April 08, 2011

Curb Appeal

An on-street parking spot is a veritable Holy Grail for drivers in bustling business districts. Metered rates are usually much cheaper than off-street garages—making the time wasted circling looking for a curbside spot well worth drivers’ time.  And shoppers often compete for space with shopkeepers who arrive early and can monopolize prime parking all day long, discouraging those wishing to run a quick errand.

Why is curbside parking so cheap? Many cities have decided (consciously or not) that that curbside spaces should be occupied 100% of the time (100% saturation). And at a basic level this makes sense, if you have space it should be put to use. But in reality this leads to over-saturation, which means cars circle looking for a space to free up, creating pollution; or double-park, creating potential safety risks.

Some cities are beginning to set new “performance targets” for their curbside parking (80% full is a common target).  They are using data to understand the effects of time of day and pricing on parkers, to ensure that spaces are more readily available, assuming parkers are willing to pay for this convenience.

Solar-powered SFpark parking meters are convenient, eco-friendly tools for parking payments.
Solar-powered SFpark parking meters are convenient, eco-friendly tools for parking payments.

The city of San Francisco recently started one of the most innovative reforms of this type. Through SFpark, which launched in the summer of 2010, the city has installed highly sensitive sensors at about a quarter of its on-street parking spaces that determine whether or not the space is currently available. The sensors send this information in to a central computer, which will make the data available to drivers in real time via sfpark.org, on-street signage and Smartphone applications. These figures not only cut the hassle of finding a spot and discourage illegal parking, but they also help the city assess parking demand in different neighborhoods at different times of day so the SFMTA can fluctuate prices accordingly. Now, meter rates range from as little as a quarter to as much as six dollars per hour depending on a space’s appeal, and the city can more effectively regulate occupancy and temper on-street parking demand.

PARK Smart meters in Park Slope have helped moderate parking demand and cut traffic caused by excessive circling.
PARK Smart meters in Park Slope have helped moderate parking demand and cut traffic caused by excessive circling.

The New York City Department of Transportation is also experimenting with performance-based parking pricing through its pilot PARK Smart program. PARK Smart increases the availability of short-term parking in commercial districts by increasing prices during peak hours of demand, encouraging drivers to park for shorter periods of time. Though it’s still in its beta stage, PARK Smart has successfully increased parking availability and decreased parking durations in a number of neighborhoods around the city. In Greenwich Village—with a $2 hourly increase from 12–4pm—occupancy during peak hours declined from 76% to 71%, and parking durations of less than an hour increased by 12 percentage points, while parking turnover increased and traffic flow improved dramatically in Park Slope as a result of a mere 75-cent increase in peak-hour rates.

Performance based parking can help reduce cruising for parking, double parking and free up curbside parking spaces for people looking to run quick errands, which can be beneficial for local businesses. Appropriate pricing can also provide a valuable nudge to drivers who have other options, leading to less congested and more pedestrian-friendly central business districts.

Read more case studies in our European and United States parking reports.

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