Guest Editorial: Eisenhower’s Parking Policies No Longer Work for San Francisco

Street parking on Nob Hill. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Street parking on Nob Hill. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The last time San Francisco looked comprehensively at how we plan for parking, Eisenhower was president, gas was 25 cents a gallon, and we hadn’t even started building BART. It was an era when cities came to be dominated by drive-ins and drive-thrus, when streetcar lines were were being torn up, and new freeways were bulldozing old neighborhoods. As a result, our city’s parking policy still acts as a viagra for traffic, pollution and unaffordability.

As the City debates a Transportation Demand Management ordinance aimed at taming traffic congestion, now is the time to update San Francisco’s parking requirements, from the ground up. The City has decided it’s time to tackle congestion, and commissioned a survey of research on what works. The research concluded that “available parking is perhaps the single biggest factor in people’s decision to drive. The research shows that just building housing on a transit line doesn’t reduce automobile use, but reducing parking does.” We’re also in the city’s worst-ever housing affordability crisis, and parking requirements are a key culprit in driving up housing costs. Refreshing San Francisco’s parking policy critical to growing an affordable, sustainable city with vital and dynamic neighborhoods.

San Francisco should stop forcing parking on homes and businesses that do not need or want it. Paying for superfluous parking drives up housing and business costs, and worsens the city’s housing shortage and our escalating commercial rents.

Removing the 1950s era parking mandates would also free up space for more housing. Families should be allowed to convert their unused garages into the bedroom of an elderly parent, or convert them to in-law units so that they can earn rent money to help pay a mortgage or provide retirement income.

On commercial and transit corridors we should allow driveways and the ground floors of parking garages to be converted into small shops for neighborhood merchants. New storefront spaces provide less expensive alternatives in neighborhoods where retail rents are skyrocketing, and will help restore dynamism and much needed foot-traffic to local streets. In addition, private driveways eliminate valuable on-street public parking that can be used by patrons of local businesses.

Forcing extra parking upon those who do not want it or need it is not just a burden in terms of cost and space, it also acts as a big inducement for driving. Recent research out of UC Berkeley shows that imposed parking mandates significantly increase the proportion of people who drive alone in their cars, even in communities adjacent to high quality transit like BART. Incentives to drive alone are also incentives for congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – all scourges that we want our city to be fighting against not encouraging.

We have made incremental steps in removing parking mandates in a few neighborhoods – starting in the 1980s with the Downtown Plan, and continuing into portions of the Eastern Neighborhoods and in small portions of the rest of the city through the Better Neighborhoods plans of the 1990s and 2000s. This new approach to parking has helped keep neighborhood commercial streets vital, decreased the cost of new housing, and reduced runaway congestion. But this piecemeal approach to parking mandates has taken us as far as it can, and it’s now time to rewrite the rules at the city-level so the whole city can benefit from up to date parking policy.

Eliminating parking mandates doesn’t mean that parking will altogether disappear. San Francisco currently has over 450,000 parking spots – if you lined them up end to end they would stretch from Mexico past the Oregon border – and the vast majority of them are going nowhere. It doesn’t mean that all new developments won’t have parking; instead, builders and homeowners need only add the parking that building users really need, rather than fulfill an arbitrary mandate.

While San Francisco likes to set the national trend, on parking policy we would merely be playing catch-up. In recent years, cities across the country — Oakland, Sacramento, Miami, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and others — have reduced or eliminated parking mandates citywide, and are improving how on-street parking is managed.

To deliver 21st century mobility and retain a vibrant, affordable and sustainable city, now is the time rewrite Eisenhower’s parking rules for today’s and tomorrow’s San Francisco.

Tom Radulovich is President of the BART Board, representing District 7, and Executive Director of Livable City
Nick Josefowitz is also a BART Board member, representing District 8, and founder of Leadership for a Clean Economy

A version of this editorial appeared in the San Francisco Examiner

  • RichLL

    You appear to labor under the delusion that political debates get settled by “evidence” or “facts”, even assuming that we all agree on what constitutes such things.

    In reality debates are settled by values, and facts are typically cherry-picked to support ones’ own personal biases.

    The idea that we make decisions based on “facts” is a delusion, albeit a charming one.

  • Donovan Lacy

    Rich,

    Your argument as you framed it was first “that Muni operators earn more than they do in almost every other US city (even NYC, so I heard.”

    I provide you citations that your statement is false.

    Your second point was that you saw “no reason why the local benchmark cannot instead be the private sector.” I provided you data that this in fact is the case in this market.

    Now you have changed your argument to:

    1) Muni pay and benefits should be set based on replacement value.

    2) Any worker should be paid by value and not be need.

    Staying with your original argument would you not agree that replacement value would be what the private sector is paying? If so, I have already established that this is the case.

    So now it is my turn – “You’ve never admitted to ever changing your mind, even when you’ve been proven 100% wrong.”

  • Donovan Lacy

    Agreed.

