Friday 29 July 2011

San Francisco's innovative variable parking pricing scheme

It isn’t strictly road pricing in the usual sense of the word, but as it is pricing usage of the roads in one sense – parking – I thought I would write about it, particularly since the system in place in San Francisco is so revolutionary.

SFPark intelligent meter

It is called SFPark, and according to the New York Times it is intended to reduce congestion by managing parking (and information about parking) through varying pricing. It is a trial, but what it offers is the opportunity to transform how parking is managed in central cities.

Its website is comprehensive, with lots of useful information, and says:

SFpark is testing its new parking management system at 7,000 of San Francisco’s 28,800 metered spaces and 12,250 spaces in 15 of 20 City-owned parking garages. The pilot phase of SFpark will run until summer 2012. Federal funding through the Department of Transportation’s Urban Partnership Program pays for 80 percent of the SFpark project.

The NYT says:

The approach is twofold: to change the price of a parking space according to demand and thereby keep spaces open on every block, and to lead drivers to open spaces using an array of sensors, eliminating congestion caused by circling drivers

Prices are able to be varied from US$0.25 to US$6 an hour, with typical prices being between US$2 and US$3.50. The obvious implication is that when times are quiet, parking is cheap which may encourage people to enter the city by car. When busy, the price will be high, dissuading driving, but still managing congestion by ensuring there is always a space free.

The technology involved is for sensors at the car parks that detect when they are occupied. Motorists can use the website or the iPhone app to find parks and their prices. They pay using coins, credit or debit cards.

Prices are only to change once a month, by small increments, so it is not as if it is real time – although it could be. I’d suggest it may make a lot of sense to vary pricing on a daily basis, with algorithms developed to match days of the week, public holidays and special events.

If successful, it is possible to see this sort of trial being rolled out elsewhere.

Clearly it has the great benefit of actively managing the parking stock and optimising revenue by matching prices to usage. It also reduces congestion in two ways. Firstly, by matching pricing to demand, it means that demand to use the adjacent roads will be (in part, because private parking and use of roads as through routes is not affected) influenced by the pricing of the parking. Secondly, by guaranteeing a minimum level of availability, cars will not need to drive around searching for parks. If motorists are willing to pay the demand based priced, they will get parks and can go to them directly, saving them time and reducing usage of the roads.

It is not a substitute for full road pricing, because clearly this solution is only going to be effective in busy commercial districts, and it will not relieve busy highways or arterials of traffic in itself. However, it does have the potential to make a real difference. It has the added value of not penalising the businesses located in the area, because pricing matches demand. Presumably, if parking is expensive, there are lots of people seeking to go the commercial district, likewise if there are not, it will be cheap, making it more attractive.

Could this be an easier first step for many cities rather than congestion charging, in order to simply get better use and revenue out of their parking stock, as well as having positive effects on congestion?


  1. Congestion pricing? SFpark uses the ENRON model for pricing. how did that work out for you last time? Residents across San Francisco say that the SFpark pilot is and epic failure! It's a disgrace that the SFpark program is based on media hype and artificially inflating consumer prices. Find out how San Francisco wasted 24 million dollars in taxpayer funds at, that's

    1. Yes that website says demand based pricing of parking is "fascism", which is about as real as saying free parking is "communism". I'm interested in independently sourced evaluation of the SF Park programme, not a conservative leftwing rant. Queuing as a form of resource allocation favours those for whom time has a low value, flat rate charging penalises those who only need to park at off peak times. There can be legitimate criticisms of parking policy (and a case can be made for residents to be able to purchase spaces for their own vehicles), but that website has a little of that largely drowned out by a partisan rant.