Getting parking prices right in Californian cities, big and small. More insights from Patrick Siegman.

The latest episode of Reinventing Parking features more from my conversation with Patrick Siegman, transportation planner and economist and founding principal of Siegman and Associates. Check out the previous conversation here

This time we discussed on-street parking fee success stories in two California cities. 

Scroll down for some highlights or listen with the player below.  

A lightly edited version of this episode with Patrick Siegman

We talked about a large one, San Francisco and one small one, Ventura. Both stories should be helpful for other cities everywhere.  

San Francisco's SFPark is not dead. It is now simply how the city prices parking (demand-responsive parking pricing) 

San Francisco demand-responsive parking price setting

I started by asking if Nelson Nygard, Patrick’s former firm, had been involved in San Francisco’s demand-based parking price setting system that began as the SFPark pilot

Patrick Siegman  1:17  
We were. But most of the credit goes to the city staff who did a really excellent job in implementing it. The manager of the SFPark program, Jay Primus the original manager, was actually a Nelson/Nygaard employee before he joined the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. 

San Francisco uses the Donald Shoup recommended way to price on-street parking

Paul Barter  1:43  
Just to clarify, SFPark was really the pioneering implementation of Donald Shoup's demand-based price setting where you set the price in a sort of trial and error way. If the parking is too full, the price goes up, if the parking is too empty, the price goes down. And if it's just right, it stays the same. This was in pilot districts initially, and now it's extended to the whole of San Francisco. 

But I see some misunderstandings sometimes that San Francisco abandoned that system.

Patrick Siegman  2:20  
This program was indeed one of the pioneering programs. It wasn't the first but it was one of the largest, one of the best documented, and one of the most comprehensive and advanced implementations. 

Essentially, for those who aren't familiar with the theory of pricing curb parking, Donald Shoup has long suggested that the best price for parking is the lowest price that gets you about one or two empty spaces on each block so that they're well used but readily available, so that it's easy to find parking on every block. 

You just adjust prices regularly on each block, and you can also adjust them by time of day, until you get to the lowest price that, for that block and that time of day, results in one or two empty spaces. At that point you've got the right price. 

Then you keep checking occupancy regularly. If conditions change, you can raise or lower the price. If it's too full, you raise the price, say by 25 cents an hour. And if it’s too empty you lower the price. 

In San Francisco, doing this has worked out very well. It's been extremely popular. And it continues to operate. Actually, it's being expanded. 

The original program was for several city owned garages and and several pilot project areas. There were other areas that were metered but were left as control areas where the old prices were left in place so that we could get a clear comparison between the two. 

Now it's been extended to all 28,000 metered curb parking spaces in the city. It's in effect in every one of the metered parking spaces, but it doesn't apply to the other curb parking spaces that are either just uncontrolled or else managed with residential parking permits. But it still covers a lot of the city.

Paul Barter  4:18  
I think the misunderstanding arises maybe because the early program, which was supported by federal funding, involved lots of sensors embedded in the street, ended. And the new approach is using a lower tech approach to monitor occupancy. So the misunderstanding is that they abandoned the program. But actually they're still doing it! They just monitor occupancy in a smarter way.

Patrick Siegman  4:41  
Exactly. The original program was funded by a large federal grant that helped buy San Francisco a lot of new parking meters, buy and test the occupancy sensors and build a new back end computer software system to manage it all.

Demand-based parking reduces the political cost of on-street parking fees

Paul Barter  5:00  
You said that the program was actually popular. That might surprise some listeners. How can parking pricing be popular? But just to clarify, this is curbside spaces that were already priced and by changing the way the prices were set, you're saying that was popular?

Patrick Siegman  5:14  
It was! And it's remarkable. When it first began, there was some controversy. The city, though, was carefully gathering data. They had to gather data on the program in order to meet the conditions of the federal grant. And there were academics, carefully studying the data and the outcome. So there are a number of papers out there on the results of the pilot. 

