New Video Sim Bets San Franciscans Will *Heart* SFPark

In a refreshing turn, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni and manages the streets of San Francisco, has produced an informative and whimsical animated short explaining how their dynamic parking management pilot, SFPark, will work.

Unlike the maddeningly obtuse SFMTA website, the video (and pretty much everything else about the website) uses a cute Sim-City aesthetic to explain an otherwise wonky parking policy. It’s an interesting approach to take with complicated material, but I think the video does a great job of demonstrating how the system should work, and it does so in just under three minutes.

After covering this beat for over a year and a half, I also learned a few things. For instance, most people don’t realize the cost of parking could come down if demand is anemic in a particular area, but I didn’t realize the price could theoretically go as low as $.25/hour if the demand requires it. If the good parking managers at the SFMTA are looking to blunt possible public criticism, I think they will do well to highlight the fact that rates can decline.

Parking guru Donald Shoup already picked up on the sim and tweeted it to his followers, calling it a "great new video."

Will something as cute as this do anything to ameliorate the visceral rage parking meters inspire in many drivers? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

  • kwk

    The people that are going to “heart” this are the 9-to-5 workers who drive from say Upper Market to their jobs and can park for free all day at a meter because of their handicap placard.

  • patrick

    @kwk, they already do that, so there’s no change there.

  • patrick

    And I think once people get used to it, they will be very pleased by it. Especially the ability to pay by credit card and the extended time limits. I pointed that out to my wife and she was quite happy to hear about that.

  • @kwk – or drivers who circle the block looking for parking. Street parking is a precious commodity in this city and this will help get market value for those spaces while providing 85-90% occupancy. This 85-90% occupancy will in turn provide a steady flow of customers to the nearby businesses. Also, drivers will be able to park longer so those dinner and a movie dates won’t have to be cut short.

    I’m failing to see a big negative in this expect that driver’s don’t want to pay more to park. And that argument holds no water as free (or extremely cheap) street parking only leads to a lack of turnover.

  • Interesting! Do we know who actually produced the video? Assume it’s not within the SFMTA’s in-house capacity.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I am a pretty good critic of transportation video productions. And I can say quite clearly that I *heart* this video!

  • Ben Fried

    NYCDOT’s ParkSmart people need to hire whoever did this.

  • Hey Ben,
    It was made by Words Pictures Ideas, which has also done a lot of the branding for the new Bay Bridge and the Presidio Parkway/Doyle Drive projects.

    I don’t know if they bid on projects outside of the Bay Area…

  • I have no idea how high the demand for parking may be in San Francisco. Here in Manhattan a parking space may only remain empty for the time it takes one car to pull out, and the next car to back in. Even if the space registered as available on computers or even cell phone apps, it would be taken long before the parking space seeker could arrive at that location.

    Then what happens with an early morning driver who secures a low cost space at 25¢ per hour and leaves his car in the same space all day, as the rate goes up. Would he be charged the variable rate or is the low rate special be good as long as that car remains in the space? I can just imagine subsequent cars trying to move into the same lost cost space without tripping the sensor.

  • patrick


    the sensor is to determine the level of occupancy, not notify people of a certain space being available. The driver can check the price for the time they want to park, not find if there’s available.

    Regarding the spaces being immediately taken, under this proposal that means the meter rate is too low, as the goal is to maintain an average of 1 unoccupied space on every block. So if a space is immediately taken, meaning there are never any available spaces, the meter rate will be raised by 50 cents at the end of the month, and keep going up until there is an average of 1 space available.

    Regarding you last question, I would assume the parker would have to pay the future rate for the time they want, but I could be wrong about that.

  • This program involves charging market rates for public resources used in conjunction with the operation of private automobiles. They’re going to hate it.

  • A little information from the SFpark team:

    @stacy, we will provide parking availability information on the blockface level rather than by individual parking space, in part due to the very issues you bring up. Also, a driver will pay the rates that apply throughout the time the car is in a space– she or he will not get locked into one rate.

  • icarus12

    I love the idea, but then, I can pay almost any rate to park if I have to. People with less disposable income (like me until about 6 years ago) are apprehensive about these changes in parking rates, especially if they start parking at one rate and come back to find the rate jumped a lot higher during the course of a few hours. It’s going to take some personal adjustments for people to figure out what works for them — driving, walking, sticking close to home, going far, etc.

    Again, I think parking should be price-sensitive, but I truly hope the City marks rates to create that 85% full/15% open situation, rather than using these new meters as a free-for-all revenue tool. That’s why drivers currently hate the Parking Authority so bad — it’s seen as a tool of a greedy city government rather than as a force for good management of a scarce resource. And I believe strongly that right now that negative view of greedy government is extremely accurate.

  • Sam

    Wait a second– rates won’t vary throughout the day. Rates will vary from month-to-month. So, at the end of September, if the data shows that there weren’t enough open parking spaces on a given block, the parking rate will rise by 50 cents for the month of October. Repeat the process in November and until the equilibrium of price + parking availability is met. (Conversely, if there were many open parking spaces on a block in October, the price of parking will go down by 50.)

    My sense is that this project’s aim is to encourage people to realize that driving and parking in crowded places has societal impacts that aren’t reflected in the current meter prices. It’s like how your insurance company asks to you make a higher co-pay for the brand-name prescription vs. the generic prescription. Although both options are still affordable for most people (and I understand that some people will not be able to afford the increases in parking fees), it’s enough of a difference to make people stop and think about the impacts of their choices.

    I’m really excited to see this happen, and I *love* this video.

  • patrick


    my understanding is that rates will vary by time, so you may have different rates at different times of day, but they will only change (increase or decrease) the rates once a month, by no more than 50 cents a month.

