SFpark – Brilliant or Boondoggle?
John Van Horn
Did you know that SFpark, San Francisco’s much ballyhooed new high-tech parking program is a test? It is a multimillion-dollar 18-month-long program that will end in December, and then … who knows?
In the first paragraph of the homepage on SFpark’s extremely well-done website, we read:
“SFMTA [The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] established SFpark to use new technologies and policies to improve parking in San Francisco. Reducing traffic by helping drivers find parking benefits everyone. More parking availability makes streets less congested and safer. Meters that accept credit and debit cards reduce frustration and parking citations. With SFpark, we can all circle less and live more.”
I have had difficulty getting any of the managers at SFpark on the record, but that’s understandable, because they know I’m not a fan of the city’s parking program in general, so who in their right mind would discuss their project with the enemy?
They did, however, go on the record in Phoenix in June, when Jay Primus, the program’s head, spoke to a group of interested folks. He pretty much confirmed what I have heard unofficially. So let’s review the bidding.
The idea is to change the behavior of those parking in San Francisco by using market-based or dynamic pricing of on- and off-street parking spaces. Data about parking availability and length of stay would be collected through in the ground sensors, transmitted back to a central database, and then used as a basis to change the on-street pricing up or down in 25-cent increments. Drivers would determine quickly where cheaper and more available parking was located and then park there, thus reducing cruising and traffic congestion.
The key to this data collection is the sensor, which is a hockey puck-style device located at each space, and therein lies part of the tale. The sensors have been problematic from day one.
The initial vendor was replaced after it was determined the contract requirements (read that, percentage of valid reads) was not being met. The second vendor is struggling, and seemingly will meet the contract requirements if they are changed. If you talk to either vendor, they discuss accuracy in terms of data collection and not really in terms of real-time information.
My sources tell me there are 1.6 times as many sensors installed as there are spaces. (Many spaces have two sensors rather than one.) This is seen as a way to increase accuracy. The algorithm that analyzes the data must now determine not just is there a car present, but if sensor A sees a car and sensor B in the same space doesn’t, which is correct.
The environment in San Francisco is seen as unique, since it has cable cars, electric buses and utilities under the streets. All this appears to affect the sensors and their accuracy.
I might note that many cities (Melbourne, Seattle, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego, Portland, St Louis, London, Tokyo, Paris, Rome, etc.) have similar or worse environments than San Francisco. If sensors don’t work well in SF, will they work elsewhere?
But wait – pilot programs in Australia, Texas and locales in the Northeast have worked. In Australia, they are accurate to the point of being the basis for citations. Why not San Francisco?
It may go to the original specification –Online real-time requirements to show parking space availability and collect statistical data through sensors requiring 95% plus accuracy in real time may not be possible with today’s technology.
Asking a sensor to transmit accurate data from a parking space to a Wi-Fi network attached to streetlights and telephone poles and to have that data sent to “central,” processed and then made available to the public within moments and to databases might be a stretch. But, then, what do I know.
The consultants in that room in Phoenix back in June noted that valid on-street data could be and has been collected using visual observation with a clipboard and stopwatch. They also noted that statistical data from parking meters have been an excellent source when combined with observation. And at a fraction of the investment of time or treasure.
So, we have a data-collection issue. What happens to the data when they are collected? They go into a multimillion-dollar Oracle-designed database, where, with a touch of a key, one is to be able to correlate data and then make decisions as to rate changes.
Fifteen months into the program, the head of SFpark said that the data aren’t really available and that there are no interim stats and that such results will be published after the program is finished.
The behavior that the program is to change relies on communicating to drivers just what the on-street pricing is, block by block. If I don’t know that I can save $5 by walking an extra block, then what makes one think I would do so?
SFpark has based its communication to the drivers on a beautiful website and on smartphone applications. So, drivers have to go to the website prior to their journey or check their phones for pricing data. Of course, checking your phone while driving is illegal, so now what?
UCLA Urban Planning Professor Don Shoup tells me that the communications to drivers isn’t at the top of the list, since only a small number need their behavior changed. As few at 15% could alleviate congestion and make spaces more available. I hear what the professor says, but I’m skeptical.
The basic premises of SFpark are based on Shoup’s theories but require good data and nimble communications to change behavior. They would also be affected by driver preferences that have been determined by studies made over the years.
Consultants and some city parking managers who were at Primus’ presentation in Phoenix were skeptical in that it seems that little if any of the parking industry’s literature has been used to assist in data review.
Wheels are being reinvented in San Francisco.
It also has been noted by the SF media that even after multiple hikes in rates, drivers still jam popular on-street spots, and cheaper spots a block or two away go unfilled.
San Francisco is ground zero for technology. The city is just a few miles from Silicon Valley and headquarters for Oracle, Google, Apple and the rest. This is the group that believes that “if you can imagine it, we can do it.” Unfortunately, unlike Disneyland, things have to actually work, not just appear to work.
One also must consider what appears to be the long-term goal of SFpark. Was it to manage a needed resource in the city, or was it to change behavior to the point when that resource was unneeded?
Remember, the parking operation is run by the SF Metropolitan Transit Agency that also provides non-automobile transportation in the city. (It might be noted that San Francisco is a city with a large vocal bicycle lobby.)
SFpark has created a beautiful public relations program, a fabulous website, up-market applications for smartphones, and a branding program that rivals anything Madison Avenue could do. The people managing this program have their roots in just those disciplines. But few have a background in parking.
I’m told that many of the managers in the existing parking program in San Francisco have not been consulted concerning SFpark. Questions being asked at the Phoenix seminar give one pause on what SF Park based many of its objectives.
SFpark has been funded by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. This money is being used to develop and install the parking program. One thing to remember: When it’s gone, it’s gone. There is no guarantee that the Feds will step up and provide more money, and in the current environment, who knows? At the end of the year, when the money runs out, what will happen?
Fifteen of SF’s 20 city-owned garages have been swept into the program. A rate structure unlike any seen in the industry has been instituted. The result has been a $6 million shortfall in revenue from the garages. I understand that revenue may not be the goal; however, it would seem that risking the fiscal integrity of the bricks-and-mortar garages may not be the best tack to take.
SFpark is not self-funding. The SFMTA needs the parking revenue generated in San Francisco to support its various transportation projects.
So, in the end, what is this “pilot program?” Is it a well-thought-out way to test new ways to run on-street parking in municipal settings? Or is it an extremely well-designed website, app store and well-branded public relations marvel that will run out of funding and then, unlike the aged in the Dylan Thomas poem, will go gentle into that good night.
John Van Horn is Editor of Parking Today. Contact him at
Article Abstract from September, 2012