How much is it worth to park here? A new program will let drivers decide. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

By Michael Hamilton

The District Department of Transportation plans to change the way drivers pay for curbside parking spaces in and around Chinatown. Under a proposed smart-meter pilot program, prices could reach up to $8 per hour. This has led to short-sighted criticism from car lobbyists and others, but these criticisms are based on the misconception that smart meters can only increase prices.

A spokesman for AAA called the proposal “gouging.” On the contrary, a smart meter program with real-time, dynamic pricing will directly benefit drivers by decreasing traffic, making parking more plentiful and potentially lowering parking prices overall. Rather than opening another front in the alleged War on Cars, installing smart meters is a pro-driver policy.

However, the DDOT pilot program fails to take advantage of the full potential of smart parking. The department’s current plan is to manually set prices within the pilot area that vary according to time and day of the week. These prices will then be updated every three months based on past performance. This is a decent start, but most of the benefits derived from smart meters stem from instant, automatic price adjustments based on real-time occupancy data.

Under the current regime, drivers pay between 75 cents and $2 per hour, depending on where in they city they park. Drivers either feed coins into a meter or pay at a kiosk. DDOT plans to change this by charging different prices based on demand for specific spots depending on location and time of day. To accomplish this, DDOT has installed more than 1,000 smart meters — digital parking meters connected to each other over a network — that keep track of which parking spots are full or empty at any given time. At their best, smart meters continually change prices so that a few spots are always available on every block.

The very process of networked meters interacting with each other and changing prices according to an algorithm is itself the primary way to discover the correct price for any given spot. Without that detailed information, DDOT will face many of the same problems it faced when setting prices before smart meters were installed. The nature of parking means that the right price today might not be the right price tomorrow because demand is determined by drivers’ constantly changing needs and preferences. Three months, in comparison, might as well be a lifetime. But variable pricing is a major improvement over the status quo.

Holding parking prices at a fixed, hourly rate makes parking too cheap in times of high demand and too expensive in times of low demand. Which is why it’s nearly impossible to park near the Verizon Center on Friday nights and metered spots are deserted in off-peak hours. Varying prices based on when a driver reaches a spot can address both problems.

Prices also should change based on where a driver parks. Standard curbside parking rules don’t allow for prices to vary between individual spaces, and planners, who don’t have enough information to do otherwise, set parking rates over larger areas than is efficient. Drivers might be willing to pay a lot more to park directly in front a restaurant than they would to park around the corner, and smart meters can reflect these preferences by fine-tuning parking prices block by block and space by space.

Smart-parking pilot programs in Los AngelesSan Francisco and other cities demonstrated that the right price for many curbside parking spots is often zero, making current prices too high much of the time. On a space-by-space basis, the average hourly price decreased for 60 percent of smart-metered parking spots during Los Angeles’ smart parking pilot. Overall revenue from parking meters was basically flat in both San Francisco and Los Angeles because smart meters created a lot of free, off-peak parking opportunities that didn’t exist under the old system. So while primo parking spots are likely to increase in price, a lot of other options will become less expensive. Big spikes in Chinatown parking prices are likely reserved for sporting events and weekend nights.

Even when a driver is met with a very high hourly rate, this should be viewed as a major improvement over the status quo. Without that high rate, the driver wouldn’t have the opportunity to decide for herself whether or not that parking spot is worth $8 per hour. At a lower price, it would have already been occupied and she would’ve had to drive in circles around Chinatown, looking in vain for another place to park.

DDOT is off to a great start. It isn’t actually proposing surge pricing but, for the sake of drivers, it should.