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LA looking to make parking meters perform better

The city of Los Angeles is set to install parking meters that take credit cards.
The city of Los Angeles is set to install parking meters that take credit cards.
Corey Moore/KPCC

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Los Angeles’ public parking is about to get a whole lot smarter. The city got a $15 million federal grant to figure out how to make the city’s meters and parking garages better serve drivers looking for places to park.

Washington, D.C. already has a smart parking system in place, but not everybody’s happy about it.

A lot of parking meters in Washington still take coins, while some smart meters take credit cards.

Washington D.C., City Councilman Tommy Wells says that’s not the reason the solar powered meters are “smart.” He says you can program them easily.

"You can change the cost per hour for the parking depending on the time of day or weekends, and that they’re easily programmable to be able to meet the needs of what you’re trying to accomplish."

In D.C.’s case, the need was a new ballpark with limited parking. The city didn’t want fans taking up valuable spaces in front of restaurants and businesses, so the cost of parking near the ballpark went up to $8 an hour.

Similar meters have been installed in Georgetown and downtown D.C. They’re cheaper, but you can’t park as long. Donald Shoup — who studies urban planning at UCLA — calls this “performance parking.” He says, "the prices are designed to make the parking perform well."

Shoup is one of the nation’s leading advocates of “performance parking” — using pricing to turn street parking into an efficient, and profitable asset. He says a parking space performs well when it’s well used and readily available.

“Well used,” according to Shoup, means about 85 percent occupied, "so the spaces are almost totally full but 15 percent vacant — which means about one vacant space on every block. So that everybody when they go anyplace will typically be able to find a space right on the block where they want to park."

Los Angeles wants to move to “performance parking.” Pasadena already has; it has four zones — all in busy business areas, all with varied prices and time limits. UCLA’s Donald Shoup says it’s trial and error to set the right parking price. But on the streets of Washington, DC., it’s not the price that gets people talking about the new parking meters.

One man said it's convenient only if it works. A woman said her credit card always gets stuck in the meter. "That’s why I carry around my fingernail clippers with me to pull it out. I’ve had to use that on quite a number of occasions."

Councilman Wells says he's seen people have trouble and "walked up, gotten their credit card out for them." Wells says it’s not just stuck credit cards that get people mad. "Messing with parking is one of the most politically difficult things to do."

He says voters weren’t happy about a proposed increase in city income taxes, but they understood D.C.’s budget crisis. But with parking? "I go into some places and they boo me because I messed with parking."

To quiet the boos, about 75 percent of the revenue from D.C.’s new parking meters is plowed back into neighborhoods for bike racks, better signs, and other improvements. Wells says he "told folks that for the headache of changing your parking habits, you will get a reward of a reinvestment in our infrastructure."

And it’s not chump change. D.C. could pick up $1,000,000 a year from the new meters. Los Angeles plans to pour the extra revenue from its new meters into the city’s general fund. UCLA’s Donald Shoup says that’s shortsighted.

"The city of L.A. is in a tough budget situation. They’re looking for every penny they can get. So I think it really is nickel and diming, trying to get every penny out of the parking meter when they could repair their sidewalks in the commercial areas with the meter money."

Los Angeles plans to take the concept of “performance parking” one step further by adding sensors that detect which spaces are empty. That information could be broadcast on a sign near a freeway off-ramp or sent to drivers via an app on a smartphone.