Concrete Giveaway: Free and Exclusive Parking on the Public Street

gaven_street_no_parking.jpgThis public street has zero public parking spaces, due to private driveways.

Curb cuts, also known as driveways, theoretically provide vehicle access from the street into a private garage.  New development in San Francisco has been required to include off-street parking since the 50s, in an effort to ensure a convenient supply of on-street parking.  But as documented by Mary Brown’s comprehensive investigation in the Mission District, 49-percent of all residential garages are used for storage, not parking.

Moreover, a resident is permitted to park at the curb blocking his own driveway, whereas if someone else parked in front of said driveway, her car would be towed away.  In effect, the curb cut has become a reserved, free parking space on a public street, financed by the taxpayer.  Meanwhile, on-street parking is so scarce that people will kill for it

Curb cuts not only deplete on-street parking for shoppers and visitors who do not have their own driveway to occupy.  Curb cuts dramatically decrease the available space on the sidewalk for trees, street furniture, transit shelters, lighting, or any other use that could preclude car access.  Driveways also pose a safety hazard to cyclists and pedestrians, and decrease transit speeds when buses are forced to stop for driveway maneuvers.

Recent neighborhood plans have focused on increasing livability by flipping the previous parking minimums for new developments into parking maximums.  However, in most neighborhoods, the parking code still requires a developer to build an off-street parking space for every residential unit constructed, even a studio apartment.  Office space and commercial uses also have minimum parking requirements.  In fact, according to the planning code, once a parking space is constructed, it can never be removed!  It is well understood that requiring new housing construction to include off-street parking, along with prohibitions on converting existing garages into apartments, drive up the cost of new and existing housing.


Despite the clear impacts curb cuts have, these is no mitigation fee for maintaining one.  Such a fee could help address the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s structural deficit ($100 million is the latest projection).  Decision makers are beginning to understand a curb cut’s true public cost; in November, the Board of Supervisors adopted Jake McGoldrick’s legislation, which imposed a minimum $100 per year fee on all newly constructed curb cuts.  However, the 200,000 existing curb cuts in the city are exempted.

To improve Muni’s budget, the agency chartered a Revenue Panel to investigate the feasibility of a variety of new revenue sources for the agency.  Ideas floated range from fare hikes and payroll taxes to bridge tolls and vehicle registration fees.  As the panel has evaluated options, most have been summarily dismissed as hostile to business or tourist interests.  A curb cut fee would not negatively impact business or tourism, and would complement the MTA’s innovative demand-responsive parking program, SFpark.

In January, the MTA Citizens’ Advisory Council, in forwarding recommendations to the Revenue Panel, advised that the panel study a curb cut fee, levied on all existing driveways and with proceeds benefiting the MTA.  The fee could be based on the number of parking spaces accessed by the curb cut, so that large parking structures pay proportionally more than a residential garage.  Residents with garages used for storage could opt out of the fee by painting their driveway brown, which would declare the curb cut as abandoned and free the curb space for public parking.  The CAC also recommended that staff study the elimination of minimum parking requirements in the planning code.

Hopefully, the Revenue Panel will give consideration to a curb cut fee.  It would not negatively impact business or tourism, and could increase on-street parking.  In keeping with the City’s Transit First policy, it would discourage private auto use while raising funds for transit and streetscape improvements. 

  • The California Vehicle Code actually doesn’t discriminate — parking in front of a driveway is against the law whether it is your driveway or someone else’s. Not that it is actually enforced…

  • This is one of those things that sound great on paper, but mustering the political support is going to be very tough. Essentially this is a western neighborhoods tax, whereby we’re taxing people based on land use decisions that were made decades ago. Whatever the merits, you’d have a homeowner revolt that would be fairly strong. To overcome that and explain it would take a really really good outreach that talks about why this would be of some benefit.

  • People talk about the Western Neighborhoods like they’re a force to be reckoned with, but I’m not so sure that’s true. More people live on the East side of town, and voter turnout is just as high on the East vs. the West.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’d be a huge fight to wrest the suburban mindset from Greg’s fellow n-riders, but I’m not so sure it’s as politically infeasible as folks tend to think.

  • Zig

    Not just westside. Most of the south of 280 parts of SF as well are SFHs

  • While the Doelger houses may have been originally built with garages, as Mary Brown’s research shows, many houses in SF had garages added long after the original construction. Nevertheless, if a citywide fee weren’t feasible, perhaps a local neighborhood fee would work. Locally collected fees could be spent on local sidewalk improvements.

