When San Francisco let parking prices fluctuate with demand, drivers found it easier and faster to find parking. The city maximized its valuable curb parking spaces and modestly sped up buses.

Image from SFMTA.

These are some of the results from a recently-released evaluation of SFpark, a pilot program that started in 2011 by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) with support from the Federal Highway Administration.SFpark used a sophisticated system of electromagnetic sensors, networked parking meters, and databases to track the occupancy of 7,000 on-street spaces in seven pilot neighborhoods and 15 of the city’s 20 SFMTA-operated garages.

It took less time to find parking

The project’s “primary focus was to make it easier to find a parking space,” with prices allowed to fluctuate such that on-street spaces met a target occupancy of 60-80% on weekdays between 9 am and 6 pm. (Project managers chose this target as it generally allows for one space on each block space to sit open and ready for a newly arriving vehicle). According to the evaluation report, the dynamic-pricing pilot areas met this occupancy target more often than control areas the report compared them to.

As a result, the time it took to find parking decreased in the pilot area from an average of 11 minutes and 36 seconds to 6 minutes and 36 seconds, a 43% decrease. By comparison, the control areas saw only a 13% decrease. As a result of the reduced circling, the total distance vehicles traveled in the pilot area decreased by 30%, which meant less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nobody benefits when drivers circle for parking, take up road space, release more pollutants, and (in some cases) block the street by double-parking.

In many places and times, parking prices declined

One might think that this all occurred because parking prices shot up, and in some cases they did. For example, side streets along the Fillmore Street retail corridor saw weekday hourly prices go from the old, city-wide rate of $2.00 to as a high as $4.50. However, the average hourly rate for parking on the street, across the whole pilot area, actually went down by 4%, from $2.69 to $2.58. How could this be?

Just as roadway demand exceeds roadway supply (leading to congestion) only at certain times and in certain places, parking demand only exceeds parking supply in certain times and at certain places. In fact, many of San Francisco’s pilot-area blocks sat relatively empty when parking cost a flat rate ($2.00, $3.00, or $3.50 per hour, depending on location) because those blocks were not desirable. Now, with parking as low as $0.25 per hour in some locations (the minimum price allowed under the program), demand is distributed more evenly across space.

Also, SFpark introduced time sensitivity to parking charges, making it possible to fine tune pricing to match demand across the day and across weekdays and weekends. Over the time period studied, four of the pilot neighborhoods saw increases in average weekday on-street parking rates, while three actually saw overall decreases.

How San Francisco mastered the politics

Between the evaluation report, the program’s technical documentation, an upcoming evaluation from FHWA, and the downloadable data sets that program managers routinely update, there is a lot of quantitative data that researchers, activists, policy-makers and citizens can study in great detail.

Yet stepping back from the quantitative results for a moment, it is important also to recognize and learn from the way in which SFMTA sold dynamic pricing to the public in the first place.

First, it launched SFpark as a pilot, a strategy that can lower the perceived stakes (and tensions) for everyone involved. Second, it set primary and secondary goals that would not only benefit the community at large (reduce greenhouse gases, reduce congestion), but also those drivers paying the variable rates (make it easier to find a spot, make it easier to pay, reduce the number of parking tickets). Third, SFpark made marketing (with graphic design quality not usually seen from a public agency), messaging, transparency, and outreach core parts of the program.

The SFpark overview video explains complex technology with easy-to-understand animations and narration. Image from SFMTA.

It is vitally important that other cities take similar approaches if they are to change parking policy because such policy stirs up strong emotions and political action.

Jeffrey Tumlin, of the transportation-consulting firm Nelson\\Nygaard, creatively refers to America’s relationship with parking as an “addiction,” which vividly sums up how difficult it is to alter the status quo around those patches of pavement where we store our cars. Similarly, a recent primer on parking pricing from FHWA notes that innovative parking policy ideas will go nowhere without political and public support.

The results of the SFpark pilot evaluation provide a rich source of rigorously measured outcomes that planners can reference in policy documents and presentations around the United States. Yet if similar programs and their beneficial outcomes are to take hold throughout the country, officials will need to copy not only SFpark’s substance but also its style.

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Stephen Crim is research director at Mobility Lab. An urban planner at heart, he is passionate about improving travel options that reduce automobile dependence. He is a former board member of Ride New Orleans and holds degrees from MIT and NYU.