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CMU May Study Month-by-Month City Parking Rates

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If Pittsburgh City Council approves the necessary legislation this month, Carnegie Mellon University researchers will conduct a study of the optimal pricing for metered city parking spaces around the college.

CMU economics professor Stephen Spear said that means finding out the perfect parking price for each individual roadway, so as to keep every street's spaces 75 to 80 percent full.

The CMU team will do that by trial and error over the course of a year. First, Spear said the team would likely cut parking rates in half to see how much demand would spike. Then, the researchers will adjust prices on a month-by-month basis until they arrive at the right parking rate to meet demand for each street in each season.

"[Demand] changes in the summer, when the MBAs are off and we're just running summer school programs," said Spear.

The economics professor said CMU traffic experts ultimately hope the city will be able to adjust parking rates by the hour, but he said that's not possible now.

"Right now, the technology that's used to program these multi-space meters is a little clunky," said Spear. "They have restrictions of changing things on the increment of a dollar if you're not using quarters, because of the cost of processing credit cards and things."

Spear and fellow CMU economics professor Mark Fichman approached city officials with the idea of the study after watching local demand for parking plummet thanks to higher prices. After City Council raised parking meter rates in 2011, Spear said demand for the spaces around CMU fell dramatically. Once a cheap parking hot-spot, the area between the university and Phipps Conservatory no longer attracted drivers after parking meter rates doubled.

In economic terms, Spear said it was an issue of elasticity -- whether or not higher prices would drive away consumers.

"What we realized is that because of the availability of alternatives -- either the free parking up in Schenley Park, or the CMU employees taking advantage of signing on to CMU parking -- that [local parking is] very, very highly elastic," said Spear. "This doubling of the rates by Council just caused demand to drop to zero."

The legislation to approve the CMU study has been introduced to City Council by Councilman Bill Peduto, who said in a statement that he'd like to apply the results of the one-year study to the rest of Pittsburgh.

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