    I agree with Michael; a simple abolishment of minimum parking requirements would be the most important step.

  • Greg R.

    As mentioned earlier, I also wonder if there is an incentive system that could facilitate this. If owners could cash out the curb cut for a relatively modest payment or tax break, and paint it to allow free use of the street spot by anyone, couldn’t the city then license a re-cut at a much higher rate, driving up revenue? This would preserve the value attached to the spot for the homeowner as future buyers would have a parking option, but allow for either fewer cuts or more revenue.

    Separate question: are there any garages in SF that have been converted to neighborhood bike storage (as in, for bikers from a 1 block circumference or so?)

  • The City has been unable to pass in-law unit legislation on the west side because of parking concerns. The CIty has been unable to upzone Geary in the Richmond because of parking concerns. The winning citywide electoral formula for 15 years has been to unite downtown and the west side neighborhoods against the east side liberals and progressives.

    There is reality and there is political reality, rarely the twain shall meet. Didn’t we learn from the bicycle plan just showing up with what we are convinced are good ideas is not sufficient, good ideas need to be propelled into reality by a political coalition capable of putting together the package and threading the needle to win?

    I’ve learned that the more moving parts a policy has, the greater bureaucratic reluctance there is to implement it and that it is in general more confusing and a more difficult sell.

    Until anyone can show a template that has worked in the past or a novel approach that is strategically sound, then there are better places to put our energy than trying to find 8 votes or 50%+1 at the ballot to mess with west side parking.


  • If I remember correctly from Mary Brown’s presentation at SPUR, if you calculate how many curb parking spots are lost to garage curb cuts you could actually curb park all or most of the cars registered in the study area.

    If I were charged a few hundred dollars a year for the curb cut to my garage which is only used for parking bikes and the ocassional visiting friend who parallel parks in front of the garage, I would certainly choose not to pay but to free up that curb space. As it is, our neighbors know they can overlap our garage and we don’t mind, so it becomes a little neighborhood bonus space.

  • Great article but two points:

    “Curb cuts not only deplete on-street parking for shoppers and visitors who do not have their own driveway to occupy.”

    So on the flip side – why would we want to make more public parking available? I take the point of the article about “reserved” street parking not being fair/not a good use of public space but adding more public parking just encourages more driving if it’s easier to find a parking spot.

    “the curb cut has become a reserved, free parking space on a public street, financed by the taxpayer”

    Not entirely true. Having a garage/curb cut makes the home more valuable so it has a higher assessed value that the homeowner pays taxes on. So homeowner’s do pay something. And if they actually had a garage put in – they paid for the permit fees, etc.

  • Greg.. thanks for your thoughts.. getting aggressive on curb cut abuses is a discussion we need to be having. A low lying fruit in this manner is to crack down first on double wide curb cuts for a single dwelling unit. And for apartment buildings with a series of closely spaced garages, consolidating them. A fee/incentive program might be helpful here.

  • TB

    I went out of my way to rent a house with a garage so I wouldn’t have to worry about parking, excessive wear & tear to my car, vandalism and theft, and now some people think charging me $100 per year to use my own driveway is a good idea?

    I’ve got a two word answer for you: [editor’s note, please don’t swear].

    So some people use their garages as storage and park their cars on the street? This is reason enough to take money out of my pocket for using my garage and driveway the way it was intended?

    That’s just mental.

    What the hell would I get in return? MTA is running at a deficit because of my garage? I don’t think so. If MTA needs more money, maybe they should run things more efficiently, not levy a tax on those that have nothing to do with their budget shortfalls.

    A $100 per curb cut … that’s just stupid.

  • Joe

    The use of garages primarily for storage is actually prohibited by the building code, since it would be permitted for parking only (Storage and parking are two different types of occupancy classifications, just like say, office, multiunit residential or assembly). The reason is to ensure that the construction of the space is adequate to handle fires and such within the space and prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings and the residential portion of the building. So if you observe a garage being used primarily for storage, you can call the Department of Building Inspection and report it. They will pay a visit to the property and if they find a violation (like a garage so jammed with stuff that a car couldn’t be parked in it) they will require the building owner to remove the stored items.

