Newsom Should Charge Drivers More for Parking Before Cutting Muni

parking_meter_2.jpgFlickr photo:sawdevcin

Transportation accounts for one third of US greenhouse gas emissions and is the fastest growing source of emissions globally.  Most of this comes from automobiles, and technical fixes like biofuels or hybrid/electric cars will not get us to the 80 percent reductions in CO2 that we must attain to stabilize the climate. We need to reduce driving and re-orient our daily mobility towards transit, bicycling, and walking.  Even Ray LaHood, Obama’s Transportation Secretary – and a Republican – made the connection on a recent interview on C-Span.  And San Franciscans have demanded that their political leaders get it too. Polling, balloting, and surveying has reified that San Franciscans overwhelmingly support a “transit first” agenda and understand that this includes discouraging driving.  

Yet responding to state cuts to transit and other declines in revenue, Mayor Gavin Newsom and the MTA directors he appointed have targeted Muni riders – people doing the right thing – with a dramatic fare increase and significant service cuts to plug a $129 million budget deficit.  Meanwhile, the Mayor and MTA have shied away from increasing parking prices in any meaningful way, and have dropped a proposal to extend parking meter charges to Sundays and evenings. The explicit public policy decision is one that makes transit less effective while keeping driving relatively cheap and convenient. This is the opposite of what we need to be doing. You do not address global warming by hitting 750,000 transit passengers with a fare increase that is proportionately four times more burdensome than the miniscule fees charged to motorists who park in publicly subsidized garages or on our public right of way.

Thankfully, this did not sit well with San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, who rallied to reject Newsom’s fare hikes and service cuts, and who have a different vision about the future of this city.  In his opening remarks at the Budget and Finance hearing Wednesday, the President of the Board of Supervisors, David Chiu, boldly stated that  “if we want to protect the environment, we have to get folks out of their cars” and that “Muni is critical to our life as a city.” Chiu, backed by Supervisors John Avalos and David Campos, clearly recognizes the Muni debate is about more than fare hikes and service cuts. It is a debate about what kind of city – and world – we want in the future. Do we want a more socially just, Transit First city, or a city that stagnates in continued traffic and pollution while sea levels rise?

Newsom’s response to the board blocking his Muni budget is to claim that, without the fare increases, funds that go to health, human services, and public safety will have to be cut.  The take away message is: car drivers are sacrosanct, while social services and transit can wrestle over limited funds.  Ideas like congestion pricing, which has proven effective in London, and which has been discussed for years here in San Francisco, are not on the table. What is even more galling is that Newsom is campaigning outside of the city as an environmentally progressive candidate concerned about global warming. He touts solar and wind energy, “green” buildings like the CA Academy of Science, and boasts about his plug-in hybrid car agenda.  But when it comes to the City’s Transit First policy, his actions are working to cripple it. 

What is the cold political calculus at work with Mayor Newsom’s approach?  One possibility is that San Francisco’s Transit First policy is being sacrificed for Newsom’s political ambitions. Consider that Newsom is running for governor and seeking to appeal to statewide voters. In doing so, he does not want to present himself as a champion of congestion pricing, increased parking prices, or other policies that discourage driving.  If Newsom championed these policies he could possibly alienate suburban Bay Area drivers as well as Southern California voters, who he will need to make headway in the primaries.  This line of reasoning suggests that Newsom takes San Franciscans for granted and cares more about suburban motorists who might vote for him in the governor’s race.  I hope that Muni is not being sold out for the expediency of one individual’s political career, but on the surface, that’s how it looks.

The willingness to suggest that people need to drive less and also pay more to drive is challenging and takes courage.  It offends many people – especially those who do not have reliable alternatives. New York City’s failure to impose congestion charging probably spooked Newsom.  Now New York is facing dire transit cuts just as we are. This stalemate cannot hold. More and more people are recognizing that we need to address global warming in a meaningful way. It is not enough to have green roofs or electric cars.  The urgency requires us to reconfigure our daily patterns and routines.  San Francisco can be a bellwether for rethinking the automobile and urban space, but Newsom’s Muni budget takes us in the wrong direction.

