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.


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.

  • Eric B

    I think the issue with meter-resets is that the City has no rightful claim over the extra time either.  While I think everyone can understand that a new driver pulling into a space shouldn’t get free time from the previous occupant, people are uncomfortable with the idea that the City is positioning themselves to capture that revenue.  There is no technological reason that the value can’t go back to the driver that overpaid in the first place.  If the intent is to increase turnover, then this would provide the correct incentive for drivers to vacate as soon as they’re done rather than sticking around since they’ve already paid for the time.

    The way the City is setting it up, they force drivers to overestimate the time they’ll stay to avoid a ticket (which is much more likely in a system with vehicle detection), then penalize them for doing that by taking whatever time might be leftover.  It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for drivers.  If the goal is to make parking economically efficient and friendly, this is an overreach.

    The best setup is for a driver to pull into a space, start their parking clock, and then pay upon vacating the space.  There is no technological barrier to this system design anymore.  We’re accustomed to the quirks of metered systems by habit, but not by necessity like before.

    The problem now is that once the City gets used to capturing all that extra unused time, there will never be an incentive for them to get it right in the future.

  • Anonymous

    “The best setup is for a driver to pull into a space, start their parking clock, and then pay upon vacating the space.”

    That only works when paying with a credit card. Those people would still need to provide payment information when they start the parking clock.

    Cash payers would still need to prepay, but then they could get a refund or voucher when they vacate the space. They would need to provide a PIN or something so somebody else couldn’t come along and steal their refund.

  • Davistrain

    The “theater” analogy, like many analogies, is flawed.  It’s not likely that a movie goer would want to see just the last 20 minutes of a film.  You don’t have a question of “continuity” or “back story” with a parking space. 
     I should point out that several writers have commented on the “found money” aspect of finding a parking meter with time remaining.  To many people, this is an occurrence that brings joy out of all proportion to the money involved.  E.g.: Yesterday you gave alms to a homeless person, today you find 20 minutes left on a meter right in front of where you were headed.  Good karma! (or car-ma)


  • Anonymous

    It always amuses me how parking and road capacity are allowed to follow Marxist principles in the country that prides itself on its Capitalism.

  • drivingCyclist

    Movie theaters won’t sell tickets that late in to the film.  

    Many of these parking meters are surrounding businesses, not retail shops or restaurants, so they’re definitely not doing it for local businesses.

  • Not that I want to belabor Gary’s annology, but people that want to see just the end of a movie (someone that read the book, someone that already saw the movie but found the finale spectacular ala the last Harry Potter movie) do exist.

  • I probably could have come up with a little more solid analogy. Perhaps a badge at big convention like the E3 gaming conference coming next week in LA is more appropriate. I likely won’t be using the entire time of my badge, but if I give that pass to someone else to enjoy the rest of the day and it’s found I did so, I’ll be in a lot of trouble. It pretty standard in many things in life that new entrants are obligated to pay, and for prior entrants to not be allowed to pass on unused value.

    As for the “car-ma”, this may sound a little harsh, but if the exchange of left over parking minutes is the only “good” people have in their day, perhaps they are in need of some soul searching.

  • calwatch

    Actually, we would routinely share badges for trade shows when I used to go to them. They don’t check for ID either. The movie analogy was better.

  • M

     While I totally agree with you (there are many other ideas in my head on how to address this as well to make it more obviously user friendly), it’s kinda funny to me that this pay system seems really more to reflect what happens with cell phones in the U.S. You pay for a set of minutes up front, hope it’s enough to cover you for the month so you don’t end up with large and unexpected charges, but then you lose all the extra you had to paid for but didn’t use at the end of the month while at&t/sprint/etc. gets to keep the extra you paid to prevent larger unexpected charges.

    The point of “if they want to increase turnover, provide a refund for unused time” is really key though. The city keeping the money for unused time, to some degree, does the opposite.

  • calwatch

    For credit card customers, parking should be like the bike share model. You pay for what you use, but with an increasing rate per hour the longer you stay. So the first hour might be $1, second hour $2, third hour $3, and so on with the all day parking rate the same as a parking ticket ($50 or so). You would call in or use a smart card for a particular space to check in and the detectors would check you out automatically, or you would call to check out.

  • LED

    It’s a little off topic, but my suspension/wheel was damaged by a big pothole. Where are the biggest potholes in SF/LA ? I don’t want this to happen again and maybe I can fill out a form or make a call to get those holes fixed.

  • At E3 they have burly bouncer guys at every door and scan badges, with occasional ID checks.

  • Joe B

    I haven’t tried the smart meters yet. Do they work well?

    The meters at the library are absolutely horrid. It takes about a minute of pushign buttons to buy 15 minutes worth of parking. Makes me long for the days of just sticking in a quarter and turning the knob. Who tried those things and thought they were acceptable?

  • PC

    The line on Streetsblog is that as long as it inconveniences the operators of combustion engine vehicles, it’s a good thing–never mind if it’s crooked, venal, unconstitutional (e.g. the red light cameras), etc. As usual, the nexus between this and the actual promotion of alternative transportation is hard to discover.


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