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San Francisco's Parking Experiment

+ Brandon Fuller

In a recent New York Times article, Michael Cooper and Jo Craven McGinty write of San Francisco’s experiment with (sort of) dynamic pricing for parking spaces.

San Francisco installed parking sensors and new meters at roughly a quarter of its 26,800 metered spots to track when and where cars are parked. And beginning last summer, the city began tweaking its prices every two months — giving it the option of raising them 25 cents an hour, or lowering them by as much as 50 cents — in the hope of leaving each block with at least one available spot.

By freeing up spaces, price rationing should help to mitigate traffic congestion. Predictably, not everyone is thrilled with paying higher prices for spaces located in popular areas (even if prices are lower on less congested blocks). Opponents are quick to suggest that the program is unfair to the poor. But Donald Shoup counters that the program will:

benefit many poor people, including the many San Franciscans who do not have cars, because all parking revenues are used for mass transit and any reduction in traffic will speed the buses many people here rely on.

But given the heated opposition to proposals for congestion pricing in places like New York and Chicago, one wonders why San Franciscans aren’t raising a bigger stink. One possible explanation may be the experimental nature of the city’s parking initiative.

City officials are giving residents a chance to try this policy on for size in a limited set of areas rather than rolling it out city-wide all at once. Even Shoup’s eloquent defense of dynamic pricing for curb-side parking may not be enough to sway generations of people who view cheap/free on-street parking as an entitlement (even when it means circling the block in frustration). Yet, getting a chance to see the program in action, along with the ease of parking and lack of congestion that comes with it, might be enough to convince people of its merits.

John Quigley and Bjorn Harsman’s work on the introduction of congestion pricing in Stockholm documents a similar “try before you buy” approach to policy. There may be a deeper insight here about the dynamics of rules. When cities, firms, or nations get stuck in an equilibrium with inefficient rules, a bit of experimentation in a trial period can give people a chance to experience the benefits of reform firsthand without the sense that they’re being wed to an unfamiliar change.

Read the full New York Times article here. HT Marginal Revolution.

Tile image by David Yu.

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