  • citrate reiterator

    Epistemology aside, that’s some impressive goalpost moving: from “Muni sucks because Muni operators are paid the most out of any major city” to “Muni operators are overpaid relative to the private sector” to “Muni operators are overpaid relative to bus drivers in a less expensive city” to “You only want me to provide evidence about Muni operators being overpaid because of your ideological bias” to “Not every fact is readily available on the internet” and finally all the way back to “Facts aren’t relevant to this discussion / What is a fact anyway?”

  • Rob

    The guy is a douche and it is unfortunate that the streetblogs editors don’t ban him.

  • murphstahoe

    While I’m sure it would be interesting to read the mental gymnastics he used to get you to respond, it’s so much more pleasant to look at 50 posts saying “This user has been blocked”

    I recommend you try it.

  • Donovan Lacy

    I am the scythe and he is the wheat.

  • Donovan Lacy

    Your response suggests a total lack of understanding of the basic economic principles that govern the US economy. Whether you agree or disagree with the merits of the US economic systems, without this basic understanding you are incapable of engaing in a discussion on the topic

  • Donovan Lacy

    So in the end your final argument is that I lost the factual argument but it doesn’t matter because I still don’t agree?

    I am the scythe and you are the wheat.

  • Donovan Lacy

    Murph,

    Thank you. I owe you a beer at the next SFBC party.

    In the meantime thanks to biking I have an enormous amount of energy which I will continue to use to dispute Rich’s”arguments”.

  • Rob

    unfortunately the streetsblog highlights the recent comments on the right hand side of the front page. blocking doesn’t fix that. streetsblog needs to fix it.

  • RichLL

    You have a clearer understanding of the purpose and value of debates than Murph. He gets too angry when someone disagrees with him to debate coherently. He prefers attempts at censorship which fail, of course.

  • RichLL

    On the contrary, Donovan, it is you who fails to understand basic economic principles. If I hire you then I assess the economic value you will add to my enterprise when determining your pay.

    If instead it was your needs that were paramount then I’d look instead at your monthly outgoings. No employer does that.

  • RichLL

    And yet, Murph, you seem to always know what I wrote and have no difficulty in responding to me. Strange considering you claim not to see my posts

  • RichLL

    Whenever I make multiple points I notice that you always accuse me of contradicting myself when in fact each point stands alone. Would you be more comfortable if I only ever made one point?

    A significant part of Muni’s failure is its unsustainable cost base and the derisory level of revenues relative to costs. And a big part of those cost are the labour costs which are widely regarded as too generous for the skill set involved.

    But yes, values matter too, of course.

  • RichLL

    That’s not my final argument at all. In fact it wasn’t even an argument I made at all, although no doubt it is the argument that you wish I had made.

  • Donovan Lacy

    I made a type-o in my previous post and have corrected.

    So in the end your final argument is that I won the factual argument but it doesn’t matter because you still don’t agree?

  • Donovan Lacy

    It is not a question of my exact expenses it is the fact that pay in different markets is pegged to the Cost of Living in those locations, and employers look at these indices are used every day to determine what employers pay their employees, but you knew that already and have chosen to ignore it.

  • RichLL

    An argument can only be “final” if no further argument follows and if it stands unrefuted.

    In fact I presented a series of arguments, some factual, some values-driven, some observational and some grounded in logic. None of them are yet “final” and I dispute that you have “won” any of them.

    But if you like we could instead debate whether you “won” or not. Although personally I’d rather stick to the topic then engage in rhetorical games and claims.

  • citrate reiterator

    It’s not that you’re making multiple points that’s the problem, it’s that whenever someone brings up some evidence that doesn’t support your argument, instead of bringing up your own evidence you just start arguing something else. This final statement is also full of vague hedging (“widely regarded” by whom?) of the kind you routinely criticize others for. It just comes off as insincere.

    At this point you’re just repeating yourself instead of actually responding to criticism, and I mean whatever, I’m not about to relitigate the whole thread, I think I’m satisfied with what I’ve already said. I’m glad we at least agree that figuring out how much to spend on transportation involves a value judgement about balancing access (which would maximize the number of people who can use some transit) vs. ridership (which would maximize revenue).

  • RichLL

    I’d agree that the debate has meandered and that causes confusion all over. So perhaps it is useful to go back to the original comment by sfnative74 that sparked off this sub-thread which is now longer than the original thread. He said:

    “What if creating public transit that works relies heavily on removing on-street parking to free up space?”

    SfNative asked a question and I answered it, essentially by disputing the “heavily” part of that.

    To summarize, while removing parking (or for that matter any other vehicular traffic) would have an effect in making Muni more efficient, I disagreed that it was the major factor in improving Muni. I also don’t think it is feasible either, which is why many major cities try and put transit underground.

    I merely appealed to look at some of the structural internal problems with Muni before taking such drastic and controversial steps.

    And yes, we both appear to agree that resources are important. The difference is more that you probably see that as raising taxes whereas I believe Muni’s finances can be improved by looking at what strike me and others as a rather bloated cost structure.

    Concluding, Muni is negatively impacted by both internal and external constraints. The “just take out the parking” mob have not made their case.

