A San Francisco Parking Enforcement Debate That Shouldn’t Be Happening

16501863_a629f20b56.jpgFlickr photo: andreil

Why is San Francisco — considered by many around the world to be a “progressive” and “green" city with a Transit First policy — still debating whether to extend meter hours and parking enforcement, even in the face of a crippling Muni budget deficit? Didn’t we merge Muni with the Department of Parking and Traffic precisely so policy decisions about management of the streets would benefit the operations of transit, bicycling, and walking?

Some politicians, including the Mayor, apparently can’t stop viewing these issues from behind the wheels of their SUVs. They can’t see past the myth that raising parking fees will drive away business, thus perpetuating an erroneous stereotype that most urban shoppers drive. My colleague Matthew Roth wrote a great piece debunking that popular fallacy, noting that the majority of shoppers don’t drive to shop in areas like North Beach and that in aggregate, transit riders, cyclists and walkers spend more than drivers. Other cities that have managed street space in accord with Shoupian market-rate pricing and curbside vacancy targets, and have invested additional revenues in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements, have seen a rise in business, not a drop.

San Francisco could and should do the same, but the MTA — namely its chief, Nat Ford, and its Board, all appointees who rarely act independently — has bowed to pressure from the Mayor, and Supervisors Carmen Chu and Bevan Dufty and taken Sunday and evening parking enforcement until 10 p.m. off the table as a much-needed revenue measure to fund Muni. Instead, the MTA is going to study extending it to 8 p.m. Supervisor John Avalos and four of his colleagues on the Board want it penciled back in the budget. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who was on the fence, is coming around and might join other members of the Board of Supervisors next week in rejecting the MTA budget if Ford doesn’t follow the recommendations of a "Transit Justice Package," and make some changes. As Supervisor David Campos has noted, asking for a $15 million readjustment is not a radical proposal.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, responding to a question from Streetsblog last
week, seemed stuck to his windshield perspective. When I asked him what
he thinks about the fact that Muni riders are taking a much bigger hit
than drivers in this year’s budget, he responded: "Look at what we’ve
done in the last few years. There have been
dramatic increases in parking, fines and fees related to automobile
use. So, you have to look at the totality of the last few years and I
think assess it in proportion to what’s happened over the years."

Nonsense. How about the last decades? We’ve bent over backwards to accommodate cars and vehicle ownership while transit service has deteriorated calamitously.

We’re supposed to be a Transit First city, but we’re not taking
advantage of the enormous revenue opportunities that options like metered
enforcement represent, and we haven’t raised meter rates since 2005. There are an estimated 320,000 on-street parking
spaces, of which only 25,000 are metered, and those metered spaces are
far from market-rate. If the average parking space is about 200 square feet, that amounts to roughly 60,000,000 square feet of real estate that we’re giving away for free or next to nothing so people can store their private property in public. Of the 83,000 residential parking permits (RPP) doled out each year, we practically give them away for $74. How does that make any economic sense?  We need to change the vehicle code that prevents the MTA from raising RPP rates, which are only priced at cost recovery (the amount to administer the program), and we need to charge a fee that approximates private lots and garages.

While SFPark is a great start at better
management of the curbside, it will apply to only 6,000 on-street spaces
and is not meant primarily as a revenue generator.  The kind of change we need is sea change, a complete transition away from 60 years of externalizing the costs of car ownership.  This kind of political leadership isn’t coming from the top and seems fleeting among the majority of supervisors.

Chu and Dufty won’t give in on their reticence. Chu, who gets around mostly by car, said in an interview earlier this year that she believes San Francisco has a parking shortage. Dufty was also feeling heat from the Mayor, but said he was also taking into account concerns from some Castro merchants. But really, if Chu wants available parking, she should back stronger market-priced meter enforcement. If Dufty wants more business in the Castro, he should back extended meter enforcement.

From Donald Shoup’s book, "The High Cost of Free Parking":

"Market-priced curb parking will reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption caused by cruising and also make curb parking more convenient. Eliminating the need for off-street parking requirements will, in turn, reduce development costs, make the land market more efficient, and improve urban design. Finally, the revenue from curb parking will either improve public services or reduce taxes that distort the economy, or both."

Other cities have already done what the MTA originally proposed last month. Los Angeles, Long Beach, Glendale, Pasadena, Montreal and Princeton, New Jersey are examples of cities that have implemented parking enforcement on Sundays. Pasadena extends its evening meters to 12 a.m. on weekends, and 10 p.m. during the week. But in San Francisco? Most metering ends at 6 p.m.

Picture_1.pngSource: SFMTA

Buchanan, chair of Pasadena’s parking advisory committee, saw it this way: "This might seem silly to some people, but if not for our parking
meters, it’s hard to imagine that we’d have the kind of success we’re enjoying.
They’ve made a huge difference. At first it was a struggle to get people to
agree with the meters. But when we figured out that the money would stay here,
that the money would be used to improve the amenities, it was an easy sell." 

