Steps toward, and away, from performance parking in San Rafael

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Parking is always a sticky problem: there never seems to be enough. The solution, as discovered by San Francisco and described by parking academic Donald Shoup, is demand-responsive pricing, also known as performance parking: charge more for the most in-demand spots and less for ones that are out of the way. With a vote last week, San Rafael will put in place the technology to determine where to do just that in downtown.

But with the same vote, the city moves away from a range of prices based on location – the core of performance parking – to a flat rate across downtown. It’s one step forward, one step back.

Performance parking theory and practice

Like any scarce resource, the easiest way to manage it is through pricing. The more valuable a parking space – like one at Courthouse Square – the more the city should charge for it. The less valuable a space, the less the city should charge. People would self-select: if they really want to park on the street at Courthouse Square, they may. If not, they might choose to park in the cheaper spaces or the nearby garage.

Most cities today, however, don’t use this approach to parking. They charge a flat rate for all parking spaces, so there’s no self-selection. The result? Insufferable circling for a space, going ‘round and ‘round the block to see if something opens up.

It’s like Saturday at the mall: there are plenty of spaces around the lot, but people still circle around, trying to find somewhere closer to the door, often taking longer to park than they would take to just walk from a slightly further-away spot.

In addition to being annoying to drivers, all this circling causes traffic congestion. In particularly high-traffic areas, a sizable percentage of congestion is attributable to people circling for a spot.

San Francisco took this research to heart and created SFPark, which tries to keep 20 percent of parking spaces free on each block within a number of pilot areas. The city embedded sensors to detect whether a space is occupied. Staff take that data to adjust the price of parking incrementally up or down each month. The result has been a decline in traffic congestion, parking tickets, and even the average price to park, as price reductions have been more common than price hikes.

San Rafael gets sensors and a flat rate

In San Rafael, the city’s parking program is facing a budgetary shortfall. The program runs on the parking charges, but those weren’t enough to cover the various renovations needed as well as operations. The city, in response, decided to pass a moderate reform of how it does parking in downtown.

On the technology side, the city will purchase about 1,000 new parking meters with credit-card readers and parking space sensors. The sensors will tell the meters when the space is vacated so it can reset, tell parking staff when someone has run out of time, and tell drivers where parking is available via a phone app.

The sensors could also be used by parking staff to do a running survey of how people use the city’s spaces, but, at this point, there’s no sign they will.

And, rather than implement a performance parking program, the city has raised the rate on all on-street parking spaces to $1.50 per hour, up from $1.00 on Fourth Street and $0.75 on side streets.

It was on this hike Kate Colin raised concerns, and why she was the lone dissenting vote. The former planning commissioner wondered why side street parking should double in price. Those areas aren’t in demand now, and raising their price relative to Fourth could put more pressure on Fourth Street’s spaces.

One reason for such a dramatic hike, however, was to encourage people to use the garages and parking lots, whose prices won’t be changed. Lots will remain at $0.75 per hour, and garages at $1.00 per hour. While a good idea, it does make one wonder how much spare capacity the garages and parking lots have that they can absorb much of the on-street demand.

Going forward

Despite the rate hike, the technology is the real win. It’s a $750,000 investment – about $750 per meter – that will last for a very long time. It would have been difficult to get the sensors and meters under a performance parking program. The parking charge, while misguided, is on paper. If the city wants to start a performance parking program now, it would be extremely cheap, without any extra capital investment. It would simply be a matter of legislation and organization, not money.

This would be a good project for the Downtown BID and Kate Colin to spearhead, perhaps with TAM PDA funding.

A concern for those interested in performance parking is that revenue seems to be an overriding concern for the Parking Services. It has outstanding capital costs now, along with two parking structures that are apparently at the end of their lifespan. Performance parking can actually mean less revenue for the city than the traditional flat-rate charge, which runs counter to revenue needs. If some of these capital projects are found to be unnecessary, or if another revenue stream can be found, then that would take some pressure off.

For the city planning department, the sensors could mean a real-time survey of parking conditions around the city, a fabulous tool. It would let planners know how new office tenants or apartments change parking demand. It would let them know whether there was spare capacity in the parking system to shape changes to parking policy, such as eliminating parking minimums or residential use of downtown the garages. Someone has to make the data available to other city departments, however, for this to happen.

