To the Chron: Streets Work Better for All When Parking Laws Are Enforced

A truck parked in a crosswalk at 10th Ave. and Irving Street. (Really?) Photo: Aaron Bialick

As you may have heard, there’s a proposal on the table to increase parking enforcement and fines as the SFMTA grapples with a $14 million budget hole. Like clockwork, the San Francisco Chronicle came out with another windshield-perspective editorial bemoaning the city’s determination to uphold parking laws.

As Streetsblog readers occasionally note, the SFMTA’s budgeting process often leads the press to characterize parking enforcement as a revenue raiser, not good urban policy. And today’s piece in the Chron is a good case in point: The paper glosses over the fact that enforcing parking laws maintains safe movement on our streets, instead deploying a batch of arbitrary numbers to plead, in essence, “Come on, can’t illegal parkers keep getting a break?”

[San Francisco’s Transit-First Policy] comes with a price, no secret to anyone who’s walked back to a vehicle after running an errand that took a little too long. Tickets slapped on windshields cost more than ever – and the citations are going up.

To meet a projected $19.8 million shortfall over the next two years in the city’s transportation budget, the governing agency wants another $6.5 million in ticket revenue. The city collected $86.3 million in fines in 2011.

Higher traffic tickets are sold as a way to ease traffic, keep Muni moving on crowded streets and create more curbside slots as wary drivers flee a flotilla of ticket-writing officers in scooters. But it’s clearly something else: a traffic-enforcement tool that’s being diverted to pay for the city’s costly transit system.

Really? Let’s start with the basic fact that illegal parking has very real negative impacts. Double parking slows Muni and endangers bicycle riders. Parking on the sidewalk and in crosswalks endangers pedestrians (particularly the elderly, disabled, and families with strollers) and degrades the walking environment. The lack of turnover at metered parking hurts businesses and forces more drivers to cruise for a spot, increasing air pollution, congestion, wear on our poorly-maintained roads, and — full-circle — double parking.

The Chronicle argues, absurdly, that illegal parkers should catch a break because they are already bearing the cost of the choice to own a car. They should consider everyone who pays the price for unenforced parking laws. Low-income residents, who tend to not own cars, disproportionately suffer these impacts on Muni, on the sidewalks, and increasingly on bicycles. That’s because, as the data indicate, the choice to own a car in San Francisco is made disproportionately by the wealthy.

A 2010 study by the SF County Transportation Authority [PDF] found that the majority of drivers downtown in the morning peak period come from households making more than $100,000 per year. Fewer than 5 percent of those households made less than $50,000 per year. Also consider that 58.2 percent of SF households own one or zero cars (21.6 percent are car-free), according to the 2010 American Communities Survey [PDF].

Yet, while car owners can avoid frequent tickets simply by adhering to parking regulations, the Chronicle claims that increasing enforcement and fines on parking regulations is “unfair and a misuse of law enforcement powers.”

And the piece finishes off with a list of numbers masquerading as meaningful analysis, intended to convince readers that “the parking odds are against you.” The paper’s smoking gun, apparently, is the fact that there are more cars in the city than on-street parking spaces. The authors conveniently omit the off-street spaces in garages and parking lots that bring the total number of publicly-accessible parking spots up to 441,541. And that doesn’t include any privately-accessible parking spaces — a figure some parking experts have estimated could be as high as 800,000.

To gauge the city’s needs for parking enforcement, we should be asking smarter questions than simply, “How many parking enforcement officers are there?” We should try to determine the rate of parking violations. How widespread is double-parking, sidewalk parking, and crosswalk blocking? And we should try to find out how much of those violations are being captured by current enforcement. Half? A quarter?

The fact that these parking violations are rampant — and that much more could be done to deter them — is no secret to anyone who walks around San Francisco. The city doesn’t have to “sell” the benefits of enforcement at all.

  • mikesonn

    Thank you! As always, great work!

  • Anonymous

    That Chron article is barely worth even acknowledging it’s so bad. 

    The striking/depressing thing here, though, is that only 22% of households are carless. Our public transportation is obviously so pathetic that many people who would be willing to ditch their cars simply don’t consider it an option (If I didn’t bike, I probably wouldn’t either). But it also says that 78% of SF households are probably advocates of car facilities like wider roads and more parking, even if it’s not in their city’s best interest (as the Chronicle so nicely demonstrates).  At least we can be thankful that SF doesn’t have even more parking than it does, as those 78% would probably drive more to take advantage of it. 

  • Icebrg

    Let’s start a revolt! Everyone park legally!! That will show ’em.

  • Abe

    I wonder about that “% of households” figure. Every place I’ve lived since high school has been with at least two roommates. So if there are four of us, and one has a car, that counts as one whole household with a car (don’t even get me started on the “access to a car” nonsense). In reality, only 25% of us have a car.

