Contrary to Ed Lee, Records Show No Popular Revolt Against Sunday Meters

A public records request for all emails to the mayor’s office regarding Sunday parking meters revealed very few complaints.

Contrary to Mayor Ed Lee’s assertions that the public has revolted against Sunday parking meters, records indicate that hardly anyone has complained to City Hall about the policy via email or 311 calls.

Mayor Lee, seen here preaching the gospel of smart parking management at an SFPark press conference in 2011, claims there’s widespread opposition to Sunday meters. Where is it? Photo: Mayor’s Press Office/Flickr

When Lee announced his push to undo Sunday parking meters, disregarding the increased turnover and reduced traffic that metering has brought to commercial streets, he claimed that the public has complained ever since the policy was implemented.

“It hasn’t stopped, it hasn’t ended since the day the city and Muni imposed it,” Lee told Bay City News in January. “People are still not used to it.” At his State of the City address later that month, Lee claimed: “Nobody likes it. Not parents. Not our neighborhood small businesses. Not me.”

Is this public outrage real? If Lee were really facing an endless barrage of criticism, there would be some record of it. We’d expect to find, for instance, a litany of emails decrying Sunday meters addressed to the mayor. But a public records request to the mayor’s office for all emails about metered Sunday parking turned up just 54 emails protesting or supporting the policy — most of them in January 2013, the first month the meters went into effect, followed by a handful in the next two months.

The records, furnished to Streetsblog by Ed Rosenblatt, a hardware store merchant who supports Sunday meters and filed the request, indicate that no one emailed the mayor’s office about Sunday meters between March 2013 and this January, when Lee announced his push to repeal them. What’s more, of the January emails, 17 were in support of keeping the parking meters, and only seven were against it. The policy is also supported by many merchants and the Chamber of Commerce since it allows more driving customers to use the limited supply of parking.

The purported Sunday meter revolt was also not evident in calls and emails to 311. According to the SFMTA’s December report [PDF] on Sunday meters, 311 received just 41 calls and emails about the policy, with 23 of those in support of meters.

Of course, calls and emails aren’t the only ways to complain to City Hall. But if there’s really a popular revolt driving Lee’s sudden push to undo smart policy, you would expect to find some trace of it in the easiest ways to lodge a complaint with the city. And there is no such trace.

There is one influential group, however, that has continued to fiercely fight Sunday parking meters — church leaders. In fact, within a day of the mayor’s announcement that he wanted to reverse Sunday metering, the SF Interfaith Council sent out an email to its members praising Lee, saying that his new position “reflects thoughtful appreciation for the broad, adverse impact of this policy.”

The lobbying from church leaders certainly seems to have played a major role in the mayor’s decision stop Sunday meters. The SF Examiner reported today:

Recently, Mayor Ed Lee heeded a call from religious leaders, who took issue with the SFMTA’s decision to activate parking meters at noon on Sundays.

“[The mayor] has heard a number of concerns from the interfaith community about Sunday meters and expects the [SFMTA] to consider their concerns as well as the concerns of others as they discuss the issue,” mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas has been one of the most outspoken opponents of metered parking on Sundays, testifying at most of the City Hall hearings on the policy change in 2012, when it was adopted. I reached out to Pappas last week for an interview, and although he initially seemed happy to find a few minutes for a phone call in his busy schedule, after a couple of days he responded to my requests only by saying that he was too busy organizing “a series of events.”

The SFIC has apparently been busy trying to bring back free parking, conducting a survey of religious service attendees in February on their transportation habits and ability to access and use phone apps (since a phone app is one way to use the SFMTA’s pay-by-phone system for parking meters).

The survey, which the Examiner reported on today, found that among 23 congregations, 67 percent of respondents travel to worship by car, 19 percent by public transit, 2 percent by bicycle, and 12 percent walk.

In addition, 17 percent claimed to have downloaded and used the SFMTA “Pay by Phone” app, a finding which Pappas cited in an an SFIC press release to justify his contention that churchgoers cannot pay for parking. “Congregation leaders who conducted the survey credit this dramatic disparity to the reality that many congregants lack the technical aptitude to download and utilize applications,” he said.