  • RichLL

    What you’ve explained there is not so much the fundamental reason why Muni pay should be higher but rather the rigid bureaucratic process that is used to set pay.

    So yes, they look at other cities, the CPI and what have you, and come up with a number. Most businesses do not set pay in that way but rather look at the economic value that an individual adds and their replacement cost.

    That of course leads to the broader problem – that the public sector tends to operate with collective bargaining and union negotiations, instead of line managers being able to make variable individualized comp decisions on a case-by-case basis.

    And it was perceptions like that which, since Reagan, have driven a wave of privatizations globally which, sadly, have not yet reached into municipal governance.

    It may take a crisis to really fix this, probably the unfunded pension deficits. But asking people to give up their parking and pay higher taxes so that city workers can continue to get a sweet deal may reach the point where the people revolt.

  • citrate reiterator

    OK, except taking out some parking to create transit only lanes is hardly drastic or controversial: it’s been shown to work to improve transit times and increase ridership where new subway construction is not yet feasible (as I previously mentioned, NYC’s B44 bus service, for instance). You’re actually right that effective transit needs to not run in mixed traffic. But space for dedicated rights of way has to come from somewhere. It’s also unlikely that the federal and state government would grant SF enough money to replace its entire rapid transit network with subways in the short term, and people who depend on transit need other solutions in the meantime, particularly since we can expect congestion to go up further with population growth.

  • RichLL

    I never stated that taking out parking had zero impact. In fact I said it would probably have some. But the fact that you don’t personally think it is drastic does not mean that the residents and voters affected agree with you. In fact, judging by public commentary at meetings on that topic, there’s a lot of anger and opposition to the idea.

    Dedicated ROW is an ideal solution, and that already happens in some cases. The only real way to have that ideal solution is putting transit underground. But it’s not necessary to put the “entire transit network” underground as you suggest – only the busiest and most used sections. And we’ve actually done a lot between BART, the streetcars all the way out to West Portal, and the new Central Subway.

    Sadly in the case of Market we messed up the roadway anyway despite that, but hopefully that error won’t be repeated elsewhere.

  • Donovan Lacy

    My statement regarding winning or the losing the argument was presented in the context of your previous statement.

    I provided you with a host of citations that directly refuted your argument and you responded by stating that “in reality debates are settled by values, and facts are typically cherry-picked to support ones’ own personal biases.”

    I took this to mean that you were no longer interested in discussing facts, but rather were more interested in discussing values.

    If this is not the case, please help me understand what you meant.

  • Donovan Lacy

    How can you argue for replacement cost and against Cost of Living adjustments when Cost of Living / CPI is a component of replacement cost?

    You are not interested in debating facts but rather your values.

    And what the heck does giving up parking have to do with people revolting? You cannot be serious.

  • Flatlander

    Muni has had a operator shortage for years. There has been some progress, but I have never read anywhere other than your streetsblog posts that muni has far more qualified applicants than they have open transit operator positions. What is your source? And it better be good because it sounds like your entire argument hinges on this.

  • Donovan Lacy

    This should be an interesting pivot…

  • citrate reiterator

    What do you mean by “should”? You’re obviously not *obligated* to, but if you don’t, you may have trouble hiring or retaining employees: your employees will tend to go to either other employers or to places where their living expenses are lower. The net result is that labor tends to cost more in areas with higher costs of living. “Should” doesn’t seem to really enter into it.

  • citrate reiterator

    You mean from around Glen Park to Colma? Yeah, I don’t really have any complaints there; I’ve always personally thought it was kind of interesting that elevated freeways seem to be so popular when elevated trains get so much pushback (even though they are cheaper than subways and have most of the same advantages). Adding more highway capacity has its own problems, e.g., increasing congestion in city centers, but that’s a separate discussion probably.

    The problem with letting a vocal minority of local residents have veto power over transit improvements is that essentially any improvement — even ones that don’t result in any net loss of parking or impact drivers at all — will have some voices who strongly oppose it. This is even true of subway construction, which of course, has potential to be much more disruptive during construction (street and sidewalk closures, etc). But interpreting those loud voices as basically representative of voters in a particular neighborhood, let alone the city, is also a fallacy.

    Also I specifically said the “rapid transit” network (i.e. the part that already provides headways below 10 minutes at peak hours), not the entire transit network. But even if you just concentrate on, say, putting a few of the highest ridership corridors underground (Geary, Mission St., Judah outside of the tunnels, Van Ness, and the above-ground segments of the L/K/M), what’s the earliest you could reasonably expect all those projects to be funded and completed? 2060, maybe, optimistically? The people who depend on those transit corridors need better options in the meantime.

  • Alicia

    Yes, if only balance, critical thought or broader perspectives could be censored or banned

    Which of those things are supposed to describe your comments?

  • Alicia

    the hundreds of thousands of city residents who don’t have off-street parking

    Wait, what? How did you arrive at the notion that there are hundreds of thousands of city residents who have a car but not access to a garage or parking lot? Show your math.

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