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Rates at some San Francisco parking meters could climb to $8 an hour — automatically

Photo credit: Eli Wirtschafter
Hank Willson, San Francisco’s Parking Policy Manager, operates a parking meter by City Hall";


San Francisco has made a sweeping change in how much it costs to park in the city.

Prices at some meters could sink down to 50 cents an hour. But at other meters, they could rise to eight dollars an hour, depending on the time of day, and how popular the location is.

In a city of skyscrapers and multimillion-dollar mansions, some of the most contested real estate is grimy nine feet of asphalt.

The policy is designed to free up parking space. But due to the explosion of ride-hailing, it may not be improving the way people get around the city.

Less time searching for parking

At exactly noon, on the north side of San Francisco city hall, you can watch as the rate on a parking meter doubles.

“In the mornings it's $1.75 an hour,” says Hank Willson, Parking Policy Manager at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “And then from noon to three it's three dollars and 50 cents an hour.”

It used to be that all meters in the city cost a flat rate. But under a new system, the price meters will change based on the time of day and location.

Credit Photo credit: Eli Wirtschafter / KALW News
At this meter on McAllister Street, rates double at noon. From 3-6 p.m., the parking lane becomes a tow-away zone, and opens up to street traffic.

  Don’t want to pay $3.50 for an hour of parking? Just walk around the corner, where you can park for just $1.00 an hour -- less than a third of the price.

“You can find a lot cheaper parking just about a block away,” says Willson, who’s responsible for the 28,000 parking meters in the city.

The widely varying rates at these meters weren’t chosen by a human. They were determined by a formula, looking at how often these spots were used. In 2011, San Francisco became the first major city to try this out. The initial pilot program, dubbed SFpark, covered a quarter of all meters.


During the pilot, there were magnetic sensors under each parking space. Willson describes them as “little hockey puck shape-and-size things” embedded in the street, sensing whether a car was there.

Computers crunched the occupancy rates, and started tinkering with prices. About every eight weeks, the rates at each meter, at each time of day, could go up or down by 25 cents.

Willson says the goal was “to keep parking spaces full, but not too full.”

Full, so local businesses get customers. Not too full, so there’s always some parking available.

Under this “demand-responsive” system, if a space was popular, the rate went up. If a space was less popular, the rate went down. The goal was to have spaces open 20 to 40 percent of the time.

Willson says this system encourages drivers to park in the less busy areas.


“You have less traffic because fewer people are circling for parking,” says Willson. “You have fewer frustrated drivers.”

During the SFpark pilot, cruising for parking dropped 43 percent in the pilot areas, and 13 percent in the rest of the city.

A model for other cities

"You have less traffic because fewer people are circling for parking. You have fewer frustrated drivers."

  The pilot officially ended in 2014, when the “hockey pucks” under the parking spots ran out of batteries--that was the plan. After that, the SFMTA continued to adjust rates in the pilot area (about 25% of all spaces) based on how often people fed the meter.

Then this year, after a vote from the SFMTA, the new pricing scheme spread to every parking meter in San Francisco. It’s the first big city in the country to have demand-responsive parking city-wide.

Susan Shaheen, a transportation researcher at UC Berkeley, says San Francisco is leading a shift in how planners think about parking.

“At the scale they did it, and with the technologies they did it, it really did push them to the forefront,” says Shaheen.

Berkeley, San Mateo, and Santa Rosa later adopted their own forms of variable pricing. Other cities around the county are following suit.

Credit Photo credit: Eli Wirtschafter / KALW News
City staff unload coins from a parking meter in downtown Berkeley, which adopted a demand-responsive parking system in 2013.

Shaheen says variable pricing not only frees up parking, it also helps reach environmental goals. The less time cars spend circling for a parking spot, the less emissions they’ll produce.

“Regressive pricing”

As you might expect, not everyone is happy with the idea that rates could automatically go up to $8 an hour.

“Can you imagine paying $8 an hour?” says Rick Hall, a retiree and a Portrero Hill resident. “It's crazy … There's large swaths of the city that I don't go to any more because I do drive.”

Hall, who volunteers with United to Save the Mission and other anti-displacement groups, says the variable pricing scheme flies in the face of the city’s progressive self-image.

“What better example of gentrification and regressive pricing that affects low-income folks can you possibly think of?” says Hall.

Willson, the parking manager, says the program has the opposite effect, of reducing prices on average. Drivers who need cheaper parking can find it in more places now.

“Demand responsive pricing goes down just as often as it goes up,” says Willson. “In fact during the SFpark pilot, average rates went down.”

In late February, the SFMTA released its first adjustments to rates since demand-responsive pricing went city-wide. More meters went down in price than went up.

But under the plan, rates do gradually rise at popular destinations. And for Rick Hall, that means he’ll often give up on driving, even though he’d rather drive.

“I leave my car at home a lot,” says Hall. “And I end up in an Uber or Lyft.”

Credit Photo credit: Eli Wirtschafter / KALW News
Neighborhood activist Rick Hall at the Redstone Labor Temple in the Mission. “We’re supposed to be a progressive city,” says Hall, “but we’ve had a lot of very neo-liberal policies.”

The wild card: Ride-hailing apps

His decision is not unique; parking-space pricing can have an impact on whether people choose to drive, or take another option.

“If the parking is costly,” says Shaheen, the Berkeley researcher, “people might think very differently about how they travel.”

When San Francisco started the meter-rate experiment in 2011, Uber or Lyft were almost unknown. But along they came, and now, there’s a less expensive kind of taxi available.

Thanks to the smartphone, “suddenly transportation is hot,” says Shaheen. “There's new business models [and] approaches to getting people around.”

When someone like Rick Hall takes an Uber instead of his own car, he’s still getting in a private vehicle. He’s still adding to fuel emissions and traffic, probably even more than a private car because of the time the vehicles spend driving around waiting for passengers.

That could cut against one of the goals of the meter policy: to reduce traffic and driving time.

And, while they need to park less often, Uber and Lyft drivers do need space to pull over.

“They need to hug the curb,” says Shaheen, “because that's the pickup and drop off for the passenger.”

Today, there are far more Uber and Lyft cars in the city than there were ever taxis. SFMTA’s Willson says that creates an extra need for loading zones.

“If more and more people are being dropped off, rather than parking their cars at the curb,” says Willson, “I think as a transportation agency we have a responsibility to respond to that need.”

The city could respond by giving more curb space to Uber, Lyft, and other services to pull over. So should they? We discuss that on our next episode of Curb Wars.


Eli is the Program Director for KALW's project in state prisons. We teach incarcerated people how to record and edit audio stories, and air them as part of the series Uncuffed.