Pappas and other church leaders have never acknowledged the benefits of metered parking, which increases turnover at high-demand parking spaces so that more drivers, including those headed to churches, can find a spot quickly instead of having to circle around and clog up the streets. Instead, Pappas’ statement frames Sunday parking metering only as a way to collect revenue for Muni:

The interfaith community wholeheartedly supports multimodal transportation, biking, walking and taking transit to worship services. The ethical question for the SFMTA, raised by these findings, is whether the agency’s strategy for budget balancing should be based on technological barriers and the resulting parking tickets issued. That just doesn’t seem right or fair.

The most bizarre aspect of this whole saga, however, is that the vast majority of places of worship in San Francisco are surrounded by unmetered parking spaces, which means Sunday meters don’t have a direct bearing on most of the SFIC’s membership. We analyzed parking spaces within a quarter-mile of the 668 religious institutions in San Francisco, and found that for 53 percent of them, less than 10 percent (if any) of the spaces within that distance were metered. Another 16 percent had 10 to 20 percent of spaces metered, and only 4 percent were surrounded by 100 percent metered spaces.

Few places of worship in San Francisco are surrounded by parking meters.
For 69 percent of places of worship, at least 80 percent of parking spaces within a quarter-mile are unmetered.

That raises the question of whether the faith leaders’ fight is really against feeding meters, or the threat the policy poses to the SFMTA’s practice of turning a blind eye to rampant illegal parking by churchgoers on Sundays. At a supervisors hearing on double parking in October, Reverend Arnold Townsend, another outspoken proponent of free Sunday parking, urged city officials to continue looking the other way, despite the problems it causes (today’s Examiner article described a reverend’s weekly ritual of collecting angry notes left on the cars of his congregation members who park in the bike lane at Golden Gate and Masonic Avenues).

A church stakes a claim for a double parking lane on a Sunday on 10th Avenue in the Inner Richmond. Photo: Aaron Bialick

In response, Lea Millitello, a former SFPD lieutenant who was then the SFMTA’s director of security, investigations, and enforcement (since retired), promised that the agency won’t go after double-parking for church, calling the Sunday exemption “part of San Francisco’s history.”

The underlying motivation may also be related to the desire to simply not have to think about parking tickets. According to the SFMTA, Sunday parking meter citations have been slowly declining as drivers get used to the policy, but the citation rate is still higher than normal. According to an agency report from last week [PDF], the rate of citations as a proportion of meter revenue on Sundays was at 35 percent in December, down from the peak of 48 percent in February (note that most of the complaint emails were sent the month before, which indicates they weren’t necessarily a response to citations). For all seven days of the week, the rate was 24 percent in December, though it varies, running as high as 34 percent last March.

“It’s definitely worrying that the citation rate hasn’t come down more on Sundays,” said Cheryl Brinkman, vice chair of the SFMTA Board of Directors, who noted that drivers tend to get fewer tickets when the SFMTA installs modern meters which accept multiple forms of payment, even allowing pre-payment before Sunday enforcement begins at noon. “I don’t know if we need better signage, or if the citation rates are higher at  the old meters. I do know that our data has shown that when we put the new meters in place, the citation rate really goes down.”

The data also clearly shows the benefits that Sunday parking metering has brought. The SFMTA found that in 2013, the average time drivers took to find a parking spot during Sunday meter hours was cut in half, from four minutes to less than two. Turnover increased by at least 20 percent, meaning that more customers were using the same amount of parking spaces.

Rosenblatt, the manager of Ace Hardware on Clement Street in the Inner Richmond who filed the records request, estimates that Sunday meters increased his business by 15 to 20 percent last year. “Sunday turned into one of our busiest days,” he said.

The repeal of Sunday parking meters, which could cost the SFMTA up to $10 million in revenue, will be up for consideration in the agency’s budget in April by the SFMTA Board of Directors, which is appointed by the mayor.

  • Faded_seaside

    For me, the buried lede(s) are 1) the reminder that the Chamber of Commerce supports the policy and 2) the real-world example of a small business / franchise owner benefiting from Sunday metering. I would emphasize more strongly these two points, especially in response to Mayor Lee’s statement that “Nobody likes it. Not parents. Not our neighborhood small businesses. Not me.”

    So, given the evidence, revising that sentence gives us something like: “Parents don’t like it and so don’t I.” Not a terribly convincing reason to reverse a successful policy.

