How much you pay to park on some downtown Baltimore streets soon will depend on how much other people also want to park there.
By the end of the month, the city plans to join the growing number of municipalities using demand for parking spots to set their prices, tweaking rates twice a year in an effort to ensure there is generally a spot or two free on every block.
The current $2 hourly rate will climb 25 cents on the busiest blocks and fall 25 cents on blocks where people don't like to park as much. New prices will go into effect every six months.
Prices will be capped at $5 an hour — a level that couldn't be reached until 2023 — and parking could become free on blocks where prices fall to 25 cents.
Peter Little, the Parking Authority's executive director, said the aim is to make sure that open spots are easier to find, which should reduce congestion and drivers' frustration. He's excited about the new approach, calling it the "cutting edge of parking thought."
A federally funded pilot study in San Francisco that started in 2011 showed the idea could work and it is attracting mounting interest from cities across the country. Washington started tweaking prices in a pilot area last year and Boston began experimenting with it earlier this year.
If all goes well in Baltimore, the new system could be expanded from downtown into Harbor East and Fells Point, followed by Federal Hill and Mount Vernon. Little's team also might try setting different rates at different times of the day and on different days of the week, something currently done in Federal Hill where demand for parking is highest in the evening.
Bill King, the president of the new City Center Residents Association, said he'll be watching the rollout closely. People who live downtown generally park in garages, he said, but are concerned about what the changes might mean for visiting friends.
"I hope that they really will stay keyed into how it affects residents," he said. "That's something we're hoping to help with."
While some cities have installed suites of sensors to measure when cars come and go and developed apps to give drivers up-to-the-minute information on where spots are available, Baltimore is taking a lower tech approach. Workers are roaming the streets counting cars to determine demand. Stickers will be applied to signs to alert drivers to the price on a given block. (Getting those stickers up is the last job before the program begins.)
Little said that at the moment sensor systems didn't seem to be accurate or cheap enough for the city, but that could change.
"We're constantly taking a look at that to determine if there is a quicker, easier, cheaper way to collect the data," he said.
The parking authority found that blocks of Pratt Street near the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Market Place near Power Plant Live were among those that had more than 85 percent of the available parking spots occupied — deemed too busy. Streets farther away from the Inner Harbor had less than 75 percent of spots occupied — meaning they were being underused.
Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA-Mid Atlantic, said the project's goal of increasing the availability of parking "certainly bodes well for tourism industry and businesses in the downtown area."
Other cities are rolling out variable pricing in different ways.
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In Boston, city authorities decided to compare the effect of simply raising prices across the board in the Back Bay area to setting rates based on demand in Seaport, changing them 50 cents every two months.
In Washington, the Department of Transportation is trying the approach in the busy Chinatown and Penn Quarter area. There, officials can adjust the rates as much as $1.50 every three months.
Soumya Dey, a transportation official in Washington, said that in addition to relieving congestion the city hopes that giving people more information about how much parking is available will encourage them to consider cycling or taking the metro.
"They can make an informed decision," he said. "We definitely want to see more people using alternate modes of transportation."
Between 250 and 300 crashes occur on I-83 every year, according to the city Department of Transportation. The city has commissioned a study to determine solutions. (Baltimore Sun video)