A New Hope for Free Market Environmentalists

Right now in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco a very interesting experiment is being carried out. About two weeks ago the San Fransisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) began installing new ‘SFpark‘ meters.

The meters are notable for many reasons, not the least of which is the technology. Not only are the meters able to accept cash and SFMTA cards, but also credit and debit cards. Hardly a unique feature, but one this occasional Chicago driver finds missing far too often. Here is where the unique begins. Sensors embedded in the street communicate with a data hub that tracks which spaces are open and which are filled.  SFpark plans to make this data available to drivers via online maps as well as San Francisco’s 511 (information) system, mobile devices, and text message. No word yet on how drivers will be able to access the information while driving under California’s stringent cell phone ban.

The real secret sauce, however, is the other use for SFpark’s sensor data – demand-responsive pricing. Rather than the current static pricing of $1.00 to $3.50 per hour, in the SFpark pilot areas rates will vary from between 25 cents to $6.00 per hour. The goal of the project is not to increase parking revenue, but to maintain 20% availability of parking spaces for both metered spaces and city owned garages.  By tracking parking use, SF parking will raise or lower prices to achieve the targeted availability. While meter rates will fluctuate by day and time of day, no one rate will be adjusted by more than 50 cents per hour and rate changes will be done no more often than once per month.  Rates at city garages will adjust more frequently to encourage use.

So, what’s the environmental benefit? According to data from SFMTA, circling for parking accounts for approximately 30% of city driving. Less city driving means less emissions.  Not only will drivers benefit from greater availability of parking spaces, but having access to parking availability and pricing data will help people make better decisions about whether to drive, walk, bike, or take public transportation – each of which helps reduce auto emissions.

Don’t look for these meters all over quite yet.  The initial pilot is scheduled for two years and will include Civic Center, the Financial District, SOMA, the Mission, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fillmore, and the Marina in addition to Hayes Valley mentioned above. The upgrades to make the dynamic pricing possible aren’t exactly cheap either. Cost to install and network the 5,100 meters for the pilot will run just south of $25 million.

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