  • Early leader for the 2014 Streetsblog awards- great post! Really well researched/written, especially with the rublic records search and GIS analysis.

    Should we all start sending in our support emails now? 🙂

  • Mario Tanev

    Excellent journalism and kudos to Rosenblatt who knows what’s what and doesn’t pretend otherwise due to a loud minority of people who either want to park overnight or prefer circling 25 times to paying 25 cents.

  • baklazhan

    Of course, even if only 5% of the spaces around are metered, it’s highly likely that all the unmetered spaces are 100% occupied, while there are some available metered spaces. So people drive around, find a few open spaces that are metered, and then say “Damn that money-gouging SFMTA, cleverly charging for the only spaces available while everyone else gets to park for free! How unfair to me. I must write the mayor.”

  • bobster1985

    So who exactly is driving this repeal idea? Sounds like the merchants like Sunday metering, and the city is $11 million richer because of it. And hardly anyone is complaining about it anymore. Why is Lee doing this?

  • Faded_seaside

    Poor political gamble. Buy voter approval now for yeses on bigger transit measures later this year. Unfortunately, bad press from unrealistic proposals to backfill the meter revenue ($6 F line fares) has pretty much tanked whatever favor he sought to curry.

  • Sprague

    Thank you for this illuminating post. I hope that it is read by the MTA Board, the Mayor’s office, and others. Such reporting seems to be absent from other local media. If one looks at Sunday metering objectively, it seems illogical to call for its repeal. The MTA accommodated many of the concerns of parishioners (ie. later start time, allowing motorists to pre-pay and to park for up to four hours, etc.). Opposition to Sunday metering seems to be emotional and lacking in objectivity. I hope the local clergy is also concerned (and vocal) about the perils of climate change and the role each of us must play to forestall its progress.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I ride the F-line and tripling my fare (and only for those of us who ride the F) to promote and subsidize driving isn’t how you curry my favor.

    The Mayor trying to screw me specifically, along with Supervisors like London Breed crippling TEP/Muni improvement projects in general has turned me from a supporter to an opponent of the revenue measures expected to be on the fall ballot.

  • voltairesmistress

    Great job reporting on this. I just wrote the mayor, supporting Sunday metering. Please, readers, write a Mayor Lee at sfmayor.org.

  • njudah

    Ed Lee is a visionless civil service hack momentarily elevated in a rare moment in SF local politics. he is not a smart man, he doesn’t give a shit about anything but himself and whatever Willie and Rose tell him what to do, and to expect anything different is delusional. Sadly, this jackass is going to get re-elected anyway, just like every other stupid SF politician, because voters in the end really don’t care either – they’re rather bitch and moan than actually have a city that works for all they pay to live here. Sad but true.

  • coolbabybookworm

    don’t forget Ron Conway is pulling his strings as well

  • David D.

    Improve BART’s Sunday schedule to match its Saturday schedule and I’ll have no problems with SF keeping meters on Sundays. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do things in the East Bay on Sundays and limit my SF trips to Saturdays only whenever possible. SF’s loss is Oakland’s gain!

  • MadlyBranning

    I join the comments that applaud this as excellent journalism. A statement was made by the mayor of a major city (“the people are complaining about Sunday meters”) and not one major news outlet ran down whether that is or is not true. Streestsblog is the only place that this assertion was challenged, or even analyzed.

    I think the real question we all have to face is what are we willing to pay for quality journalism, particularly in an era when “information” is all “free”, provided we expose our eyeballs (search history, etc.) to the marketing world.

    This reminds me of the debates about food. Sure, organic, locally produced food costs more. But at the end of the day, what is more important than the food that we and our loved ones eat and the impact we have on the planet? I think the same applies to information, which regarding current events is journalism.

    If Streetsblog had a “tip jar” I would hit it today.

  • Thank you! We really appreciate all the comments. In fact, we do happen to have a “tip jar,” it’s the little “Donate” button at the top right of the page. Here’s the link: http://sf.streetsblog.org/donate

  • Easy

    I’m a parent and I like it, so it’s pretty much just Ed Lee that’s left.

  • voltairesmistress

    Yes. He fulfilled my expectations to a tee — that’s depressing.

  • Except no one’s writing the mayor.

  • the_greasybear

    I just wrote the mayor!

