SFPARK – PRO
SFpark Will Create a Better San Francisco
On a recent Sunday, I dropped by San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood for brunch. The public parking supply, as usual, was an overcrowded mess.
On that beautiful morning, the sidewalks were thronged with shoppers and diners, the sidewalk cafés packed. Curb parking was full, not only on the main drag, but also on the surrounding streets, with more cars double-parked, dumped on sidewalks, and left in front of fire hydrants.
The privately operated and perfectly situated parking lot at the heart of the district, however, sat half-empty.
What explains this curious situation? It’s not hard to understand. On Sundays, the parking meters are turned off, so curb parking is free. The privately operated lot, however, charges a flat rate of $10, and the other nearby off-street lots and garages aren’t free either.
Unsurprisingly, the result is that curb parking is packed to the gills and a remarkable number of motorists cruise in circles, clogging traffic and polluting the air, in search of the elusive free curb parking space.
With surprising speed, San Francisco’s SFpark project (http://sfpark.org) is moving to change this. In March and April, the city placed 8,255 parking occupancy sensors on streets in the eight SFpark pilot areas, including Hayes Valley. The wirelessly networked sensors – mostly in metered spaces, but some in nearby unmetered spaces – are now transmitting data on parking space occupancy to the computers of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).
The occupancy sensors, provided by Streetline Inc. (www.streetlinenetworks.com), are well-tested, having been deployed along a one-mile stretch of the San Francisco waterfront in a pilot project that began in 2005, as well in installations now operating in Los Angeles and Sausalito, CA.
The sensors are being paired with wirelessly networked single-space and multi-space parking meters, which accept credit and debit cards as well as coins. The meter installations began in July, with 190 curb parking spaces in Hayes Valley getting upgraded meters. By December, nearly 5,100 spaces will be regulated by the new networked meters.
The occupancy sensors allow the city’s parking managers to observe, on a continuous basis, parking occupancy on each block. The networked meters allow managers to easily adjust parking rates and hours of operation at each meter, simply by reprogramming the meters from a central computer.
As described at length in the project’s planning documents and on its website, SFpark will “use demand-responsive pricing to manage parking demand towards availability targets.” 1 Prices will not be set on an area-wide basis.
Instead, according to SFMTA documents, “prices will be adjusted up or down in increments of $0.25/hour every four to six weeks for a certain geographical unit (whether block-to-block, two-block units, or other appropriate area) using availability data from parking sensors.” 2
The new prices also will “emphasize ‘time-of-day’ pricing because it is expected to have a greater impact than strict ‘length of stay’ pricing,” the SFMTA reports. 3
Overall, the agency says, “SFpark seeks to create a driver experience in which drivers either (a) go directly to a parking garage with available spaces; or (b) are able, most of the time, to find an on-street parking space as near to their destination as possible, preferably within a block or two of their destination.” 4
It’s not hard to predict what will happen in Hayes Valley in the coming months, if the city proceeds as planned. On Sunday, the prices for curb parking will go up, from $0 per hour now to a rate that is competitive with the $10 flat rate charged at the prime off-street lot. Prices will very likely be highest on prime blocks of the main street (Hayes), and lower on outlying blocks.
Parking demand patterns are actually fairly predictable and recurring. On Sunday in Hayes Valley, for example, demand on many blocks is higher at 11 a.m., when restaurants are open, than at 6 a.m. So, in keeping with SFpark ’s plan to emphasize time-of-day pricing, on those blocks, Sunday rates will very likely be higher for the hour from 11 a.m. to noon than the hour from 6 to 7 a.m.
What will happen? Some demand will shift from the curb to the $10 flat rate private lot; some will shift to other underused off-street garages nearby. Curb parking shortages will largely disappear; circling the block will mostly stop. And those of us with economics degrees who have waited a long time for basic market economics to be applied to traffic engineering problems will smile, and go happily to brunch.
1 San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. SFpark Updated Scope of Work – Parking Pilot Projects Urban Partnership Program, August 6, 2008, page 9.
Patrick Siegman is a Principal with NelsonNygaard Consulting Associates (www.nelsonnygaard.com). Trained originally as an economist, he has led the development of parking plans for numerous cities.