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August/September 2015

Pilot Projects and Policy Analysis: A Search for Better Parking

By Cecily O’Connor

There’s nothing more exasperating than circling — and re-circling — the block in pursuit of parking on a congested street.

Yet a regional parking database from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), expected by September’s end, could emerge as a new avenue to improve Bay Area parking conditions. The database breaks down timely information about supply and demand, pricing tactics, and policy analysis to help local agencies better control the ebb and flow of local parking conditions.

“We see people double parking along a main street with the highest demand for retail, and then find parking structures a block or two away that are underutilized,” said Valerie Knepper, an MTC transportation planner, about a common parking conundrum.

The database is part of MTC’s Value Pricing Pilot (VPP) Parking Pricing Regional Analysis Project, a two-year initiative made possible by $560,000 in federal funding. It supports development of local and regional parking policies aimed at smart growth via affordable housing and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The effort comes at a time when several Bay Area cities and transportation groups are contributing parking data and solutions. That’s due, in part, to greater emphasis on public transit, biking, and car-sharing in communities striving to be multi-modal and access oriented. There’s even a bill (AB 744) moving through Sacramento that would lower parking requirements to ease affordable housing development.

“I think we are seeing change happen more quickly now,” Knepper said. “A lot of cities across the country are enacting new [parking] policies.”

Palo Alto city officials took steps early this summer to enforce a permit program setting time limits for cars parked on downtown residential streets. Meanwhile, the National Park Service recently announced it’s rolling out a car reservation system to fix traffic problems caused by the 1 million annual visitors that descend upon the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County.

San Francisco and Berkeley each have parking management systems that began as pilot projects in 2010 and 2012, respectively, and adjust meter rates and times based on demand. These efforts have captured the interest of municipalities across the region; as goBerkeley Project Manager Willa Ng revealed, “About 20 percent of my time is talking to other cities in the Bay Area, explaining what we did and how much work it took.”

Parking reform takes a lot of organization, including technical support, outreach, and coordination between residents and local business. Examples of this type of work will be included in MTC’s database by way of best practices and applications, as well as a forum for adding information.

“It’s really important for cities and counties to share information on parking technology,” said Mark Evanoff, redevelopment manager in Union City, where officials implemented fees several years ago to deter drivers from parking on city streets after BART started charging customers for parking in its lot.

Parking problems not only affect drivers, but have a ripple effect on business owners, transportation agencies, and city budgets. Donald Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking,” explained the extent to which various stakeholders subsidize parking in a 2013 Freakonomics Radio podcast, observing that “if you don’t pay for parking your car, somebody else has to pay for it. And that somebody is everybody. We pay for free parking in the prices of the goods we buy at places where the parking is free. And we pay for parking as residents when we get free parking with our housing. We pay for it as taxpayers. Increasingly, I think we’re paying for it in terms of the environmental harm that it causes.”

Shoup has estimated that as much as 30 percent of traffic in central business districts is caused by people cruising for parking. Easing some of this parking tension helps to alleviate environmental concerns by way of reduced fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

To help planners put all these factors into perspective, MTC’s database draws upon data from Priority Development Areas (PDAs), high-density transit corridors, and commercial business districts. This includes supply, utilization, policies, pricing, and use restrictions for 25 parking sites — the Sausalito waterfront, the Dublin BART station, and the Burlingame Caltrain station area, among others.

Tackling key parking issues and best practices is a big component of MTC’s project. For example, policy analysis and recommendations delve into issues such as parking requirements in new developments and the potential for “unbundling,” the practice of charging for parking separate from rent.

Additionally, tools like “heat maps” will show city officials on-street parking occupancy at a particular point in time, Knepper said. This will enable planners to see how prices can be modified, with high-demand locations made more expensive than those with less demand to achieve an 85 percent occupancy rate per block. The database also will serve as a framework for future parking data collection efforts.

“If we have a developer looking to build a garage, we’d know based on the [MTC] database how much demand we are really expecting,” goBerkeley’s Ng said.

That’s important because parking construction is not cheap, according to data about multi-family housing developments from TransForm, an Oakland-based advocacy group. Its GreenTRIP database, a complementary effort to MTC’s VPP, focuses on off-street parking usage at 68 multi-family residential sites around the Bay Area, said Jennifer West, GreenTRIP policy analyst at TransForm.

It found that an average 31 percent of spaces go unused at the 68 sites, covering 867,900 square feet of space that cost an estimated $139 million to build. GreenTRIP is funded, in part, by MTC’s Regional Prosperity Plan.

“Our purpose was to reach developers looking for data to support the ‘right-size’ parking, city staff looking to update codes or requirements, and community members who may be interested in a new development and want to be informed,” West said.

When MTC’s database is up and running, the agency plans to hold workshops to train local jurisdictions about the information and tools.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.

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