  • “Transportation accounts for one third of US greenhouse gas emissions”

    That is the usual figure, but note that it only counts emissions from the tailpipe. It would be higher if it also counted the emissions from manufacturing the cars, manufacturing the steel used in the cars, building and maintaining freeways, lighting parking lots and gas stations, and so on.

  • The city could raise a ton of money simply by enforcing Section 155(g) of the Planning Code, which prohibits discounted daily, weekly, or monthly parking prices in C-3 zones. Every parking operator in SoMa and the Financial District openly violates this section of the planning code, and the loss in city revenues from the parking tax is quite substantial.

  • Matt

    I support public transportation with all my heart, but you can’t impose burdens on drivers in this city without taking major steps to make Muni more accessible. As it stands, Muni is slow, unreliable, erratic, and difficult to decipher. The entire city is only 7 miles across, and yet it can take over an hour to reach certain neighborhoods by bus.

    We should discourage driving eventually, but not until we’ve taken major steps to reform Muni. We need the political will to make Muni fast, reliable, and simple, and the patience to wait a few years for the effects of such changes to materialize. Once we have a transit system that isn’t a grand embarrassment, we can talk about discouraging driving.

  • You have it backwards, Matt. We can’t improve Muni service with all these cars in the way.

  • This imbalance is particularly galling to riders who, by not clogging the streets with individual autos, make life easier for drivers, whose cars then impede the buses.

  • We should discourage driving eventually, but not until we’ve taken major steps to reform Muni. We need the political will to make Muni fast, reliable, and simple, and the patience to wait a few years for the effects of such changes to materialize. Once we have a transit system that isn’t a grand embarrassment, we can talk about discouraging driving.

    Matt, the vast majority of Muni routes operate in mixed flow with traffic. Unless you know about a pot of money sitting around of which the rest of us are unaware, that will remain the case for quite a long time. Cars clogging the street are very much a part of why Muni service is so slow and unreliable. Imposing burdens on drivers has the doubly beneficial effect of removing cars and increasing revenue, and Muni desperately needs both of those right now. The “political will to make Muni fast and reliable” very much includes within it the political will to discourage driving. That is, in fact, the crucial piece of political will that has been missing all along.

  • Nick

    So this issue wasn’t resolved by Mayor Brown in 100 days or Mayor Newsom in 8 years. Maybe we should start working with whoever is the most likely candidate to be the city’s next mayor. It is that person who we should be discussing this with today.

    Any ideas on who that person might be? Consider that there may also be a backlash against alternative transit a year from now if the Bike Plan gets approved and there is all of a suddden a lot less streetside parking.

  • I have to disagree strongly with Matt. Yes, Muni needs to improve to become more frequent and pleasant, but it’s not impossible to use as evidenced by the over half a million people who manage it daily now. In addition, we don’t have a few years to discourage driving. Our carbon emissions need to start dropping radically soon.

    We have to remember this isn’t just a San Francisco issue. The budget pain being experienced by both Muni and Caltrain is due to the deep ineptitude of Sacramento politics and the total implosion of state funds for transit. (Where on the upcoming state ballot is an initiative legalizing marijuana so that we can stop paying billions incarcerating small time drug users and start taxing and regulating the marijuana industry instead? Where is there an initiative for a state-wide carbon fee on gasoline? Where on the ballot can I vote to toss out every single state senator and representative and replace them all with new ones of whom I can at least pray might show up with an iota of competence?)

    I’m not entirely against raising parking fees, but the problem with trying to fund Muni through parking is that it just isn’t a large enough potential income stream and doesn’t distribute the burden at all evenly over even the entire set of drivers in San Francisco. Many, many people drive around the city without parking at a destination (for example, parents dropping kids off at school) or without ever parking legally (i.e., just a quick double park) or park on streets without meters. Many drive huge SUVs, vans and trucks that clog the streets disproportionately and take much more space to park and yet they pay the same price as a compact cars at meters and in city garages. Many, many people drive through the city from Marin to the Peninsula without ever parking and still clog up the city streets. In addition, we should probably be doing what European cities are doing and eliminating on-street parking in favor of bike lanes. The more we charge for on-street parking (and consider it a revenue-generator) the less we’ll be inclined to do this.