The changes to parking in San Rafael are promising, and it’s encouraging to see Councilmember Colin taking a stand for the essence of performance parking: varying the price based on location.

Parking charge coming to Larkspur Ferry Terminal

In a stroke of good news, GGT will begin charging $2 for parking at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) on January 6.

The charge is part of a progressive plan to manage access at LFT. Last year, there were few ways to get o LFT without a car, but the parking lot filled up after 8:30am, leaving mid-day travelers stranded and depressing ridership.

GGT tackled this high demand by implementing a shuttle bus in Ross Valley, called the Wave, to give people an alternative to driving. With the $2 charge, GGT is also trying to encourage people to use the shuttle or bike. In short, rather than try to boost parking supply by building garages, GGT is trying to reduce parking demand.

It’s a smart plan. Travel from LFT is highly “peaked,” with a lot of people taking the ferry for commutes to and from San Francisco but hardly anyone taking it in the middle of the day. Boosting the parking supply would further overwhelm those morning ferries.

It’s cheaper to encourage people to take the bus to and from the ferry or to and from the city with a parking charge. The result is a parking lot with space for afternoon riders and essentially the same number of commute riders.

GGT staff should monitor the situation carefully and establish a goal of a certain percentage of spaces available after the morning rush. With such a goal in mind, the Board could raise or lower the parking charge as needed to attain that goal.

The next big thing for Marin-San Francisco LFT riders are new bus pads under the 101 overpass at Sir Francis Drake. Approved as part of the Greenbrae Interchange Project, the pads will mean travelers on the 101 trunk line routes (17, 36, 70, 71, 80, and possibly 101) will be able to easily transfer to the ferry, unlike the current trek from Paradise Drive. SMART will likely come soon after that.

Combined with the parking charge, LFT will be able to accommodate more years of booming ridership growth and allow it to become the all-day service the Sausalito ferry is. Though it will bump up against the limits of its ferry infrastructure eventually, that is a far better problem than being limited by a parking lot.

Demand, meet supply: Lessons in housing from the DC region

Holdout by mj*laflaca, on Flickr

Holdout by mj*laflaca, on Flickr

Rising rents have led to much consternation in San Francisco. People are outraged as luxury developments displace the poor from their homes, disrupting communities and threatening the very character of the City.

SPUR caused a stir by suggesting that adding more housing could slow, or even stop, the rise. My own neoliberal “market urbanist” position has come under fire as well for suggesting market forces could be tamed by increasing supply.

Washington, DC, however, shows the concept in practice. Rising rents spurred new development, which has halted the rise in most areas and slowed it in particularly high-demand parts of town. Nearly all of this growth has been along the region’s Metrorail subway system, so rising population has not equated to rising traffic.

And, importantly for keeping urban character alive, quite a bit of this growth has occurred outside the city core, often in new urban centers in what were suburban strip-mall landscapes. To San Francisco, this has been the equivalent of tens of thousands of new housing units along the East Bay BART lines and Caltrain, and the virtual elimination of the urban strip mall.

That’s not to say DC has been immune to displacement. The once-burned-out H Street NE corridor gentrified quickly, as has Hispanic Columbia Heights. African-American Petworth and Brookland are coming under pressure from well-heeled renters, too.

But the thousands of units in the suburbs and in the city’s center have given these areas time to prepare. Affordable housing, inclusionary zoning, and various direct legislative efforts to keep people in their homes can be attempted, improved, and applied to neighborhoods that have yet to be overwhelmed. Areas without any pressure, armed with these protections, are starting to wonder when their day will come.

Anecdotally, when searching for apartments two years ago, basement units were around $950-$1,200 per month, a sharp spike from a search three years prior, before many luxury units were completed. A similar search last month saw basement units at nearly the same price, around $950-$1,300 per month in the central city.

In other words, while DC became wealthier and rents increased, the bottom of the housing market remained stable. Now even the top of the market is starting to stabilize. In fact, average rents declined 1.4 percent in DC this past year despite a rapidly growing population.

This is how the housing market is supposed to work: rents go up, people see they can make a profit, they build housing, rents stabilize and drop. This cycle is possible, and the DC region is living proof.

A version of this post appeared in Vibrant Bay Area.

