San Francisco’s Own Oil Spill: The Wasteful Hunt for Free Parking

3254686730_28ea2e6769_b.jpgClement Street: scene of over-parked Sunday afternoons. Flickr photo: Rubin 110

Editor's note: This will be Michael Rhodes' last regular post as a reporter for Streetsblog. He's leaving us for an urban planning career, but hopes to occasionally contribute columns like this in the future.

Clement Street. Sunday. Noon. Drivers are circling around the block in their cars, looking out with hawk's eyes for a parking space, often oblivious to the people on foot of all ages who give Clement its bustle.

The parking spaces on Clement are free in a monetary sense -- it's Sacred Sunday, after all -- but there's hardly a "free" spot to be found, as the under-priced curb gives an incentive to claim that space Saturday night.

One question for each of the supervisors and the Mayor, all of whom have some say over the matter, is: If the city doesn't provide free seats on the bus on Sundays, why does it provide free public parking spaces?

There are some very good reasons the city doesn't provide free bus rides on Sundays -- or evenings, for that matter. For Muni riders, the experience would actually be less pleasant: Muni vehicles might get so packed that riders would start getting passed up at bus stops, and might have to wait even longer to get a seat. For the city, it would be a big hit to revenue, which goes to paying for the service in the first place.

When it comes to parking meters, the exact same logic should apply. If the city doesn't charge for parking spaces, suddenly it becomes almost impossible to find a spot, making the experience worse for drivers and anyone in their path as they circle endlessly for parking. It also deprives the city of money to compensate for the free real estate it's providing to cars and, this being by voter-mandate a Transit First city, to pay for the transit service it strives to provide.

But while the Mayor accepted the results of a study that found that free transit isn't all that viable of an option right now, he's been far more reluctant to accept the results of another study that found that free parking is even more problematic.

parking.jpgClick to enlarge: Parking occupancy rates on Sundays, when meters are off. Source: SFMTA parking study.

On Clement Street, for instance, the study found that occupancy rates for on-street parking spaces are in excess of 100 percent on Sunday afternoons between Arguello and Funston Avenue (near Park Presidio.) That means that not only are all of the legitimate parking spaces taken, cars are actually illegally parked in no-parking zones or are double-parked.

That's the parking equivalent of a Muni bus that's so packed that passengers are hanging off the sides of the bus and even finding a little extra space on its roof. A small price to pay for "free," right?

Perhaps if Muni service had always been free on Sundays, and customers had gotten used to the savings  and the awful conditions, there might be howls of protest and discontent if someone proposed charging for Sunday service. It might seem like a revenue grab from the city, or some kind of intrusion into a hallowed time of the week. But it would still be the right thing to do, for the same reason it's right to charge to ride on Saturday, Sunday, or any other day.

That's doubly true for parking. People are used to getting it for free on Sundays and evenings, but it's not really the best arrangement for anyone. And unlike transit, the city doesn't have an official policy of encouraging driving, so it makes no sense to invite driving over transit use by making it free. In fact, trying to find a parking spot in many San Francisco districts is so difficult on Sundays, when the meters are off, it's almost as if free parking is actually the city's sneaky way of getting people out of their cars and onto transit, bikes, and their feet!

But if that's the strategy, it's an imperfect one. All those circling drivers make it much less pleasant to walk around a street like Clement on a lazy Sunday, and even worse to bike or ride a bus behind a car inching along at five miles per hour in search of a spot.

More Than One Solution

The Mayor has put almost all the pressure to restore Muni service on Muni drivers by asking them to make contract concessions for the next two years. That would save the city $18.7 million over two years, enough money to restore Muni service to pre-service-cut levels and maybe even add a little service on top of that.

In his hard sell, though, the Mayor has been quick to suppress any other possible revenue options for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, going so far as to suggest that new revenue could make Muni operators think it's less important to accept concessions.

Extending parking meter hours to evenings and Sundays in places where not charging is leading to extreme scarcity of parking spaces could bring in $17.6 million over the same two-year period, also enough to restore Muni service. Or, if operators re-vote on the concessions package and accept it, the SFMTA would have enough money to increase service by 10 percent on top of pre-cut levels. (In case the Mayor needs any help selling that idea to the operators union, he may want to remind them that more service would mean a lot more operator jobs.)

But the Mayor, as well as every member of the Board of Supervisors but one, has said no to extending parking meter enforcement hours. Some say businesses don't want it, or residents will have more trouble finding a spot to store their car for the evening. Worst of all, voters might revolt, the Mayor fears, like the now notorious response to extended parking meter hours in Oakland last year.

There are a few things to remember, though. First off, this isn't Oakland. San Francisco is officially a Transit First city, and unlike Oakland, it would be extending meter hours based on exhaustive parking occupancy surveys, not a rash decision to cover a citywide budget gap.

Second, this isn't last year: Unlike last year, there are millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf Coast, a chilling reminder of the cost of excess oil consumption. As Jason Henderson wrote on Streetsblog recently, that should give people pause before they hop in the car, and people should try to drive at least 20 percent less as a result.

If the city's elected officials need further support for extending parking meter hours beyond the fact that it actually makes it easier to find a spot and patronize a business while compensating the city for the cost of owning and maintaining parking spaces, they might look to Henderson's essay and think of it on a citywide scale. As a Transit First city that cares about the environment, we have an imperative to drive less and reduce our oil consumption. Stopping the circling for parking on Sundays by charging a fair price would be an excellent place to start.

As helpful to Muni's budget as labor concessions would be, the city can't stop looking at other revenue sources, especially ones that -- unlike cutting worker compensation -- could actually have additional economic benefits.

In the meantime, I'll be avoiding Clement Street during prime dim sum hours on Sunday, when parking occupancy rates reach 104 percent, and will opt to visit on Saturday instead. Watching all those poor drivers look so hard for a spot just makes it too hard to enjoy a good brunch.