Smart Meters & Sensors Being Rolled Out In Santa Monica Are A Good Thing

Smart Meter ParkingSanta Monica has been steadily rolling out more and more smart meters throughout the city with sensors for tracking when spaces are occupied. Nearly every paper in town has been writing about these installations, and the various policy tweaks and new features that accompany them.

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Perhaps the most controversial change is that there will be no more inheriting left-over value from the previous driver. Since the sensors can tell when a car leaves the space, it can reset itself. This also prevents re-feeding a meter beyond time limits, which was always illegal but difficult to enforce.

So far the responses in the local media to the new meters and policies in Santa Monica is almost universally negative, ranging from accusing the city of outright greed, nickle-and-diming for revenue, and even comparing the change to some kind of robotic space alien invasion.

Although less discussed in the local press, the installation of this equipment is clearly laying the groundwork for the accurate data analysis required for variable rate parking. Variable rate street parking, with a goal of 85% occupancy (so that about 1 space is always conveniently open per block) is a concept championed by everyone’s favorite parking economist, UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup. Inspired by Shoup’s work, San Francisco is currently experimenting with variable rate parking as part of the SF Park program.  Los Angeles announced recently its intent to implement variable rate pricing in Downtown LA.

Parking space for cars is a finite and scarce commodity like any other, one that takes up a lot of valuable real-estate. We ought to be treating it that way.

We should depoliticize the pricing into an understood and formulaic process that doesn’t tie up the political process every time there’s a proposed change in response to parking demand. Giant plots of land and public infrastructure to house expensive private automobiles is not a birth right. Subsidized parking for one’s car is no where in our constitution (to borrow a line from Enrique Peñalosa).

If you go to a movie theater and decide 3/4 of the way into the film that you’re bored and leave, is the theater going to be okay with letting you give that seat to someone else waiting outside? Of course not. That next person has to pay the same fee for that time in the theater as everyone else. Why should parking work any differently?

Many of the knee-jerk reactions to this change in parking policy fail to account for the very reason and purpose behind parking meters to exist in the first place. So perhaps we should revisit that history.

Prior to the development of the first parking meters or time limit regulations — and as the number of cars on the streets of American cities grew — there came a point where all of the valuable curb space was frequently taken up. The spaces were often times occupied by drivers storing cars for extended periods, and not necessarily shopping at the adjacent businesses, leaving potential shoppers wondering the streets in search of a space. It all come back to supply and demand: when parking is free or too cheap, people end up wasting time and fuel and clogging up streets hunting for spaces.

This was taking an enormous financial toll on retail stores that depend on turnover of customers, especially as more people drove to further flung and newer retail being built with off-street parking.

The introduction of parking meters, time limits and the pricing of parking was — and always has been — about supporting local retail. When parking has a price tag attached to its use that is appropriate to the demand for an area, it discourages drivers from leaving their car parked for hours on end and frees up more more opportunities for new customers to arrive.

This is good for private business — not just some money grab by the city, as public parking is often made out to be. Pricing of parking to create availability is also critical to unclogging traffic congestion.

Donald Shoup discovered, through surveys of downtown area drivers stuck in traffic, that significant amounts of that traffic was created by drivers cruising around for cheap curbside parking [pdf]. Those who simultaneously complain about traffic congestion and that parking costs too much, are asking for an impossibility. You can’t have both cheap parking and smooth flowing traffic in a desirable downtown location.

Santa Monica Pier, Beachside Parking
Is the problem really not enough space for cars, or that we undervalue that space and manage it poorly?

Thriving businesses will always return more tax revenue to the city than the collection of adjacent parking fees, especially with our current sales tax rates, and there is a synergistic relationship between the management of public street parking and the local economy. This is not to suggest there are not cities that overstep at times by charging too much, or that set fees too punitively, and in doing so kill off business activity. But any properly managed city will be striving for a balanced approach that creates enough parking turnover — not turning people away. That’s why why implementing variable rate pricing isn’t just about raising rates, but also dropping pricing in underutilized areas.

If the robot meter overlords can help us get to rational and efficient approach to managing parking — and hopefully alleviate misguided cries that we can never build enough parking — I for one welcome them to our planet.

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