The Land of the Free (Parking)

It shouldn't come as a surprise to those of you who didn't watch the San Francisco MTA Board meeting yesterday on your live-feed or on SFGTV that the meeting devolved into a referendum on the merits of free, or nearly free, parking. With half a dozen television cameras lined up along the far side of City Hall's Room 400, approximately 60 people took the microphone to testify, some with the opprobrium of a pastor admonishing the unrepentant, all with a fervor that few other issues in urban life can stimulate.

Every small business owner who addressed the MTA Board about its parking meter study asserted that extending parking meter hours beyond 6 pm would drive their customers to distraction, compelling them to seek the lush asphalt pastures of suburban malls, where they never have to worry about a parking ticket again. Never mind that three quarters of your customers, on average, come to your stores by foot, by Muni, or by bike. Never mind that parking meters were first installed in San Francisco in 1947 to promote turnover to help your business, nor that meter hours basically haven't been changed since then.

Elliot Wagner, owner of Dimitra's Skincare and MediSpa in West Portal, said, "If you add in the consistent increasing in meter rates plus the vigorous enforcement, the outcome is simply that you will be driving people to Stonestown, which is next door, and there's ample parking, all free, and they'll never, never get a $53 ticket. The $2-3 per hour cost in parking meters is in fact a de facto 2-3 percent parking tax that we add onto every shopping bill."

Ken Cleaveland of the Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) argued that the study was not "in-depth enough," and said, "At this time I don't think it's the right thing to do, certainly not for our local economy.  Most of the residents and businesses really are not prepared to pay more for parking." He said the city needs to build a lot more off-street parking garages and requested the MTA conduct a thorough cost-benefit impact analysis in every commercial zone where they proposed extending meters before they extend the meters.

Jim Lazarus of the Chamber of Commerce, who committed to convene "all the merchants and neighborhood groups in the city, bring them together with your staff, day after day, to work this out," had a very dim view of the study. He also highlighted a trend on streets like Clement in the Richmond, where residents park in metered spaces after the meters are turned off:

On Clement, where you have residents above commercial, those parking places at nighttime on Clement are used by the residents as well. You're taxing residents, potentially hundreds of dollars a year for that resident without off-street parking that comes home at 5:30 or quarter to 6 and has to park at that meter. You're going to tax that person until 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night to park at that meter. That doesn't work in this city…. You cannot kill our commercial districts. You cannot pit merchants against residents and residents against merchants. 

schmidt2_small.jpgForest Schmidt of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition testifying to the MTA Board. Photo: Michael Rhodes
By far the most quixotic of the nearly four hours of public testimony were several speakers organized against the MTA study by the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, better known for its opposition to the war in Iraq ("No Blood for Oil!") and, locally, to Chevron's environmental record. Members of A.N.S.W.E.R. greeted those entering Room 400 with lavender fliers bearing the picture of a parking meter with "Fail" in the meter window and a sampling of misguided populism: "Stop the Parking Meter Hike! Make the rich pay, not the workers! It's time to organize and defeat the parking meter robbery!"

Forest Schmidt, representing A.N.S.W.E.R., said in his testimony:

When people receive tickets from an expired meter, they're treated like they've committed a criminal offense.  The reality is that there are not enough parking spaces in the city.  It is a tax that is disproportionately put on the poor, the working class and small business owners. The reality is that… it comes out of their rent, their bills, the money they have for food. The working class population in San Francisco is being driven out.  I hope that this is the straw that breaks the camel's back, because people are having their cars stolen from them because of this random taxation. If you make $15,000 a year, if you only get one $50 ticket a month, it's a 4 percent income tax. This is ridiculous, it's out of control.

Never mind that car ownership and poverty rarely go hand in hand, especially in San Francisco, or that a person making $15,000 each year would be paying more than half of their salary for the upkeep of their car (car ownership costs on average $8,758 on average per year). Never mind that the 700,000 daily Muni passengers, demographically much closer to working poor, will be forced to bear another round of fare increases should the MTA Board fail to find creative sources of revenue, such as the parking study.

CC Puede's Fran Taylor pounced on the dubious claim that free parking is social justice, asking rhetorically: "I wonder if the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition is as embarrassed to be in bed with the landlords as the Chamber of Commerce is to be in bed with the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition.  Where were these people in 2005 when Muni fares went up? Where were they in 2009 when they went up again…? The crocodile tears I hear for the working class? The real working class, the real poor, they're on the bus."

And this from Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, "These parking spaces weren't here when the Spaniards arrived, they were built by somebody, they're maintained at some cost, and the notion that they are free in a city that is very short of real estate and space and somehow it's about human rights in the constitution that we should have these parking spaces available to everyone--well, no.... I'd rather live in a city where we paid for parking and transit was free."

Bob Planthold of the Senior Action Network reminded the MTA Board that they have a duty to find revenue to better fund paratransit and to enforce parking violations such as parking on sidewalks. "You've had the opportunity as an MTA Board from the very beginning to put funding measures on the ballot. This is a potential internal funding measure that can help paratransit and better enforcement. You can do something by principle, or you can cave in to political whims and pressure."

In the end, MTA Chief Nat Ford told his Board he would prepare a schedule of public outreach meetings and the agency would take the proposal throughout the city to get public opinion on it. MTA Board Director Malcolm Heinicke urged Ford to heed the advice of several speakers to set up a one-year trial of extended meters in a commercial district where that might not be too controversial and gather data based on the experiment.  Ford said he would direct staff to do so.

MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan reminded his board that MTA staff presented them with three service cuts options for balancing the budget, each more "draconian" than the last. The board chose the middle option with the understanding they would have to come back and find more revenue or face service cuts. "I think about that, what it means if we don't find additional revenues for this agency. The last thing that I'd like to do on this board is cut any additional service. To my mind we're here to provide service."

So then it comes to whether or not the MTA Board has the fortitude to back an unpopular parking proposal to fulfill its Transit-First mandate. If it's true that Mayor Newsom is washing his hands of the study and leaving it to the MTA Board and the Supes, this small paean to rational parking policy proffered by MTA staff might not be dead yet.