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Reimagining the Curb (Part 1): Three Steps to Optimizing Curbside Demand

This is the first of a two-blog series about curbside management. Part 1 (below) focuses on initial steps transportation authorities can use to optimize curbside demand. Part 2 digs deeper into key factors required to implement demand-based pricing.

Municipal transportation authorities are preparing for a resurgence of congestion on city streets, especially as curbside parking demand returns and grows to new peak volumes that will make it increasingly difficult for drivers to easily locate spots and park their vehicles.

This is why it’s important for government transportation leaders to start the process of rethinking how to use and price curbside parking now.

There are three key steps involved in modernizing or optimizing curbside parking operations.

  1. It’s important to influence driver behavior.

Static parking prices force similarly static driver behavior that produces the traffic congestion that cities have faced for years.  When every meter is priced the same each hour of the day regardless of demand, there’s no incentive for motorists to park a little further from their destination. In addition, uniform pricing doesn’t promote alternative forms of transportation or multi-modal options. When pricing is too low or doesn’t correlate with demand, motorists fail to consider parking costs in their decision-making.  When a city’s parking supply isn’t properly priced, it’s impossible for commuters or visitors to decide: 

  • Whether to drive — instead of taking mass transit, riding a bike, or using other alternatives
  • When to drive – to better plan visits for dates/times when demand is not high
  • Where to park – especially if walking a few extra blocks may shorten travel and parking time

Traditional static pricing structures ensure uneven demand and distribution of available parking spaces, which often leads to painful parking experiences for motorists. Meanwhile, congestion caused by cruising for parking frustrates drivers and creates unnecessary danger for motorists, passengers and pedestrians alike.

  1. Focus on improving public health and safety.

Pricing parking appropriately isn’t solely about making parking convenient. It’s also about improving public health and safety. Drivers searching in vain for parking tend to be distracted. They also tend to be upset. Aggressive, distracted drivers pose an increasingly deadly threat to road safety, including Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs).[1]

VRUs are people who are most at risk. They’re generally unprotected by the shield of a vehicle, and include pedestrians, bicycle riders, motorcyclists, and even people on horseback. In some instances, the search for parking can even end in violence. This phenomenon has coined a term, parking rage. As economist and distinguished UCLA department of urban planning professor Donald Shoup explains in The High Price of Free Parking, “Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex, the most primitive part of the brain responsible for making snap judgments about urgent fight-or-flight issues … [and] … aggression, territoriality, and ritual display—all important issues in parking.”

Failure to properly price curbside parking invites parkers to “stake and defend their claim” to a parking space, which sometimes results in violence.

In addition to endangering safety, vehicle cruising, or the extended search by drivers for on-street parking, only worsens congestion. Motorists searching for parking drive longer distances at slower speeds. Both of these factors contribute to pollution. Getting people parked faster by better managing parking demand reduces congestion and resulting emissions, to help cities shrink their carbon footprint and address rising environmental challenges.

  1. Implement a new model to guide curbside pricing decisions.

Demand pricing can be likened to purchasing tickets for a major sporting event.  Imagine if tickets to a big game were all priced the same and allowed for general seating. Fans can assuredly be expected to crowd near the first row as opposed to sitting in the stands.  Uniform event pricing generates an obvious imbalance of demand.

Hourly metered parking rates are no different. Properly priced, we can fill every seat in the arena. By infusing technology with demand-based pricing for parking, we can change driver behavior. When properly implemented, differentiated pricing creates more available parking spaces during peak occupancy hours. It also reduces congestion and pollution from drivers searching for parking spaces. And it shortens travel times, and encourages the use of alternate forms of transportation.

By implementing demand pricing in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., for example, DDOT reduced cruising and related CO2 emissions by 5.9% on weekends and 11.9% on weekdays.

Whether it’s called value pricing, performance pricing, dynamic pricing, or variable pricing, managing demand using meter prices can’t be accomplished by using a “finger in the air” approach. It’s a complex process, one that requires advanced analytic expertise, involving data scientists who use algorithms and machine learning, to optimize pricing to meet municipal demands.

Some economists estimates that 10% to 15% of the spaces on a city block should be made available to ensure adequate turnover and to encourage parkers. That goal of 85% to 90% occupancy, however, doesn’t tell a complete story. While the objective could represent an even distribution of demand over the course of an hour or day, more than likely that is not the case. Using average demand to guide pricing decisions fails to recognize nuanced, yet crucial parking trends.

For example, imagine a block of ten spaces where there is no demand during the first five minutes of an hour. Demand increases during the next 25 minutes to 70%. During the last half hour, demand surges again, to 100%.

The average occupancy during this hour is 79%. While that percentage falls in the optimal range, it doesn’t mean parking rates should not be priced differently on this block.

Even though the block is only full half of the time, a disproportionate number of customers (63%) are parked during that peak period. If you conservatively assume that just half as many additional motorists are cruising for parking during that period, then that number is closer to 72%.  Suddenly, the traditional model for establishing price doesn’t work so well.

A better methodology, used by Los Angeles (LA Express Park) and Washington, D.C. (parkDC) compares time periods when use is too high (>90%) to time periods when use is too low (<65%). The differences here, serve as a marker for when rates should be increased, relaxed, or left alone.

Here, the fraction of high use (50%) compared to low use (8.3%) is about 42%. That would call for a rate increase in our example as opposed to maintaining the rate as is,” and that adjustment will improve parking and traffic flow. 

To learn more about how to optimize curbside management, please reach out to us at or visit


[1] Pedestrians are overrepresented by U.S. crash data. The number of pedestrian fatalities continues to grow each year. From 2009 to 2018, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased 53%, while other types of traffic deaths increased by just 2%. As a percentage of total vehicle crash deaths, pedestrian deaths increased from 12% to 17% during that same period. In 2019, fatalities increased yet again to the highest level since 1988. 

Bicyclist deaths also remain troubling high despite city mitigation strategies. Deaths from vehicle collisions grew 6.3% in 2018. Ten percent of bicyclist deaths are caused by distracted driving