Donald Shoup Calls San Francisco Parking Meter Study “Pathbreaking”
With the debate about parking meter rates and hours raging on both sides of the Bay, Streetsblog called UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking and arguably the world’s foremost parking expert, and asked him his opinion on the new San Francisco MTA parking meter study, which was released on Tuesday and calls for increasing meter hours in commercial districts where parking occupancy rises above 85 percent and where businesses are open late on weekdays and on Sundays.
Professor Shoup had read the study and called it "pathbreaking," lauding the MTA for being thorough and data-driven and for embracing occupancy targets for managing parking supply.
Professor Shoup also re-iterated the importance of Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) as a tool for selling parking reform to the public. In CBDs, a portion of the new meter revenue collected in commercial districts is returned to that district for sidewalk repair, street trees, enhanced street cleaning, etc., so that businesses can see firsthand how parking revenue improves their streets.
MTA Chief Nat Ford told Streetsblog his agency is not yet ready to have that discussion, and further complications arise because the Department of Public Works is responsible for maintaining sidewalks. How and when an arrangement between the two agencies would be brokered is anyone’s guess.
Professor Shoup also pointed to Redwood City, Ventura, and Old Pasadena for best practice examples of occupancy-based parking policy changes that have revitalized neighborhoods and facilitated business. Read his full comments after the jump.
What do you think about the public backlash when the City of Oakland raised meter rates and extended meter times citywide?
Well, I hope that Oakland hasn’t poisoned the well for parking reform. I think their ham-handed approach caused a lot of horror. They simply raised prices citywide without any explanation of what the principles used for pricing were. I think that San Francisco’s policy is far more sophisticated, user friendly, and well thought out. I think there’s no comparison between what Oakland did and the fiasco that followed and what San Francisco is doing.
Were you surprised at how upset people were in Oakland?
Well, no. Some of the same thing happened in LA. They upped the price citywide by a minimum of one dollar and extended some hours and they thought people would simply assume it was a good idea. I think they should tailor parking prices very carefully to the time and the place and not have a citywide blanket ordinance saying we’re going to raise everything everywhere.
What are your impressions of the MTA’s new parking meter study?
It’s pathbreaking. There’s never been anything like it anywhere before. I think they’ve done the right thing to say, ‘we’re aiming for an occupancy rate.’ You want the spaces to be well used, but readily available. Well used means almost full, but readily available means not quite full. You have to be very careful to make sure you get that right. They’re willing to adjust it if they get it wrong. I think the right price for parking is sort of like the Supreme Court’s definition for pornography: I know it when I see it. There’s no way to say the price is right except by looking at the result and San Francisco is committed to change the price wherever they get it wrong.
I think they did it with a very careful goal in mind and that is: set
the lowest possible price they could charge and still have spaces
available on every block. So that’s different prices at different
times of the day and at different locations, but I think if they aim for
this policy, if they’ve chosen the lowest price they can charge and
still have available spaces, it means if they go any lower, all the
spaces will be filled and people will say there’s no place to park. And if they go higher than that, there will be a lot of vacant spaces. Some of the supply will be mismanaged.
How important are Community Benefit Districts for selling parking reform to the public?
Well, I think it is the key to getting political support. As you probably know, Redwood City has this policy and Ventura in Southern California, they just started it. From the merchants’ point of view, they think that the revenue return is the most important part of the entire policy. They realize that it’s going to cut down on cruising and maybe greenhouse gas emissions, but the important thing to them is seeing improvements right in front of their businesses. Without that it seems to be hard to support the idea.
It’s also true in Washington DC. They installed it around a new ballpark and they returned 75 percent of the revenue to the metered districts. And this can be for transportation improvements. I think that something visible and sharing with the community is very important. If they don’t do that it’s hard to show and prove and have pictures of the benefits.
I think it’s important for getting people to understand the workings of the program. I don’t think the community benefit district will change anything about the right price for parking. I do, however, think they will make the policies seem much more reasonable to everybody. If they use the money to make sidewalk improvements, one of the most important transportation pieces of infrastructure in San Francisco. I think the sidewalks are almost as important as the bus system. If they said we’ll use some of the money to improve the sidewalks and the streetscapes on the metered streets, everybody would see that the city is giving back something and not just taking. I think if you give back something that’s very visible and very valuable, the metered communities will see the benefits right in front of their eyes. Everybody wants better bus service and more frequent bus service, but that’s hard to see, especially if you’re a struggling merchant. I think that it’s easy to see very clean sidewalks, very well-policed sidewalks in front of your restaurant, rapid responses to any cracks in your sidewalks, maybe much more frequent cleaning.
