By David Z. Morris
December 3, 2017

We’re just starting to get used to the idea that getting an Uber is more expensive at 10 p.m. on a Friday, and that the price of our Amazon basket can change at any time. But what if the same kind of dynamic pricing were applied to the cost of parking spaces? It sounds irksome, but it could help cities reach the holy grail of reduced traffic and commute times.

Wired reports that all of San Francisco’s city-owned parking meters will be switched to dynamic pricing if the City Council approves a proposal next week from the city’s transit authority. Each day would have three time ‘bands,’ and prices on the internet-connected meters would be adjusted according to demand at a particular time and location. San Francisco would be the first major American city to use such a system, and it could provide a model for other cities. That’s because parking influences traffic, and San Francisco has some of the worst traffic in the country.

A lot of global cities, including London, Stockholm, and Singapore, have successfully moderated crisis-level traffic by implementing what’s known as congestion pricing – the cities charge fees for cars to even enter congested zones at peak times. But that sort of program has been a political nonstarter in America, where we’re fiercely defensive of total freedom of automotive movement.

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Market-based parking pricing could become a partial stand-in for congestion pricing by making it more expensive to drive where a city is most crowded, and making public transit or a ride-hailing service more attractive. Related arguments were laid out by the urban planner Donald Shoup in his now-classic book The High Cost of Free Parking – in fact, Shoup wrote about the pilot experiment in San Francisco that could come to its final fruition next week.

But, as Wired points out, the cost of parking is only a partial stand-in for actual road pricing. In San Francisco’s case, only about 10 percent of parking spaces are public, metered spots, and the city has set floors and ceilings for prices, limiting their potential to influence driver behavior. And unlike Uber, prices will only be changed three times a year, which might make the program less effective, but also less aggravating for users. More generally, Shoup thought the main benefit of better parking pricing was to cut down on the number of cars circling to hunt for free spaces, so the main impacts could be in city centers, with milder impacts on the roads that carry drivers in from surrounding areas.

Nonetheless, San Franciscans should be grateful for any marginal relief they can get. The city, which has attracted lots of new tech jobs in recent years, has been moving up the ranks of cities with the longest commutes. It was recently ranked seventh-worst the U.S., with an average commute of nearly 32 minutes, and congestion there costs drivers an estimated $26.9 billion per year in time, fuel, and pollution.

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