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August 22, 2005

Sensors and Sensibility

This blog has been a bit obsessed both about the benefits of dynamic highway tolling to control congestion, and about economic distortions caused by "free" parking.  Apparently, our two pet obsessions have cross-bred, producing this San Fransisco Weekly article on dynamically-adjusted parking fees. 

Here's the basic idea:  new, inexpensive remote sensing technology is coming online that could...

...precisely monitor activity in a city's parking spaces, so a computer might figure out how much parking meters should charge so 15 percent of the spaces remain empty -- the optimum amount, research has shown, for making it convenient to shop by car.

In other words, if parking in a given neighborhood is looking tight, sensors would note the fact.  Then, the parking meters would know to raise their prices a bit, until about 15% of the available spaces freed up.  If there are lots of free spaces, then prices would come down a bit, letting people park for longer without racking up big fees.  Ideally, the prices would self-adjust so that they're "just right" -- not so expensive that there are too many free spaces, and not so cheap that parking is difficult to find.

One jurisdiction is already committed to trying out the system:

[T]he idea of closely monitoring empty and full parking spaces and subtly adjusting meter prices ... was a principle untried anywhere in America -- until last month, when Redwood City approved a plan, developed by the city's downtown development director, Dan Zack, to do just that.

The article also notes that local shopkeepers--who tend to object to proposals to meter parking--often drop their opposition if the parking revenues are used locally to clean streets, improve sidewalks and lighting, and the like.  That way, the money raised by parking fees never strays too far from the meter.

It could be easy enough to paint this sort of proposal as "anti-car."  But it's really not.  Yes, it would probably make parking more expensive; but it also could make parking more convenient and less time-consuming.  That's a tradeoff that in many cases would make sense -- both for people who own cars, and for cities that are trying to control runaway congestion.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Donald Shoup has done some fantastic research on this topic, which you can find at http://www.bol.ucla.edu/~shoup/

One factiod Shoup mentions: 30-40% of traffic congestion in downtown areas is composed of cars circling blocks, looking for parking spaces.

And yes, the parking rates will be higher using this scheme. But all parking costs something. "Free" parking is a myth. The costs simply get passed along in the form of higher prices for goods, services, rents, etc -- or in the case of public parking, higher taxes. If parking is priced at market rates, that means pedestrians, cyclists, cab and transit users no longer must subsidize parking spaces every time they buy something.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach | Aug 23, 2005 9:41:42 AM

Um, why do we want to make it more convienent to shop by car? How is that a good thing? Shouldn't we be trying to make it more convienent to not need a car to go shopping? If you're buying a large item (or items) sure, drive, but if you're in an area with metred parking, chances are you're running in and out of the store(s). This is not conducive to large items and if you have multiple items, get a shopping cart!

This is not a concept I would expect to see championed on this blog. Unless I am missing something. If so, please educate me.

Posted by: Charlie | Aug 26, 2005 11:22:28 AM

I think this technology should go one step further, but in a different direction. The monitoring should be in how clean is the neighbor air, and when it shows that the CO2 is getting too high, all vehicles registered in that area should be taxed based on their gas mileage. The SUV guys will have to pay for all the gas they guzzle and the CO2 they spue out, hybrid owners will truely benefit for living lighter on the planet. Those who choose to drive SUV's and drive a lot will just have to pay their share!

Posted by: Wes Gallaugher | Aug 27, 2005 5:42:28 PM