New Meters Aim to Cure Parking Headaches

Soon San Francisco drivers won't need to cruise endlessly in search of an available parking spot.
By the end of March, San Francisco will have replaced more than 5,000 old parking meters with state-of-the-art versions that take credit cards, and, if all goes according to plan, work with sensors to indicate when a car is there.

Other Bay Area cities such as Sausalito and Redwood City have already shifted away from coin-only machines to so-called smart parking meters that help make parking more convenient for drivers and easier to manage for the cities. San Francisco's $25 million project intends to go a step beyond the other early adopters, using the new meters to reduce car congestion on city streets.

While other cities are using smart meters to simply charge different rates at different hours, San Francisco plans to use the meters to influence how many people park in a particular area at a particular time. The long-term goal is to continuously adjust rates up or down to keep 15% of spaces in a neighborhood free, says Nathaniel Ford, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The city hopes the project can reduce emissions on the streets by stopping people from "circling around trying to sharp-shoot a parking spot," says Mr. Ford.

That approach will make San Francisco among the only places to use smart meters to control parking flow when its system goes live this spring, say transportation experts. "If it works in San Francisco, the whole world will take notice," says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles.

Making the transition to smart meters can be complicated, however. For one thing, unexpected problems can crop up with new technology, says Mr. Shoup. In Redwood City, it can take as much as 30 seconds for smart meters to process a credit cardwhich can seem like an eternity to someone standing in front of a parking meter. In Sausalito, the frequency with which the pay stations transmit information had to be adjusted because of weak cell signals, and the city decided to manually check each potential violation before issuing a citation during the test period. And it is too soon to know whether the San Francisco initiative actually will achieve the city's goal of reducing traffic congestion. "It's too early to say that it works as predicted," says Mr. Shoup. But, he adds, "there can be a real cascade of benefits if it works well."

The San Francisco project, funded entirely by a federal grant, began with the premise that the city could reduce traffic if it could direct people quickly to open spots, says Mr. Ford. Now workers are placing disk-like sensors on the ground next to more than 5,000 metered parking spacesabout one-fifth of the totalwhich will detect whether a car is there. New meters and pay stations that cover multiple spots also will send signals to a central system that will give the SFMTA real-time insight into utilization.

The city plans to make information about open spots available to drivers through signs and, later, a smartphone app, although the city will rely on outside parties to provide the software, similar to the way it does for bus-arrival information. It is legal in California for drivers to enter information into a map on a smartphone. Still a spokesman for SFMTA says drivers looking for parking "should keep safety in mind."

The city will be able to set parking rates based on demand. For instance, downtown spaces could cost more during the workday and less at night.

Smart meters will still accept coins, but with new technology that can send a signal when the coin chamber is full, eliminating the need for collectors to make regular rounds.

Drivers, too, could benefit, by paying for additional parking with their smartphones even if they were in restaurant or office.

The pay-by-phone system in currently in place in Sausalito, which officially approved its $500,000 smart-parking program this week. "If someone is shopping or enjoying sitting in the sun they can add time via their phone," says Jonathon Goldman, director of public works for the city. "In an ideal circumstance we would never have to write a citation."

Sausalito decided to buy new parking meters two years ago after determining that new manual meters would cost as much as high-tech replacements. Now four of the city's five parking lots and some street spaces are equipped with sensors and monitored by Web-connected meters.

The new system, which the city has been testing since July, hasn't been without glitches. The sensors initially gave false readings when large trucks drove by, requiring some reprogramming. And when Mr. Goldman first tried to pay by phone, the app told him his lot was in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Now the flaws have been fixedthe sensors work properly more than 95% of the timealthough few people are using the smartphone app.

Still, Mr. Goldman has big plans for the system, including billing residents monthly for parking, and letting businesses open Web accounts to pay customers' parking tabs.

The extra features "cost virtually nothing" now that the system is in place. "It's just a matter of making it available. We aren't there yet, but that opportunity is."
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency


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