded mainly by the federal government, the SFpark project will use technology to adjust charges according to demand and use pricing to redirect drivers away from the hot spots.
Current charges are set between $1 and $3.50 an hour on a neighborhood basis. This means that in any given neighborhood where all the streets have the same rate, the most popular slots will be full with cars circling looking for a space while a block over there will be spaces to spare.
The new high-tech plan will be tested in a limited area and then rolled out across San Francisco. The city will install some 8,300 detectors in eight city neighbourhoods. Each is wireless and self-contained, and will send back occupancy information to a central hub. Detectors also will be placed in three control areas to allow comparisons.
The central data hub will provide information to the public on meter availability so that, in theory, drivers can check where spaces are available before leaving home, and by better planning, they can reduce parking search times and hence achieve one of the key stated benefits of the plan. The technology is completed by new single and multi-space meters that will allow payment by cash and credit and debit cards.
The philosophy of the SFpark experiment is simple. The detectors will measure the demand in each street and the charge at the meters will be adjusted automatically in response to the demand, with the stated ambition of keeping about 205 of the spaces free. Again, this has the objective of making it easy to find a space even in busy areas and so reducing search times and the concomitant pollution.
The charges will be adjusted within a new range that has a minimum charge of 25 cents/hour and could go up as high as $6, nearly twice the current highest charge. That could go even higher for special events such as baseball games. The plan is that the charge will be altered in 50-cent steps and re-aligned no more frequently than once a month.
American parking doyen Donald Shoup seems to be convinced that this is the way forward. The UCLA urban planning professor is quoted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) as saying:
“It’s very appropriate for the federal government to sponsor this research, because every city on Earth can learn from it. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and that better management will have a whole cascade of benefits.”
Although San Francisco promotes this project as a trial that will run for two years and then be evaluated, that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. After the trial period, officials plan to roll out the project citywide, rather suggesting that the outcome has already been decided and the trial and evaluation are nothing much more than formalities.
Do I think this plan will work? I don’t know, and I am prepared to be completely open-minded about it. However, I do have some quite serious concerns.
First, the technology of occupancy sensors is clear and well understood; however, have they ever been tested in use? I am not aware of any proven technology of this type, and by that I mean installed in city streets in real working conditions, not limited tests by the company trying to sell them. I hope they work and do all that is expected of them, but what is Plan B if the batteries don’t last or if the street sweeper starts pulling them off the road after three weeks?
Second, the plan to change parking rates no more frequently than once a month doesn’t make sense. Parking demands change hour by hour. Street A is busy in the middle of the day, and Street B is busy in the evening because of the restaurants. If the rate is set on the basis of some sort of overall picture, they both get a high charge, which will be completely wrong some of the time.
Perhaps it is the intention to set rates that vary through the day, but nothing in what has been published suggests this. Certainly, the proposal that the rate would change “no more than once a month” and the proposal to have “match day” surcharges would appear to be mutually exclusive.
I am just a little concerned that this is a $20 million-plus project that is replacing what could be achieved by a competent parking professional with a few hours’ observation and a willingness to adopt a more flexible approach to charging than setting a “one size fits all” neighborhood rate.
Finally, there seems to be a poisoned chalice in some of the preliminary research. SFMTA says that “surveys show that drivers in San Francisco are more interested in parking availability and convenience than in the price of parking.” If this is true – and I have no reason to doubt it – then a project based on using charges to drive parkers away from the spaces they consider “convenient” would seem unlikely to have a happy outcome.
I will watch the progress of SFpark with interest, and I hope that it will prove me unnecessarily pessimistic.
Peter Guest is Parking Today’s correspondent in the UK. He can be reached at Peter@parkingtoday.com.

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