Atlantic Cities

The End of the 30-Minute Parking Space Hunt

It’s a challenge faced by drivers around the world, whether they’re headed to a downtown meeting, running an errand, or going to a play in the heart of the metropolis: the seemingly endless circling and maneuvering to find an empty parking stall. In San Francisco, a new, federally-funded parking system is making national headlines as an environmentally sound way to ease the big-city headache of searching for the ever-elusive parking spot.

With the motto, “Circle less. Live more,” SFpark was launched in 2010 by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority as a pilot program designed to inform drivers in real-time of available parking spaces. The system uses wireless parking sensors and open-source software for mobile phone apps. In addition to the sensor technology, SFpark operates under the principle of demand-responsive pricing. Under this model, the parking rate in a given metropolitan zone is adjusted up or down based upon the demand for parking spaces. Parking rates for blocks that are mostly full go up, and emptier blocks see rates go down. The idea is that higher prices discourage drivers from parking in high-demand areas and incentivize them to park in lower-priced spaces. Rates are adjusted no more than once a month.
 
Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning, forms part of the academic advisory team for SFpark. Shoup was one of the early pioneers of demand-responsive pricing and authored a 750-page book on the subject, The High Cost of Free Parking, originally published in 2005 by the American Planning Association and reprinted in 2011. 
 
“When people look back 50 years from now,” said Shoup “they’ll see that one of the major benefits of getting the price of parking right was to reduce the carbon emissions from all of this cruising that’s going on all over the world.”
 
Anyone who has ever traveled to—or lived in—a major metropolitan city can attest to the universal frustration of circling city blocks in search of a place to park. In the 15-block Los Angeles neighborhood surrounding the ULCA campus, a year-long study conducted by Shoup found that 950,000 vehicle miles were driven in search of a parking space. “That’s four trips to the moon, or 36 trips around the earth,” Shoup said. Multiply that by hundreds of larger urban areas worldwide over decades, and the volume of carbon emissions is staggering. 
 
The environmental appeal of SFpark and the concept of demand-responsive pricing seem to be catching on abroad. City officials in Victoria, British Columbia report having implemented a similar model on a small scale, and their counterparts in the city of Kingston, Ontario, are considering it. Shoup’s 2007 article, “Cruising for Parking,” was translated into Chinese in January, as the world’s most populous nation seeks to address traffic congestion in its major metropolitan hubs.
 
How feasible would it be to export this technology to other cities? In Canada, some city transportation officials are concerned that extreme weather conditions would prevent the smart sensors from working properly. And in California, where a law prohibits the use of mobile phones while driving unless a hands-free device is used, some are worried that the system could lead to distracted driving. To address this concern, SFpark created a mobile app that issues a warning about the law when the vehicle is moving faster than 10 miles per hour.
 
Challenges aside, the benefits of a system like SFpark are profound. Available parking means local business owners benefit from more customers. Less traffic congestion from drivers searching for parking speeds up public transportation. And fewer cars circling to find a parking space equals less air pollution, an advantage that extends well beyond a single, bustling metropolis.
 
 
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