Parking place pricing pickle

This summer San Francisco is going to endow 6,000 of its parking meters with intelligence. The idea is to have meters change their rates, so that market forces determine the cost of parking. So, hypothetically, meters in front of the Ferry Building during the Farmers Market might cost $5 an hour, but for those willing to park on Third Street and ride the T, the rate might be just 10 cents. Set the right prices, and there should always be at least one open spot.

Now, to me, the most interesting thing about this idea is the fury it provokes. Of course no one wants to pay higher prices, that’s not the interesting part: What’s fascinating is that people who do want to pay higher prices (that is, the people who are willing to pay extra for a convenient spot) often hate the idea as well.

Yesterday WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein did a story about this, and it contained a little exchange that captured this contradiction:

“Mechanic Victor Duran says he drove down from his home in Upper Manhattan to shop. Finding parking, he says, was a breeze.

 BERNSTEIN: Was that worth it to you?

 VICTOR DURAN: Nah, it's too much.

 BERNSTEIN: So would you rather drive around and look for a spot, or would you rather pay the dollar?

 DURAN: It's better to pay the dollar.”

There’s probably a name for this, and if any behavioral economists (or psychologists) out there can tell me what it is I’d be much obliged. It seems irrational to advocate against the pricing of a resource that allows you better access to it, but it also seems human: It’s only natural to feel like you are getting stiffed when costs jack up.

It will be interesting to see how well these smart meters work, and how people react. The meters will accept credit cards and extend time limits. In addition, real-time parking availability maps are supposed to go online to take the guesswork out of block-circling – that’s if everything ends up working. It sounds like a lofty goal. The first step in this project was to count and identify all the parking spots in the city. That parking census was completed last month and you can see the data here.

P.S. - The people commenting on this story at the SFGate Transit Blog have made a concerted effort to validate my point. There's just something about parking that speaks directly to the amygdala - the part of the brain responsible for aggression. I have to say though, it's somewhat puzzling: I thought that a post explicitly about the reaction might produce more contemplative responses. Instead it simply provoked more of the same reaction.