People had feared that this was going to result in much higher parking prices in many places, or they had feared that all of the customers would be chased away. 

But what they actually found was that after the prices had had some time to adjust, several months into the program, the average hourly parking rate had gone down. It was actually slightly cheaper to park both on street and also in the city’s off-street garages that were included in the program. 

There were a couple of reasons for that. First, there were some parking meters that were in outlying areas. Because they were previously priced at a uniform price that was the same as parking rates all around the city, those parking spaces had been woefully underutilized. They were the kind of parking spaces where the only real demand for them was people who wanted to park all day long, who worked a few blocks away. So under SFPark, the situation for those meters was that the price went down and the time limits on those meters were extended to eight hours (so their time limits were virtually eliminated). People started using these spaces to park all day. So even though the rate was cheaper, the city actually made more money on those meters. 

Second, there were a lot of other meters where it turned out that because a lot of stores and restaurants don't open until at least 11am or noon, the rates were too high in the morning. But they were often too low at lunch, the busy lunch rush, and they were often a little low or or about right in the afternoon. And then they were again too low in the evenings in a lot of the restaurant and nightclub and theater districts. So what happened is that parking rates went down in the morning in a lot of places and up at lunchtime and dinnertime. But on average, it got cheaper.

Paul Barter  7:52  
Presumably parking frustrations were reduced, since it was now easier to find a park.

Patrick Siegman  7:58  
It really was remarkable.  The control areas were compared to the pilot project areas in terms of how long it took to find parking by searching for it by driving around on the street. They did what are called ‘parking visit tests’. Basically you would drive to a destination and then from that destination start looking for a parking space. So for example, trying to find parking in Union Square at lunchtime, the before time in the pilot project areas was eleven and a half minutes, but the after time was six and a half minutes. So it was about a 43% decrease. By contrast, there was basically no change in the control areas. 

Paul Barter  8:55  
One other thing I think you were about to mention was the ratio of parking violations, ticket fines versus parking fees, which is also a popularity thing.

Patrick Siegman  9:07  
Yeah, yeah. The the city measured parking citations per meter - basically, how many citations were issued compared to the number of meters in the pilot project areas versus the control areas. They issued about a quarter less citations in the pilot project areas. It's one reason why it turned out that the city wound up with about the same parking revenue before and after. They got more revenue from people actually paying their fees at the meters when they parked legally. On the other hand, they got less revenue from issuing parking citations, giving parking tickets to people who were parking on crosswalks or parking double parked in the bike lane. So the good news is that most people would rather pay a small fee rather than randomly getting ticketed with a $75 or $100 ticket.

Paul Barter  10:07  
I'm guessing that San Francisco still has a lot of free-of-charge, a curbside spaces that probably should have parking fees. But extending parking fees to new places where they haven't been before is a more politically difficult thing. And maybe that's where that third part of Donald Trump's three legged stool comes in (returning parking revenue to the local neighborhood). Doesn't it to make it more politically palatable? San Francisco, if I understand correctly, hasn't been able to extend the fees very much to new places? Or am I getting that wrong?

Patrick Siegman  10:39  
No, you're right. I mean, San Francisco has done some of that in some areas. And it certainly helps to be able to say, look, here are the really good results that we got from from these pilot project areas. But still it's been difficult. And I think it's been much more difficult than it would be if the revenue was actually returned back to the districts where it was collected. 

Rather, what happens right now to parking meter revenue in San Francisco is that it is all used to support public transportation. It's all used to support the the transit system. That's a rule in the city charter, which is sort of like the city's constitution. The good news is that supporting the transit system is a good cause. It's a socially progressive way to use the revenue because the people who ride transit, on average are much less wealthy than the people who drive and park. So it's essentially transferring funding from the wealthy to the not so wealthy. 