    Since every transit agency in the Bay area is feeling extreme budget pain,and since Sacramento is willing to show no leadership, perhaps the best approach is a regional solution. I would propose a Bay area wide carbon offset fee on gasoline, with the funds collected in each county going towards transit serving that county. If San Francisco implemented a carbon fee on gasoline on its own, obviously people would just drive to Daly City for their gas. But if it were Bay area wide, only people on the edges of the region would, I think, bother. If we couldn’t get the whole region to buy in, maybe we could just get San Francisco through San Jose to sign on?

    Obviously a gasoline carbon fee would only work for the next eight or so years before gasoline pretty much goes away for personal transportation use. After that, we would have to come up with a more stable funding source for transit, preferably on a regional or state-wide basis. But it would accomplish much in the interim.

  • The great thing about parking rates is that free market economists and progressives can agree: parking is under priced in this city. Most of us with cars are willing to pay more for the convenience of being able to find a spot.

    From an equity standpoint, I’ll end there: street parking policy in this city needs to be in line with reality and that should be our first priority.

    However, it seems all of our transportation in this city is under-priced:

    1. The taxi medallion program. The city awards too few medallions that don’t adequately meet the demand. They keep the price fixed. There is so much demand for taxis and on a weekend, it’s so hard to get one… we should either auction the limited medallions we alot, or increase the number of medallions allotted. But the current system benefits nobody. We get poor taxi coverage and the city looses potential revenue.

    2. Transit… Face it: we do pay some of the lowest fares in the Bay Area. $45 a month for unlimited transit to all of SF is quite a bargain. Compare that to $61 for VTA and $70 for AC Transit. I will qualify this with equity concerns. Transit has positive utility in ways that aren’t easily quantified, so it’s worth subsidizing.

    3. Bicycling.. Yes, bicyclists (including myself) don’t pay really anything for the roads we use (I didn’t pay city sales tax on my used bike). It is true that if everybody biked we’d only need streets about 12 feet wide and it would cost considerably less to maintain, but it costs SOMETHING. If our society ever approached something like 50% bike mode share, it’s something we’d need to talk about.

    My point is that everyone feels entitled to cheap transportation. As a multimodal user in SF, I would prefer that auto driving be priced to reflect it’s true cost (congestion, parking space taken, emissions etc.). That should be enough to fund Muni and maintain our roads. But we should consider: what if one day we are so successful that street traffic drops off (and the incumbent funding). We should all be willing to give up our entitlements. In London, they nearly do: bus rides cost $5, Tube costs $13, and autos pay congestion fees, high gas taxes, and higher registration fees than we do.

  • Burdens on driving make Muni *more* attractive both on the push side and on the pull side.

    That said, the system requires additional revenue above and beyond what is being contemplated today in order to make it a viable, desirable and efficient option.

    What part of “SHALL” are the Mayor, MTA Board and Supervisors not understanding?


    (a) To the extent allowed by law, the Board of Supervisors may, by ordinance, dedicate to the Agency revenues from sources such as gas taxes, motor vehicle licensing taxes or other available motor vehicle-related revenue sources.

    (b) The Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and the Agency diligently SHALL SEEK TO DEVELOP NEW SOURCES OF FUNDING FOR THE AGENCY’S OPERATIONS, including sources of funding dedicated to the support of such operations, which can be used to supplement or replace that portion of the Municipal Transportation Fund consisting of appropriations from the General Fund of the City and County. Unless prohibited by preemptive state law, THE AGENCY MAY SUBMIT ANY PROPOSAL FOR INCREASED OR REALLOCATED FUNDING to support all or a portion of the operations of the Agency, including, without limitation, a tax or special assessment DIRECTLY TO THE ELECTORATE FOR APPROVAL, or to the owners of property or businesses to be specially assessed, or to any other persons or entities whose approval may be legally required, without the further approval of the Mayor or the Board of Supervisors. The Agency shall be authorized to conduct any necessary studies in connection with considering, developing, or proposing such revenue sources.
    (Added November 1999; Amended by Proposition A, Approved 11/6/2007)


  • “What part of ‘SHALL’ are the Mayor, MTA Board and Supervisors not understanding?”

    It’s not a lack of understanding, as you’ve pointed out before, it’s a lack of accountability and consequences. We need “If you don’t” language.

