Parking Shared Cars Instead of Private Cars Isn’t Exactly “Privatization”

A flyer distributed in the Lower Haight recently made the absurd argument that converting private car parking into car-share parking is “privatization.” Photo: Amy Stephenson/Hoodline

The SFMTA’s endeavor to reserve on-street car parking spaces for car-share vehicles has yielded complaints from some car owners who, ironically, decry the “privatization” of space currently used to store private cars.

These folks don’t seem to acknowledge the extensive research showing that each car-share vehicle replaces, on average, nine to 13 privately-owned cars. They should be embracing the arrival of a program that provides a convenient alternative to car ownership, allowing some of their neighbors to sell infrequently used cars, and ultimately make more parking available.

An on-street car-share parking spot in SoMa. Photo: Andy Thornley/Flickr

But the greater point that some folks seem to be missing is this: No use of public street space is more “private” than dedicated storage of private individuals’ automobiles. To decry converting comparatively few of these spaces to welcome a much more efficient form of auto storage — making each space useful for dozens of people, rather than one or two — is absurd.

Yet that’s what Calvin and Michelle Welch argue, in flyers they distributed that protest two on-street car-share spaces in the Lower Haight, as Hoodline recently reported. “It would privatize a shared, currently free, scarce public resource making it available only to paid members of a car share program,” the Welches wrote. (It’s worth noting that Calvin Welch is a longtime activist who opposes the construction of new market-rate housing.)

Our societal blind spot tends to make it easy to forget that the vast majority of street space has been given over to moving and storing cars, many of them owned and used by just one person each. San Francisco’s 275,450 on-street parking spaces would stretch, lined end-to-end, longer than the California coastline. Ninety percent of this prime real estate is free to use at all times of day.

The privatization of the streets already happened in the early part of the last century. Today, there is no private use of public space more widespread than free car storage.

On the other hand, each of the 12 on-street car-share spots that exist in SF today are paid for with car-share member fees, and serve 20 individual users on average. Some serve 40. It’s hard to imagine that any free street parking spot turns over more than a few times a day. Car-owning neighbors regularly leave angry notes on cars that sit longer than the legally-allowed 72 hours.

Those stats are from Brent O’Brien of the non-profit City CarShare, which spearheaded the on-street car-share pilot program with the SFMTA. City CarShare is one of three organizations which will get parking spaces in the program. The organizations will pay between $50 to $225 per month to use spaces that car owners currently pay nothing for.

Most of the users surveyed who use the 12 on-street spots say that, without nearby car-share access, they would probably buy their own cars, O’Brien told the SFMTA Board of Directors at a meeting this week.

Bill Bowen, a right-wing author and proponent of the “Restore Transportation Balance” ballot initiative, told the SFMTA Board that his coalition sees the program as “losing 450 spaces, with no thought about how to add that back anywhere.” (The SFMTA is currently moving forward with 450 car-share spaces, the first half of the 900 planned.)

“Many of our members feel it’s inappropriate to rent public space, which is much in demand and much-needed, to private companies,” Bowen said.

Public space is much needed? No doubt about that. Unfortunately, huge swaths of it have been given over to car parking, in its most private and least efficient form. San Franciscans have recognized this and embraced the conversion of parking spaces into parklets, which are paid for by their hosts. Speaking of which: Bowen is apparently unaware that fees are also paid to rent public space for uses like loading zones, film locations, and festivals.

Several members of the SFMTA Board identified themselves as car-share users, including Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman, who said she doesn’t own a vehicle. She pointed out that the assertion that only private car owners have the right to use curb space dismisses those who go car-free, to the benefit of the greater public. And, she noted, San Francisco’s curbs are already plagued with driveways which give garage owners free and exclusive use of curb space.

“Even if you don’t own a car, every citizen has the right to use that curb space,” said Brinkman. “Anything that we can do to help people live in this city without owning a personal car is a win for all of us. Whether we own a car, rent a car, bike, walk, or take a bus, fewer cars is a good thing.”

The next batch of 36 on-street car-share parking locations is up for preliminary approval at an SFMTA engineering hearing tomorrow at 10 a.m. at City Hall. You can voice your support for spots on the agenda in person or by emailing sustainable.streets@sfmta.com. See the latest edition of the map of 450 proposed car-share spaces [PDF] on the SFMTA website.