    Of course I would favor a change in zoning (different from the building code) to allow building owners to get rid of parking to create space for other uses. It would require some modification to the structure (say providing additional exits from floors above, or increasing the fire resistance of the walls and ceilings), but the city should also then require that the curb cut be removed and the curb restored.

  • TB, it’s a bummer that you had to go out of your way to locate an apartment with adequate parking. Your frustration shows how consuming parking can be in this city, and why any discussion regarding parking reform is predictably emotional. And while vandalism and theft are legitimate concerns, the best way to address them is to improve the character of the street (i.e. more pedestrians, less garage doors), not hole ourselves up.

    I like Greg R’s idea (how many Gregs are there?) for more options for the resident. While many SF houses have garages, many others (mostly older) do not because of grade/sidewalk constraints or other reasons. Shouldn’t any homeowner/tenant have the option of a reserved parking space in front of their property?

    Business owners (like dry cleaners) pay a modest biennial fee to maintain a green (10 minute) parking space. What if a resident could pay an annual fee for a reserved parking space (one per dwelling), and a higher fee for a curb cut? Subsequent residents could choose either a reserved parking space, a driveway (with the associated reserved parking space), or neither.

  • Greg Riessen wrote: “And while vandalism and theft are legitimate concerns, the best way to address them is to improve the character of the street (i.e. more pedestrians, less garage doors), not hole ourselves up.”

    Are there any examples of recent development in San Francisco where this turns out to be the case once people move in? I’m thinking of South Beach, which has density, some “amenities,” transit and is a lifeless urban husk.

    A 3 unit building w/o parking–no curb cuts–next door to us just went through an eviction/rehab cycle like so many rental buildings in the North MIssion. The new well heeled tenants, apparently the total rent on those three units is more than the combined mortgages on the 2 condos in our building, have been parking their cars in no parking zones in front of our house in our micro Mission alley since they’ve moved in.

    Once people make a certain amount of money, their time becomes more valuable to them and they eschew reliance on slow, “gross” public transit. So long as the housing that gets built in San Francisco appeals to people who need cars because transit is inefficient, the problem will be exacerbated.

    Parking reform will only work as part of a greater package of carrots and sticks that has to include enormous spending on comprehensive local and regional rapid transit infrastructure.


  • Consider how this fits in with Donald Shoup’s idea that we should charge a market price for parking – a price high enough to balance the supply and demand and leave the 15% vacancy rate that makes it easy to find an on-street space.

    Someone with a curb cut is taking up that street space, just like someone who is parked at the curb. They should be charged the market price for the space they use, which would depend on the demand for parking in their location. Given the shortage of parking in San Francisco, it would be much more than $100 in most places.

    Sorry, TB, you are using a public resource, curb space, and you should pay for that resource.

  • GRR (Formerly Greg R.)

    (OK, Greg R. here, who is not Greg Riessen. I will now post as GRR. How many Gregs indeed!)

    Ultimately, the disconnect here is that curb cuts are priced. TB may not have paid the MTA for his (rented) curb cut, but he certainly pays his landlord for it. Apartments and condos with assigned parking rent or sell at significantly higher rates than those without – just like those with laundry machines, granite counter tops and views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

    I think there are some more specific nuances to consider, namely: what about those using that 1 curb cut to park 2, 3 or even 4 cars (yes, really)? Wouldn’t the proper way to deal with such violations be enforcement of existing laws that (presumably) ban parking on the sidewalk or in front of a cut? Obviously the political rollout of such a policy would be tricky and you couldn’t just start towing cars one day without some warning, but it enforcement can certainly play more of a role here.

    I think it is also important, both politically and on a policy level, to determine in this case what the primary purpose of a policy like this might be, and to start there. The MTA study was about revenue, but I suspect most positive responses here are about the potential positive livable streets impacts of pricing. This sets up a tricky dynamic with someone like TB, who is actually OK with paying for what s/he uses(we know this because s/he does so already in the form of higher rent), but reacts negatively to the idea of paying for transit.

    I think I’m saying we need to determine if we are asking drivers to:

    A)Fund transit, or
    B)Pay for their use of a resource and or mitigate their impact on a neighborhood.

    I think B is a much more reasonable way of thinking about it. In actuality, we know that those mitigation fees can certainly fund transit as an effective form of mitigation, but we need to start on the premise that we’re charging you for what you use in your neighborhood, not because someone in a different neighborhood needs more transit options.