Some businesses complain that extending meter hours or raising
rates will drive customers away, that they’ll go to suburban malls
where parking is plentiful and free. How do you contend with that
You have to emphasize that the pricing is to keep the
spaces almost entirely, but not quite, full. So you can’t say the
people are being chased away if almost all the spaces are full almost
all of the time. You just wonder, where are they being chased? For
the businesses, the important thing is that people are being chased
away because the spaces will be occupied, but they will be occupied by
people who will be willing to pay for parking if they can easily find a
If I were a waiter working in a restaurant, who do you think
would leave a bigger tip, someone who will come only if they can find a
free parking space after they have driven around long enough to find
it, or someone that who is willing to pay for parking if they can
easily find a space? I think the person that is willing to pay
for parking is more willing to leave a bigger tip or pay more at a
store or bring more business to the area than somebody who wants to be
a freeloader and just won’t come to your neighborhood unless they can
get free parking. When you think about it, the kind of customers
you’re going to get is probably a little bit more free-spending if they
can easily find a space and they’re willing to pay for parking.
terms of the economics of it, Old Pasadena simply took off economically
the year they installed meters. The sales-tax revenue is about six
times higher than it was when they put in the meters in 1992. That is
because, at least in Old Pasadena, the meter money has greatly improved
the public infrastructure of that neighborhood. In San Francisco,
they’re talking about using most of the money for public transit, so
there won’t be the physical improvements. You’re probably attracting a
more free-spending group of customers and maybe more carpools, because
they’ll be splitting the cost of the curb parking. Maybe two dollars
an hour won’t seem like such a punitive payment if there are four
people in the car and they’re staying in an area for four hours. The
solo driver will object to paying for parking. But if I were a business
person, I’d rather see the cars arriving with four people in them
rather than one.
What should San Francisco, or any city trying to reform parking policy, do about time limits?
The other thing I think that San Francisco is doing and that Redwood City did and that Ventura has done is eliminate any time limits on the meters. They removed the time limits and they rely on pricing to create turnover and vacancies and this has been the most popular part of the policy in Redwood City. People now don’t have to worry — a driver and three friends want to go for dinner some place and they park — they don’t have to worry that they have to get back to their meter in an hour or two hours. Whatever they’re doing, they don’t feel like they’re pushed around so much by the city. It still creates a lot of turnover because the price is higher, but the user is more in control of their life than when somebody who manages meters says you can only stay here for an hour or two hours.
The advantage of using prices to manage parking is that you don’t need to have these arbitrary time limits. I think when people say they’re going to run meters in the evening, it seems ridiculous because people want to park once and walk around for the evening. Turnover is not important for that, but pricing is important to make sure that some of the spaces remain available. So I would say that whenever you talk about running the meters in the evening, you have to say there’s no time limit on them. You can put enough money in to stay for the entire evening, park once and go to dinner, a movie, a bar, and then walk around for as long as you want. You have to break this automatic assumption that a meter means that you have to leave in an hour or two hours.
If you were the head of the MTA, what would you do with the study, how would you adjust the meters?
don’t think you want someone from Los Angeles telling you [what to do
in San Francisco].
What does seem to be happening in San Francisco is
the MTA itself seems to be like the revenue recipient who has a
political incentive to set the meter rates higher. They act like
businesses in smaller areas, in the sense that they’re the political
force behind this. They’re like a big interest group who happens to
receive the revenue. I think it’s because of the fact that the MTA
gets the revenue that this whole thing is happening. Somebody who is
politically powerful and has a legitimate claim on the revenue and they
use it for very valuable purposes and they want the money. So I think
it’s worked out fairly well in San Francisco. If the meter money went
into the general fund, rather than the MTA, I don’t think we’d be
having this conversation.
I think they should run [the meters]
until there’s no need to run them. Some places they might have to run 24-hours a day if the spaces would be full otherwise. But they should be the lowest price they can charge and
they should eliminate the time limits. If at 3 am, all the spaces are
full, the price is too low. But if at eight in the morning three
quarters of the spaces are empty, the price is too high. I don’t think
anybody should say it will stop at midnight or it will stop at 10 or 9
or 8. It just depends on what happens if you stop charging. As you
know, it’s a mess in San Francisco, the traffic is congealed with cars
circling the blocks in some parts of the city.
In the MTA study, during metered hours, Columbus Avenue had
71-81 percent occupancy. Does that mean the meter prices are too high?
Yes, I think it’s quite common for meter prices to be too high,
especially in the morning. Definitely on some days and at some hours
the prices will definitely come down.
Is 85 percent occupancy target a firm benchmark? Are there situations where you want more or less occupancy?
Well, it’s short-hand. It just means you shouldn’t have too much of an
hour that is totally full. You shouldn’t have much of an hour that is
less than 70 percent, but somewhere around 85 percent. Sometimes it’s
going to be higher and sometimes its going to be absolutely full. What
you’ll see is variation around 85 percent, but I think what you mainly
want is to make sure it isn’t full more than 10 or 15 minutes out of