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SFpark Releases Pilot Report, Considers Giving Revenue to Local Streets

SFpark cut car traffic by nearly 30 percent -- just one of the program's numerous benefits. Image: SFMTA
SFpark cut car traffic by 30 percent. Image: SFMTA

SFpark has released new comprehensive stats collected during its two-year pilot program phase, documenting the numerous benefits that it garnered by pricing parking according to demand. SFpark is being watched closely by cities around the world, since it's the first program to thoroughly test demand-based parking pricing principles first professed by UCLA's Donald Shoup. But the SFMTA hasn't yet adopted one of Shoup's key recommended strategies: Giving some of the revenue to local community benefit districts to help win support for parking meters.

An SFpark multi-space parking meter behind City Hall. Photo: SFpark

In the areas where SFpark was tested -- Civic Center, the Embarcadero, Downtown, the Mission, the Fillmore, the Marina, and Fisherman's Wharf -- the SFMTA found that SFpark resulted in cheaper parking prices overall, more readily available parking, many fewer parking citations, and much less time wasted by drivers circling around, looking for open parking spots:

  • Average on-street meter rates dropped by $0.11 per hour, or 4 percent;
  • Average garage rates dropped by $0.42 per hour, or 12 percent;
  • Target occupancy of 60-80 percent was met 31 percent more often;
  • Blocks were full (i.e., no available parking) 16 percent less often;
  • Average time spent searching for parking decreased by 5 minutes, or 43 percent;
  • Meter-related citations decreased by 23 percent; and
  • Vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions from cars circling for parking, decreased by 30 percent.

SFpark has been widely lauded wherever it has replaced existing, flat-rate parking meters, but it's a different story when it comes to expanding parking meters to new areas. Due to fierce neighborhood resistance, the agency abandoned its plans to install SFpark meters in Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, and watered down and delayed its plans in the northeast Mission. In each of these areas, street parking is mostly free and nearly saturated, with drivers circling for an average of 27 minutes during weekdays in the northeast Mission.

Sharing some meter revenue with neighborhoods could help debunk the prevailing assertion that parking meters are just a revenue ploy for Muni. But the SFMTA has never seriously considered the idea because, as then-SFMTA CEO Nat Ford put it to Streetsblog in 2010, "Our financial situation is so dire that I need to get every penny that we have."

But the SFMTA's current chief, Ed Reiskin, told Streetsblog yesterday that "it's something we're going to look at."

In SFpark areas, the time it took for drivers to find a parking spot was cut almost in half. Image: SFMTA
In SFpark areas, the time it took for drivers to find a parking spot was cut almost in half -- just one of the program's benefits. Image: SFMTA

Reiskin noted, however, that the agency would have to change a City Charter mandate that all parking meter revenue go towards Muni. "It's not something we're going to jump into lightly -- but we know that there's some empirical, or theoretical, support for that."

"It's a complicated issue when you start to Balkanize revenue," he added. "So we want to be very thoughtful about that."

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich said he's "glad to hear that SFMTA is finally open to returning a portion of the meter revenue to neighborhoods for local street improvements."

"Livable City has urged them to do that since variable pricing and Sunday meters were first discussed," he said. "The SFpark areas would all benefit from more investment in pedestrian and bicycle safety and amenities, improvements to transit access, and keeping neighborhood sidewalks safe, clean, well lit, and well landscaped."

In Old Pasadena, Los Angeles, parking meter decals let drivers know that their payments help improve and maintain local streets. Photo: mlinksva/Flickr

The SFMTA could certainly use all the help it can get in making parking meter expansions more palatable, given the political failure thus far of the SFMTA's attempts to expand its meter program without offering a revenue split to neighborhoods. The Board of Supervisors, catering to the free parking crowd, even gutted the SFMTA's ability to install new meters during its next five-year meter contract, and Mayor Ed Lee used his leverage over the SFMTA Board to undo Sunday parking metering.

It seems that there may always be a vocal minority who relentlessly clings to free parking, no matter how much data they're presented with that demonstrates SFpark's benefits. Unfortunately, they've recently been winning the fight against smarter parking management.

If there's any way to convince the opposition, it may be to hand over some of the revenue to Community Benefit Districts, which would yield more immediate, tangible results. Abstract citywide benefits like reduced traffic and pollution, or increased turnover for businesses, can usually be demonstrated only with numbers reported by a government agency, which doesn't seem to resonate well with those who can only remember digging for quarters at a meter.

That familiar refrain was echoed at the SFMTA's press briefing yesterday by KCBS reporter Barbara Taylor. She took several minutes to elaborate upon her perception that parking is still hard in SFpark areas, and that she's seen the SFMTA remove parking spaces for construction or for improvements like bike lanes. She said that she never sees meters that cost 25 cents per hour, and repeatedly asked where they are.

The 25 cent rate that Taylor sought out is the lowest rate SFpark meters run at, in locations (viewable on the SFpark website) and at times with low parking demand. According to SFpark manager Jay Primus, 17 percent of the program's meter hours run at that rate, whereas the top-end $6 per hour rate only applies during 1 percent of SFpark meter hours.

"Frankly, my anecdotal personal experiences run completely contrary to" the data, Taylor told Primus. "I shouldn't have to go on [the website] and do that, if you're making the claim that there are 25-cent meters."

Fortunately, Taylor didn't let her anecdotal parking experiences didn't keep her from filing an accurate report on SFpark's news.

Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA

All in all, there's something for everyone to love in SFpark's report. On average, motorists save five minutes every time they look for a parking space and, on average, pay 4 percent less. Sales tax revenues in SFPark commercial districts went up by more than in non-SFpark areas, although the report stops short of "confirming a causal relationship" between increased parking availability and increased business. "It stands to reason, we think, that making it easier to park will only support economic vitality," said Primus.

Double parking decreased by 22 percent in SFpark pilot areas, compared to a 5 percent drop in control areas. In areas that saw double parking decrease, Muni speeds increased by an average of 2.3 percent, and Primus noted that bike lanes were also made safer.

Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA

The SFMTA expects to propose a plan for SFpark's expanded operation in the fall. For now, the SFpark phone app and in-ground parking sensors have been turned off, though the agency still monitors parking occupancy through meter payments. The agency is also upgrading old flat-rate meters to digital ones that accept credit cards, though they don't have variable pricing.

Reiskin said the SFMTA is thinking carefully about how to communicate SFpark's benefits effectively.

"Things that the MTA has done with parking that people don't like have been seen as part of the SFpark umbrella," said Reiskin. "If we are going to expand it, I think we want to be very systematic and deliberative about how we go in and talk to a commercial area about it. [We will] make sure that before there's any knee-jerk reaction, that we get their understanding of what it is, and what the benefits could be."

Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA

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