Help for S.F. Parking Nightmare?

Finding a parking space in San Francisco can be about as easy as winning the lottery. Drivers are known to circle for 30 minutes or more searching for a spot, clogging up traffic and sometimes causing road rage incidents. But they soon may be able to use their Blackberries or cell phones to snag a spot.

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In addition to high gas prices, San Francisco has some of the worst traffic in the nation. The city says one major contributing factor is drivers cruising for the few available parking spaces. But that may change. San Francisco will soon begin testing new technology that electronically locate open parking spots. Drivers can use devices such as cell phones to find them.

Deirdre Kennedy reports.

(Soundbite of car engine)

DEIRDRE KENNEDY: Parking a vehicle in San Francisco is like playing musical chairs. Drivers circle endlessly or double park, blocking traffic, waiting for spots to open. That's created tense drivers, slow public transit, and clogged streets. Now city officials are launching a two-year pilot program they hope will calm the situation. It uses technology that will track parking spots on a giant central computer. San Francisco's Transportation Chief Nathaniel Ford says the information will then be available to drivers on their handheld devices or computers.

Mr. NATHANIEL FORD (Transportation Chief, San Francisco): You subscribe for the service through your cell phone or your PDA, and that information will be real time. You'll be able to look on, you know, your computer and see a map and see, you know, whether it's red, green or yellow in terms of availability and occupancy, be it in our garages or in certain street locations.

KENNEDY: Nail-sized sensors embedded in the asphalt will monitor about 18,000 spots at public parking meters and garages. Those monitors alert the network when a spot is empty or a meter has expired, and drivers will on longer have to carry a pocket full of coins. They'll be able to use their cell phone to top up their meters remotely, using a credit card or a pre-paid parking card. Transit officials will also be able to remotely adjust the pricing and time limits of parking meters in different areas.

Mr. FORD: So that at peak periods of the day, you'll have different pricing structure. When we do not have as great of occupancy, we can lower prices as time permits.

KENNEDY: The idea is to keep raising the price until a certain number of spaces are available at all times. That also reduces traffic congestion by influencing where and when drivers park. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the book "The High Cost of Free Parking" says supply and demand will determine the value of each parking space.

Professor DONALD SHOUP (Urban Planning, UCLA): I think we can call this the Goldilocks principles of parking prices, that if half the spaces are vacant, the price is too. And if all the spaces are full, the price is too low. And if about 85 percent of those spaces are occupied, the price is just right.

KENNEDY: San Francisco officials aren't saying how high parking meter prices could go, and they do acknowledge there's another benefit: More people will leave their cars at home. The city is watching the example of Washington, DC. In March, the District installed meters around the new baseball park and a shopping center. Those meters go up to an unprecedented $18 an hour after the first two hours. DC transit officials say it's encouraged more people to use public transit or park in lots. But will San Franciscans leave their cars at home rather than pay for high-price parking? San Francisco resident Frank Ferranti(ph) says it won't affect his driving habits.

Mr. FRANK FERRANTI: It's not going to affect my driving habits, just as much as the gasoline didn't affect my driving habits. Raising the price of the parking meters, basically, again, is going to affect people that can't afford. People that can really won't care.

KENNEDY: Parking expert Donald Shoup says most Americans do see driving and parking as a personal right.

Prof. SHOUP: When it come to parking, rational people quickly become emotional and staunch conservatives become communists and they talk about the right to park free. Nobody wants to pay for parking. That will never change.

KENNEDY: The SF park program rolls out next fall. If successful, the Department of Transportation will use it as a model for other cities around the nation. By the way, meter cheaters beware: This new technology not only makes it easier to find a place to park - parking enforcement officers will also know instantly when a parking meter has expired.

For NPR News, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

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