Commentary: Sidewalk Sitting? No Way! Sidewalk Parking? Stay All Day!

One weighs 200 pounds or less, the other maybe two tons or more. One is involved in odd scuffles, the other in nearly 40,000 deaths nationwide each year. One is being targeted by the mayor and the press in San Francisco, the other sails under the radar.

Even as Mayor Gavin Newsom, SFPD Chief George Gascón, and the San Francisco Chronicle press for a new law that would punish sitting or lying on the sidewalk, drivers continue to park with impunity across the pedestrian pathway, with nary a word from Newsom or the editorialists at the Chron, notably recent suburban transplant C.W. Nevius, who’s devoted several columns to the perils of sitting and lying.

Though cloaking their campaign for the new law in concern for beleaguered pedestrians, who they say must now run a gauntlet of surly youth and their unleashed dogs along Haight Street, Newsom and Nevius have completely ignored the real threat to pedestrians of cars obstructing their path.

Nevius, in fact, has a history of blaming pedestrians for their own injuries. In a column last October that was sharply criticized on Streetsblog, he attributed San Francisco’s high rate of pedestrian deaths and injuries to spacey walkers not looking where they were going, ignoring data to the contrary that cited driver speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks as major factors.

Some opponents have suggested that the push for sit/lie is actually a campaign tactic to stir up conservative voters in the fall, when several supervisorial races could shift seats on the board away from progressives. This makes sense, but I also think concern for property values plays a large part in the push from some Haight neighbors, who have shelled out big bucks for their houses but don’t feel like they enjoy a posh enough environment so long as these undesirables are allowed to occupy public space.

Property values have been an issue in the Mission, where some neighbors have tried to move day laborers away from their blocks. Other neighbors have spoken up for the rights of the day laborers, and many heated meetings and hearings have seen neighbors lined up against one another. The proposed sit/lie measure could target day laborers along Cesar Chavez and nearby streets, and the Day Labor Program was the scene last month of a lively protest against the proposed new law.

When I spoke as a supportive neighbor who lives a block away from Cesar Chavez, I pointed out the lack of sidewalk parking enforcement and asked, “Do cars have more rights than people?” The response was a resounding no.

Sit/lie targets commercial streets such as Haight, which are more visible to tourists. But residential streets, where sidewalk parking is rampant, are where our lives take place.

Sidewalks are an extension of our homes, where neighbors can enjoy casual contact, where the person walking the dog can bump into the person trimming the tree or the parent watching the child’s first ride without training wheels. We live in a city, and our sidewalks are as vital as our libraries, museums, and parks. When we have to slide over oil slicks and do a slalom to make it from one corner to another, walking becomes a chore.

Lighthouse_image_small.jpgAdvocates for the blind and disabled have repeatedly sought relief from sidewalk parking and attendant hazards. Photo: Matthew Roth.

Whatever the pros and cons of sit/lie, the massive media and political attention devoted to problems with a few youths and dogs on a few blocks contrasts with the total blackout of an issue that affects every San Franciscan who walks even a few blocks in just about any neighborhood. Unfortunately, this discrepancy is nothing new.

Compare the number of tickets given for residential parking permit (RPP) violations versus sidewalk parking. RPP enforcement, being time-related, by definition requires two visits by parking control officers (PCOs), first to note the time a non-permitted car is spotted and then a second time to check if it has exceeded the time limit. Cars blocking the sidewalk are immediately obvious. An RPP violation may inconvenience a few drivers if all other parking spots are taken and the space in question is needed by a resident. Sidewalk cars physically endanger all walkers trying to get by, especially the most vulnerable: the disabled or visually impaired, seniors and parents with children in strollers or holding toddlers by the hand.

Still, RPP tickets outnumber sidewalk tickets by a margin of five to one, year after year. Typically, sidewalk violations must be called in, and neighbors are often reluctant to snitch on each other, and the time lag between phone call and actual enforcement allows many violators to leave and avoid being ticketed. RPP has dedicated teams of PCOs that seek out violations.

