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.