The Parking Predicament: San Francisco uses technology and zoning to optimize parking - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The Parking Predicament: San Francisco uses technology and zoning to optimize parking

Photo courtesy of Flickr user carlosgomez

SFpark meter

See all the articles in the Solving the Parking Predicament series. >>

MPC research assistant Lena Ferguson authored this post.

In San Francisco, SFpark is a variably priced, federally funded pilot program that periodically adjusts meter and garage pricing to match demand, and collects and distributes real-time information about where parking is available so drivers can quickly find open spaces. Parking information is available to the public via a Smartphone application (and eventually text messaging) to help drivers find parking with greater ease and convenience. 

SFpark:  A 21st century parking solution

In 2010, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which manages public transit authority, received a $25 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Urban Partnership Program to pilot SFpark, San Francisco’s groundbreaking strategy to put technology to use to better manage its metered and garage parking. 

The goals according to SFMTA are multimodal: “Use pricing to help redistribute the demand for parking. The goal is to encourage drivers to park in garages and lots, and to almost always have one space available on every metered block…With more availability, drives will circle and double park less. Muni (buses) will be faster and more reliable and greenhouse gas emissions reduced”.

SFpark is based on the nation’s foremostparking expert Donald Shoup’s theory of pricing parking meters based on demand in order to achieve an optimal occupancy rate that prevents cruising for parking, a major cause of congestion. The optimal rate SFpark uses is 60 to 80 percent.  The SFpark pilot area consists of 7,000 of San Francisco’s 28,800 metered spaces and encompasses the neighborhoods of Civic Center/Hayes Valley, Financial District, SoMa/Mission Bay, Mission, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fillmore and the Marina.

Technology plays two key roles in ensuring Sfpark’s success: making sure meter rates increase or decrease based on demand and providing parkers with real time information so they know where open spaces exist. Wireless sensors installed in each parking space detect when a space is occupied. The sensors then report this occupancy data to a central computer in real time, allowing SFpark to price the meters based on demand.  The data is also used so parkers can check real-time space availability and pricing information by block or in garages via a website or smartphone app. They can then pay for parking by credit card or with their smartphones.

Meter prices in the pilot area can range from $.25 to $6.00 per hour, with higher prices during special events, and vary by block, time of day, and day of the week. The parking meter rates are adjusted only once a month based on the occupancy data, and are never adjusted by more than $.50 at a time. When the program began, all meters were set at $3 per hour. Since then, 32 percent of the rates have increased, 31 percent have decreased, and 37 percent have stayed the same.

SFpark uses the following formula to adjust rates: when occupancy for the month averages 80 to 100 percent, the hourly rate is raised by $0.25; when occupancy for the month averages 60 to 80 percent, the hourly rate is not changed; when occupancy for the month averages 30 to 60 percent, the hourly rate is lowered by $0.25; when occupancy for the month averages less than 30 percent, the hourly rate is lowered by $0.50. Most of the pilot area’s meters operate between 9am and 6pm, with some meters operating as early as 7am and as late as 7pm. The meters are split into three rate periods when the prices usually change: starting hour-noon, noon-3pm, and 3pm-ending hour to reflect demand trends.

SFpark’s meter pricing pilot program is paired with demand-based pricing for 14 of the city’s publicly-owned parking garages. Like the parking meters, the garages have rate periods in which prices change to reflect demand, with the optimal occupancy being 40 to 80 percent. The garages are metered 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have five rate periods - midnight-9am, 9am-noon, noon-3pm, 3pm-6pm, and 6pm-midnight. The prices also vary between weekends and weekdays. Rates are changed quarterly for the garages, with the following formula: when occupancy is 80 to 100 percent, the hourly rate is raised by $0.50; when occupancy is 40 to 80 percent, the hourly rate is not changed; when occupancy is less than 40 percent, the hourly rate is lowered by $0.50. The garages, which, on the whole, cost somewhere between $1 and $3.50 an hour, also cost less than it would cost to park on-street, therefore incentivizing people to use the garages.

SFMTA receives all parking meter and fine revenues from SFpark. It is the only major U.S. transit agency to collect meter revenue and control curbside parking. This makes sense because the increased meter fees will direct more people to public transit and SFMTA can use the revenues to improve the public transit system. It also gives SFMTA an incentive to manage the meters correctly, not only because they receive the revenues, but because less circling for on-street parking by drivers reduces bus service delays.

Zoning for appropriate parking

San Francisco also has taken measures to manage its parking from the development side. Once a city that required one parking space for every new residential unit, in 1973, San Francisco instituted a cap on downtown parking spaces in conjunction with the opening of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). San Francisco has no parking minimum requirements in the downtown area and strong maximum requirements. For downtown residential buildings, the maximum parking allowed is one space per four units. Although developers can obtain permits after case-by-case review to build above this maximum (except in the urban mixed use district) these permits have caps of between .5 to 1 spaces per unit depending on the district. For offices, the maximum allowed is seven percent of the gross floor area, 1 space per 1,000 square feet or 1 space per 500 square feet, depending on the district. Permits to build in excess of these maximums are not available for offices.

SFpark, while still in its two-year pilot phase, is perhaps the most encompassing and sophisticated parking demand management plan in America. SFpark not only will decrease travel times and gridlock for the city now, but it also makes San Francisco’s existing transit, pedestrian and bike infrastructure even more attractive. Called “the most innovative and exciting congestion management tool in use in the United States today" by Sustainable Transport Magazine, San Francisco’s dedication to getting occupancy rates right to maximize their land-use is a model for cities across the country.

MPC’s Solving the Parking Predicament series will highlight parking management theories, and ways in which cities across the country are using demand pricing, zoning requirements, and a little rethinking to better manage land dedicated to parking.  




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