Donald Shoup on San Francisco’s Groundbreaking Parking Meter Study

Donald_Shoup.jpgUCLA professor and parking policy superstar Donald Shoup.

If you’re interested in the power of parking policy to reduce congestion and make streets more livable, the most exciting place to be right now is San Francisco. For the past year and a half, the city has pursued an innovative slate of policies designed to manage parking supply wisely and deftly, thanks in part to a federal grant from the Urban Partnership program — the same pot of money that New York City could have accessed if Albany had passed congestion pricing last year.

This Tuesday, the San Francisco MTA released a long-awaited parking meter study, which calls for increasing meter hours in commercial districts where parking occupancy rises above 85 percent and businesses are open late on weekdays and Sundays. Afterward, Streetsblog called UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking and arguably the world’s foremost parking expert, and asked for his thoughts on the study.

Professor Shoup had read the document and called it "pathbreaking," lauding the MTA for being thorough and data-driven, and for embracing occupancy targets to manage parking supply.

Shoup also reiterated the importance of Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) as a tool for selling parking reform to the public. In CBDs, a portion of the new meter revenue collected in commercial districts is returned to that district for sidewalk repair, street trees, enhanced street cleaning, etc., so that businesses can see firsthand how parking revenue improves their streets.

Professor Shoup also pointed to Redwood City, Ventura, and Old Pasadena for best practice examples of occupancy-based parking policy changes that have revitalized neighborhoods and facilitated business. Here is an edited transcript of our interview. [For a longer version, head over to Streetsblog San Francisco.]

Matthew Roth: What are your impressions of the MTA’s new parking meter study?

Donald Shoup: It’s pathbreaking. There’s never been anything like it anywhere before. I think they’ve done the right thing to say, ‘we’re aiming for an occupancy rate.’  You want the spaces to be well used, but readily available. Well used means almost full, but readily available means not quite full. You have to be very careful to make sure you get that right. They’re willing to adjust it if they get it wrong. I think the right price for parking is sort of like the Supreme Court’s definition for pornography: I know it when I see it. There’s no way to say the price is right except by looking at the result and San Francisco is committed to change the price wherever they get it wrong.

I think they did it with a very careful goal in mind and that is: set
the lowest possible price they could charge and still have spaces
available on every block. So that’s different prices at different
times of the day and at different locations, but I think if they aim for
this policy, if they’ve chosen the lowest price they can charge and
still have available spaces, it means if they go any lower, all the
spaces will be filled and people will say there’s no place to park. And if they go higher than that, there will be a lot of vacant spaces. Some of the supply will be mismanaged. 

MR: How important are Community Benefit Districts for selling parking reform to the public?

DS: Well, I think it is the key to getting political support. As you probably know, Redwood City has this policy and Ventura in Southern California, they just started it. From the merchants’ point of view, they think that the revenue return is the most important part of the entire policy. They realize that it’s going to cut down on cruising and maybe greenhouse gas emissions, but the important thing to them is seeing improvements right in front of their businesses. Without that it seems to be hard to support the idea.

It’s also true in Washington, D.C. They installed it around a new ballpark and they returned 75 percent of the revenue to the metered districts. And this can be for transportation improvements. I think that something visible and sharing with the community is very important. If they don’t do that it’s hard to show and prove and have pictures of the benefits.  

I think it’s important for getting people to understand the workings of the program. I don’t think the community benefit district will change anything about the right price for parking. I do, however, think they will make the policies seem much more reasonable to everybody. If they use the money to make sidewalk improvements, one of the most important transportation pieces of infrastructure in San Francisco. I think the sidewalks are almost as important as the bus system. If they said we’ll use some of the money to improve the sidewalks and the streetscapes on the metered streets, everybody would see that the city is giving back something and not just taking. I think if you give back something that’s very visible and very valuable, the metered communities will see the benefits right in front of their eyes. Everybody wants better bus service and more frequent bus service, but that’s hard to see, especially if you’re a struggling merchant. I think that it’s easy to see very clean sidewalks, very well-policed sidewalks in front of your restaurant, rapid responses to any cracks in your sidewalks, maybe much more frequent cleaning.