  • jd_x

    Okay, I will give you that this is as much privatization as it is when we let people own land/house. And as I’ve said, it makes no sense to signal out this one form of privatization (street parking) and not all the others (e.g. owning a home). So if you’re argument is that you’re against all privatization, then fine. And again, that argument is pointless here. You’re not going to find many allies who agree with your blanket statement that there should be no privatization.

    But that is not, I believe, what most people who are against this process feel. They simply feel like they are having parking taken away, something which is already very difficult for them to find, and thus this will make their search worse. The problem is: 1) this will in fact make their search for parking better, and 2) they are internally inconsistent/hypocritical by all the sudden being against privatization in this case but have no problem with all other forms of privatization (e.g. people owning houses). I believe what is really happening is that they are co-opting this privatization issue without realizing their internal hypocrisy so they can make their cause (wanting easier parking) sound more grandiose (“this is about privatization, not my selfish need to continue my polluting, dangerous, and inefficient form of transport”). It’s classic clinging-on-to-the-past behavior which we see all the time, and it’s just sad because they are holding back actual progress.

  • yermom72

    You know, the term “disruption” gets thrown around alot these days with very little meaning.

    Here we have a time period when people are starting to rethink things that used to be taken for granted, like whether streets should be car-centric, and whether the curb should be for parking.

    What I see in this debate is the a-ha moment of people realizing that cities could be organized differently, on different principles.

    But it’s scary, so it’s often followed by a retreat from the full insight of that realization, into the safety of a new faith. Such as markets to bring “rational” allocation to parking spots. Or a belief that corporations connected with the car industry are going to be our shepherds, moving us away from reliance on the automobile.

    I lack those reassuring faiths, and I want to see more real disruption of the taken for granted principles like capitalism and property that have led our cities to be so unsustainable.

    In the meantime yermom calls it like she sees it.

  • sebra leaves

    …”how is charging a private company for street
    parking any different than privatizing land buy letting people buy
    houses…”
    So people should not be allowed to buy houses? Does that mean we should not pay rent either?

  • jonobate

    It’s not privatization, because nothing has been transferred from the public sector (i.e. government) to the private sector. All that has happened is a restriction has been placed on land owned by the City so that only a few specific private businesses can use it, rather than private individuals and private businesses in general. It’s no different from designating an area as a taxi rank, or designating an area as a loading zone for private shuttles. You might not like it, but it’s not privatization.

    Regarding your wider point – I’m a firm believer that as a society we should subsidize the things we want to encourage, and allow the market to price the things we don’t. In the case of parking, that means allowing market pricing to apply to parking spaces that are owned by the City. A better approach would be to use that public space for things we do want to promote – bike lanes, bus lanes, wider sidewalks, car sharing spots, taxi ranks – but there’s still limited popular support for such a radical repurposing of public space. So, we should repurpose the parking space we can to positive uses, and price what we can’t at market rate.

  • Sprague

    Or if I park my car on the street with a few FOR SALE signs posted in the windows. Our public streets… used car lots.

  • yermom72

    It is too privatization, or more broadly enclosure. The other examples you list are still controlled by the city, not by private entities (eg a taxi stand (as we call them in the US) is open to all city taxis, not those of a specific company).

    But really, if you’re going to end with an appeal to “pricing at a market rate” why do you need to pretend you aren’t in favor of privatization? If you believe in the market as your savior, I’m sorry, you don’t need to pretend to be “progressive” anymore…

  • NoeValleyJim

    I rented a room in the rec center at the local park to throw my daughter’s birthday party. Was this “privatization” to you? Why or why not?

    This is the same thing. It is just being rented for a while to a private company, ownership is not being transferred. It is not privatization.

  • jonobate

    The car share parking spaces are being made available to all car share companies who are interested in renting them, so the analogy to taxi ranks is totally valid.

    There are only two options when if comes to parking: either you allow the market to determine the cost of parking, or you set it at an artificially low level, which is the status quo and amounts to a public subsidy of private vehicle storage. The real question is not why I think parking should be priced at market rate, it’s why you think parking should be subsidized by the City.

    (I guess you could also set parking at an artificially high level, which would be fine by me, but no-one is seriously proposing to do that.)

    I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who knows some basic economics. My opinions are not determined by emotional reactions to scary phrases such as “market pricing”. If that leaves me out of your “progressive” club, I’m fine with that.

  • Prinzrob

    I don’t really see the car share agreements as a wholly public or private use of parking spaces, but more of a grey area. The city isn’t selling the land to the company, just renting it to them for a specific period of time at a cost higher than the current free rate but still well below market rate. I don’t know the length of the contract agreement but once it is up the agreement is either renewed or the land is available for alternate uses.

