Should Parking Be Allowed at Broken Meters?

Photo: ## Hollero/Orange Photography##
Photo: ## Hollero/Orange Photography##

Anyone who wants to use a parking space with a broken meter in San Francisco today is allowed to park for free as long as the posted time limit allows. Given that kind of incentive, some people who drive are finding ways to break meters on a daily basis in order to avoid paying.

As the SFPark program fully launches March 1 and implements direct demand-based parking pricing on a quarter of the city’s meters, time limits will be increased to four hours or eliminated altogether with the aim of facilitating more convenient parking, encouraging payment compliance, and reducing enforcement labor.

However, under the current broken meter policy, some drivers may find more incentive to disable meters and take advantage of the longer time limits. In order to avoid such an unintended consequence, the SFMTA Board’s Policy and Governance Committee has agreed to set a standard two-hour maximum limit at broken meters, something that must still be approved by the full board.

According to a policy report presented by SFMTA CFO Sonali Bose, between 300 to 500 parking meters are broken on any given day, and 80 to 90 percent of those are due to vandalism. While that may only amount to 1 to 3 percent of the city’s meters, Sustainable Streets Director Bond Yee said about 60 percent of those are repaired within the first day and 96 percent within three days, no small feat for repair crews.

An SFMTA study shows that out of twelve major North American cities, five don’t even allow parking at broken meters. Most notably, Los Angeles adopted such a policy specifically to address vandalism and found significant success, according to Bose.

Broken Meter Policies of 12 North American Cities included in the report. Click to enlarge.

With some of the incoming SFPark meters covering up to eight spots, the need to disincentivize vandalism is greater than ever.

Of the four policy options presented to committee, which ranged from keeping the status quo to banning all parking at broken meters, Bose recommended a one-hour limit. That, she said, would allow some leeway for those who mistakenly park their cars at already broken meters while minimizing the incentive to vandalize. A consistent time limit would also simplify enforcement, Bose noted in her report.

SFMTA CEO Nat Ford agreed with the recommendation, which would set San Francisco’s policy “somewhere in the middle” of other cities’.

“It’s a revenue issue and a cost issue,” said Ford, who cited repairs, revenue loss, and enforcement inefficiencies among the financial impacts of vandalism. The cost of repairing meters alone is estimated to be $225,000 per year, according to the report.

Director Cameron Beach was skeptical of a complete ban on broken meter parking, expressing concerns for drivers who park at meters without realizing they’re broken, while Director Jerry Lee voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of lower time limits to prevent vandalism.

Director Cheryl Brinkman was in favor of a limit as strict as necessary. “Maybe we need to consider this as a step-by-step, and if we don’t have success reducing the vandalism at a one-hour time limit, then we have to consider going to ‘no parking at broken meters’,” she said.

In the end, the committee favored a two-hour maximum limit for approval, with the potential for it to be lowered in the future. Under the rule, posted time limits of less than two hours would still be enforced.

  • pceasy

    Of course you should be able to park there. Why punish small businesses?

  • Michael Smith

    Currently with unlimited parking at broken meters those poor beleaguered small business owners are highly motivated to break the meters, thus having free parking all day!

    As the article points out, the whole point is that if people are not allowed to park at broken meters then there would be not motivation to vandalize them and very few would every be broken. The city would save a huge amount of money fixing meters. Plus there would be an increase in available parking because for the 90% of the meters that are broken due to vandalism instead of people hogging a spot all day long there would be far more turnover.

  • EL

    So let me get this straight:

    There’s been proven success that if you prohibit parking at a broken meter, there’s no longer any incentive to vandalize it in the first place. Perhaps it goes to follow that if parking with a disabled placard is no longer free, you remove the biggest incentive of getting the placard in the first place. Hmmm…..

    I also call BS on the motorist not realizing that a meter was broken. How hard is it to see a flashing yellow light and “OUT OF ORDER” on the meter when you walk up to it to pay? Of course, the only way you wouldn’t know is if you never walked up to it to pay in the first place.

  • EL –

    To be fair, I’m not sure it is very easy to see if a meter’s broken as you’re pulling up (not being a driver myself) – perhaps that’s a design improvement to look into.

    What Beach was talking about was getting out of your car, finding the meter broken, and having to pull out and circle around again while the next person does the same thing, and so on. I think it’s a valid concern, but only needs maybe a half-hour/one-hour allowance at most to be addressed.

  • EL

    Aaron – If you took the picture from the other side of the meter, you’d still see the flashing yellow light, the red sign would no longer flash, and the outline of “OUT OF ORDER” is shown. I think it’s pretty obvious on both sides.

    Of course the whole point of someone confused becomes moot, because when you can’t park for free anymore, the chances of the meter being broken falls to less than 1%.

  • EL –

    I wish that was pointed out at the meeting.

