San Francisco Launches Ambitious Parking Reform Program

2276908926_03b9c31df5.jpgSan Francisco is lunging out of the parking dark ages. Backed by the mayor and city council, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is launching "SFpark," a comprehensive, curbside parking reform project encompassing ten city neighborhoods.

Starting in September, the $23 million SFpark program will use an array of new policies and technologies to raise meter prices during peak periods, so as to make parking more easily available, thereby reducing rush hour driving, cruising for spaces and double parking. SFpark will include 6,435 curbside spots. This is a quarter of San Francisco's curbside parking, and is roughly comparable to the 6,500 metered curbside spots in Manhattan south of 60th Street. The project also includes variable pricing for the 11,677 off-street spots managed by the city.

According to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom,"The idea is to give people more choice, more convenience and to reduce congestion."

SFPark is a portion of San Francisco's Urban Partnership congestion pricing proposal to the USDOT. Though it will generate substantial revenue, the feds will pay $18 million of the start-up costs. SFpark is the parking component of an overall congestion reduction plan which also includes peak hour tolling near the Golden Gate Bridge, along with bus and other transit improvements. 

The underlying premise of SFpark is that the city wants to reduce driving, and will not attempt to do so by building more parking. Nor does the city want to suffer from parking shortages, manifested as double parking and congestion caused by cruising for spots. Instead, SFpark will raise meter prices so that demand is reduced to equal the existing parking supply. During peak periods, meters will be priced high enough to ensure some parking is always available. During off-peak times, meter prices will go down, so that most spots are used. The idea is that if you really have to drive, you shouldn't have to cruise around or risk a ticket. Along with an easier time finding parking during peaks, and lower prices when and where there is lower demand, other carrots for motorists include easing time limits during periods of low demand, enabling payment by cell phone, and delivering text messages to drivers when their meters are running out.

Historically, big city parking policies have been based on a mixture of political pandering, myths and half-truths. (New Yorkers can thank their City Council for the traffic congestion caused by eliminating Sunday metering, keeping meters artificially cheap, and limiting when meters are on and where they are located.) Curbside parking in San Francisco is notoriously scarce and a big political issue. But unlike New York City, SFpark shows that San Francisco actually has the political will to do something about the problem.

SFpark is a big experiment. Extensive data will be collected to form accurate conclusions regarding policies and technologies. Different neighborhoods will be used to test different measures, while some will be "control areas" where parking rates and rules will remain the same. At the conclusion of a one-year trial period, San Francisco will assess what worked and what didn't. Aspects that worked, which project designers are confident will include some forms of variable pricing, will be kept and applied across the city. The results will be closely watched elsewhere, since no other large U.S. city is doing anything remotely as ambitious or intelligent.

Politically, it will be fascinating to see how one of the most progressive cities in the country addresses the real and imaginary issues raised by making motorists pay a more realistic price for the public space they use.

Photo: albeeeezy/Flickr