Even the oft-cited thuggishness of the sitters and liers has its reflection in sidewalk drivers. Assaults on PCOs have increased in recent years. One PCO testified at a hearing on the extension of parking meter hours that extending hours into the evening would endanger PCOs ticketing cars at expired meters after dark. Sidewalk parking often occurs right in front of the perpetrator’s home, as a result of confusion about the definition of driveway versus public space.

PCOs ticketing such cars are especially vulnerable to assault, and this has been cited as a reason for official reluctance to enforce the law. So the thuggish threats of the sitters and liers are a reason we need a new law, but the thuggish actions of the sidewalk parkers are a reason not to enforce the laws we already have.

We’re being told that punks and pooches are the real danger to pedestrians. And if you’re forced to walk in the street by some lout parking across a driveway and you get hit in traffic as a result, you can count on Nevius to chalk up your contusions to pedestrian inattentiveness! 

  • Fran, amen!

  • mcas

    Last time I reported a car blocking the sidewalk to 311, the DPT receptionist asked ‘is it a hazard?’ I replied: “It’s a car on the sidewalk– OF COURSE IT’S A HAZARD.” …they never showed.

  • Thanks for the excellent analysis.

    I am a frequent snitch of sidewalk parkers. I have discovered that they only bother ticketing if the car is blocking the entire sidewalk. If there is one square of space that they aren’t parked in, no ticket.

  • “So the thuggish threats of the sitters and liers are a reason we need a new law, but the thuggish actions of the sidewalk parkers are a reason not to enforce the laws we already have.”

    I gotta remember this one and repeat it again and again.

  • @Stuart I would think that if someone can put together a list of incidents where DPT failed to act on a reported car that left less than 6′ of usable sidewalk, they could sue the city for negligence under ADA. Do you know if any disability or livable streets organizations looked into this?

  • @SteveS No, I don’t know if any disability or livable streets organizations have looked at this.

    Is 6′ some special number?

    I thought it was illegal to park on public sidewalk at all. I think this is true and what you are saying is that to leave less than 6′ it is not just illegal under parking/traffic code but much more seriously illegal under the ADA or something similar. Is that correct?

  • Gary

    Something has to change with sidewalk parking enforcement. I run most errands with a shopping cart to avoid using the car and the biggest problem is sidewalk parking. Only thing you can do with the cart is go around by going into the street.

    DPT is useless. I see meter maids go right by a half a dozen sidewalk parked cars without ticketing every day. Seems if they told these maids to ticket everyone you see parked on the sidewalk, that would bring in a bunch of money.

  • Thanks for the great piece! Have you hugged your PCO today?

    I’m in the habit of calling DPT to report sidewalk parkers (553-1200, 1 for English, 6 for sidewalk parking) but rarely does my report result in a visit from a PCO, much less a ticket. And that’s to say nothing of the semi-official free pass they give for street sweeping days.

    CVC 22500 says unequivocally:

    No person shall stop, park, or leave standing any vehicle whether attended or unattended, except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with the directions of a peace officer or official traffic control device, in any of the following places:

    (f) On any portion of a sidewalk, or with the body of the vehicle extending over any portion of a sidewalk, except electric carts when authorized by local ordinance, as specified in Section 21114.5. Lights, mirrors, or devices that are required to be mounted upon a vehicle under this code may extend from the body of the vehicle over the sidewalk to a distance of not more than 10 inches.

  • Sean

    @Stuart

    Really? Whenever I call as long as the car is there when DPT gets to it it’ll end up with a ticket.

    @Gary

    DPT has been instructed specifically not to enforce unless there is a citizen complaint. So unless you call they won’t cite.

    To everyone — just plug DPTs number into your speed-dial and get in the habit of calling when you see it. My street used to almost always have nearly one car parked on the sidewalk but not anymore. A few tickets and people start to learn.

    The bottom line is that there does need to be a change in how these laws are enforced. I think bike lanes are enforced in the same way — unless someone calls in a report the DPT folks drive right on by. Unfortunately in most cases by the time DPT gets out there the car has moved on.

  • @Josh thanks for posting that. I never bothered to actually look up the law…

    @Sean yeah, seriously. It sucks. I mostly call for Glen Park, Sunnyside, and sometimes the Mission. It could be a matter of whose “territory” it is. But at least I know that people that block the whole thing will usually get ticketed. So now I mostly stick to calling those in, because there are plenty of them. I’ve got the number in my “favorites” on my phone.