    I could be wrong, but I hope not, because it makes just as much sense to vary the rates by the time of day as it does to vary them from month to month. It’s all about supply & demand.

  • BCon

    @icarus12: The rate wouldn’t jump in the course of a few hours. The parking data is examined, and if it’s found that there is very high demand on a particular block/area, then they raise the rate in that area by 50 cents at the end of the month. They keep raising the rate once a month by 50 cents at a time until there is regularly one space available on that block. Same goes for under-utilized spaces; Prices would be lowered on a monthly bases until more of the spaces are being used, or until the price bottoms out, whichever comes first.

    I don’t know why any drivers would be against this program. Yes, sometimes you’ll pay a few dollars more an hour for spaces than what you pay now, but you’ll also often pay significantly LESS. It all depends on demand. It’s also much easier to pay, now that you’ll have the option to pay with a credit/check cards, and won’t have to carry around change… and you’ll have longer time limits.

    The only downside I can see is that it might actually encourage more people to drive to their destinations, knowing that it’ll be easier/more convenient to find parking, which seems to put cars first, rather than transit first (aside from the benefits of less people circling the block or blocking transit/bike lanes).

    On the other hand, the more efficiently we can manage our parking spaces, the less of them we need… and if this is successful, maybe it would make it easier to remove parking spaces to make way for additional bike lanes, transit lanes, bike parking, and street calming treatments, which would in turn make alternate transit options more efficient and inviting, getting more people out of their cars, and reducing the need for parking… then before you know it, we’re the next Copenhagen!

    Well, a boy can dream.

  • Alias

    Time saved searching for a space is worth much more than the price of a guaranteed space within a block of my destination.

  • JK

    Great video. We need the NYC version. SF Park should have pay-by-phone (txt)available for every parking spot. This should be an integral part of promoting the project. Motorists see value in pay-by-phone, and the experience in Miami is they are willing to pay a premium for that value. Shoup talks about “revenue return” or a specific benefit to overcome the opposition to parking cost hikes. The specific benefit can be offered to motorists in the form of a perceived amenity (paybyphone)rather than revenue/services to neighborhoods — which is just not going to happen in big cities in which parking revenue goes to a general fund.

  • CBrinkman

    I like the video, it’s very non-threatening and appealing. Very Sim City. It is going to be so interesting to see how this works out. High hopes.

  • MRN

    Reaction to parking pricing varies and isn’t always reflected in occupancy/availability. Even with automatic recording from the parking sensors, they’ll have a difficult time doing monitoring and adjustments on their 1-month turnaround schedule, especially given that they’re planning on adjusting rates at the block-by-block level and incorporating both time of day and day of week adjustments. Lord help them.

  • Joseph E

    Great video!

    San Francisco’s plan looks great from down here (Long Beach). We hardly charge for parking at all in this town, even where street spaces are packed all day long.

    Will part of the parking meter revenue be returned to the neighborhoods, to improve sidewalks, transit service, clean the streets, plant trees or whatnot? If the revenue is seen as benefiting the effected neighborhoods I think this plan will prove very popular, if it is also successful at keeping 1 or 2 parking spaces available on every block.

  • thfs

    Looking beyond the great program outlined by the video, did anyone think the tone of it was a little Orwellian?

  • Craig

    I’m skeptical. Market pricing really only works if people are aware of the price before deciding to “buy.” If I arrive to an area with a high price, I still need a place to park. I guess next time I might decide to take the bus. Maybe there are enough repeat customers on a particular block to affect the number of people wanting a parking space. Maybe not. Basically, if it works, this will squeeze more people who are price-sensitive onto public transportation, making that more crowded, and freeing up parking spaces for rich people. Fantastic.

  • zach

    Is there a way for a driver to know the rate on a particular block as he drives by? Big changeable signs on each block displaying that month’s rate? The internet/smartphone thing is asking too much for occasional drivers, and we don’t want people double parking on every block while they walk up to a meter and check the rate.

    If the rates only go up and down in large increments, I imagine a color coded sign system, whereby $1 an hour parking is say red, $2 is yellow, $3 is blue, etc, so as to be read at a quick glance.

    Great sim otherwise, and a great innovation.

    Another innovation that would help here is smaller dollar and quarter coins (and elimination of smaller value coins), but that’s a much bigger issue.

  • JK

    #23. Nope. Peak period meter pricing works even when many of the motorists aren’t aware of the change. Take a look at NYC DOT’s 6 month Park Smart pilot in Greenwich Village, which was carefully documented. There, the number of motorists parking for under an hour increased by 25%, from 48% to 60% when peak hour rates went into effect. The interesting thing is that only 48% of motorists surveyed said they were aware of the new meter rates, and only 18% said it affected the length of time they parked.

  • EL

    I think kwk has a point about disabled placards. Variable pricing will not affect placard users, which means that those who do pay get penalized (more than they do now) because the rates will likely increase – more so as the use of disabled placards continues to increase. There are also blocks in SF where there are so many placards, SFpark can charge $50 an hour and they won’t see a single dime.

    I also question some motives of SFpark. If there are locations in the City where you need to charge just 25 cents an hour to get someone to park there, maybe that’s a location where there shouldn’t be a meter to begin with, or possibly a location where there are no parking problems to solve.

  • Brian H.

    Waste of federal money.

    Eliminating the insanely abused free, UNLIMITED meter parking by disabled plates/placards would do much more to benefit SF than this $20 million show.

    You can charge whatever rate you want, but when 10% of motorists don’t have to pay anything at any rate, they will take the majority of the time.


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