The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Setting the right price for parking in San Francisco and New York

Learning from planning experts such as UCLA's Donald Shoup, San Francisco is developing a new paradigm for car parking with meter prices set by market demand and apps to allow drivers to find spaces and pay for them on their smartphone, with New York following in its wake, as Catesby Holmes of My Parking Sign shows.

Cities: New York-Newark, San Francisco-Oakland

Topics: Roads and traffic, Information and technology

San Francisco's new smart parking meters, where prices are set by market demand as determined by thousands of sensors collecting parking space occupancy data across the city. Photo: Marlon E (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Similar to water or green space, in cities parking is a finite resource; its allocation must be managed as meticulously as any public good. Yet for nearly a century, the United States adopted car-centric policies in which parking was free and plentiful. Today, it is evident that embracing the automobile has led to sprawl, hollowed-out urban centres, congestion, and pollution. As the nation begins to look toward a greener future, recent innovations in New York City and San Francisco — the United States' two most densely populated cities — suggest an emerging consensus on what smart parking planning looks like.

New York’s relationship with cars started to sour in 1982. Citing congestion and air pollution, the transit-rich city eliminated a law that required developers to build parking for 40% of all new residences. It replaced them with maximums — 20% to 35% depending on the neighbourhood — for all new residences constructed below West 110th Street and East 96th Street in Manhattan. Three decades later, this rejection of parking minimums — an increasingly criticised policy that prevails across the US — "still constitute[s] perhaps the most important use of parking policy to limit traffic in any American city," asserts Streetsblog NYC

San Francisco has also long questioned the car's role in city life. In the mid-20th century protestors successfully halted seven of ten urban highway plans, and after the 1989 earthquake the city decided against rebuilding the crumbled Embarcadero Freeway. Though San Francisco did not initiate parking maximums until 1997, 15 years after New York, it has since taken the lead in parking reform, crafting a US gold-standard set of policies that tackles all facets of parking, including supply, price, and regulation.

"[T]he city has developed a toolkit of complementary development requirements to reduce automobile dependence," reports Liveable Streets, "including unbundling parking costs from housing costs, bicycle parking requirements, and requiring car share spaces in large new developments." Many neighbourhoods have progressively raised the bar, requiring parking to be hidden behind buildings, encouraging lot-sharing, and closing loopholes in parking caps.

Making parking pay

Perhaps most ambitiously, San Francisco has challenged the central fallacy that parking should be free. In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, a prominent UCLA planning professor, emphasises that parking has pricey built-in expenses including construction, maintenance, and land value. Because we don't charge (enough) for parking, all Americans pay these costs through higher consumer prices. Shoup argues that in addition to unfairly "charging" non-drivers, underpricing is responsible for familiar urban hassles: parking shortages (because cheap spots incentivise driving), meter-feeding (leading to long-term occupancy), and congestion (due to cruising — driving around looking for parking spots). And government price-setting at meters takes parking off the free market, making it much cheaper than its actual value.

San Francisco moved to marketise its parking in 2011 with SFPark, a federally-funded pilot programme in which sensors record occupancy data for roughly a quarter of the city's 24,000 metered spaces. Those spots now vary in price, block by block, in response to demand, ranging from $0.25 to $18 at peak demand. The idea is to set rates such that at least one space is always open, and it seems to be working. "Change can already be seen on a stretch of Drumm Street downtown near the Embarcadero and the popular restaurants at the Ferry Building," reported the New York Times in 2012. "Last summer it was nearly impossible to find spots there. But after the city gradually raised the price of parking … high-tech sensors embedded in the street showed that spots were available a little more often."

On low-demand blocks, the cost of parking has actually decreased. According to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority (SFMTA), average hourly rates at SFPark meters have dropped by $0.14 from $2.73 to $2.59 with 6% of SFPark meters adjusted to just $0.25. These numbers highlight a central element of smart parking policy: data. To launch SFPark, the SFMTA conducted a census of parking spaces — the first such count in any major city in the world. Planners now know where spots are, when they're used, and what drivers are willing to pay to park there.

Transparency in pricing

In today's culture of Big Data, transparency, too, is a key tenet. "San Francisco's the first city that says, 'Here's how we set our prices,'" commented Shoup in a lengthy recent interview. "They explain it. In New York, they couldn't possibly tell you how they set the prices … or requirements."

Indeed, under New York's PARK Smart programme, a 2008 pilot inspired by SFMTA's work, meters in select neighbourhoods have increased markedly during peak times. But if there's a mechanism for determining pricing, it's unclear: even the steepest PARK Smart rates ($5 per hour in Greenwich Village) almost certainly fall short of their market value on New York's jam-packed streets. Nonetheless, the program has proven effective: in Park Slope, Brooklyn, after meter rates doubled to $1.50 per hour during highest demand, the average time length that cars parked decreased by 17% on Fifth Avenue and 23% on Seventh, and rush-hour traffic dropped by 5% to 9%. The program will expand this spring.

In the rest of New York, however, street spaces remain significantly cheaper than in other world cities, and the results are manifest. Rampant cruising (28% in SoHo, 45% in Park Slope) and double-parking clog streets and bike lanes.

Eliminating cruising for those who have to park

San Francisco confronted those issues with technology. Data gathered with SFPark's wireless sensors not only run the variable-priced parking system but also aid drivers, showing them where parking is available in real-time, via text message. This system drastically diminishes cruising, because if drivers know where open spots are and what they cost, they can make decisions accordingly.  

Not to be outdone by their West Coast counterparts, New York officials recently announced the launch of a website that helps people locate and pay for parking spots using their smartphones. A smartphone app will follow that, like SFPark, gives drivers real-time information about the probability of finding a parking space on each block. However, to date New York has embedded only 260 electronic "pucks" in their streets (versus San Francisco's 8,000), calling into question the efficacy of a parking programme that’s big on ambition but short on data.

Repairing a broken system, especially one as historically rooted as American car-dependence, takes time. With San Francisco and New York leading the way, US cities are poised to follow their European and Canadian counterparts in forging a new parking paradigm, one that uses high technology and smart policy to restrain cars in favor of walking, biking, and public transit. To quote Shoup:  "The US is kind of slow to pick up on this kind of thing, but it's happening."


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