Cleaning Up SF’s Car-Littered Sidewalks Will Take More Than Parking Tickets

Cars littered on San Francisco’s sidewalks are a painfully common sight. The problem is perhaps most prevalent in outer neighborhoods like the Sunset and Bayview, where, for decades, homeowners with residential garages have paved over their front yards. The pedestrian environment on these streets is left degraded, with swaths of dead space where families and people with disabilities are often forced to walk around an obstacle course of cars and driveway ramps.

Make no mistake: It’s illegal to park on any part of a sidewalk or in a “setback” between the sidewalk and a building. The practice of paving over front yards was also banned in 2002.

Yet conditions in these neighborhoods make clear that the SF Municipal Transportation Agency does not enforce sidewalk parking on sight (though officials have claimed that’s the policy). Meanwhile, the Planning Department says it only fines homeowners who pave their yards when someone files a complaint. The issue recently got some attention in an SF Chronicle article last week, as well as the latest segment of KRON 4′s People Behaving Badly.

With all this space physically molded for car storage — practically every last inch on many streets – Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich said cleaning up San Francisco’s car-littered sidewalks will take more than getting parking control officers to hand out tickets. The Planning Department — which has no staff to proactively enforce rules against illegal setback pavings, according to the Chronicle — would have to crack down on violators, reversing decades of institutional tolerance for the practice.

“The city has turned a blind eye for so long that they have created a de facto entitlement” to illegal parking, Radulovich said. “City agencies have created an uncomfortable dilemma for themselves – start enforcing the law and deal with the fallout, or continue to ignore the problem and watch it grow worse.”

The setbacks, side yards, and backyards required in the city’s planning code ”were intended to create usable open space and/or gardens, not open parking,” said Radulovich. Greenery lost to pavement also means more stormwater flowing into the often-overloaded sewer system.

Parking on sidewalks and setbacks is so common, it seems many car owners may not even realize it’s illegal. After all, everyone else is doing it. On the side of the block where I live in the Inner Sunset (shown in the segment above), it’s normal for car-owning residents to park in front of nearly every house on a paved setback. This leaves an ugly, unwelcoming walking environment, with many car owners encroaching on the sidewalk. When a PCO was ticketing one sidewalk-blocking driver, I heard the officer say, “It’s called a driveway for a reason,” explaining that they’re not meant for parking.

While San Franciscans wait for the SFMTA and the Planning Department get a handle on the sidewalk parking mess, they can call in violations. In my experience, the SFMTA often does respond at the scene. Here’s how to get their attention:

  • To report a sidewalk parking violation to the SFMTA, call the enforcement hotline at (415) 553-1200, then dial 1 for English, then 6 for sidewalk parking.
  • To report a land-use violation such as “Use of required front or rear setback as parking,” check out the Planning Department’s website for instructions on filing a complaint by online form, phone, email, postal mail, or in person.