Active parking management

Active parking management strategies use new parking technology with flexible pricing methods to better utilize the available parking inventory.

Key characteristics




Strategy description

Active parking management strategies aim to make the most efficient use of existing parking capacity and reduce the traffic congestion impacts of drivers “cruising” for a parking space. They apply to a wide range of parking facilities, including parking lots, parking structures, and on-street parking, operated by public agencies as well as commercial operators.

Active parking management strategies entail:

  • Collecting and processing real-time parking occupancy data to provide a clear snapshot of current parking availability
  • Communicating up-to-date parking information and guidance to travelers broadly
  • (Optionally) adjusting the price of parking by time and location based on demand

Collecting real-time data

There are various ways to obtain real-time parking occupancy information. Simple in/out counters at parking lot entrances and exits estimate the total number of spaces available. Sensors installed at individual parking spaces in a parking structure allow managers to know exactly how many spots are available and where they are located within the structure. In-pavement sensors and video-based detection systems installed on public streets can monitor real-time availability of on-street parking spaces.

Communicating to travelers

There are multiple ways to communicate real-time parking to drivers. Electronic signs located near parking lot entrances or within parking structures inform drivers how many free spaces are available. Variable message signs (VMS) along the road can direct drivers to parking locations. Colored indicator lights positioned above individual parking stalls provide a visual indication at a distance which particular stalls are free (e.g., green) and which are special use (e.g., blue to indicate available disabled spot, purple to indicate available electric vehicle charging spot).

Sophisticated parking management systems can share real-time parking availability data with third-party mapping and traveler information applications. Users can find parking, compare prices, or even reserve spots prior to starting their trip. Giving travelers better information about available parking options around their destination helps to better distribute parking demand across all facilities and reduce congestion associated with searching for parking.

Adjusting prices to reflect demand

Adjusting pricing to reflect how much demand there is for parking at specific locations is another way to encourage drivers to make use of all available parking options. For instance, parking managers may charge a high price for street parking along one high-demand block. Charging a lower price along the adjacent blocks with more availability can encourage drivers to opt for the lower-demand option. This encourages better use of all available parking capacity while reducing congestion associated with drivers circling the desirable spots.

If adjusted appropriately, variable (or performance) pricing can also help ensure that there is always some parking available at all locations. The City of San Francisco’s SFpark program is an early implementer of performance pricing for its curb spaces. As of 2018, it includes all City parking meters, lots, and garages.The City established a desired target occupancy rate at 80% for each block with twin goals of making curb parking readily available and ensuring that curb parking accommodates as many customers as possible. A two-year evaluation study of the program showed that it was effective in reducing parking-related congestion, cutting cruising for a spot by 30% (1).

When to use this strategy

Active parking management strategies make sense for city centers, business districts, and other popular destinations where parking is in high demand. It should be considered as an alternative to constructing new parking facilities by improving use of existing parking supply.

Strategy benefits:

  • More efficient use of existing parking infrastructure
  • Reduces localized traffic congestion by reducing the need to search for parking
  • Reduces pollution associated with idling and circling city blocks looking for parking
  • Encourages travelers to use alternative modes of transportation, especially during high-demand times when parking is less available or more expensive
  • Less traveler frustration associated with searching for parking
  • Less costly to implement than constructing new parking infrastructure

What you need in order to implement

Policy needs:

  • Policy, legislative, or municipal ordinance changes to allow variable pricing of agency parking facilities

Planning needs:

  • Analysis to understand existing parking inventory and usage patterns across the region and over time (e.g., throughout the day and week, seasonally, and for special events)

Coordination needs:

  • Coordination with commercial parking operators, public agency parking operators, and third-party traveler information service providers to make updated parking information available to external trip planning and traveler information applications
  • Collaboration with local businesses, political leadership, and public interest groups to build support for a demand-based pricing program
  • Coordination with enforcement agencies to address new parking enforcement procedures or needs

Equipment needs:

  • Sensors to measure real-time parking occupancy
  • Electronic signs to inform drivers of parking availability
  • Central parking management system to collect and aggregate parking occupancy data across multiple parking facilities
  • Pricing system to calculate appropriate variable prices to achieve desired parking occupancy rates or other policy goals
  • Smart parking meters or payment systems capable of accepting electronic payment and adjusting rates dynamically

Maintenance Needs:

  • Regular maintenance of parking occupancy sensors is critical in order to ensure that accurate information is provided to drivers and variable pricing reflects actual demand

Agency resources needs:

  • Agency staff to monitor traffic impacts of new active parking management programs and recommend operational changes

Learn more about this strategy

FHWA Active Transportation and Demand Management (ATDM) Active Parking Management Program Brief (2012)

Works cited:

(1) SFpark Pilot Evaluation Report

About key characteristics

Location notes:

Active parking management strategies apply best to urban locations, business districts, and other popular destinations where parking is in high demand.

Cost notes:

Active parking management costs vary depending on the sophistication and extent of the strategy chosen. The most significant cost component is the installation of the parking occupancy sensors and communications to the central parking management system.

Technology notes:

Key active parking management technologies are sensors to measure real-time parking occupancy, electronic signs to inform drivers of parking availability, and central parking management systems to aggregate parking occupancy data. Advanced variable pricing systems require smart parking meters or payment systems capable of adjusting rates dynamically and centralized pricing system to calculate appropriate variable prices.

Collaboration notes:

Collaboration requirements vary depending on the extent of the strategy chosen. Large-scale active parking management initiatives include collaboration with various commercial parking operators, public agency parking operators, and third-party traveler information service providers. Demand-based pricing initiatives will also require collaboration with local businesses, political leadership, and public interest groups.

Need or issue this strategy addresses