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SF parking meters may soon feature Uber-like surge pricing

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The SFMTA has piloted a new pricing technology in a program called SFPark across 7,000 meters in The City. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Parking meters across San Francisco may feature “dynamic” pricing by the end of this year.

The new parking meter pricing policy will allow The City’s transportation planners to lower or raise prices based on the demand for parking spaces, in similar fashion to Uber’s surge pricing, which raises prices for ride-hail vehicles when demand for rides spikes.

That means prices for parking meters could surge near restaurants around dinnertime, for instance, or drop dramatically on seldom used blocks during the middle of the day.

Officials said the plan helps parking spaces churn through cars more quickly — a boon to merchants, who see more customers, and the environment, as drivers circle for parking less.

“This is how we make sure there is enough parking in The City, when everyone claims there’s not,” said Cheryl Brinkman, chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, at their meeting on Tuesday.

She added, “We can work to make sure people can park their cars.”

The proposal to add dynamic pricing follows a year-long 2011 pilot program called SFPark, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The stated goal of the pilot was simply to help people find a parking space — and when prices went up, there was a higher turnover of parking spaces, the pilot found.

The pilot encompassed 7,000 parking meters in San Francisco, including in the Marina, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fillmore, downtown and Civic Center neighborhoods, according to an SFMTA report.

By contrast, San Francisco has some 28,000 total parking meters utilizing existing technology in the meters that may all be dynamically priced after the matter goes before the SFMTA board for a vote, which SFMTA parking policy manager Hank Wilson said could happen as early as late October.

“People will go to that Uber surge-pricing comparison,” Wilson told the San Francisco Examiner. However, he had a “point of correction” to make to that analogy: Uber surge pricing only goes up.

“With demand responsive pricing, the price can get lower [than normal], and often does,” he said.

When the SFMTA’s planners saw metered parking spaces sitting unused, they lowered the prices to as low as 50 cents per hour, which attracted more parkers, Wilson said.

The SFMTA saw blocks of parking “full” 16 percent less often in parking pilot areas, versus their control area, where prices were not dynamically raised or lowered. Parking spaces hit their “target occupancy” 31 percent more often, according to an evaluation report of the program.

“Even as the economy, population, and overall parking demand grew, parking availability improved dramatically in SFpark pilot areas,” the report’s authors wrote.

And though SFMTA raised prices of meters in some neighborhoods, the average prices of the meters in the project actually dropped. Wilson said that’s by design.

It’s also a slower process, seeing the SFMTA tweak prices over weeks or months. Though on a technical level, Wilson said, the SFMTA could raise or lower prices at the push of a button, in practice it’s more effective to gradually lower or raise prices so drivers get a sense of which streets are more expensive than others.

“If prices were adjusting too fast, customers couldn’t keep up,” he said, “and thus it wouldn’t have any impact on where or when they choose to drive.”

The SFMTA board was fairly receptive to dynamic pricing at its Tuesday board meeting, when they heard an update on the program but did not vote on it. One board director, Gwyneth Borden, questioned the program’s highest prices.

“I think it was $8 an hour,” Borden told Wilson at the meeting. “I was like, ‘Wow! How do you set that maximum?’”

Wilson simply noted, “After the pilot, this board approved continuation of the pilot,” and that the maximum price is $8 an hour.

Even the board that voted for the program and was taken by surprise by the jump in price.

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