Could Showing Merchants the Money Make Parking Meter Trials Palatable?

4522052370_890451564f.jpgA new street tree and sidewalk on Valencia Street. In other cities, merchants have welcomed extended parking meter hours when some of the revenue goes towards similar streetscape upgrades. Photo: Matthew Roth

In his magnum opus, The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA Professor Donald Shoup argues that city parking managers will build merchant support for extending parking meter hours and pricing them according to demand if they return some or all of the extra revenue to the merchant corridors where it was collected.

By using the revenue to keep the sidewalks clean, beautify the streetscape, and generally improve shopping districts, cities like Old Pasadena have been able to win over skeptical business owners.

So what if San Francisco tried the same approach?

As Streetsblog reported last year, some merchants and community groups say they'd be more open to extended meter hours if there were direct improvements to the neighborhood as a result.

Shoup himself weighed in on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's (SFMTA) exhaustive parking study, praising its scope but pointing out that, from a political perspective, using the revenue to spruce up the street is crucial. "Everybody wants better bus service and more frequent bus service, but that's hard to see, especially if you're a struggling merchant," Shoup told Streetsblog.

"I think that it's easy to see very clean sidewalks, very well-policed sidewalks in front of your restaurant, rapid responses to any cracks in your sidewalks, maybe much more frequent cleaning," he added.

At the time, SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford called such plans "pretty far down the line in terms of this discussion."

Recently, we asked Ford to give an update on his thinking about the idea.

"The answer is, our financial situation is so dire that I need to get every penny that we have," Ford responded.

That seemed to rule out the idea of using the money to steam-clean sidewalks or plant new street trees. But transportation-related improvements just might work. "I think sometime in the future, if it were to look at transportation improvements that we want to make that just happen to be in line with the business community, then by all means, we're in the same boat," said Ford.

That might mean "bike infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure, [or] transit shelters," he added. "There's probably a host of different things that they as a business community would enjoy and we would enjoy implementing for them as a transportation agency."

Of course, as Shoup pointed out, sidewalks themselves are part of the city's transportation network.

"If they use the money to make sidewalk improvements, [that's] one of the most important transportation pieces of infrastructure in San Francisco," Shoup said. "I think the sidewalks are almost as important as the bus system."

For now, Ford has secured the Mayor's begrudging blessing to launch Sunday metering pilot programs in several neighborhoods. "It's going to probably be June 1 for us to do that," Ford explained. "Again, we don't want people feeling like this is shoved down their throats. I think things work better when you have cooperation, and that's what we're trying to seek, through education and communication."

Offering an immediate, tangible benefit in return (in the form of streetscape upgrades) never hurts when it comes to seeking cooperation.