SFPark — What is it really?
Did you know that SF Park, 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 home page on SFPark’s extremely well done web site, we read:
SFMTA 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, since 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 folk. 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-street 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 in each space, and therein lies part of the tale. The sensors have been problematic from the first day. The initial vendor was replaced after it was determined that the contract requirements (read that as “percentage of valid reads”) was not being met. The second vendor is struggling, and seemingly will meet the contract requirements if the contract requirements 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 that 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 analyses 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 other 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 – On line real time requirements to show parking space availability and collect statistical data through sensors requiring 95 plus accuracy may not be possible with today’s technology. Asking a sensor to transmit accurate data from a parking space to a wifi network located overhead attached to street lights and telephone poles, and then have that data sent to ‘central’, processing (and to databases) and then made available to the public within moments might be a stretch. Assuming that real life hasn’t jumped ahead of the algorithms and parkers have occupied available spaces, or vacated occupied ones. But then, what do I know?
The consultants in the room in Phoenix noted that valid on-street data could be and has been collected for years quite accurately through old-fashioned visual observations by analysts using clip boards and even stop watches when they want to get fancy about it. They also noted that statistical data from parking meters has been an excellent source when combined with observations to perform a number of calculations on parking patterns and even meter security. All at a fraction of the investment in time and treasure.
So we have a data collection issue. What happens to the data when it is collected? It goes 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. 15 months into the program, SFPark’s head says 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 the system 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 web site and on smart phone applications. So, drivers have to go to the web prior to their journey or check their phones for pricing data. Of course, checking your phone while driving is illegal, so now what?
The basic premises of SF Park are based on Don 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 that have been made over the years. Consultants and some city parking managers who were at Primus’ presentation were skeptical in that it seems that little if any of the industry’s literature has been used to assist in data review. Wheels are being reinvented in San Francisco.
It has also been noted by the local SF media that even after multiple hikes in rates, drivers still jam popular on-street spaces and cheaper spaces 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 must also 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 city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority that provides non- automobile transportation in the city. It might also be noted that San Francisco is a city with a large vocal bicycle lobby.
SF Park has created a beautiful PR program, a fabulous web site, upmarket applications for smart phones, 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.
SFPark has been funded by a $20,000,000 grant from the US Department of Transportation. This money is being used to develop and install the system. One thing to remember: When it is gone, it is 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 the city’s twenty municipal 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 six million dollar 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 tact to take, particularly since the excess revenue from these garages funds the MTA.
SF Park is not self-funding. The SFMTA needs the parking revenue generated in San Francisco to support its 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 web site, 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 gently into that good night?