    I think the main point of this article isn’t to say that the car share agreements are NOT akin to privatization, in some respects, but that the current use as private vehicle storage IS.

    Could there be even better uses for this public resource? Yes indeed. Are those other uses always politically feasible? Unfortunately, no. However, allowing more residents to rely on car share services in the meantime instead of needing to own a private car can help build support for projects down the road that will require an even more substantial reallocation of roadway space.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Progressives don’t believe in socializing everything, the right word for that point of view is socialism.

    Progressives believe that government should do the things that governments do best and that free enterprise should do the things that it does best. Some things definitely need to be priced by market mechanisms for Progressives.

    You might feel otherwise and that is fine, but just call yourself a Socialist then.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    You neglect to mention the pattern in City policies – making day-to-day living in San Francisco more expensive. Fee follows fee with the justification that people must be herded, pushed, prodded to “green-ness”. If you’re one of the monied elites, it will just cost a few more shekels to get around what vexes the little people. In this jobless shit economic recovery, so many locals are struggling to pay the bills and as for savings – what’s that? So, why in hell is MUNI raising the cost to ride a bus when that’s the little people’s only alternative? Green is for people who already have plenty of green it would seem…

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    I’m re-reading this blog and there’s a fundamental flaw in the word “public” in Aaron’s argument: “Today, there is no more widespread private use of public space than free car storage.” The public parking on a street is not “private”. A space designated for a commercial entity is a private or business use. So me parking my motorcycle on the street can never be a private use – knock off the bullshit double-speak, respectfully, sir.

  • Sanfordia113

    That is privatization. Pernicious privatization, because fuzzheads can’t recognize it. I am in favor of banning all parking n streets, but giving a single party exclusive rights to use public property without putting it out to bid at public auction is cronyistic privatization.

  • Sanfordia113

    A Progressive’s remedy for a failing “progressive” policy is always “more of the same at twice the cost.”

  • Sanfordia113

    JC Daceux and the exclusive advertising kiosks that they have across the city was a wholesale privatization scam inked during the Willie Brown administration. Our sidewalks and airspace have been privatized and the only thing the public gets in exchange is several heroin and sex shacks (i.e., the “public restrooms”). Really bad example to use!

  • Sanfordia113

    yes, if it meant that nobody else had access to the otherwise public room and your exclusive use extended beyond what is considered customary fair use. How can you argue otherwise?

  • Sanfordia113

    The best way to make parking more available to everyone is to meter all spaces and raise prices.

  • Sanfordia113

    Seriously? A permit is only $10/month? That is fricken crazy! I assumed it was more like $150-$300.

  • Sanfordia113

    Just a block away from the proposed site is a California Parking lot (Franklin & Page). Several of the spots in that lot are leased by various car share programs. The retail price of a parking spot in that uncovered/unsecured lot is $255/month, or more for a reserved spot.

  • Sanfordia113

    I already have private parking on a Page Street parking lot and would rather see zero parking on Page (in fact, it would be best if the City built underground garages and eliminated all surface parking, no exceptions). I also am strongly in favor of car sharing programs. However, I am not in favor of exclusivity contracts doled out by City Hall, without going through a public auction. Best to have these spots simply metered parking with 48 hour time limits, so that whomever parks there is paying for it.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Isn’t the space taken out of public hands and into private as soon as someone puts their car in the spot?

  • timsmith

    Nearly half the spaces in the city have been privatized by property owners who have installed curb cuts. Without paying the city a dime, property owners benefit in the form of exclusive access to this space, which adds substantial value to their property. Likewise, the SFMTA color curb program allows businesses to exclusively use spaces for loading or customer parking.

    These are far more exclusive and direct cases of privatization. If anything carshare opens public spaces to use by more people — including the 1/3 of San Franciscans who don’t own a vehicle, but may be able to afford a carshare membership at a much lower cost.

  • Justin

    Actually San Francisco’s economy has been doing better than most parts of the country with a low unemployment rate just saying

  • murphstahoe

    So, why in hell is MUNI raising the cost to ride a bus when that’s the little people’s only alternative?

    Because the alternative is raising the cost of parking, which is the big people’s chose alternative.

  • City Car Share is your local nonprofit and the one to use, Zipcar is now owned by Wall Street.

    Our local carsharing group especially should put up temporary security cameras in case a wing nut messes with the new cars shared there.

  • Just call 311, against city code.

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