  • Twitpic shows us this twit.

    http://twitpic.com/1p9j8b

    He has blocked the sidewalk in front of his house, which has a sign on it saying “Don’t Block Noe Street”. Blocking streets – bad. Blocking sidewalks – not bad. Got it?

  • Twit huh? C.W. move to Noe Valley?

    But yeah, makes sense. As long as his car is doing what he wants it to (driving down Noe or parking in front of his house) then it is all good. Plus, it is expensive to put in those driveways, just as JohnB and bmwlover.

  • Nick

    They would ticket sidewalk parkers if there was a viable alternative place they could park and didn’t. I’m sure a ballot iniative would pass that allowed for building a parking garage on every third block throughout the city. They could take away 2 or 3 houses through eminent domain and build a belching structure into the sky and most people would approve of it.

  • @Nick “They would ticket sidewalk parkers if there was a viable alternative place they could park and didn’t.” No, they wouldn’t, because this is currently the case and they still don’t ticket.

  • Nick

    If the street is already full when you get home, then there is no viable place left to park.

    Consider that if SF is ever to build full-on separated bikeways… we’re all going to have to agree to build lots of parking garages in residential neighborhoods.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for covering this topic. I hope you guys hold the DPT accountable and make them enforce this rule without waiting for complaints to roll in.

    I wonder how many of these sidewalk parkers have garages that they CHOOSE to fill with their junk rather than store their car.

    Unfortunately the knee jerk reaction to this situation is fairly predictable and we will hear calls for more parking structures, not less cars.

  • Nick, “we” have no proper or legitimate role in building any off-street facility for the cold storage of private automobiles.

    There are hundreds of thousands of public street spaces available to private motorists–the city has certainly exceeded any duty to such individuals already. Those persons who seek to further pamper their 3 ton planet-wreckers with better shelter than what many humans get? They can open their fat wallets and pay for it themselves. The city has other, more important priorities–like safe, unobstructed travel lanes for bicycles and transit on our public roadways, and safe, unobstructed sidewalks for pedestrians.

    There’s already a website for posting pics and info on bike lane blockers–mybikelane.com–is there a website where we can post pictures and license plates of egregious sidewalk-blockers?

  • Joe C

    I’m happy to say I reported a sidewalk blcoker today. It is odd that people like those that Nick cited complain that they *have* to park in “their” “driveway” becasue the city has failed to provide adequate street parking. But if they have a driveway they have a garage so they have a parking space in the garage. Plus the curbcut represents a loss of a public street parking space to access a private garage, that often takes out part of the sidewalk for a ramp.
    Also, the use of a garage space for storage to the point that it can’t be used for parking is a violation of the building code. I would bet that most side walk parkiers can’t get into their garage because they’re using it to store some other precious belongings.

  • gibraltar

    Thanks for covering this topic (again). I am completely appalled by the amount and audacity of sidewalk parking I see. I am also raging mad at the DPT for not enforcing the law. I know I can call it in and I do so quite frequently. Yet, I have a full time job and family, and I thought that we pay government and authorities to take care of stuff. Also, last time I wanted to call someone in (this Monday), I noticed that their announcement and options changed and it takes several minutes to get to the extension you need. On top of that, on Monday nobody picked up the phone — I tried twice. It is appalling what motorists get away in this city.

  • Nick – half these people have a viable place to park in their own garages.

    Scratch that – most of these people.

    The garages are full of crap, or are tandem parking and they are too lazy to hassle with it.

  • Yeah, we’ve got a garage space for our apartment, but all four of us don’t have a car, so we store our bikes and tools in there.

  • Why does the DPT fail to enforce parking and traffic laws, like sidewalk and bike lane blockages?

    DPT’s ongoing failure to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe from outlaw motorists is indefensible, both in terms of public safety and lost revenue in a punishing recession.

    Are officials getting paid off by the bad motorist lobby, or what?

  • gibraltar
  • @gibraltar you print ’em, I’ll use ’em.

  • mark

    Right. Also, why does the Examiner get to throw its trash on all city sidewalks every Sunday and never has to clean it up?