However, the problem is that transit riders, frankly, are not a very powerful political lobbying group, they are far less influential in most cities, including in San Francisco, than the merchants and residents of a particular area. So in my experience, in other cities, it's much more effective to be able to say to the merchants and and property owners and residents of a particular neighborhood that hey, every dollar that we get out of these parking meters that we're proposing to install on your main street is going to be used to create new public benefits for your neighborhood. People tend to feel that the money from the meters just sort of disappears off into the the general fund somewhere and doesn't really provide any benefits to their block.

A simple version of demand-based parking pricing has also worked well in a small city, Ventura in Southern California

Ventura's city center faced a familiar set of parking problems

Paul Barter  12:32  
So maybe it's time to move on. Big city experiences are persuasive for other big cities. Is there somewhere else you could point to that is a completely different kind of flavor and size, where equally inspiring things are happening?  And what made the difference? How did that place get moving on parking reform?

Patrick Siegman  13:04  
Yeah, yeah, well, there, there are a number of smaller cities that have now implemented performance based pricing and charging the lowest price needed to get one or two spaces available on every block, and that have returned the revenue to local areas. I helped set up some of those programs. 

One that is a favorite example is the city of Ventura, which is a Southern California beach town. It has a great historic downtown, mostly one and two storey buildings. I first helped out with the city's new downtown plan and then, as a follow up, I was hired to do a downtown parking study to help implement the plan. 

This was one of these classic situations where if you went there and you drove down the charming Main Street, every single spot on the street was taken. But you could turn right and go into the public parking garage and find that that there were hundreds of empty parking spaces. Similarly, in other public surface lots half a block away there were plenty of vacant spaces.

Paul Barter  14:18  
It's the classic case!

Patrick Siegman  14:20  
Yeah. What you so often find is that people perceive a parking shortage. But in reality, what they have is a parking management problem. They have a parking management problem rather than a parking supply problem. Or, to put it another way, they have a parking shortage right on Main Street, but they have a parking surplus in the much bigger parking lots and garages nearby.

East Main St, Ventura, California. Image credit: Google Maps Street View.

Paul Barter  14:43  
Were those on-street spaces priced already or free-of-charge with time limits?

Patrick Siegman  14:48  
They were free of charge with time limits. In fact, all of the parking in town was free with the exception of one parking garage down by the beach and a couple of other places outside of downtown.

Why pricing? Why not just use time limits?

Paul Barter  15:03  
So one question we get a lot is, why can't you just improve the time limits to achieve these benefits? Why does it have to be a price?

Patrick Siegman  15:13  
Well, there are a couple of reasons. 

One big problem with time limits is that if they're long enough to be convenient for people, then oftentimes, they're too long to create the kind of vacancies that you want. 

So for example, people will say, well, the spaces are always full, there isn't enough availability, my customers can't easily find a place. So let's shorten the time limit from two hours to one hour. And you'll do that. And then other people will say, well, in one hour, I can't really come downtown and go to a one hour appointment and come out in time or I can't have a nice lunch in that length of time. So the compromise that people often arrive at is either some mix of limits or they'll settle on two hours. 

What often happens then is that employees and and shop owners will tend to play the game of the two hour shuffle, where they move their car every two hours. In some cities, they try to fight that by saying, well, you, if you park for two hours on one block, then you have to move your car to a different block, which for lots of employees is still easy to to evade. 

Another problem with them is that they tend to be more difficult to enforce because to check whether people are complying with time limits, you have to make one pass to record what time you saw them there first, and then you have to come back at least two hours later and see if they're still there.

Demand-based parking fees (a simple version) to Ventura's rescue

Paul Barter  16:57  
Not easy. So Ventura took a took a bold step. I seem to remember, the mayor had to be quite bold to get this through. Is that right?

Patrick Siegman  17:11  
I think he was bold. But he had also developed considerable support. In Ventura we suggested that they should go ahead and implement the reforms that Don Shoup had recommended and I laid out a plan for doing that. 

I recommended that we install parking meters and charge for parking just on the really premium spaces. So this was only 318 I believe out of two and a half thousand total parking spaces in their downtown. This would be their main retail streets and a block of the side streets on either side. 

