In Washington’s Chinatown, metered parking soon could cost up to $8 an hour under proposed surge pricing. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

Speed cameras and expensive tickets, motorcade-induced gridlock, parking signs harder to decipher than CIA code — that is, if you can find an open spot.

Face it, driving in the District can be a nightmare. Now, the city is testing a program under which the price of parking at meters in one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods would change based on demand.

This “surge pricing” means you could be paying $8 an hour to park in Chinatown-Penn Quarter at peak times.

You read that right. $8. An hour.

City officials say the idea is to reduce downtown traffic congestion, 25 percent of which, studies show, is caused by vehicles circling the block looking for a parking space. It is simple supply and demand, they say.

These meters, which accept credit cards, are part of the pilot parking program’s new technology. (Ashley Halsey/The Washington Post)

But critics contend that it is another city revenue grab and, more important, will effectively price out lower-income residents from visiting some of the city’s most popular areas.

“It favors people who are well-to-do, well-heeled and who have expense accounts,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “This is what I call meter madness. . . . You’re discouraging people from parking and then you call it something else.”

Several cities across the country have adopted “smart parking,” under which they charge higher fees based on demand.

The $1.5 million pilot was launched by the District’s Department of Transportation in September 2014. While details are being finalized, equipment has been installed and retrofitted to meet the study’s needs. Surge pricing is to begin in the spring.

The monitored zone includes about 1,000 parking spaces between E and H streets NW, and Third and 11th streets NW, officials said. Prices will vary depending on the time of day. At the cheapest — say, on early Saturday mornings, when demand is likely to be low — parking could cost $2 an hour or less before climbing to a peak by Saturday afternoon, when need is likely to be greatest. There are about 1,300 metered parking spaces in the test area, according to the DDOT.

“By using pricing as a level, we are trying to balance the supply and demand for parking,” said Soumya Dey, director of the DDOT’s research and technology transfer division. “From a customer perspective, I think this is about making the parking experience improve. So they know where the available spaces are, they know how much they need to pay and the parking search time, the amount of time you spend to find an open parking space, improves.”

During the test phase, adjustments could be made on a quarterly basis — meaning the $2 baseline could increase to $3.50 after one quarter and even $5 the next, although the DDOT said such a scenario is unlikely. Rather, the baseline will adjust until equilibrium is reached and the study is complete, the agency said. If the pilot is successful, the program could be expanded across the city, officials said.

Surge pricing is a concept familiar to users of Northern Virginia’s express lanes on Interstates 495 and 95, along with customers of app-based ride-hailing services such as Uber, whose fare structures rely on algorithms that set pricing based on demand.

But Townsend said the District’s characterization of ­demand-based pricing is misleading, calling the program “not only Draconian but discrimination.” He said surge pricing freezes out not only the city’s poorest residents, but also tourists, who will be surprised to find that the cost to park in the nation’s capital exceeds reasonable expectation.

“For a lot of people of certain needs, it means to go out for your anniversary dinner in Chinatown, you pay a babysitter $12 an hour and now you’re going to pay $8 to park in that area, because it’s going to be evening hours when it’s high demand,” he said. “Those people will probably do it once or twice and say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth it.’ So why go?”

“Instead of going to Disney World, instead of going to SeaWorld, you take your kids to D.C.,” Townsend said. “It’s the nation’s capital. You get gouged.”

Los Angeles, San Francisco and Indianapolis are among the cities turning to new methods to modernize infrastructure and reduce congestion. A parking plan adopted in San Francisco in 2011 — SFpark — has parking rates fluctuating from 25 cents an hour to $18 an hour during special events.

Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, known in some circles as the guru of smart parking, is a staunch proponent of demand-adjusted pricing. He co-authored the study “SFpark: Pricing Parking by Demand,” which concluded that while prices increased in 31 percent of cases over San Francisco’s first two years of the program, they declined in
30 percent and stayed the same in the remaining 39 percent. The price to park overall, the study said, declined by an average of 4 percent.

“People say this will this price some people out,” Shoup said. “And I think it will. But not in a bad way.”

His argument: The customers lost to the high cost of parking will be replaced by customers willing to pay more for parking, dining and entertainment — customers who would tip more at a restaurant and generate a larger economic impact. Prices, he said, should be set with the idea of keeping one or two open spaces on every block.

“You want to have the Goldilocks price — not too high, not too low, but just right,” Shoup said. “It’s just like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography. I know it when I see it.”

Prices under a demand-based system can sometimes be lower than the standard rates. (It costs $2 an hour to park in the District’s highest-demand zones and 75 cents an hour in other areas.)

In Los Angeles, for example, parking prices ended up being lower overall at 60 percent of parking spaces; prices increased at 27 percent of them. The city’s demand-based pricing system, known as LA Express Park, reduced congestion by 10 percent, according to documents provided by the DDOT.

In the District, hundreds of parking spaces in Chinatown are being fitted with sensors programmed to detect vehicles.

Numbered sidewalks have taken over once-open parking zones, where cars crammed into any open space and drivers had to print tickets to display on their dashboards as proof that they had paid for parking.

Parking meters equipped with credit-card readers have replaced their outmoded gray predecessors.

The technology means drivers may soon be able to track open parking spaces in real time via an app, and prices could be adjusted based on data fed by cameras and sensors. The eventual goal, said DDOT spokesman Terry Owens, is to ensure that at least one parking space is available on each side of the street within a city block. Owens added, however, that city officials are unsure if the goal can be reached within the $8-an-hour price ceiling.

The District is partnering with Xerox to analyze the results of the pilot, which is expected to last through next fall.

David Cummins, Xerox’s senior vice president of parking and mobility solutions, said the project will train a global lens on the District.

“I can say for certain that this is the most sophisticated smart parking project underway anywhere in the world right now,” he said. “What we’re attempting to do with a myriad of technologies is to try and figure out with technological [resources] and with data analytics what is the best way to accomplish the District’s goals. It’s an experiment that a lot of people are watching.”