  • But did you write “Damn that money-gouging SFMTA, cleverly charging for the only spaces available while everyone else gets to park for free! How unfair to me. I must write the mayor.”??

  • Filamino

    Who’s complaining? The people who are being gauged by the meters where they don’t encourage “turnover” because none is needed. There are metered areas where there was plenty of parking on Sundays before Sunday metering began. Now, there is still plenty of parking but now the driver is gauged and threatened with fines for no reason other than to encourage the imaginary “turnover” that anti-car forces believe is needed.

    It makes no sense to enforce meters when there is no turnover problem. Just enforce Sunday meters in places that need turnover (like Clement Street), and this issue will not as likely crop up again.

  • Jim

    Could you name the areas of SF with meters that should not have meter enforcement on Sundays?

  • Sprague

    Ditto

  • timsmith

    I gladly accept Filamino’s proposal to set meter rates based on demand (including rates as low as $0 where no demand exists). We know from SFMTA’s 2009 study that every district with meters exceeds target occupancy rates of 85% during part of the day on Sunday. To say that a significant number of blocks with meters do not have much demand on Sunday is not accurate, but I’d gladly leave those blocks unmetered if data shows that to be the case.

    See page 7 of this report: http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/01/Evaluation-of-Sunday-Parking-Management-12.10.2013.pdf

  • the_greasybear

    Haha, of course not. I basically restated all the data in this excellent piece and urged the Mayor to withdraw his unmerited call to eliminate Sunday metering–and everyone here should do that as well.

  • jamiewhitaker

    Posting this in a couple of spots on StreetsBlog … I set up an easy way to send a message to Mayor Lee, Ed Reiskin, and the SFMTA Board via a MoveOn.org petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/leave-sunday-parking

    Each person that signs is firing off an email to those recipients asking that they leave Sunday parking meter enforcement alone.

  • WilloSF

    I absolutely hate Sunday meters. If Muni were at all reliable, it wouldn’t be an issue. I’d much prefer to ride, but not take 90 minutes to get anywhere and be made miserable in the process. Now there are no more relaxing Sundays enjoying/brunching/shopping in distant neighborhoods. Using specifically tagged e-mails as a gauge of public interest might not be the best method…there have been several petitions submitted on the topic, all opposed.

  • twinpeaks_sf

    I personally don’t find it very relaxing circling for 30 minutes to find a parking spot in SF’s distant neighborhoods because all of the spaces are locked up until Monday morning.

  • Mom on a bike

    Now there are no more relaxing Sundays enjoying/brunching/shopping in distant neighborhoods.

    ….Because you can’t figure out how to operate a meter and put a couple hours’ worth of coins in it? Which amounts to what fraction of the tip you’re leaving for brunch?

    Oh yes the “If Muni were reliable…” canard again. Let’s all take a moment to ponder the meeting of “cause” and “effect.”

  • Sprague

    Do you ride Muni? From my experience, Muni usually is reliable – including on Sundays (indeed the MTA’s own figures show their routes to be “on time” something like 70% of the time – while this is far from ideal it still demonstrates that Muni is reliable a majority of the time). An irony of the MTA’s own board reversing policy and jettisoning Sunday meters is this will contribute to a less reliable Muni (as well as a more poorly funded Muni). As numerous Streetsblog articles have pointed out, free parking contributes to more motorists rolling along looking for elusive prime parking spots which slows down the buses that travel along commercial streets.

  • WilloSF

    I ride muni every day, and have been since 1996. The implementation of NextBus was great for trip-planning, waiting and frustration, but now highlights how unreliable it is when busses ghost (never arrive at all as the minutes-to-arrival countdown and pass), or next bus is in 36 minutes, or my favorite, 78. Taking an hour to get five stops to downtown is hardly a canard either.

  • WilloSF

    Many meters are only good for an hour. Which does prohibit brunch, strolling, shopping, seeing a movie. Some are good for four hours, and charge $2-4 an hour so I should carry $16 in change?

  • Sprague

    As you may have noticed, although NextBus may show it’s 40 minutes ’til the next departure, a bus may arrive in 20 (ie. on a route with 20 minute headways all day on Sunday). Muni is more reliable than it appears to be on NextBus. For routes that I regularly ride (33 and 37) this is often the case.

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