Marin Elections: Endorsements all around

The Marin County election cycle is coming to a close in two weeks. Though there is not much on the ballot that deals specifically with urbanism, there are plenty of candidates who have some strong opinions on the subject.

For the most part, I’m in agreement with the endorsements of the Pacific Sun. Progressive, thoughtful political reporting has always been their specialty, and their endorsements show how much they weighed the issues.

That said, the IJ makes some compelling cases as well. While their reporting can stir the pot at times, their editorial board has always been a bastion of calm. For endorsements, they go out of their way to interview each of the candidates and make a well-balanced decision.

Or, you may want to figure it out yourself.

Below you’ll find all the council races with Pacific Sun and IJ endorsements, links to candidate websites, video debates, and, for some races, a nugget that might have been overlooked.

Corte Madera Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Carla Condon (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “Investing in Kids Pays Off”; “We Need a Local ‘Council of Governments’ “; “Challenging Push to ‘Urbanize’ Our County”

Michael Lappert (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Diane Furst (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “TAM Should Support Working Group’s Freeway Plan”

David Kunhardt (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Though the Pacific Sun endorsed Carla Condon over Michael Lappert, as they seem to consider him arrogant, I think he is marginally less anti-urbanist than Condon. Condon has come out with fire against Plan Bay Area. Her Marin Voice pieces regarding development have, to paraphrase the Sun, bordered on the conspiratorial, which can be worse for governing than bombastics.

Fairfax Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Barbara Coler (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Chris Lang (challenger)
Campaign website

John Reed (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

David Weinsoff (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Larkspur Town Council

Three seats, one incumbent, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Kevin Haroff (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Dan Hillmer (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Daniel Kunstler (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Catherine Way (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Mill Valley Town Council

Two seats, no incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

George Gordon

Jessica Jackson
Campaign website

Dan Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

John McCauley
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Though neither the IJ nor the Pacific Sun endorsed Jessica Jackson, given her inexperience, Jackson is the most progressive of the four on transportation issues. She has called for greater investment in bicycle lanes and sidewalks, and an expansion of Bay Area Bike Share to Marin.

Jackson would be a strong voice for progressive transportation in Mill Valley, and she would bring that voice to county and regional agencies, too. TAM and GGBHTD both could use another progressive. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she would be the first millennial elected to a municipal council in Marin.

Novato City Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Denise Athas (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Pat Eklund (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Steve Jordon (challenger)

Eleanor Sluis (challenger)
Campaign website
Writing: Extensive Patch comments; “Entrance to Novato versus New Bus Transit Hub’s Location versus Mission Lodge, a Park, and Parking”

San Anselmo Town Council

One seat, no incumbents, three candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Matt Brown
Campaign website

Steve Burdo
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Doug Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Something to keep in mind about Doug Kelly, from the Pacific Sun: “Kelly has the most to say about Plan Bay Area and ABAG—he’s not a fan—but understands that if he’s elected he’ll ‘need to work with them in a positive manner regardless of [his] views.’ ”

San Rafael Town Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Sustainable San Rafael debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Greg Brockbank
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Maribeth Bushey-Lang
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Kate Colin
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
“Making San Rafael a Sustainable City”

Randy Warren
Campaign website

Lots to keep in mind in San Rafael’s race:

Maribeth Bushey-Lang’s deep technical experience with railroad issues, especially railroad crossings could prove valuable for the city, county, and region. The city of San Rafael has seats on the boards of SMART, TAM, and MTC, all of which will deal with rail issues. And, while she can’t vote on the SMART-Andersen Drive crossing because she ruled on it as a judge, she believes she will be able to deal with all other SMART issues.

Kate Colin brings a wealth of experience about planning matters. Having someone from this background, who deeply understands these issues, would be of value to the city.

Randy Warren reneged on his blanket opposition to all PDAs by cautiously half-endorsing the one in downtown San Rafael, or at least promising not to oppose it if the mayor thinks it’s a good idea in three years. He did this in the Sustainable San Rafael debate so you can see it yourself, and it signals some flexibility to his heretofore inflexible anti-urban rhetoric.

Greg Brockbank is an unabashed urbanist and environmentalist, two hats that are difficult to find together in Marin. That, paired with his long history of public service, would make him a good fit to return to the Council.