  • @gibraltar, those are awesome but I’d prefer magnets to stickers…

  • Sean

    @Nick

    Wah wah wah…

    If there isn’t a place to park maybe you should reconsider vehicle ownership in the city. Lack of a legal place != right to park anywhere you feel like it.

  • Moley

    I’m not sure if the “6 feet rule” is actually statute or whether it is just a guideline that DPT use to decide whether to ticket sidewalk parking or not.

    For instance, there are cases where the sidewalk is sufficiently wide that a car can be parked in a driveway at 90 degress and there is still the normal average width of a sidewalk for sidewalk users to traverse.

    In that case, the vehicle is not hazard and DPT should not ticket.

    And I know for a fact (at least, a traffic cop told me) that they don’t ticket sidewalk parkers during street cleaning hours.

    Six feet is chosen because it would allow for the widest wheelchair to easily pass.

    If a vehicle is genuinely blocking the sidewalk then it should be called into DPT. But it sounds here almost like one or two folks are walking the blocks with the express purpose of finding cases to call in, whether it is a genuine problem or not, and that smacks of pettiness.

    Remember, while that DPT patrol is giving out that ticket, he’s not giving out a ticket to another vehicle that is parked in a bus stop, a disabled zone or bike lane.

  • The CVC code prohibiting motorists from blocking the sidewalk-at all–has already been cited.

  • Moley

    Greasy

    That begs the question of what is meant by “blocking”

    Parking on the sidewalk may or may not “block” usage of the sidewalk depending on the length of the vehicle and the width of the sidewalk.

    Ticketing every car on the sidewalk regardless of whether it is causing an obstruction would be like ticketing every cyclist who rolls through a stop sign. Technically within the law but outrageously petty and vindictive.

  • @Nick if people want to build privately-financed, underground parking somewhere they think there is demand for it, the city should make it easy to get permits to do so.

    But under no circumstances should public money or eminent domain be used to facilitate storage of private vehicles.

    @Stuart ADA requires cities to maintain 6′ wide clear sidewalk for wheelchairs. DPT should be following the law and ticketing everyone who parks on a sidewalk or setback regardless of the available space, just seems like if you could find egregious cases where it becomes an ADA issue it would be an opportunity to make a federal case out of it. But I am no lawyer, was just interested if anyone had looked at this. ADA has certainly been used as a very powerful stick against cities on many other issues

  • @SteveS, if people want private underground parking ten the city shouldstill permit the hell out of them. Those cars need to still travel on public streets to get to those lots, degrading pavement and congesting public ROW. They should not, and really can not, get an easy ride.

    @moley, people aren’t out looking for this stuff, that’s the problem. People are encountering this on a daily basis as they go about their daily lives. Walking around cars blocking the sidewalk has unfortunately become a part of daily life in this city. Fran’s column is trying to point out the blatant hypocrisy of city officials who demand people get off the sidewalk but continue to allow the privilaged to obstruct with their private autos. And parking on any part of the sidewalk is a ticketable offense – don’t bring bikes into this. That’s petty and distracting.

    Also, these people are flat out lazy. You don’t have to park directly in front of your house. I’m sure if you swing the block a couple time you’d find parking. And if it is such a problem for you, then you should reconsider can ownership in the city. There is no god given American right to park in front of your place of residence.

    And I don’t think people just don’t care (most of the time) the inconvience they cause, it’s just that they don’t care to know. Maybe if we educated these parkers on what they are doing to the blind and disabled? But this after slapping them with the appropriate fine of course.

  • @mikesonn Well full cost pricing of auto trips is another beast entirely. I’d also be fully in favor of a large new tax on parking spaces (as a proxy for vehicle trips generated) or any other good, simple model of use fee to get cars to pay for their full share of maintenance of local streets so that no money for that is coming out of the city’s general fund, and then likewise conversion of all highways and freeways into tollways with tolls set appropriately so that again they pay for all maintenance and nothing is coming out of the state’s general fund any longer.

