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Transit agency approves ‘surge’ pricing to lower and raise parking meter costs

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The new pricing model had been tested in a 2011 pilot program called SFPark across 7,000 meters in the Marina, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fillmore, Civic Center and downtown. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F.
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Like a seesaw, San Francisco parking meters will soon rise and fall with regularity.

The meters are set to “surge” in price when demand for parking grows, and decrease when the demand lessens, after approval of a parking program by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on Tuesday.

The sweeping change across The City’s 28,000 parking meters is aimed at pointing drivers to empty spaces and steering them away from busy neighborhoods, according to SFMTA staff.

“The goal of this project is to get people into parking spaces as quickly as possible,” Hank Wilson, an SFMTA planner, told the board Tuesday.

The proposal was tested in a 2011 pilot program called SFPark, funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. For a year, 7,000 parking meters in San Francisco tested the concept in the Marina, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fillmore, downtown and Civic Center neighborhoods, according to an SFMTA report.

The pilot program utilized sensors to see how often spaces were used, Wilson said, and staff found that raising and lowering prices dynamically helped shift drivers to park on streets where more parking was available — meaning drivers spent far less time circling the block.

In the pilot areas, drivers’ time searching for parking was cut in half compared to prior the pilot’s implementation in some areas, from an average of 11 minutes to an average of six minutes searching for parking.

And though city parking meter prices are set to change with demand for parking, that process is not as quick as another famous form of surge pricing: Uber, which raises prices for rides instantaneously when needed.

“This is a very slow process,” Wilson said. The prices will not change more than once every 28 days, according to an SFMTA staff report.

The price changes are also gradual. Prices go up or down by 25 cents at a time, though they can differ by block in the same neighborhood.

The program is far from an effort to price gouge drivers, Wilson said. In fact, prices in some areas of The City actually lowered in areas where the plan was piloted. Near Japantown, for instance, prices in more popular blocks near Sutter Street were $3.25 an hour, but the SFMTA lowered prices around the corner to $1.25 to lure drivers to park there.

Jim Lazarus, vice president of public policy of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, echoed those sentiments to the board. “The rates are tied to demand, they’re going to go down in many places … we support it,” he said.

The plan had the backing of public policy think tank SPUR as well.

Kristy Wang, community policy director of SPUR, said the organization welcomes “being smart about how The City uses its limited parking supply supports the livability of our neighborhoods.”

Though the maximum rate The City can charge for parking meters is $8 an hour, Wilson said it is unlikely prices will reach those heights. Wilson also told the Board of Directors that he disagreed the pricing was “surge” pricing, and said “surge” pricing only goes up, whereas the plan with meters would also lower prices.

“This is revenue neutral, it’s not about using parking prices to make more money,” Wilson said.

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