    Although I’d still only be curious about the potential for surprised drivers pulling part-way into bike lanes (which arguably shouldn’t be in that dangerous spot in the first place) to endanger those on bikes, perhaps you should tell this to the board on Feb 1 to support going to a full ban…

  • I would like to see the reports on the number of vandalized parking meters before and after the no parking at a broken meter law was enacted in certain cities. This wasn’t mentioned. If there is such a direct correlation between vandalized meters and a law allowing one to park for free at a broken meter, the cities that banned parking at a meter should have no vandalized meters. I might be wrong, but I have a hunch that the numbers are not going to add up so neatly. And if they don’t, then the whole argument and reasoning is bogus. If the math does add up, then before free parking is eliminated, it should be discussed and presented to the community, that if vandalism continues, there will be no free parking. That would be healthy policy making.

    So, who can find out how many meters were vandalized after the no parking law passed in Vancouver, Seattle, Denver, and Houston.

  • Alex

    The meters are designed to have pretty obvious ‘out of order’ indications to PCOs driving by. If an automobile driver were educated as to what to look for, I don’t think there’s much problem. OTOH, the idea of having 30-minute limits is a bit silly to me. PCOs are already stretched pretty thin, and don’t (get a chance to?) ticket most over-limit violations. To properly enforce such short time limits, you’d need that much more enforcement. IMO setting the limit to a maximum of one to two hours in unsigned areas is a prudent idea.

    Sweet Spot: AFAIK in Los Angeles the vast majority of out of order meters are simply full of coins. Vandalism isn’t extremely uncommon, but I’d be surprised if it was as much of a problem as it is in, for instance, Berkeley.

  • Sean H

    If there is no limit, there is no turnover. Meters are meant for commercial districts, so businesses would theoretically lose money. Of course, its true that in a large part of SF most people do not drive to shop anyway.

    Now, if the broken meter spots became bike corrals or boarding areas, Id start breaking meters! (JK)

  • Morton

    Is there any actual evidence that drivers are deliberately breaking meters to save a quarter? Or is that just an assumption.

    Seems to me it’s more likely they just break down as a result of wear and tear, or poor maintenance. Or that it is thieves trying to break into them that cause damage.

  • Alex

    Morton: I’m the last person that’d believe anything the MTA puts out (and the first person that would like to see them have a statistician on payroll whose sole job is to collect and publish lots and lots of raw data)… but… yes, in many, if not most, cases vandalism is self-evident. If you read thru SFGate’s 2004 article, you’ll get a description of the types of problems Berkeley had (and probably still has). Things like gum jammed in the coin slot, or a sawed off meter head are pretty obviously not due to lack of maintenance.

    That said, so far I’ve only ever seen one sawed off meter in San Francisco. The dominant type of meter that San Francisco uses is top-of-the-line and, IIRC, a one-off design not used in any other city. The mechanisms are generally regarded as some of the most reliable in the industry. While Berkeley was having problems with batteries dying in their large, multi-space meters, batteries in single space meters are typically less problematic. Not only will they last longer, they’re cheaper, and any time someone’s in there to empty coins (happens on a regular basis) they can swap out the battery with a minimum of fuss. I suspect that if the MTA says it’s vandalism, the meters really are being vandalized.

    If the city is spending a quarter mil a year repairing sawed off meters, that’s one thing. OTOH, if the city is spending a quarter mil a year picking gum out of these things there are some other things that ought to be looked at. Likewise, if the problem is that the coin handling bits are getting tweaked, perhaps it’s worth looking at making a bigger push to use the already deployed parking smart cards (and/or looking at whether or not contactless smart cards whose readers would be more difficult to disable would be a good idea).

    In addition to being able to tell the MTA when a parking spot is occupied in violation, there’s a chance that SFPark might actually deploy technology to determine when a meter thinks it’s broken and predict when a meter might be broken even if it thinks it’s not.

  • Payed my additional city tax

    I parked in an out of order parking meter in the mission district. The SFMTA sent a notice in the mail that I was past due on parking violation payment. I never received a parking ticket on my car. I sent a reply to SFMTA stating the the meter was out of order. The SFMTA sent me letter ( 6 months after my first response letter) stating there was no evidence of an out of order meter and that I was required to pay. I was only parked in this spot for less than 1 hour. They asked for photos of the disabled meter.

    I did not vandalize the meter. I only parked in the spot because it was the only spot available.


    I guess the 2 hour time only applies if you can prove the meter was disabled with a picture.


  • EL

    Morton wrote: “Is there any actual evidence that drivers are deliberately breaking meters to save a quarter? Or is that just an assumption.”

    You need to check out Chinatown sometime. While you’re there, you can see how many disabled people are parked there too.

  • El, are you saying that people are breaking their bones to get free parking?

  • EL

    jass – Puh-lese. Here’s a quick lesson on street smarts:

    There are many who use disabled placards to park for free. And if they don’t have one (or make one, or buy one, or have someone sign off for one, or copy one), they can jam/disable a meter to park for free. End of lesson.

  • Seems to me it’s more likely they just break down as a result of wear and tear, or poor maintenance.

  • same thing happened to me, they said their maintenance records don’t show the meter was broken even though I sent pictures with the written protest

  • sebra leaves

    A state law was passed last year specifically to address the issue of broken parking meters making it legal to park for the legal limit at them. If you have a problem with broken parking meters in SF talk to the SFMTA. They are responsible for fixing them. FYI: When the meters are full, they act like they are broken. Emptying the meters is part of the program.


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