  • jsf

    Two points:

    1 – To help minimize the backlash, a curb cut fee could be focused on areas with permit parking or where SFPark is studying. This would have the most support where the lack of parking is acute. If people begin to see benefits for pedestrian safety and aesthetics, they may be able to expand this to other areas.

    2 – Allowing single family homes to convert garages to storage or habitable space, with accompanying improvements to the building as discussed by Joe above, could also serve as a beneficial earthquake retrofit. Houses where the garage is basically the entire first floor often fall under the ‘soft-story’ description that is most susceptible to earthquake damage. The larger soft-story buildings in SF and elsewhere will possibly be facing required retrofits in the near future.

  • TB

    So let me see if I get this straight.

    Curb cuts are taking away parking spaces. Therefore, we should charge people for the loss of a parking space. We should also encourage new buildings to have LESS off street parking, and force more cars out onto the street to park. But since parking cars on the street is bad, we should … we should …

    OK, now I understand: cars are BAD. We should raise fees until all cars are driven from the streets of San Francisco. Can we charge people to park in their own garages? That would be great! How about if we force car owners to register their cars with the city of San Francisco AND pay to register them with the COUNTY of San Francisco. We can take the extra money and give it to bicyclists.

    And speaking of bicycles, they should have the right of way at all times. If they get hit, the driver of the car (it’s ALWAYS the cars fault anyway) should be found summarily guilty, and fined triple on the spot. No appeals!

    Yes, new buildings should have a MAXIMUM number of parking spots. And the cars that are driven out onto the streets to find parking? All those cars that will now make parking harder to find, insurance rates rise and crime rates go up?

    Well tough, you shouldn’t own a car anyway. Only BAD people own cars. Cars are bad. Cars are evil. Just think of how great this city would be without cars! Really, is there ANY good reason for anyone to own a car? No! No there is not! We should figure out how to get that point across to those anti-social car fiends out there.

    Paying a fee for your preexisting driveway? Great idea! After that, what can’t we start charging people for when they’re “using a public resource”?

    Here’s what we should do: License pedestrians. They’re out there, walking on sidewalks, using public property, creating wear and tear, refusing to walk in straight lines or stay on “their” side of the sidewalk, bumping in to people, lowering our overall standard of living. They need to be licensed and registered. And if they’re seen bumping in to people, they should be FINED!! And God help them if they knock someone over.

    And what about those wheelchair users? Let’s start charging them an arm and a leg for their curb cuts.

    Sorry, wheelchair users, you are using a public resource, curb space, and you should pay for that resource.

    Seriously, how DARE people want to use what is already theirs.

    Our goal should be simple:

    No people allowed in San Francisco!

    No people allowed in San Francisco!

    No people allowed in San Francisco!

    Oh, and I’m sorry if cursing made you clutch your pearls all the tighter, you bunch of Wankers.

  • CBrinkman

    I agree with GRR that the distinction needs to be made about what we are asking for, and in my opinion it is not only mitigation for use, but the opportunity as a result of the mitigation to use that valuable space differently. If we manage (i.e. charge for) our on street parking better we might have an opportunity to reduce the number of “needed” spaces and use that spot for something else. Greenery, street furniture, play streets. Are most of the cars in SF necessary, or a luxury?

  • TB – you’re in for a rough couple of decades buddy.

  • Rocco

    As usual, some of this comes down to design and money.

    The streets in the Western neighborhoods, which seem to be all curb cuts, are in spec housing from the 60’s. They make an awful streetscape. In many older neighborhood, like the Haight, one curb cut can actually provide access for two and three cars and often more, and the cuts take up 30%-50% of the streetscape.

    Depending on the neighborhood, having a garage will add 100K-500K to the price of a house. So yes, owners with garages do pay more taxes.

    If the city enforced the no-storage rule for garages, we’d have a lot less cars on the street. Owners would be forced to take on off-site storage units, which would be a boon to those businesses. And if you’re using your garage for storage because you don’t have a car, someone will probably be thrilled to rent it from you.

    Builders don’t want to put garages in their projects. Contrary to the notion that they’re guided by square feet, the height and bulk regulations actually force builders adhere to cubic foot restrictions. There’s more profit in living space than in a garage. So I agree that we should continue the one-garage per unit rule, but change the code so that buildings only have one curb cut. It’s a problem that can be designed around.

    Fundamentally, there’ no God-given right to expect to be able to store your vehicle on the street.


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