[Map Credit: SFpark - original 4.9MB image here]

First it was Google Maps on smart phones, which forced GPS makers to drastically reduce their prices, after making directions and traffic information readily available for drivers in real time.

Now another step towards transforming dumb concrete into Intelligent Streets is taking place in San Francisco, where the city is pioneering a new smart meter that will provide parking availability and rate information also in real time, directly to your browser (or your phone). The system (called SFpark) includes 5,000 meters running for two years on a pilot program (more info here).

One of the main goals (according to this Spanish article) is to instaurate a dynamic price system. In other words, the price of the spot will respond to supply and demand rather than seemingly random bureaucratic decisions (the same ones that doubled downtown LA parking fees a couple of years ago).
Why is this worth noting? Two reasons:

  • Supply-and-Demand, when paired with easily accessible information, always means greater efficiency. Greater efficiency in transportation means less energy (and time) wasted. The system will not completely eliminate driving in circles, but it will greatly improve the current ancient technology.
  • For many people, this will be their first introduction to dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing is one of the key features that should differentiate one-way car-sharing (or version 2.0) from the current system. By lowering or increasing the price according to demand, users can be incentivized to move vehicles almost free from one area to another when needed; conversely, they can be desincentivized by increasing the price when high demand can make vehicles disappear too quickly (at the exit of a Lakers game at the Staples Center, for instance).

When a proper incentive program is in place, systems have a tendendy to self-regulate, not unlike natural systems do. This self-regulation (as opposed to top-down command and control) means a happier customer at a far cheaper cost for the operator. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (authors of Nudge) called it Libertarian Paternalism, a subset of the now popular behavioral economics. I am convinced any successful carsharing program will have to evolve from some of these economical concepts.

San Francisco's smart meters, although small, are a very necessary step in our road to Intelligent Streets.