>Parking Reform Experience: Redwood City, California


Redwood City, California was expecting big parking problems when it started revitalizing its downtown recently.  The revitalization was expected to add a lot of parking demand, especially in the evening.  Fox Theater, Little Fox Theater and Century Theaters formed the nexus of a burgeoning entertainment district, billed to be the "Entertainment Capital of the San Francisco Peninsula".

Redwood City realized that most of these new visitors and patrons would bring spending cash for new restaurants, shops and the theaters, but they would also likely be bringing their cars.  Dan Zack is the downtown development coordinator for Redwood City.  I had a chance to interview him by e-mail about the parking changes Redwood City put in place. 

The parking changes got started when a traffic engineer for the city brought an article by Dr. Shoup, author of the groundbreaking book, The High Cost of Free Parking, to Zack’s attention.  The city went through a public workshop process to determine needs and discuss potential solutions.  In the end, the city decided to enact five recommendations (PDF), almost all of which are recommended in Dr. Shoup’s book:

  1. Remove all time limits on parking downtown
  2. Establish market parking prices to achieve an 85% occupancy target rate
  3. Use new pay-by-space meter technology
  4. Dedicate meter revenue to downtown parking and other improvements
  5. Modify the parking permit program

Remove Time Limits

Before the changes, most of downtown’s parking was managed by a hodgepodge of time limits, ranging from sporadic blocks of 36-minute limits, to some 10-hour limits on spaces near the edge of downtown.  Most of the spaces were 2-hour limit.  The time limits encouraged employees and visitors to move their cars periodically to avoid ticketing, and caused frustration among downtown’s patrons. 

Redwood City realized that time limits were a fairly blunt tool to use to encourage turnover.  Furthermore, aggressive enforcement of time limits to encourage turnover hit customers as well as employees.  Enforcement was difficult and time-consuming. 

The new parking ordinance eliminated time limits completely.  Redwood City acknowledged that this was a bold step that was not used in many other locations.  The planning staff was confident that excessive parking could be controlled by market prices.

Market Based Prices

Before the study and new policies were implemented, Redwood City had very high demand for prime parking spaces on Broadway (the main retail street), and low occupancy on side streets.  Broadway had free curb parking, and occupancy ratios were consistently very high, above 95%.  Meanwhile, side streets offered plenty of available parking for 25 cents per hour or even 12.5 cents per hour just a couple blocks away.  This combination of free, convenient parking and more expensive, less convenient parking caused two groups to compete for the same spaces: those who were looking for cheap parking, and those who were looking for maximum convenience.

The new policy could be summarized like this:  Look at how many people are parked, and adjust the price to make sure that 1 space out of 7 are empty. 

Dan told me that for the initial guess, they surveyed other downtown areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.  "The initial price ranges were based on what we found to be the going rate for similar cities in our market area, with higher prices going to parts of the downtown that were typically crowded, and lower prices going to areas that were underutilized.  From there we adjust them up or down based on our 85% target occupancy rate."  How close did that initial guess come?  "Very close. We overestimated nighttime and Sunday activity, and had to scale back the prices at those times due to lower than expected demand. So far, we have made two rounds of adjustments. In most areas, though, the initial prices worked very well."  The city staff are required to survey and adjust rates annually, but can do so as often as four times per year.  "We survey each hour of the day (10am to 8pm) for a whole week. It is pretty labor intensive, but parking patterns can vary quite a bit throughout the day."

The parking meter rates were 50 cents per hour for daytime directly on the main street, and 25 cents per hour down to free elsewhere; and in the evenings, 75 cents per hour for the most convenient spaces, down to free elsewhere.  This price that varies by location does a good job of charging for convenience and balances the parking demand between the closest spots and those a short walk away.

Pay-by-space meter technology

This has been previously discussed here.  Major differences between Redwood City’s meters and Arlington’s are the ability to buy additional time from any meter in downtown using your space number, as well as to buy additional time by cell phone.

Dedicate Meter Revenue to Downtown

This is one of the keys of Dr. Shoup’s book.  The market-based parking fees are not meant to be a tax or a source of revenue, but a tool for balancing supply and demand.  However, rather than puttting it in the general fund, by dedicating the revenue to improving downtown, the city can make its downtown area a wonderful place to visit, rather than just a place that offers free parking.  In this way, the downtown can compete with suburban regional retail centers that offer free parking but fewer amenities.

Modify the Permit Parking Program

The overall effect of this change was to allow employees and frequent long-term visitors to purchase permits allowing them to park in municipal garages and leave the convenient on-street spaces for customers.


According to Dan Zack, "Parking is now easier to find in prime areas, and parking in lots, garages and side streets is better utilized.  Traffic is higher, primarily due to the opening of a 20-screen cinema and an aggressive schedule of events in our town square".  He says that there haven’t been many ill effects (congestion, illegal parking, increased spillover) outside of the district: "I’ve only received one complaint of that, which is remarkable."  Some businesses and nearby residents have praised the new system, but not all: "Some people have thanked us and really enjoy [it], others wish we would have left things alone.  Most . . . are ambivalent."  Overall, a success?  "I think it was a change for the better.  Overall, downtown activity is up due to the cinema, other new businesses, and downtown events, but we have managed to keep occupancies right where we want them.  Thanks to the new system our prime parking areas are less crowded despite the presence of more people and cars.  So, while some folks might not like having to adapt, we would have been worse off had we done nothing."

Comment/Applicability to the Ward 6 Performance Parking Pilot

First, I want to thank Dan Zack for the interview and the information.  He provided some more about the city’s innovative approach to reducing minimum off-street parking requirements, which I’ll have to leave to a future post. 

I think the important take-aways from Redwood City with respect to the Ballpark Performance Parking Pilot are:

  1. Time limits are unnecessary.  Once you’ve found the right price, turnover will happen as encouraged by the price rather than as enforced by time limits
  2. Prices need to be managed by time of day but also by specific location.  Right now, the prices are fairly uniform across each of the three zones within the ballpark area.  Some of these areas (like the Barracks row strip) see a lot of traffic at $1.50 per hour, and the meter prices are probably correct.  However, there are some other areas (like the 1300 block of NJ Ave SE) that are completely empty during the day even though the meter charges $1.00 for the first hour and $1.50 thereafter.  DDOT should use the information they get from the upcoming occupancy study to make block-by-block adjustments to the parking price, even eliminating any charge if necessary to maintain an 85% occupancy target as approved by the DC Council.  For some block faces, the market price might be free except on game days, and that’s OK.  Some areas don’t have a lot of development, or don’t have major traffic generators close by
  3. As long as there are a lot of people parking all day for commuting to offices in the area, DDOT should consider implementing a permit parking system, to remove the inconvenience of paying for your parking each day at a meter.  The permits could be block specific (or groups of blocks) and reflect the meter price for that block.  For example, if a block face sells for $0.25 per hour, then a reasonable permit for one month on the same block might cost $40 per month and would be good for unlimited parking except on game days.  I believe this is a reasonable permit price compared to the commercial lot at 7th and L which charges around $150-180 per month.  I would not propose selling permits for block faces that are retail in nature, though for sake of argument the permit price might be $240 per month based on $1.50 per hour, and it’s not likely that anyone would want to pay that price for a commute

About perkinsms

I'm an engineer and father interested in transit, parking and economics.
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