SFpark featured in the Chicago Tribune
Parking solutions don’t have to be taxing
San Francisco’s ‘smart parking’ experiment could offer model for Chicago
October 17, 2011
Jon Hilkevitch, The Chicago Tribune
Before rushing ahead with a weekday parking tax proposed last week for the downtown area, Chicago officials should closely study a new experiment on the West Coast, experts say.
Former Mayor Richard Daley had a habit of spotting innovative transportation ideas while visiting other cities — trolleys in San Francisco, bicycle-sharing in Paris, even magnetic levitation bullet trains in China — and trying, or at least thinking, about bringing them home.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel could borrow from Daley’s playbook to implement a much more effective parking strategy that promotes increased use of public transit and discourages unnecessary driving downtown on clogged streets also used by CTA buses, emergency vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.
San Francisco recently received a federal grant to test a robust variable-pricing plan at city-owned garages and meter spots in eight areas of the city. By using new parking technology and a flexible approach to pricing, the program is aimed at maximizing convenience for drivers while reducing pollution and attracting more people on to public transit and speeding up those trips.
The advanced parking-management system in the City by the Bay incorporates sensors under parking spaces that track when and where parking is available at 7,000 metered spaces and 15 city-owned parking garages. Real-time monitoring takes the guesswork out of finding parking.
Drivers can go online, use an app on their smartphones or use text messages to check rates and available parking at a location. Rates are driven by parking data with a goal of achieving the proper level of open parking, officials said. Rates vary by time, by weekdays versus Saturdays and by block.
Officials said the information will help people decide whether to drive, take public transit, bike or walk.
In the 2012 Chicago budget released last week, Emanuel proposed a “congestion premium” of $2 on every driver who parks in a public parking garage or lot on weekdays in downtown and in River North. Weekly parkers downtown who pay at least $60 at public garages and lots would face a congestion tax of $15 to $25, and the tax for monthly parkers who now pay $240 or more would range from $60 to $100.
It’s a simple concept designed to generate $28 million annually for the CTA, according to City Hall. Some of the money would be used to build a new CTA Green Line station on Cermak Road near McCormick Place. A bus rapid-transit circulator system serving the Loop is also envisioned. It would operate between Union Station, the Ogilvie Transportation Center, Millennium Park, Illinois Center and Navy Pier on dedicated bus-only lanes for part of the route.
But Chicago’s parking tax, as structured, would likely prove unpopular with many drivers who will see it as a move by the city to extract more money from people coming downtown to work and for entertainment.
The suspicion will be reinforced if the congestion tax on parkers fails to improve traffic, reduce double parking or cut down on drivers circling downtown blocks looking for on-street parking.
A genuine congestion-pricing component in which fees can be increased and decreased based on the supply and demand of parking would produce better results, experts said.
“I think it was a mistake for Chicago to privatize parking meters without including a flexible pricing goal in the contract,” said Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at UCLA and author of the book “The High Price of Free Parking,” which argues that public parking is generally underpriced and detrimental to cities.
“If the meter rate is too low, there are no empty spaces and people drive around creating an environmental mess,” Shoup said. “Meter rates that are too high contribute to cities losing jobs and businesses losing customers.”
The goal is to achieve an 85 percent occupancy rate for parking on streets, in garages and in lots, Shoup said. It’s the equivalent of about one vacant space on every block or on each section of a parking garage or parking lot, he said.
Under the San Francisco experiment, the price of parking will be adjusted every six weeks based on supply and demand, like a traded commodity, said Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The agency started the test program in April and will expand it later this year to allow drivers to pay for parking using their cellphones linked to a credit card.
In the first parking rate adjustment in August, more than two-thirds of the parking rates decreased or stayed the same, Rose said. The next rate adjustment is set for this month, he said.
Some parking rates will have decreased by as much as $1 by then, he said. Already, parking rates were increased in high-demand locations, he said.
“We’ve gotten positive feedback from drivers about congestion easing, the public transit system operating faster and the streets feeling safer,” Rose said. “Thirty-three percent of all congestion in San Francisco was due to double parking or drivers circling the block looking for parking.”
Parking prices around Fisherman’s Wharf have gone down on weekdays because of less demand for those spots than on weekends, Rose said.
Owners of retail stores and other businesses like the system because it promotes turnover of parking spaces so there are always some empty spots for customers, Rose said.
Some U.S. cities have introduced some elements of congestion pricing to better manage traffic. But San Francisco is believed to be the first to implement a full range of smart-parking management technology, Shoup said.
The pilot project will end next year. “The parking data we collect every six weeks will allow us to determine how and if we expand the program throughout the city,” Rose said.