San Francisco’s High-Tech Parking Management System

Spring 2014

Downtown traffic congestion is reaching serious levels in most major cities, but technology and smartphone apps are coming to the rescue — and just might make dramatic impacts on traffic volume and how we hunt for parking spaces. A case in point is the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which just completed and is evaluating the results of a pilot study, the SFpark program. This program uses new technology and policies to improve parking availability and ease traffic congestion in the city. 

The program, which SFMTA describes as “the world’s most advanced parking management system,” uses new parking meters, sensors and demand-responsive pricing to make it easier for drivers to find parking in the city. Its goal is to achieve the “right” level of parking availability, cut down on the number of distracted drivers circling city streets looking for parking spaces and reduce the amount of double-parked cars, as well as the number of vulnerable pedestrians popping out from between those double-parked cars to cross the street.

graphic of a parking meter

The SFpark program allows SFMTA to manage parking demand and pricing by collecting real time data and distributing it to drivers via smartphone apps, the website and the city’s 511 phone system. The program monitors and adjusts parking fees for both off-street and on-street parking. In 14 of the 20 public parking garages that SFMTA manages citywide, sensors at garage entrances and exits track the number of cars in each garage at all times.  Single- and multispace SFpark meters covering more than 5,500 on-street parking spaces communicate wirelessly with the SFpark data warehouse.

Garage parking rates vary by time of day and are adjusted quarterly in response to demand; rates increase in garages with high demand and decrease in ones where there are often many empty spaces. On-street parking rates, which can range from 25 cents to $6 per hour, may vary by block, time of day, and day of week; they are adjusted by no more than 50 cents per hour down or 25 cents per hour up, no more often than once a month. In areas and at times where it is difficult to find a parking space, rates increase incrementally until at least one space is available on each block most of the time.

The program has garnered attention and numerous awards. It was named the most innovative parking program by the International Parking Institute (see “The Most Innovative Parking Programs in the U.S.” below); one of the top 100 innovations worldwide in 2013 by the Copenhagen-based “innovation platform” Sustainia and one of the top 25 innovations in government by Harvard University.

For more information:

table containing a list of parking programs