    Once you have something like that in place, the city could freely permit anyone who wants to build below-ground parking on their own dime, with a fast permit process that only does simple checks that entry and exit ramps will not cause conflict with pedestrians, cyclists or emergency vehicle access

  • I want to clear up the misconception from one or more commenters here that as long as you leave x amount of space, it is OK to park on the sidewalk. There are two reasons why cars blocking ANY of the sidewalk is not OK:
    – The mainstream reason is that sidewalks are for people. Sidewalks are not for cars. There is, unfortunately, already PLENTY of space for cars. Sidewalks in residential neighborhoods should be used for kids playing, neighbors having BBQs, etc. So I don’t care if you’re “only” on two feet of the sidewalk. You deserve a ticket.
    – The “radical” reason is that cars are deadly, unhealthy, and destructive in so many ways. Anything that we can do to make driving more expensive in the city, we should do it.

    If people couldn’t park on the sidewalk anymore, you know what I think they would do? They’d clean out their garage and park there. Sounds like a much better solution to me.

    Let’s reverse the roles here for a second (and I have been hoping that we might). Suppose I decided to set up a couple of lawn chairs in an unmetered, on-street residential parking spot in Nob Hill. Suppose I sat out there for a few hours reading a book and sipping some lemonade. Just use your imagination to think of how much verbal abuse I would get by people circling for a parking spot.

    It just shows how ridiculous the sidewalk parker’s argument is.

  • @SteveS, “that entry and exit ramps will not cause conflict with pedestrians, cyclists or emergency vehicle access” sounds like a pretty big cross to bear and I’m doubtful that any project could meet those criteria.

    Also, once we get to the level of cost for car use that you are suggesting, then private parking garages will be the least of the worries of car owners. There will probably be so many parking spaces that we can have parklets on every street.

  • Freddo

    Couldn’t agree more with this post! This antisocial behavior is one of my major pet peaves. Question here: our neighborhood has a lot of perpendicular parking (ie, vehicle parks 90 degrees to the curb) and long vehicles can block significant amounts of the sidewalk even with all four tires placed in the parking spot. for example, the bed of a pick-up or monster truck will protrude over the sidewalk when the vehicle is backed into the spot. From reading the code, it appears that this should be a citable violation. Any comments?

  • SteveS,

    I know Mike made this point, but I want to reiterate it. Underground parking is not as happy a solution as it seems. If you build underground parking (say at the proposed new retail development at 935 Market that is asking to put in 180 spaces) you draw in lots of additional cars to a congested area that is extremely well served by public transit. Just how many more cars per day can Market and Mission Streets handle? And at what cost to bicyclists and the enormous number of pedestrians who have to compete with extra cars and inhale extra pollution? By not putting in additional parking in highly congested areas (and pricing the available parking high enough so that demand balances with supply) you reduce congestion, pollution, noise and our city’s contribution to climate change. (You also help make our city and state more energy independent.)

    In general, if you build parking, more cars will come, to the convenience of car drivers and to the detriment of public health, safety and enjoyment.

    As to blocking the sidewalk in residential neighborhoods, when we first moved back to the city many moons ago, I was shocked to get tickets for parking in “my” driveway. I got over it and stopped doing it. And as a young mom, I absolutely hated having to push my kid in her stroller out onto the street to get around bulky SUVs just so we could continue down the sidewalk.

    Perhaps the answer is making the cost of street parking higher so that garages get cleaned out and actually used (or even rented out to people without garages.) It might also prompt people to jettison that second or third car they park on the street that they rarely use. (I actually know people who do this.)

  • gibraltar

    Most of the front yards in my neighborhood are paved over, and the sidewalk is completely cracked from the cars parking and driving over it. Our house had a paved over front yard as well, until we had the concrete removed to plant a front yard (without a permit, as the city didn’t bother to issue it for 6 months). Now we have a nice front yard in front of our house — though it rarely gives me or anyone any pleasure as it is flanked by multiple cars in front of my neighbors’ house.

  • gibraltar

    @taomom: “Perhaps the answer is making the cost of street parking higher so that garages get cleaned out and actually used (or even rented out to people without garages.)”

    Garages filled with crap is only one part of the problem. An IMO larger problem is the illegal conversion of garages to in-law units that are then used for family or rented out, thereby not only necessitating that the homeowner parks on the street / sidewalk, but also the new tenants. However, the city does not and probably will not have the balls to enforce the law, and reverse this trend.