MR: Some businesses complain that extending meter hours or raising
rates will drive customers away, that they’ll go to suburban malls
where parking is plentiful and free. How do you contend with that
assertion?

DS: You have to emphasize that the pricing is to keep the
spaces almost entirely, but not quite, full. So you can’t say the
people are being chased away if almost all the spaces are full almost
all of the time. You just wonder, where are they being chased? For
the businesses, the important thing is that people are being chased
away because the spaces will be occupied, but they will be occupied by
people who will be willing to pay for parking if they can easily find a
space.

If I were a waiter working in a restaurant, who do you think
would leave a bigger tip, someone who will come only if they can find a
free parking space after they have driven around long enough to find
it, or someone that who is willing to pay for parking if they can
easily find a space? I think the person that is willing to pay
for parking is more willing to leave a bigger tip or pay more at a
store or bring more business to the area than somebody who wants to be
a freeloader and just won’t come to your neighborhood unless they can
get free parking. When you think about it, the kind of customers
you’re going to get is probably a little bit more free-spending if they
can easily find a space and they’re willing to pay for parking.  

In
terms of the economics of it, Old Pasadena simply took off economically
the year they installed meters. The sales-tax revenue is about six
times higher than it was when they put in the meters in 1992. That is
because, at least in Old Pasadena, the meter money has greatly improved
the public infrastructure of that neighborhood. In San Francisco,
they’re talking about using most of the money for public transit, so
there won’t be the physical improvements. You’re probably attracting a
more free-spending group of customers and maybe more carpools, because
they’ll be splitting the cost of the curb parking. Maybe two dollars
an hour won’t seem like such a punitive payment if there are four
people in the car and they’re staying in an area for four hours. The
solo driver will object to paying for parking. But if I were a business
person, I’d rather see the cars arriving with four people in them
rather than one.

MR: What should San Francisco, or any city trying to reform parking policy, do about time limits?

DS: The other thing I think that San Francisco is doing and that Redwood City did and that Ventura has done is eliminate any time limits on the meters. They removed the time limits and they rely on pricing to create turnover and vacancies and this has been the most popular part of the policy in Redwood City. People now don’t have to worry — a driver and three friends want to go for dinner some place and they park — they don’t have to worry that they have to get back to their meter in an hour or two hours. Whatever they’re doing, they don’t feel like they’re pushed around so much by the city.  It still creates a lot of turnover because the price is higher, but the user is more in control of their life than when somebody who manages meters says you can only stay here for an hour or two hours.

The advantage of using prices to manage parking is that you don’t need to have these arbitrary time limits. I think when people say they’re going to run meters in the evening, it seems ridiculous because people want to park once and walk around for the evening. Turnover is not important for that, but pricing is important to make sure that some of the spaces remain available. So I would say that whenever you talk about running the meters in the evening, you have to say there’s no time limit on them. You can put enough money in to stay for the entire evening, park once and go to dinner, a movie, a bar, and then walk around for as long as you want. You have to break this automatic assumption that a meter means that you have to leave in an hour or two hours.

MR: In the MTA study, during metered hours, Columbus Avenue had
71-81 percent occupancy.  Does that mean the meter prices are too high?

DS: Yes, I think it’s quite common for meter prices to be too high,
especially in the morning. Definitely on some days and at some hours
the prices will definitely come down. 

MR: Is 85 percent occupancy target a firm benchmark? Are there situations where you want more or less occupancy?

DS: Well, it’s short-hand. It just means you shouldn’t have too much of an
hour that is totally full. You shouldn’t have much of an hour that is
less than 70 percent, but somewhere around 85 percent. Sometimes it’s
going to be higher and sometimes its going to be absolutely full. What
you’ll see is variation around 85 percent, but I think what you mainly
want is to make sure it isn’t full more than 10 or 15 minutes out of
any hour.

