San Francisco launched the world’s most innovative parking pilot today, a federally-funded trial that promises to revolutionize the way cities manage and price metered curb parking. SFPark  will make it easier for motorists to find spaces in busy commercial districts, while reducing congestion, speeding Muni, and improving air quality and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The milestone for SFPark was celebrated at a packed press conference in the North Light Court at City Hall this morning. SFMTA Chief Nat Ford was joined by Mayor Ed Lee, parking guru and UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, and other dignitaries to announce the SFPark iPhone application and real-time parking availability data.
The demand-based parking pilot is being implemented  over the coming months, covering 7,000 of the city’s 28,800 metered spaces and 12,250 garage spaces. Drivers, thanks to street sensors, or magnetometers , will be able to check their iPhone application (an app will be available for Android in the coming weeks), or computer, to get real-time data on the availability and cost of parking spaces in 15 commercial districts.
“How many of you have been dumb in your past? How many you have acted dumb? I know I have,” said Mayor Lee. “You know, when you’re driving around looking for a parking space and you’re double parking and you’re running around trying to see whether something will open, you’re dumb.”
“We want to be less dumb about this, and that’s why I’m so happy to launch today’s pilot program, SFPark,” Lee said. “That’s going to be our San Francisco version of congestion pricing.”
Lee said that parking meter translated in Chinese as “the lion machine,” and in Chinese culture “when you are confronted with a lion, the lion eats you.” Because of SFPark, he said, parking meters will be “less of a beast,” and drivers will be so happy they found a spot “you’ll want to Tweet it out.”
“SFPark creates a perfect marriage of technology, real-time information and pricing to make it easier for people to park here in downtown San Francisco,” said Federal Highway Administration Deputy Director Greg Nadeau. “This is not just about technology or pricing. It’s about making it easier to park in a major city and all the benefits that flow from addressing that one issue.”
Nadeau said the federal government was happy to award a $20 million grant to make SFPark happen, and that it was consistent with the livability goals of the U.S. Department of Transportation, led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“I’m so glad that we’re welcoming your not ordinary smart meter into San Francisco. Finally we have a smart meter that doesn’t cause headaches, it actually helps them,” joked Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the chair of the San Francisco Transportation Authority Board, in reference to the turmoil over PG&E’s electricity smart meters. “There are over 200,000 vehicles that enter San Francisco’s borders every single day and it’s incumbent upon us to do everything that we can to try to alleviate that congestion.”
Professor Shoup said the central idea behind SFPark is that you can’t set the right price  for curb parking without first knowing how people are using that parking.
“SFPark sets a clear principle for setting the prices for curb parking, the lowest price the city can charge without creating a shortage. So, the right price for curb parking in San Francisco is rather like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it.”
He pointed out that thirty percent of San Francisco households don’t own a car and the city uses parking meter revenue to subsidize Muni. Oftentimes, transit riders “are mired in traffic congested by richer drivers who are cruising for under-priced curb parking.”
“You pay every time you board a bus and that makes you think about whether you want to ride the bus. If you also pay the market price for curb parking every time you pull into a space it will also make you think about whether you want to drive,” Shoup told the crowd, adding that SFPark has the potential to tame the politics surrounding parking because “wanting more money will no longer justify raising the price of parking.”
Today’s City Hall event marked the culmination of years of work by the SFMTA on the project, which initially faced a wave of resistance, and now enjoys the full support of the city’s political establishment. SFMTA staffers, led by SFPark Manager Jay Primus and SFMTA CFO Sonali Bose, worked tirelessly over the past three years conducting outreach to elected officials, merchants and neighborhood groups.
“The people who are working on SFPark are the smartest and most talented and most overworked civil servants I have ever met,” said Shoup. “If SFPark is a success, it will be in large part due to the heroic determination to make it work here.”
And if it doesn’t work?
“Well, then you can always blame it on a dumb professor from Los Angeles,” Shoup said.