Trouble finding a parking space? There’s an app for that

SFPark Manager Jay Primus. Photo by Casey Miner

San Francisco is the epicenter of all things digital, especially when it comes to innovation. Most recently, the city launched an app that tackles a very emotional and widespread problem: street parking. Take former Nob Hill resident Laura Parr’s story, for example:

LAURA PARR: We would just literally not do things because it meant losing a parking space. So if we needed something at the grocery store, we just wouldn’t go, because we didn’t want to lose the space.

Suffice it to say that looking for parking is awful for everybody. Supervisor David Chiu has even gone so far as to say that “park” is…

DAVID CHIU: A four-letter word.

So that’s why the city dedicated resources to developing the SFPark program. The idea is for meter and garage rates to be based on demand – so popular blocks will cost more, while less crowded ones will be cheaper. They’re using real-time data to set prices, and the ultimate goal is to have at least one free space on every block at any given time. The program launched in April in eight test neighborhoods, and the city’s now making the first price changes based on what they’ve learned so far. KALW’s Casey Miner has more on how it works.

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CASEY MINER: When Laura Parr and her fiancee lived in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood, there was one ritual that defined their weekends.

LAURA PARR: So Ian, my fiancée, would drop me off with all of our bags of groceries and stuff. We’d double park and take all the stuff into the front of our building, and he would take off to find parking.

This was not an easy task.

PARR: I would take all of our stuff upstairs. I would take a couple trips, I would unpack all of our groceries, I’d clean out the fridge, I’d fix dinner, I’d eat dinner, I’d put dinner away, I’d brush my teeth, I’d start getting ready for bed, and Ian would still be driving around looking for parking.

Once, she says, he drove around for an hour and a half.

PARR: He cried he was so upset, so stressed.

In crowded San Francisco, this is not an uncommon story. But now – as with so many things – there’s an app for that.

JAY PRIMUS: The goal is that most of the time someone’s experience is that they can find a space within a block or two of their destination at all times.

Meet Jay Primus. He’s the manager of SFpark, the city’s new effort to impose some reason on a highly emotional experience. Load up the SFpark iPhone app, and you’ll see neighborhood maps colored red and blue: blue blocks have plenty of parking; red ones, not so much.

PRIMUS: Part of the point is to make it just easier to find parking. Simpler, easier, more convenient. The flip side of that is making the whole experience a little less frustrating. So maybe people won’t have to feel that same level of ownership over a space because they know where there’s another one.

The info comes from data transmitted constantly by thousands of sensors embedded in the pavement around the city.

PRIMUS: To actually see what’s happening on the streets was kind of shocking. There weren’t necessarily the clear patterns you’d expect.

It's a windy weekend afternoon, and Primus and I take a walk around Civic Center to look at where people were parked – and where they're not.

PRIMUS: So, right now we’re on Grove Street on the south side of City Hall looking at the parking spaces. The app is showing all red, and we’re seeing only one parking space available out of about 20.

Another big part of SFpark is pricing: charging more or less for spaces depending on demand. Based on the first round of data, meter rates on some blocks are going up by 25 cents an hour; on others, they’re dropping by as much as 50 cents an hour, depending on the time of day.

PRIMUS: It’s a little bit like the Goldilocks principle. We don’t want it too hot, we don’t want it too cold – we want it just right. In this case, prices not too high or too low, but just right for the demand we see.

Some things about the data are obvious, like, you probably can’t find parking in the Financial District during work hours. But they reveal a lot of little secrets too. Like you can probably almost always find a spot on Geary, even when the rest of the Fillmore is packed. Same with Van Ness, in Civic Center. The point is having spaces that cost what they’re worth.

PRIMUS: And letting people know those secret spots – or what were secret spots – where parking really is available.

Looking at the data, it becomes clear pretty quickly that San Francisco’s problem isn’t parking – it’s distribution. People just don’t always know where the empty spaces are, and they waste a lot of time because of it.

DONALD SHOUP: It amounted to about a million miles of vehicle travel a year hunting for cheap curb parking.

Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at UCLA. He did a study a while back of how much driving people did, just trying to find a parking space.

SHOUP: That’s 36 trips around the earth, or four trips to the moon, in a 15-block area. And I think it’s happening all over the world.

Shoup did his study in Los Angeles, but researchers in other cities have gotten similar results. He says a lot of what drives our behavior is habit … and ignorance. And that’s why we need rewards.

SHOUP: People have to know that it’s cheaper three blocks away, and that they can find a space three blocks away. 

Even with information and price incentives, changing people’s behavior isn’t easy. Especially when that behavior doesn’t make sense. The weirdest thing about Jay Primus’s parking maps are the places where all logic seems to go out the window. Like Hayes Street, where it crosses Franklin. On one side of Franklin, Hayes is almost totally packed – on the maps, totally red. But cross to the other side, and it’s pretty much always empty – on the maps, totally blue. Just to be clear, these blocks are right next to each other. So what’s going on?

PRIMUS: One block down is where the stores begin – that’s where a lot of people want to start parking. Some people want to get a little closer to their destination. This block is also a peak period tow-away zone...

Primus listed a lot of reasons why people might not park on an empty block. And they were little things. Like maybe the block becomes a no-parking zone for a few hours in the evening – that’s what happens on Hayes. Or the street goes from a two-way to a one-way, so it’s sort of inconvenient to get to. So the question is: will the new, cheaper rates be enough to move people?

PRIMUS: We’re not trying to change the behavior of a lot of people. On that one block that’s totally full, we just need two of those people to go somewhere else and then we have the space that we’re looking for. It doesn’t rely on everyone figuring it out or even knowing about it.

If the program works, Primus thinks it will make life better for everyone, especially people who get really worked up about parking – like Laura Parr used to.

PARR: I would cut people off at stop signs because I just had a feeling they were looking for parking too. I didn’t want them to any potential spots on the next block before I did. So I was a huge jerk on the road.

Parr and her fiancée now live in the Richmond, where they have parking. But she says, she’s still recovering from her two years in Nob Hill.

PARR: Ian and I were driving around, and we found a spot and we were waiting on the other side of the street for the traffic to clear, and someone made a right into the spot and I flipped out. Ian said, “No, we’ll just find somewhere else,” and I said if I was driving I would have been blowing on my horn, screaming at them to get out of our parking spot. It sounds crazy but you get to this point, and it’s just this breaking point. 

Will SFpark keep others from her fate? We’ll find out when the next round of price changes get rolling. Meanwhile, if the next time you go to your secret spot, it’s taken, blame SFpark -- and then head for the next block.

In San Francisco, I’m Casey Miner for Crosscurrents.

What’s your parking strategy? Will SFPark change how you move around the city? Let us know at 415-264-7106. And to learn more about SFPark, visit their website.