  • qq

    “If I were a waiter working in a restaurant, who do you think would leave a bigger tip, someone who will come only if they can find a free parking space after they have driven around long enough to find it, or someone that who is willing to pay for parking if they can easily find a space? I think the person that is willing to pay for parking is more willing to leave a bigger tip or pay more at a store or bring more business to the area than somebody who wants to be a freeloader and just won’t come to your neighborhood unless they can get free parking. When you think about it, the kind of customers you’re going to get is probably a little bit more free-spending if they can easily find a space and they’re willing to pay for parking. ”

    so what he’s saying is that we should all want our streets to be filled with the rich and between you and him, who wants poor people (“freeloaders”) clogging up those sidewalks anyway!

  • archie

    I think he’s just trying to debunk the myth that charging for parking hurts businesses.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I think he’s just trying to debunk the myth that paid parking hurts business. We’re not talking about charging exorbitant rates for parking, we’re talking about charging a fair market value for a commodity. This is important, because an excess of this commodity has been proven damaging to air quality, pedestrian travel, and other quality of life issues.

    Speaking of looking out for poor people, what about those who can’t afford to have a car? Should their access be impeded so that someone in an expensive vehicle can have free parking?

    What about building a society where you have to spend thousands of dollars (on a car) just to get from point A to point B, because development is designed around automobiles and their parking?

    Free health care is a right, and a real social justice issue. Free university education is a right, and a real social justice issue. Free parking is not. It is petty, and turning it into a social justice issue insults real social justice issues. Pay your $5 and get over it, or walk, catch transit, bike, etcetera.

  • “who wants poor people (“freeloaders”) clogging up those sidewalks anyway!”

    We all already take the bus, walk, and ride our bikes. We’re already clogging up the sidewalks (and contributing 3/4 of the economic activity of a commercial district in SF) we’re just not getting there by driving, and charging more for parking won’t keep us away.

  • I am surprised that there is little discussion of incrementally increasing parking rates with the time being paid up-front. For example, the first hour could even be free, the second is $1 ($1 for two hours), the third is $2 ($3 for 3 hours), etc. This kind of system recognizes that a car may be necessary for certain kinds of trips, but discourages long-term on-street parking, for which it is reasonable to expect people to have alternatives. Such pricing schemes are common in many other countries.

  • JK

    This discussion needs a bit more context. First, metered curb space is a small portion of all parking in dense urban areas. Typically, a commercial street is metered and adjacent side streets are restricted by Residential Permits or time limits. Second, commercial vehicles making deliveries and providing services need to park at the curb near their destinations more than private passenger cars. Because free spots near meters are always 100% occupied and commercial vehicles still need a place to park, there is very high demand for metered spots. The net result is that meter rates based on occupancy targets will be much higher than they would need to be if more curb space was metered. Ideally, in dense urban areas, the majority of curb space would be metered — not just spots in front of retail.

  • Clutch J

    I agree with Shoup that in most places it’s better for meter proceeds to support district improvements (beautification, pedestrian infrastructure) over transit operations.

  • Profesor Shoup needs to have dinner at Aunt Suzie’s.

  • Um, that’s “professor.”

  • Ryan

    @Zvi: Personally, I tend to agree with you on incremental pricing. It was explored but will not be part of the initial implementation since most people seemed to find it punitive. The idea behind pay as you go with no time limit helps to reduce the “stress of penalty” that result from current metering systems. While a higher rate for a second hour is much less of a penalty than receiving a ticket for an expired meter, it was enough to sour people from the idea.

  • Brad

    All of the references to Ventura were interesting since I live there. I’ve never seen a meter downtown – I know because there is nowhere to lock my bike. There has been a lot of talk, but it is hard to believe an article that calls it a success story and uses Ventura as an example when the plan has not been implemented.

  • Nikki

    Unfortunately, in Chicago we’ve managed to privatize our meters for 75 years so won’t be seeing any monetary returns to the metered districts. The only thing we get is price increases (going into effect today), which disincentives customers from driving.

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