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Prices affect parking less than San Francisco expected

Perfomance parking has not has as big an impact as was expected in San Francisco. Even with high rates, popular blocks still fill up, and other blocks remain under-filled even at low prices.
SFPark is an innovative, federally-supported performance parking pilot program. But it will adjust meter rates in its seven pilot areas this monththe third adjustment since the program's launch in 2010.

Each time San Francisco has adjusted the rates, the spread between the least expensive and the most expensive blocks has increased. After this latest adjustment, parking rates will vary from a low of $0.75 up to $4.25/hr. To date, the most crowded blocks have typically continued to be crowded even after adjusting the prices upward, while under-occupied blocks have not filled up even after dropping the price.

If the pricing spread continues to widen, parking on some blocks in San Francisco will be a considerable bargain compared to spaces even one block away. One particular block in the Civic Center area is $0.75/hr while the next block is $3.25/hr until noon, and then $3.75/hr from noon until 3pm.

At Fisherman's Wharf, parking can range from $1.50/hr to $2.75/hr within a few blocks as proximity to the tourist attractions in the North increases. In the Marina area, a one-block difference could mean paying $1.50 more for an hour of parking.

Even these steep price differences don't seem to be causing the cheaper blocks to fill up. Blocks in the program that end up below their target occupancy will again have their prices reduced during the next round of adjustments.

San Francisco is collecting data about congestion relief in the areas targeted in the SFPark program. It appears we've learned several lessons already.

This performance parking experiment is demonstrating that on high-demand blocks, drivers are very insensitive to price increases. The experiment is also showing that parking demand is highly localized, with price differences of as much as 100% continuing even through two adjustment cycles.

On the other hand, there's still more to learn.

Even if blocks are missing their target occupancy, performance parking could still be having a positive effect. Are the prices leading to a higher turnover in available spaces? And if so, are the available spaces leading to a reduction in drivers hunting for parking, as the theory suggests?

Are there other factors that could be influencing the success of the program at changing parking demand, such as the size of the pilot zones or their proximity to non-pilot zone areas? Or do city administrators and performance parking advocates need to fundamentally reexamine assumptions about performance parking systems?

According to project advisor Donald Shoup, the project report will answer these questions later next year. The things planners learn in San Francisco could have a big impact on the way we think about and design parking and parking policy.
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