Paul Barter 
This is a small town, it's not part of a huge metro area. Is that correct? 

Patrick Siegman
It's a small downtown but a relatively large city. It's about 100,000 people, I think now. They're spread over a large area. There's a lot of fairly conventional suburban areas outside of the downtown.

These efforts solved parking problems for motorists. But they also point away from car dependence. 

Paul Barter  18:15  
Ah, so it's also a car oriented place. So none none of this was aimed at shifting people to public transport or cycling or anything. It was all about managing the parking.

Patrick Siegman  18:24  
Yeah, it was really all about managing parking. There were a couple of goals. I mean, one was to make it easy to find a space. Another was to get rid of the unnecessary and inconvenient activity of people shuffling their cars around every two hours, with all of the extra pollution and traffic that creates. 

We also really wanted to get rid of the perceived parking shortage, because that way people would see that that actually they did not have a an overall parking shortage and that the proposals to build another parking structure at great expense, were really not necessary.

Paul Barter  19:11  
That's really important. In small cities where the alternative modes of transport are not very good, it's not really about shifting people to other modes but it's mainly about improving the parking sutuation. 

That helps persuade people who are not interested in being anti car in any way. But it kind of often disappoints people who are interested in more dramatic change to the transportation system. 

So what you just said was actually relevant in that you're pleasing both groups of people, right? You're making parking work better. You're also revealing that there was not really a shortage so we don't have to build more parking which would fuel the car dependence. So there is still a link to the wider agenda of avoiding car dependence here.

Patrick Siegman  20:02  
There really is. I mean, in many ways, what we did was a both an environmentally sound policy and a really fiscally conservative policy. 

The mistake that often is made by people is they will drive downtown, then look for parking in the most obvious places on their main street. They will say, ah, the curb parking is full, there must be a shortage, we must need to build more parking. And so they build more parking. And it has to be off the street because there's no room to fit more parking spaces on the street, usually at least not any substantial number. So then they spend $10 or 20 million to put up a new parking garage. Then they just have an additional underutilized parking structure and they still have the same old shortage on Main Street.

Paul Barter  20:52  
And they also have that much less revenue that they could have been using for improving the walkability and bikeability.

Patrick Siegman  20:58  

In Ventura, what ended up happening is that the meters were were put in, there was initial controversy, which then faded pretty rapidly. 

The parking meter rates these days vary between 50 cents and $1 per hour depending on the block. They run seven days a week because the town has a lot of weekend visitors. And they generate about $600,000 a year. 

What they did with that is that they really wanted to get better lighting downtown, they wanted to get more security because there was a real perception that downtown was unsafe. So they they use the money to improve security. They put into better lighting. They also did a quite a bit of beautification of the landscaping, all of this funded by the new revenue. 

Crime went down by about 40% in the first six months. So for the merchants who were paying attention, they could really see that downtown was getting better.

Paul Barter  22:07  
Patrick, it's been great talking to you.

Patrick Siegman  22:09  
I really enjoyed our conversation too. 

Transcribed by

Please take a listen to our conversation!

About Patrick Siegman

Patrick Siegman is a transportation planner & economist. He is founding principal of Siegman & Associates a firm devoted to sustainable transportation planning.

He was formerly Principal and Shareholder at Nelson\Nygaard.

Patrick has long track record of providing transport and parking expertise and advice in more than 70 citywide and district plans. His work has received awards from several professional bodies, such as the American Planning Association.


Please do recommend Reinventing Parking or SHARE this article and episode with any of your friends or colleagues who might be interested. Please share on social media too!

Subscribe, if you haven't already (it's free):
  • sign up to get Reinventing Parking updates by email
  • subscribe to the audio podcast (search for 'Reinventing Parking' in your podcast player app or click the symbol that looks like a wifi icon in one of the players at the top or bottom of this article).
You can also help me make time to continue this work by becoming a Patreon patron of my efforts.