When human politicians try to set parking prices, the debates end up being about what’s politically popular or “fair” vs. money for unrelated stuff. This gets the issue all wrong. Parking rates need to be about supply and demand. What is the price that will keep a couple curb spots open on each block all the time? You almost never hear politicians discuss parking prices in these terms. Here is an example from Easton Patch of the wrong way to think about parking prices:
Councilman Roger Ruggles worried the changes were unfair to some downtown Easton visitors. He argued that the new hours would penalize people who came downtown to eat from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., but not those who visited from 8 p.m. onward.
“By that theory, unless we charge 24 hours a day, we’re being unfair to someone,” countered Councilwoman Elinor Warner.
Councilwoman Warner seems to think this is a knock-down argument against keeping the meters running 24 hours, but actually it is a knock-down argument in favor of that.
The 6pm cutoff is arbitrary, but that’s an argument for basing the prices on some other factor besides time – like the occupancy rate.
Whether or not to charge for curb parking shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about whether or not there is a crowded parking situation. Whenever it’s busy, you should charge. You should charge when there’s a busy afternoon crowd, and a busy bar crowd, and a busy church crowd. Whenever demand management is required, then the right tool is parking prices.
This is a case for replacing political control of parking prices with an algorithm. With electronic meters, Council could task an algorithm with maintaining an 85% vacancy rate at all time. The political issue would be occupancy, not prices, and the price would change depending on how busy it is in order to maintain that occupancy rate.
The meters would be on 24 hours a day, but during the night and early morning when vacant spaces are plentiful, parking would still end up being free. Once the curb occupancy rate started to tick up though as it got later in the morning, the prices would adjust to keep 1 or 2 spaces open on each block.
This is the only truly fair way to set prices. There’s no such thing as too high or too low prices, because the algorithm’s price is always going to be relative to how busy it is.