    I’m curious what the actual number of people is in San Francisco who, when they think of going somewhere, think of driving.

  • Anonymous

    I guess the concept of air pollution hot zones shortening the lifespans of nearby residents and causing asthma in kids is way over the heads of the folks at The Chronicle to grasp and embrace evening outbound congestion pricing.

  • don’t get so depressed. I know plenty of people – in that “high income” category, who share one car in a household and use it primarily for occasional trips out of town. Granted the next step is getting rid of that car and sharing/renting, reducing the number of overall cars and really getting people to not use a car for small trips.

  • ubringliten

    We are part of that statistics but we are not that stereotype.  My wife and I are car-lite meaning we have only one car and we only use it when we leave the city and that’s once a month.  We don’t like driving in the city because we know driving is just harmful to our communities and streets.  We definitely don’t want wider streets, more parking facilities, etc.  

  • voltairesmistress

     You jest, Icebrg, but that is exactly what my spouse and I have done.   The SFMTA will likely not receive a nickle further in citation revenue from us — it’s been 19 months now and counting . . . But I suspect the agency would simply find another revenue cow to milk.

  • mikesonn

    I was under the impression that ALL entitled motorist are already illegal-parking scofflaws.

  • VCS

    Wasn’t there some speculation that citation revenue was down because meter enforcement was too effective? People don’t cheat if they know they’re going to get caught.

  • mikesonn

    SFGate regularly passes speculation off as fact. See: reason Aaron had to write this op-ed.

  • Kendall

    Let’s not forget that you’re allowed to double park almost anywhere you want on Sunday as long as you’re going to church. 

  • @d9063d21801a490d2713fefe86d66bea:disqus Yes there was (that was one of my first stories ever!): http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/01/06/sfmta-better-parking-behavior-one-reason-for-drop-in-citations/ 

  • Anonymous

    “A 2010 study by the SF County Transportation Authority found that the majority of drivers downtown in the morning peak period come from households making more than $100,000 per year. ” 
    I’m not sure if this is an accurate account of people who own a car in San Francisco. It’s very expensive to park downtown, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people that work in the Financial District make a lot of money. I think it’s a reality that a lot of us don’t like to face that as property near public transit becomes increasingly expensive, car ownership skews more toward those that make less. 
    I think discouraging driving by making it expensive and inconvenient is a good idea. However, I think the city needs to quit digging MUNI out of a budget hole and start actually improving the transit system. As the city becomes more populous, it’s our only hope.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never thought relying on tickets as strictly a revenue source was a good idea since it isn’t stable and can lead to mischief on the part of the SFMTA ( The fact they can go after your tax refund is but one). That said, people whose irresponsible actions cause delays, potential injury, and the like deserve a big fat ticket to teach them not to do stupid sh*t like double park and block traffic, steal disabled parking, or steal parking in the neighborhoods, and so on.

    One thing  that I’ve also thought that would help reduce car dependency (and I know this sounds weird but bear with me) is if more places had delivery options (grocery stores, Costco, etc) so you didn’t have to have a car to make bulk purchases, etc. I know  Iknow but if we really want to reduce car usage, make it obsolete and people will enjoy the cash savings. I know I sure like spending my money on something fun instead of stupid gas and insurance every month.

  • mikesonn

    “I think it’s a reality that a lot of us don’t like to face that as property near public transit becomes increasingly expensive, car ownership skews more toward those that make less.”

    >I’ve heard a lot of ways to use the poor as a shield to protect free/cheap parking, but this is a new one. Kudos.

    “However, I think the city needs to quit digging MUNI out of a budget hole and start actually improving the transit system. As the city becomes more populous, it’s our only hope.”

    >You can’t really have one (amazing transit) if you neglect the other (enforcing parking laws, reducing private auto usage). It’s going to both the stick and the carrot, but so far no amount of carrot is going work with our streets filled to the max. Plus, better parking/traffic management is better for everyone, even the drivers.

  • Anonymous

    @mikesonn:disqus  I’m not advocating free or cheap parking. I’m just saying that MUNI needs to step it up a bit if it’s going to serve what are now lower-density neighborhoods. All of these measures aren’t for improvements, just maintenance. I’m saying it’s too little (too late).

  • It’s not so much that MUNI is unreliable, though sometimes it is. The reason I have a car (but use it lightly) is that the taxi system is unreliable. That is the missing link. Without being able to call and get a “Yes, we will pick you up in 10/30/60 min. “, I can’t be sure I will get a cab. Thus the car. My main problem is that the signs and meters are often misleading, difficult to read or understand. I wish the cars that park on (red) corners would be ticketed. Those drivers are supremely irresponsible and dangerous to drivers and pedestrians alike.

  • Andy Chow

    What it shows is that the people who tend to drive are doing so because of other reasons, not necessarily the availability of existing transit nor the cost of it.

