Photo by Caroline Brady

Last month, a Dublin city councillor did something you wouldn’t expect an elected official to do.

“I’m clearly not putting this forward for votes,” said Fine Gael Dublin city councillor Paddy Smyth, before he introduced a motion to the council’s Transport Strategic Policy Committee that would likely cause the price of parking in some city-centre locations to rise.

But before you grab the torch and pitchfork, why not hear Smyth out?

His idea is to take a more free-market approach to setting the price of parking, one that lets the demand for parking on a certain street determine the price you pay for it.

“Basically, the idea is to either reduce the price until you reach 85 percent capacity, or increase the price until you get 85 percent capacity,” said Smyth, in a recent interview. “Therefore, anybody who wants to park on a road can, and they are charged the appropriate economic value for that space.”

So on city-centre shopping streets that are routinely chock-a-block with parked cars, the price of parking will go up until a few spots open up. On the streets with very few cars parked on them, the price will go down until more cars start to park there.

In the Footsteps of Donald Shoup

Smyth cites research done by Donald Shoup, a planning professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who believes that getting the cost of parking right can not only better distribute parking around the city, but reduce congestion and pollution.

Shoup and his students observed driver behaviour in a 15-block business district in LA. They found that a lot of cars were doing circles looking for parking. On average, they found, cars looking for parking spent about 3.3 minutes in that endeavor, and traveled about half a mile in that time.

From these findings, Shoup and his students extrapolate that over the course of a year there were 950,000 vehicle-miles driven in that 15-block study area alone in search of cheap on-street car parking.

Circling for parking is not unique to LA. A study done in New York City found that about 30 percent of Midtown traffic was made up of cars looking for parking, while in the residential neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn that figure was even higher – 45 percent.

The problem, Shoup argues, is that the price of on-street parking is often cheaper than off-street parking garages. It’s a similar picture here, says Smyth. If you can save a few euro by parking on-street, it is rational to cruise around looking for a spot.

To stop this circling in search of parking, Shoup argues that on-street parking prices should rise or drop to meet demand. This will discourage drivers from circling the most attractive streets unless they really need to park there and encourage them to park on the typically empty streets instead.

San Francisco’s Experiment

San Francisco is the first city to put Shoup’s theory into practice. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) got funding from the US government to run their “SF Park” experiment.

The federal money bought new parking meters and sensors for a few San Francisco neighbourhoods. The sensors enable the SFMTA to determine street occupancy in real time, and the meters allow them to adjust the price according to occupancy. Parking rates can only be increased by 25 cents an hour, or decreased by 50 cents.

The experiment was a huge success, and SF Park produced a great report outlining their findings. In short, demand-responsive rate adjusting led to more parking availability, less congestion, and fewer vehicle miles driven in the city.

The price for parking did go up on some of the city’s most attractive streets, but wasn’t allowed to go above $6 an hour. On most streets however, the price went down, meaning that the overall average price of parking in the city went down.

But Business Owners Won’t Go for It Right?

If you expected the business community to be up in arms about this, you might be surprised. “I could see myself being supportive of it,” says Richard Guiney, CEO of DublinTown, who also sits on the Transport committee.

“What you want is a turnover of vehicles,” says Guiney. Free and underpriced parking, he says, can lead to people who aren’t shopping, like employees, leaving their cars in city-centre spaces all day.

With demand-responsive pricing “you could promote times that are less busy”, says Guiney. “It’s a matter of using the technology and being clever about the use of space.”

“It’s all about having available car parking spaces,” agrees Labour Dublin city councillor Andrew Montague.

Montague explains that they tried to bring in demand-responsive pricing a couple years ago “but didn’t go with it because of the cost”.

“But the principal of the idea is very sound,” says Montague.

Montague says a dynamic approach to pricing could really help the residents of neighbourhoods around Croke Park on match days.

“For like six-and-a-half days of that week you want regular car parking prices,” explains Montague. “But for the half a day when there’s a match you want to make parking expensive enough so that residents who have free parking can still get a parking spot.”

The Price of Demand-Responsive Pricing

“It’s far from being a simple issue,” says Kevin Meade, a DCC Administrative Officer responsible for parking policy and enforcement.

Meade was in the process of writing a report in response to councillor Paddy Smyth’s motion when we spoke to him. “To make that system work, we’d have to put sensors in every parking bay in the city,” says Meade.

“There are 30,000 parking bays throughout the city so that would be a huge capital investment,” explains Meade. That kind of an investment may have been worthwhile in San Francisco, but he didn’t sound convinced that it is necessary in Dublin.

“It’s not something we’ve completely dismissed, but it’s not something that we feel is necessary at the moment. We are not anywhere near 100 percent capacity,” explains Meade. But he adds, “we keep all these new technologies under review.”

“With regards to parking technology, we reckon we’re up there, maybe not at the top, but at the forefront,” says Meade, who added that some American officials were in town to have a look at how Dublin manages parking.

Smyth says that if the report Meade brings back to the council says demand-responsive pricing would be too costly to implement in Dublin, he will suggest that they tweak prices themselves.

“We mightn’t have the fancy hardware they have in SF,” he says. “But we should be able to be a little bit more dynamic about how we price.”

Willy Simon is Dublin Inquirer's planning and transport reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with him? Send an email to him at

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