    “It might also prompt people to jettison that second or third car they park on the street that they rarely use. (I actually know people who do this.)”

    My neighbors have 5 cars, about half of them unused. Every day they go through considerable effort to re-shuffle their cars on the street / sidewalk. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  • I’m all for seeing garages turned back into livable units. But I understand where you are coming from. Maybe you could talk to your neighbor about giving up one or two cars and show them some ways to get around town without one.

  • Andrew Oakland

    Another point is that sidewalks are not engineered for traffic loading. They are 4″ of concrete over re-compacted soil. Roads in residential area are 6″ subgrade with something like 2″ of asphalt over that–designed (kind of) for the load placed on it by a vehicle. Cars do tremendous damage to surfaces that are not designed for traffic loading; this obviously creates further tripping hazards, etc.

  • Moley

    Gibraltor/Mike

    It has been estimated that there are up to 40,000 illegal flats in SF and almost all of them are basement conversions i.e people living in garages.

    While that places an additional burden on the streets because of all those excess vehicles with nowhere to park, the alternative is worse.

    The city has routinely refused to enforce DBI code on the illegal units because the very last thing SF needs is 40,000 more people without an affordable home.

    So it’s a matter of which progressive cause do you prefer? Liveable streets or affordable housing?

  • Moley, I fail to see what exactly you are arguing against me. I think garages should be converted to housing – better yet, don’t even turn housing into garages in the first place.

    And those people don’t need cars. We have to stop framing this argument in a way that says all new people bring a vehicle with them – that simply is not true.

  • Moley

    Mike

    Yes, we agree, housing is more important. But then the City really should legalize all those units as, right now, an owner can come clean and automatically get that housing unit condemned.

    Even so, in the context of this thread about desperate car owners parking on sidewalks etc, we both surely have to understand that an emphasis on housing over garages inevitably means more vehicles parking out in the open, somewhere.

    We cannot wish away 40,000 cars even if we would like to.

  • Sean

    I don’t particularly care whether or not we convert garages into apartments or not. The bottom line is that sidewalk parking is not legal and that there are a number of ways to move about the city -without- a car, and a couple of affordable ways to get one for those times when you absolutely feel the need.

    If you absolutely need parking then you simply have to make it a criteria when deciding where in the city to live. It is simply unacceptable to force your lack of parking upon your neighbors by occupying pedestrian space with your car.

  • Sean, agreed. And this isn’t the thread for talking about garage to housing.

    Maybe the post on having car share on the street will help to allow people the option of a car-free life.

  • Moley –

    The reason those 40,000 cars are here is precisely because we have ignored sidewalk parking. If sidewalk parking had been taboo and enforced from the start, it would decrease the convenience of having a car, and kept the demographic from shifting to “everyone has a car that they need to park”. And if this was the case, the City would have always had more pressure put on it to keep the public transit system at a higher level, rather than allowing it to deteriorate.

    We have reached a point where cars are getting more expensive and people are choosing to reduce/eliminate them. But we have created this problem where that choice is made hard, because we have institutionalized scofflaw behavior. The party should end.

  • If the city had an easy program for legalizing converted garage housing which required elimination of the curb cut, it would simultaneously make housing more affordable and prevent sidewalk parking!

    @taomom I completely agree with you about the congestion impact, as I said I think the one thing you should have to show to be permitted to build an underground garage is how you will many the congestion. I think we can say, instead of not letting you build an underground garage at all, we are going to require as a condition of building it that you to finance the creation of any needed physically separated transit and bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements on surrounding blocks so that the congestion generated by trips to your garage doesn’t interfere with other modes. Of course if no satisfactory solution is possible at any price because of space constraints, etc., you wouldn’t permit it, but that would be the only reason not to.

  • SteveS, there isn’t a way to not negatively impact every other mode of transportation. Building a garage will create a node in which multiple car trips will begin and end.

  • Nick

    My “eminent domain to build parking structures” was a veiled attempt at tounge in cheek humor.

    There is a critical mass of cars that need parking relative to the available supply. There’s no solution to this problem so they take any space they can.

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