At first glance the notion of free-market parking meters seems impossibly arcane. But as Donald Shoup pointed out in a recent NY Times editorial, “cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts.” Shoup studied Westwood Village, next to the UCLA campus, and found that drivers searching for curb parking created 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel per year. That’s equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, taking place in just one retail district in L.A.

Shoup calls the impacts of parking space cruising “astonishing,” and he’s right. The unnecessary traffic congestion hurts downtown businesses and activities. The extra miles traveled waste gasoline and generate pollution. If curb parking could somehow be freed up so that it was always easy to find a space, then that extra waste and pollution could be eliminated.

One solution is free-market parking. Set parking meter prices so that 85% of spaces are occupied and 15% are open at any given moment. This idea has been getting more attention lately, and Redwood City, CA is the locality that has put the most advanced implementation into action.

Dan Zack is the downtown development coordinator for Redwood City and developed and administers the city’s downtown parking program. He wrote in a March 27, 2007 listserv post:

We have only been fully operational for three weeks, however the early results are looking good.

We never had an overall parking shortage, but our prime areas were always chronically congested, with the frustration, cruising, and complaints of “this place has no parking” that parking congestion entails. However, within a few blocks there were always plenty of spaces. We had an odd system in which Broadway (the main drag) was free, while side streets and garages were metered. So people were actually given no incentive to walk a little bit — they were actually penalized for it!

We were willing to bet that people would be willing to walk if there was a reward. So we set up a system in which the main drag is 75¢ per hour, side streets are 50¢ per hour, and lots/garages are 50¢, 25¢, or free depending on their desirability. We were so confident in the ability of prices to effectively distribute people that we eliminated time limits. Time limits were difficult to enforce and resulted in a very inconvenient system for customers, while employees easily evaded them and sat in prime spaces all day.

Pricing curb parking by street is really the key to Redwood City’s strategy. Here is a map of the city’s parking prices as of March 10, 2007:


Zack describes the results of the parking strategy:

So far, Broadway has decongested quite a bit. You can now find a spot at most times in prime areas. Many people, especially long term parkers and bargain hunters, have shifted to cheaper parking on the edges of Downtown and off the street. Seventy-five cents isn’t a lot of money, but you would be amazed at how frugal people are when it comes to parking, even if they are driving $50,000 BMWs filled with $3/gallon gas. After the system has been in place for a few more months and behaviors have really adapted I plan on writing a paper that will summarize our findings.

As far as I know, we are the first city to do this. But I really think that it is a promising method for managing municipal parking and getting the most out of a limited amount of parking in a compact, walkable district.

Also, we borrowed a page from Pasadena’s playbook and have dedicated all surplus parking revenue (after parking expenses are paid) to increasing cleanliness, safety, lighting, street furniture, and other amenities that will make Downtown a nicer place to live, work, eat, see a band, and shop.

That last paragraph brings up an important point about political acceptance. Try proposing higher parking rates, and people will react as if their cars are being confiscated. For free-market curb parking to win acceptance, the benefits to the affected businesses must outweigh the costs.

In Pasadena, CA, parking meter revenue goes directly to the downtown business improvement district, bypassing the city’s general fund entirely. A similar arrangement in Redwood City made that city’s new parking strategy politically feasible. Here’s Dan Zack again, from an interview in SF Weekly:

At first the merchants went crazy about the cost increase. When we told them about how there will be no time limits, that we’ll be power-washing the sidewalks, they were in. When we had a City Council meeting, merchants came to support it.

New Tech

New parking meter technology is making Redwood City’s parking extremely flexible and convenient. From his desk, Zack can monitor vacancy rates and change the hourly price for downtown spaces. The system is easy to use: Customers simply enter their parking space number and pay. The city’s 40 parking meters have WiFi connectivity so that customers will get real-time credit card authorization, pay-by-cell-phone integration and the ability to add time at any pay station, from any location. Zack says,

[The meters are] all connected and share information with each other. If you want to spend more time on the east side of downtown and your car is on the west side, you can add time to your original parking permit from any pay station in the network without having to go back to your car. We think people are really going to love that level of convenience.

In summary, Redwood City’s program is shaping up to be a best practice in parking management. From all the reports to date, it’s an approach that nearly all downtowns could benefit from.

Obligatory environmentalist disclaimer

Some of Redwood City’s parking meters are solar powered, which is a bit ironic. The world will soon reach a peak in oil production, after which high gasoline prices will be unavoidable. If we don’t start switching to non-gasoline cars soon, there may not be as much demand for parking spaces. Additionally, cars must be powered by non-fossil energy, or else we may be spending more time dealing with climate change than driving to downtown cultural/entertainment districts. So let’s hope we have non-fossil cars in addition to solar parking meters.

And it goes without saying that the most environmental travel modes are walking, biking, and transit where land use supports high ridership. Redwood City aims to redevelop as a convenient, mixed use, beautiful and walkable center oriented to the fun and opportunity of urban life. That’s the best parking management strategy of all.



Donald Shoup’s home page, which includes a case study of Pasadena’s experience with curb parking reform: Turning Small Change into Big Changes

Gone Parkin’
, an editorial by Donald Shoup, New York Times, March 29, 2007

Redwood City’s parking information pages, the city’s parking prices map and its parking ordinance

Digital Payment Technologies, manufacturer of the parking meters used in Redwood City

Digital Payment Technologies’ press release about Redwood City (February 27, 2007), the technical information page for the parking meter, a product sheet and a closeup photo of the parking meter

The Parking Fix, Wall Street Journal, February 3-4, 2007 issue

Remote Controlled, by Matt Smith, SF Weekly, August 17, 2005

More about the redevelopment of downtown Redwood City: No More Deadwood, Metro Silicon Valley, January 10-16, 2006 issue