San Francisco tries to take the headache out of parking

A woman puts money into a parking meter in San Francisco.

Tess Vigeland: We've all been hhere, driving around the block for the 10th time, waiting for a spot to open up.

Laura Parr: I would sit there and I'd be like, "All right parking space, I know you're out there! Let's do it! We can do this!"

Looking for parking is pretty awful for everybody. But San Francisco is trying to change that with a new program called SFpark. The idea is for meter and garage rates to be based on demand. Popular blocks will cost more. Less-crowded ones will be cheaper. The question is whether the plan will actually change consumer parking behavior.

Casey Miner of station KALW has our story.


Casey Miner: When Laura Parr and her husband lived in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood, there was one ritual that defined their weekends. He'd drop her off...

Parr: ...With all of our bags of groceries and stuff, we would double park and take all the stuff into the front of our building, and he would take off to find parking.

This was not an easy task.

Parr: I would take all of our stuff upstairs, take a couple trips, I would unpack all of our groceries, I'd clean out the fridge, I'd fix dinner, I'd eat dinner, I'd put dinner away, I'd start getting ready for bed -- and Ian would still be driving around looking for parking.

Once, she says, he drove around for an hour and a half.

Parr: I think one time he cried, he was so upset, so stressed.

In crowded San Francisco, this is not an uncommon story. But now, as with so many things, there's an app for that.

Jay Primus: The goal is that most of the time someone's experience is that they can find a space within a block or two of their destination really quickly.

Meet Jay Primus. He's the manager of SFpark, the city's new effort to impose some reason on a highly emotional experience. Load up the SFpark smartphone app, and you'll see neighborhood maps colored red and blue. Blue blocks have plenty of parking; red ones, not so much. Blue blocks are also cheaper, sometimes by as much as 50 cents or a dollar. but they're also usually further away from places you might want to go. The city hopes the discount will make walking that extra block or two worthwhile.

Primus: It's a little bit like the Goldilocks principle. And in this case, that prices aren't too high or too low, that it's just about right for the demand that we see.

The info comes from data transmitted constantly by thousands of sensors embedded in the pavement around the city.

Primus: To actually see what's happening on the streets was kind of shocking in that there weren't necessarily the clear patterns you'd expect.

On a recent weekday, Primus and I took a walk around Civic Center to look at where people were parked and where they weren't.

Primus: Right now we're on Grove Street on the south side of City Hall looking at the parking spaces. Seeing the app is showing all red, and we're seeing only one parking space available out of about 20.

Some things about the data are obvious, like, you probably can't find parking in the Financial District during work hours. But the maps reveal a lot of little secrets too. Like, if you're looking to park downtown, you can almost always find a space right by City Hall.

Primus: And letting people know those secret spots -- or what were secret spots -- where parking really is available.

Looking at the data, it becomes clear pretty quickly that San Francisco's parking problem isn't availability -- it's distribution. People just don't always know where the empty spaces are.

Donald Shoup: It amounted to about a million miles of vehicle travel a year hunting for cheap curb parking.

Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at UCLA. He did a study (PDF) a while back about how much driving people did, just trying to find a parking space.

Shoup: That's 36 trips around the Earth, or four trips to the moon, in a little 15-block area. And I think it's happening all over the world.

Shoup did his study in Los Angeles and consulted with San Francisco on SFpark. He says a lot of what drives our behavior is habit and ignorance. That's why we need rewards.

Shoup: People have to know that it's cheaper three blocks away, that they can find a space three blocks away.

Even with information and price incentives, changing people's behavior isn't easy -- especially when that behavior doesn't make sense. The weirdest thing about Jay Primus's parking maps are the places where all logic seems to go out the window.

At an intersection near City Hall, one side of the street is almost always packed -- on the maps, totally red. But cross to the other side, and it's pretty much always empty -- on the maps, totally blue. Just to be clear, these blocks are right next to each other. So what's going on?

Primus: One block down is where the stores begin. Probably a lot more people want to start parking. So people probably want to get a little closer to their destination. This is a peak-period tow-away zone.

Primus listed a lot of reasons why people might not park on an empty block and they were little things. Like maybe the block becomes a no-parking zone for a few hours in the evening. Or the street goes from a two-way to a one-way, so it's sort of inconvenient to get to.

So will cheaper rates be enough to move people?

Primus: We're not trying to change the behavior of a lot of people. On that one block that's totally full, we just need two of those people to go somewhere else.

If the program works, Primus thinks it will make life better for everyone, especially people who get really worked up about parking, like Laura Parr. She and her husband now live in another neighborhood, where they have parking. But she says, she's still recovering from her years of circling the block.

Parr: It sounds crazy but you get to this point, and it's just this breaking point.

And at that point, paying a little extra for sanity might not be so bad.

In San Francisco, I'm Casey Miner for Marketplace Money.

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