    People drive can more or less to show social status. For example, in Hong Kong, even though most people take transit, you’ll find plenty of luxury cars on the street along side with taxis, cargo vans, trucks, and buses. You don’t often find a lot of cheap cars, especially in the business districts. So most of the drivers are either filthy rich, or doing so as an occupation.

    I don’t think there’s very much a publicly owned transit agency can do to convert luxury car drivers to transit. The city should rather work with the private sector to deliver the type of transit service that the higher income folks want and can afford.

  • Andy Chow

     Re: >You can’t really have one (amazing transit) if you neglect the other
    (enforcing parking laws, reducing private auto usage). It’s going to
    both the stick and the carrot, but so far no amount of carrot is going
    work with our streets filled to the max. Plus, better parking/traffic
    management is better for everyone, even the drivers.

    However unlike New York, Boston, and other cities, San Francisco has far less transit lines that are separated from traffic. Even though the argument for more parking enforcement because it helps Muni, it is very hard to quantify, and virtually impossible to experience the improvement. Yes it is annoying to get delayed on the bus at certain instances, but I don’t think it is possible or realistic to provide a transit experience in a mixed traffic to be the same as fixed guideway. Also in San Francisco, you got people who think that pedestrians should be able to cross the street anywhere willy-nilly and therefore vehicle traffic should be slowed down considerably. If that’s the case, then it is not possible to provide faster transit on the street at all. The only way is to put it underground.

  • Andy – I’m going out on a limb here and saying that in SF – the fact you have a “whatever” series BMW, is not such a big deal now and the level of status regarding that car is going down fast every day.

    I make a very good salary, and run in a circle where a large number of my friends have even more money. And what car you drive is a non-issue. And as I ride my bike I see fewer and fewer high end cars on city streets. The majority of high end cars are used to get off the city streets as fast as possible.

    This is not Beijing.

  • mikesonn

    Andy, your second comment completely makes my point. Mixed traffic transit requires tough decisions. And one of those is enforcing parking laws that increase turnover and decrease double parking and circling for an open spot. Hence, can’t have much carrot (better transit) without way more stick (parking/traffic law enforcement).

  • Andy Chow

    Increase enforcement in parking laws isn’t going to _eliminate_ instances where a transit rider will experience delays with double parking, or waiting for a spot, etc. So in a way getting from Richmond to downtown in a bus will always be inferior to riding a subway from Upper West Side to Midtown in New York, even if SF were to enforce parking twice as much as New York.

    I think because of poor transit experience people start looking into having a car to avoid using transit. Transit that provide better experience (BART, Caltrain, ferries) tend to attract riders with higher income.

    In the Bay Area, you have wealthy people that don’t live or act wealthy. That’s why you see Facebook CEO wearing a T-shirt at work. May be that would explain that more of the higher income folks ride bikes or take Muni, where as the same professionals earning the same income elsewhere wouldn’t settle anything less than a luxury car. Nonetheless I think that we need to focus on elevating the transit experience if we were to seriously try to increase ridership.

  • Andy Chow

    I feel sorry that you confuse Hong Kong and Beijing.

  • mikesonn

    “Increase enforcement in parking laws isn’t going to _eliminate_ instances where a transit rider will experience delays with double parking, or waiting for a spot, etc. So in a way getting from Richmond to downtown in a bus will always be inferior to riding a subway from Upper West Side to Midtown in New York, even if SF were to enforce parking twice as much as New York.”

    Currently drivers think, “I won’t get a ticket, here looks nice” and they double parking (or whatever illegal thing they do). Increase enforcement and all of a sudden they think twice. All it takes is a slight decrease in illegal parking for the balance to be tipped back in the favor of Muni. Add in BRT lines, enforced transit only lanes, and all door boarding and all of a sudden you shave a couple minutes off each run. More runs per driver, lower costs, better service and people start thinking “maybe I’ll take the bus instead of driving”. It’s a loop. Right now, it is going in reverse.

  • Andy Chow

     I am not as confident as you do believing that small policy changes are enough to “tip the scale”. At best these changes would result in productivity improvements but aren’t enough to enhance experience, which is what riders depend on. Which changes riders will see dramatic change in experience? cut N-Judah average trip time by 3 minutes, or a new NX route that doesn’t make any stops between downtown and 19th Avenue.

  •  Andy – Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck every day, and was one of the wealthiest people on the planet. If Zuckerberg is wearing a t-shirt, seems like he’s acting wealthy to me.

  • Yeah, they should start handing out tickets to bicyclists who run red lights, ride down the wrong side of the street, and speed through school zones.

  • For me if that law have a good benefits well i will support it,In Finland there are some private parking control which is managing a lot of parking lot and giving a good service in affordable price.All people their are really happy to have it because it maintain traffic and inconvenience thing.

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