Hourly rates for parking are about to get a whole lot less stable in San Francisco. And that’s a good thing.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) board voted unanimously to unroll demand-based rates at all 30,200 metered parking spaces in the city as well as in city-owned garages and lots. While pricing for parking spots based on demand has been introduced on a limited basis in several cities, San Francisco is the first to introduce such a scheme citywide. The new pricing plan will take effect in mid-January if the MTA proposal is approved by the city.

While the thought of applying an Uber-esque approach to parking rates may give some San Francisco motorists immediate anxiety, they shouldn’t fret about, let’s say, paying $150 to park for two hours in a super-coveted spot during a festival, concert or other major event. Convenience won’t necessarily result in highway robbery. Rates, which will fluctuate based on the time of day and/or by location, will be capped at a maximum of $8 per hour during peak demand and fall to as low as 50 cents per hour during periods of low demand. The highest meter rates in high-demand areas are now $7 an hour.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that MTA officials are reluctant to compare demand-dependent pricing to Uber-style surge pricing, noting that “rate increases are neither instantaneous nor unlimited and are clearly displayed on meters or at garage entrances.” And on a more basic level, surge pricing only goes up — often dramatically so — while demand-based pricing can go up and down.

For example, a driver who snags a spot on a parking-strapped block in the middle of the city could fork over $5 to park there for an hour during the busiest part of the day. A few hours later, when demand isn’t as high, another driver might pay $2 per hour in that very same spot.

Rates will be adjusted every three months. Blocks in neighborhoods where the occupancy is at 80 percent or more would see hourly rates jump 25 cents. On blocks where the occupancy is between 60 and 80 percent, the hourly parking rate would remain static; blocks where the occupancy dips below 60 percent would see rates fall by 25 cents. Per the Chronicle, quarterly rate increases and decreases would be based on how many spots are available on a particular block during three distinct time periods: morning, afternoon and evening.

Pilot program gets full launch

To be clear, a demand-based parking meter rate in the City by the Bay isn't an entirely new concept.

Pricing for roughly 7,000 meters located in some of the cities busiest neighborhoods, including blocks in or around SoMa, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero, already fluctuate based on demand. In 2011, the city launched a successful three-year pilot program dubbed SFpark to test out the concept while also replacing hundreds of antiquated curbside coin meters with newfangled electronic meters that accept credit cards and can be paid using a mobile app. As Next City notes, average rates actually fell by 10 cents per meter following the conclusion of the pilot program. “This was a particularly surprising result for people who thought ‘demand-parking pricing’ was a fancy way of saying MTA is raising meter rates,” Hank Willson, MTA parking policy manager, explains.

With the pilot targeted meters on high-traffic blocks in seven different neighborhoods as well as a handful of municipal garages, the citywide expansion would see demand-based parking rates come to largely residential neighborhoods and smaller commercial strips.

“It is so exciting to see this go citywide,” said board Chairwoman Cheryl Brinkman following the 5-0 vote. “It will be invisible to most people — but they will be able to find a parking place.”

Goodbye, angry circling drivers?

City officials see the citywide switch from fixed rates to dynamic pricing as having several perks. For starters, high-demand blocks where street parking is more expensive could see higher turnover rates, freeing up parking. Drivers will come and go in a faster manner. Conversely, meters that are cheaper and a bit more out of the way could see more activity. In the best case scenario, wallet-watching drivers looking to score primo parking spots in high-demand areas wouldn’t just park for a shorter amount of time: Discouraged by higher rates in high-occupancy areas, they'd leave their cars at home, instead opting for alternative forms of transportation.

With the potential for higher turnover rates, there’s also the potential for fewer frustrated and distracted drivers circling endlessly around a block looking to secure a spot. This, according to Willson, will help to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit that encourages San Franciscans to embrace a car-free or car-lite lifestyle, applauded the news. “We are definitely supportive of the expansion,” he tells Next City. “It reduces traffic congestion that comes from cars circling for parking and reduces the bike and pedestrian danger you get when people are cruising for parking or give up and double park.”

One thing that probably won't happen with a citywide switch to demand-based parking rates is increased revenues for the city. Willson explains that the new method of pricing will likely be “revenue neutral.”

Has your city experimented with demand-based rates for parking meters that fluctuate depending on the locale and time of day?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

San Francisco to expand demand-based pricing for parking
This parking scheme could reduce the congestion and emissions associated with drivers endlessly circling, looking for a spot.