Research Rest-Stop │ San Francisco’s New Parking Strategy

Every Wednesday, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) highlights some interesting research related to or innovations in transportation, sustainability, or energy.

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In many cities, finding off-street parking can be a challenge. In some cases, drivers searching for parking spaces can generate as much as one-third of the traffic in urban areas. By improving parking dynamics, this traffic could be reduced and, at the same time, decrease environmental impacts and the amount of time spent looking for a parking spot.

In response to this challenge, the City of San Francisco has implemented a new dynamic parking program that aims to provide at least one available parking spot on every metered block. The program uses the idea of supply and demand so that the price of parking increases in the most crowded areas and decreases where there are many empty parking spaces. To date, the city has installed parking sensors and new meters at nearly one-fourth of its 26,800 metered parking spaces to monitor when spots open up and how long cars are parked. Every two months, the city evaluates and adjusts its prices as necessary to work toward the goal of having at least one available parking space on every block. On popular blocks, prices can increase by 25 cents an hour. On blocks that often have more empty spaces available, the city can decrease prices by as much as 50 cents an hour. The city has also reduced rates at its off-street parking locations to encourage drivers to park their cars in off-street garages and lots.

This program tests the theories of Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work focuses on ways to price on-street parking effectively so that cities can ensure that a few open spots will exist on every block. Shoup highlighted his ideas in a 2005 piece, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which argued that pricing the parking supply according to market demands would allow for a more dynamic system and open up a few spaces so that drivers would no longer need to circle blocks continuously while looking for parking.

As San Francisco’s program is fairly new, it still needs some more time before an analysis of how it is working overall can be performed. In the interim, however, an analysis by The New York Times notes that “while only a third of the blocks in the program have hit their targeted occupancy rates in any given month since the program began, three-quarters of the blocks either hit their targets or moved closer to the goal.” With the rest of the phased-in price changes not yet released (the most expensive spots are expected to reach a $6 per hour maximum), it will be interesting to see how this program plays out and the impacts it has on the parking supply and demand in San Francisco.

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If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, you can also check out the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s report, “SFpark: Putting Theory in Practice,” which documents the city’s new strategy for pricing parking.

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