The other kind of smart meter: Parking fees could drive change

The other kind of smart meter: Parking fees could drive change

Cruising in search of parking is estimated to account for about 30% of traffic in downtown business districts and could even account for thousands of miles of car travel in some cities. Think about all the emissions released and collisions caused as those drivers cruise around, intent on finding a space. Adding parking isn’t the solution, but neither is taking away more parking to discourage driving.

Some cities are addressing this issue through a variety of smart parking systems. Sensors in meters or embedded in the ground relay information about occupancy and variable, demand-based (congestion-based) pricing to apps that show drivers where spaces can be found. SFpark, the program San Francisco implemented in 2011, has reached its goal of ensuring 60–80% occupancy of parking spaces, thereby decreasing cruising (perhaps by as much as 50%). It’s also potentially increasing access to local businesses while decreasing emissions.

A few weeks back, Madrid, Spain, implemented a different type of smart parking system, one that takes demand into consideration but is particularly focused on cutting down air pollution via rewards and penalties right at the meter.

The city has repeatedly failed to meet EU air pollution limits, particularly for nitrogen dioxide. So, pricing for parking at the new meters is (basically) based on fuel type and age of vehicle. Vehicles that release more NO2 – older diesels being the worst emitters – will pay up to 20% more to park, while newer vehicles with lower emissions will pay the baseline fee, and hybrids get a discount. Electric cars can park for free.

Diesel as the enemy (it creates much more NO2 than gas) probably seems strange to Madrid’s drivers; it’s been touted in the battle against CO2 (another lesson in the trade-offs of sustainability, but that’s a different topic), and it fuels 70% of Spain’s passenger vehicles.

That said, only about a quarter of Madrid’s drivers will pay more than the standard fee to park. Eighteen percent will pay less. That leaves more than half of drivers paying the standard fee. Only the worst polluters will be paying more (theoretically, at least), so it’s unclear whether enough people will be hit hard enough with higher fees to make a difference in air quality.

Studies comparing rewards vs. penalties (carrots vs. sticks) for behavior change suggest the sticks come out on top. In fact, dissertation research from Princeton University shows that sticks have been much more effective than carrots when it comes to limiting plastic shopping bag use in the Washington, D.C., area. We discuss the plastic bag carrot/stick debate in our newest Eco Pulse, acknowledging that more sticks are likely needed to effectively drive behavior change.

Free parking for EVs is a pat on the back for those already driving them – but not a very strong motivation to ditch your diesel engine. The higher parking cost for dirtier cars probably won’t make anyone rush out and buy an EV either, but it does make a statement about the city’s values and will hopefully make that quarter of drivers cringe enough on a regular basis that they come to think of their vehicles as less acceptable.

This is important to create a shift in thinking to “diesel is not the solution.” It’s also important for a switch, say, in American cities, from “driving my own big car is the way to be independent and cool” to “driving my own big car can be an inconvenience I want to avoid.”

According to a Madrid newspaper article (which likens the meters to Sudoku), drivers have been quite frustrated with the new meters – not, apparently, because of the prices, but because they involve so many steps. Sheer annoyance with the technology may work as a stick for everyone.

Here are a few takeaways for municipalities – and any organization – considering the use of a stick to encourage or socialize sustainable behaviors:

If a city/organization is going to make a statement about its values in this way, its leaders need to back that up in their own behaviors. The normalizing effect will be weakened if leaders’ actions are at odds with what they’re penalizing others for (even if it’s just through a parking fee).

The reason for the penalty should be crystal clear. Drivers enter their license plate number into the new meters so it can pull up their registration info and figure out what kind of car they have. While this is a hassle, it lets the driver know that what they drive affects the price … but with demand/occupancy also impacting the final price, the link between behavior and outcome may not be so clear – potentially diluting the program’s effectiveness.

Finally, brandish the stick as part of a larger initiative. Madrid’s smart meters are the newest element in a larger set of policies and changes to improve air quality, including a new bike-sharing program and increased bus transportation. Drivers who find paying more for parking to be an inconvenience can turn to one of the new alternatives. Cumulatively, the initiatives should create a bigger impact than they would individually.


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Posted on

July 24, 2014

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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