  • “without the fare increases, funds that go to health, human services, and public safety will have to be cut.”

    I’m kind of shocked he’s so openly making this connection. There has never been any kind of consensus that Muni/SFMTA revenue should fund HHS or public safety. Those departments have their own budgets.

  • “without the fare increases, funds that go to health, human services, and public safety will have to be cut.”

    It’s kind of shocking that he’s making this connection. Muni has no obligation to fund health or public safety programs. The funds he’s talking about it taking away are funds that he took away as part of his across-the-board cuts.

  • jim

    Let’s take a moment to congratulate David Chiu for his leadership on this very important issue. The fact that the president of BOS has stood up and questioned the MTA and mayor on this is is fantastic. David “walks the walk” buy not owning a car and riding a bicycle. He deserves our support and encouragement.

    We are at a watershed moment: will we continue to pay lip service to our transit first policy or are we actually going to see some progress? The actions of David Chiu along with the coalition he has formed on the board give me a sense of hope that we are turning a corner with respect to transportation policy.

  • Seth, no need to perpetuate the canard that “bicyclists don’t pay really anything for the roads we use”. San Francisco roads are funded by property taxes. Unless you are homeless (even if you rent, part of the money is being used by your landlord to pay property taxes) you are paying for the streets. But of course bicyclists and pedestrians create far less wear and tear and don’t need wide streets and traffic signals and such. Therefore we are actually paying disproportionately for what we use. Though of course Muni riders are probably the most subsidized.

  • Michael,

    You need to know which bucket transportation funds come out of. Transportation funding comes from the gasoline user fee (federal and state), sales tax on the price of gasoline (introduced as a transit fund, since become a state general fund bailout), tolls, local self help sales tax (SFCTA), and the rest from general funds (sales, property, and income taxes). So, I agree with current mode shares and proportionate wear and tear on our existing roadways, bicycles are likely more than paying their fair share.

    My point is that if we see a precipitous decline in auto use, we wipe out more than 75% of transportation funding. I contend that converting all our streets to bike paths and maintaining them would require more funding than whatever is generated by property and sales tax.

  • @Josh, the City is facing a $500m budget deficit. Some of that has been closed by tentative abor agreements and other such methods. North of $100m has not.

    In that case, whether you want to believe this or not, Muni are competing for tens of millions of dollars that don’t exist against highly organized constituencies.

    The Board of Supervisors has taken the good first step to keep Muni from further destabilization. However, the real fight is just beginning, and we need to gear up for it.

    Please trust me on this, my multiple areas of activism give me a bigger picture perspective on this than most of you all have.


  • You could raise a helluva lot of money for transit if the police actually handed out tickets every time they see a bicyclist run a stop sign.

  • There are so many facets to this, but they all have one thing in common- SF does not have room for the cars that invade every day. We have too many traffic sewer streets that are lined with family dense housing- Fell, Oak, Judah, Monterey, Tarval… too many places in this city are being sacrificed to allow people to race through town faster. How many of those cars are driven by people who live here? At over a million cars a day in the city, and a population of 800,000ish, why should residents have to put up with being pushed out of their own space?

    Parking should be way more expensive. If I have to pay $2 a square foot to rent my apartment and live here, visiting cars should have to pony up a whole lot more. Transit only lanes should exist and be enforced all over SF to allow for free flow of buses and trains, allowing Muni the room it needs to move. Traffic sewer streets should not be allowed in residential neighborhoods.

    While I understand that people who visit here need to be able to get around, my children who live here should be able to cross streets safely and not get asthma from car fumes. The two goals are not mutually exclusive.

  • tommy

    Yes, think of all the thousands of cars that enter san francisco every day from outside. if this number were greatly reduced, the parking and traffic strains that residents suffer would be very much reduced. the fair thing would be an entrance fee for the entire city, not just downtown. sure, people who are entering for work have employers who pay taxes for street upkeep, but are the people paying fair market value (if anything) for their parking spot? and the ton of nighttime and weekend visitors–most park on a street for free. then all this new toll money would be put first towards big increases in public transit and bike access at the borders, with the remainder going to muni (which would already be enjoying slightly less-congested streets).


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