A technician inspects damaged meter on the street in this 2010 file photo. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
One of the most baffling things about parking in downtown Los Angeles can be found near Hope and 9th streets. The meters along Hope charge $4 an hour, but on 9th the cost is only $3.
"You question whether that makes sense," said a facetious Daniel Mitchell, an official with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. A pilot program approved Friday by the City Council seeks to impose some logic and radically change the way meter prices are set for more than 500,000 people who work or shop each day in the city's center. It could also reduce the time drivers spend circling the block for open or cheaper spaces, often double parking, stopping in the middle of the street to wait for other drivers to pull out or parking in prohibited zones.
Researchers say those common practices greatly increase traffic congestion and air pollution, and can be harmful for businesses that need unobstructed access for customers.
Currently, parking meter prices are based on an archaic system set by geographic boundaries. The new program — called ExpressPark — will begin in a 4.5-square-mile zone roughly bounded by the 10 and the 110 freeways, and Alameda Street and Adams Boulevard. It will use sensors and other technology to measure demand at about 6,000 sidewalk meters and 7,500 spaces in public parking facilities such as the Convention Center.
Officials will adjust the cost of meters based on demand at various times throughout the day and on how long motorists stay in each space. Although the price of most meters will be set once a month, in some areas officials will adjust the rates more frequently based on demand.
Meter rates downtown currently range from $1 to $4 an hour and would be adjusted to rise or fall no more than 50%, Mitchell said.
He said the city plans to launch the project next month and hopes to begin the new rates in April 2012. The project is being funded by $15 million in federal grants and $3.5 million from the city.
The so-called dynamic pricing is the latest attempt by transportation officials to improve downtown parking. Last year the city installed thousands of meters that allowed credit and debit card payment in addition to coins. But about 3,500 of those meters will have to be removed and placed in other parts of the city to make room for even newer equipment, Mitchell said.
A spokesman for the transportation department said the meters installed last year have already increased revenue for the city by about 50% for each meter that was upgraded.
Donald Shoup, author of "The High Cost of Free Parking" and a professor at UCLA, said dynamic pricing works because it allows motorists to follow the "Goldilocks principle," which balances supply against demand.
If the cost to park is too low, "all the spaces are full," which means other drivers must circle the block "or they may go somewhere else," he said. If the price is too high and spaces remain vacant "the stores lose customers and employees lose jobs and the city loses tax revenue."
San Francisco recently began a similar parking meter program but has yet to measure the results. Some groups there are worried that it could be unfair to lower-income motorists.
Michael Guerra, a Los Angeles traffic officer who rides a bicycle around downtown to enforce violations, said that in recent years he's seen a decrease in the amount of congestion and parking problems — a condition he attributes to the poor economy.
Guerra said that he generally writes 20 to 30 tickets a day and that despite reduced congestion, some areas are still problematic. "People just assume that they're not going to get caught" and park in a prohibited zone or don't adequately feed the meter, he said.
After 10 minutes of hunting for a curb space Thursday afternoon, Marianne Shabazz, a 39-year-old from Carson, decided that the risk of getting a ticket was not that high. She said she just wanted to make a quick ATM withdrawal and wasn't going to waste her money — or any more of her afternoon — paying for time in a parking lot.
So she cut her steering wheel to the right on South Los Angeles Street and slid her SUV into a "loading only" zone behind a FedEx delivery truck near Olympic Boulevard.
"Don't even get me started, this is crazy. I've been circling around … and they have all these signs that say you can't park," said Shabazz, who raised her clenched fists in the air and took a long, deep breath before looking for any parking enforcement officers and making her dash.
"I have to run quick before they catch me and I get a ticket."
"Yes!" Shabazz exclaimed eight minutes later, when she came back and there wasn't a ticket on her windshield.