By Eric Jaffe, October 24, 2013
The most sophisticated street-parking system in the United States, and perhaps the world, is in San Francisco. SFpark
uses demand-responsive pricing to adjust the rates of city street
meters and garages in eight major neighborhoods, ensuring that spots are
always available. The program uses a matrix of street sensors to inform
drivers using the SFpark app of space vacancy and prices in real time.
Of course, not every city can get a $20 million federal grant to
implement such a system, as San Francisco did. Those places seeking a
more affordable model might want to look a bit north to Seattle, where
the city has established SeaPark. While less technologically advanced than SFpark, the SeaPark program still responds to parking demand across the city with notable efficiency — and for a fraction of the cost.
"Seattle is really showing how cities, often with existing equipment
and a little hard work, can do demand-responsive pricing," says Jay
Primus, manager of SFpark. "It's not as sophisticated, but it's such a big step in the right direction."
Before SeaPark went into effect, Seattle charged a flat,
one-size-fits-all rate for parking in its various downtown business
districts, just as many cities do across the country. But a thorough
study of the parking landscape conducted a few years back showed that
not every area behaved like the others. Different neighborhoods had
With SeaPark, the city prices parking in different districts based on
need, in an effort to ensure at least one or two spaces remain open
throughout the day. Officials collect parking data every year and change
parking rates — which range from $1 to $4 an hour — on a
per-neighborhood basis when basic availability goals aren't being met.
Not only does this provide visitors and shoppers better access to city
businesses, it also reduces street congestion in crowded commercial
The system lacks the block-by-block precision and real-time responsiveness of SFpark.
Even defenders of the program believe the city should aim for more
frequent and diverse rate changes. Then again, the city has never spent
more than $1.2 million a year for basic operations, says parking
strategist Mary Catherine Snyder of the Seattle Department of
"It's not as fine-grained as what might happen in San Francisco or Los
Angeles, but it's better than what we used to do," Snyder says.
Despite its limited funding, SeaPark remains an impressive system. Take
street parking in the commercial core. As of April 2013, SeaPark just
about hit its target occupancy of 70 to 85 percent during normal
And here's how things look block-by-block:
The target color is orange, while red indicates blocks with too much
occupancy. The prevalence of red reflects the system's lack of
geographical refinement. Still, as Alan Durning of the Sightline
Institute recently pointed out,
you can see how effective the system is overall by comparing the
weekday occupancy situation to Sundays, when curb parking is free:
Seattle has also found low-cost ways to direct drivers to various
blocks. Large green "VALUE" signs placed at the edge of popular
districts show people where they can park for longer and cheaper —
creating options for travelers who don't mind walking a little farther
to pay a little less. While the city lacks an official parking app, it
makes parking data available to third-party app vendors like Parkopedia.
SeaPark is also more evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the
point of priced parking is not to squeeze city drivers for every penny.
In many neighborhoods, rates have gone down since the program began, says Snyder. (San Francisco has found the same thing: one recent study of SFpark
determined that the city "adjusted prices without increasing them
overall"; Primus says meters were down 18 cents an hour last he
The lesson, says Synder, is that cities don't need to have a big
parking program to create a more efficient parking situation. Rather,
metros just need a little money, a lot of focus — and an admission that
things may never be perfect. "I don't know that there's any silver
bullets out there," she says. "It is on-street parking."
Chart [PDF] and maps [PDF] courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.