If the MTA is going to truly be an independent agency, then Nat Ford needs to stand up to Gavin Newsom for once, putting aside his political loyalties. Don’t study extending metering hours, just do it! Ford went along with these parking enforcement proposals in the first place. If he doesn’t make these changes, we might have to go back to the voters and change the governing structure of the MTA to get the kind of Transit First city we all deserve.

Matthew Roth contributed to this piece.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Ford is gutless. He has sweeping authority to reprice parking and to install transit-priority signals in places like 4th + King and has done neither. What he *has* done is installed limo-priority signaling on one of the city’s busiest transit trunk (3rd St), and detuned an existing transit-priority signal on Market St to favor cars more. Oh, and he presided over the study of how best to dismantle city-wide bus service.

    If I had Ford’s broad, almost autocratic powers, I’d be dispatching paint gangs all over town, overturning the status quo every morning. But Ford uses his powers to just show up at meetings and nod solemnly.

    NY MTA, please hire this guy.

  • This debate “Shouldn’t Be Happening” because it already has, and we have our decision. The voters have added language guiding this decision to our City Charter, and a decision not to expand parking enforcement is in violation of that language.

  • jdub

    It is always helpful to have comparisons with what other cities are doing.

    @Josh: Since transit first policies are the law, aren’t our politicians breaking the law by not acting accordingly? Since the city seems to be afraid of lawsuits, perhaps pursuing the legal avenue is the way to go. Lawsuits were certainly effective in terms of thwarting the bike plan.

  • @Jeffrey Baker – I think I found my campaign slogan – “Murph is Not Gutless”

    Bloomberg isn’t perfect but one thing is for sure – if he loses his job and is reviled by all, he’ll be ok. A lot of these guys have to avoid bold strokes because doing so not only might cost them their job, but impact their ability to get another one, or get elected to higher office.

    And you are right on describing Ford as “Solemn”

  • marcos

    Oh, my, how negative the transit folks are getting now that they’ve realized Newsom is a fraud! San Francisco is as liberal and progressive as they come until business thinks it might have to pay the first dollar to make anything happen. Then they go all Mitch McConnell on us.

    Folks challenging the Newsom MTA budget are not wild eyed radicals, but folks who have put in years and years of effort to make transportation work in San Francisco.

    As Campos said, there’s nothing radical about shifting around $15m.

    And the voters have just weighed in against budgetary shenanigans and gimmickry. Newsom using the MTA as an ATM is the kind of sleight of hand that California voters just rejected.


  • theo

    @Jeffrey, I’m with you about Ford’s inexcusable failure to implement transit priority — though ultimately the buck stops on Gavin’s desk.

    But calling the TEP “a study of how best to dismantle city-wide bus service.” is BS. The TEP called for redistribution of bus services around the city, not any service cuts.

    When the state took away millions of transit support, and the city went into a huge deficit, the TEP data was used to intelligently manage service cuts. Far better to cut that Valencia bus and some of the redundant services around Laurel Heights than to cut lines significant numbers of people rely on.

    There was no TEP conspiracy. Just poor financial planning at the city and state levels.

  • marcos

    The TEP calls for increasing the distance between lines and increasing the distance between stops to speed up service.

    That is a service transfer between proximity and quality of service which does not necessarily reflect the priorities of Muni’s diverse ridership.

    The Charter is clear. Nat Ford works for the MTA Board. The MTA Board was expressly made an independent body per charter by the voters, the directors can only be removed for cause. The case can be made that mayoral interference in the MTA is official misconduct, same for directors who carry out the will of the Mayor under political pressure. Any Planning, Appeals or MTA commissioner who responded to mayoral pressure and submitted their resignations in 2007 are likewise exposed. Official misconduct would mean a bar on future service, so if the DA or Ethics Commission put the electorate before the electeds, we’d maybe see some action.

    The voters created an independent agency with a budgetary set aside and Newsom has it as an adjunct of his office and is raiding its subsidy. Sounds like official misconduct to me.


  • Susan Vaughan

    When I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and had a car, there was no on-street overnight parking. All car owners had to have off-street places to park their cars or risk being ticketed or towed. My roommates and I parked our cars in the lot that belonged to the nursery across the street for $20 a month.

    It would be interesting if someone who reads Streestblog had more information about such parking management policies — how and why they came to be and where they are still extent.

  • Every SF resident should have to pay a yearly parking fee with all neighborhoods having residential parking permits required. That fee should be higher if you have a garage but do not park in it (I am not able to use my garage for my car, so I would have to pay a higher fee to park on the street). All meters should operate for longer hours, until 2 AM in places where there are clubs and bars. There should be no meter holidays. All double parkers should be ticketed instead of just honked at by police cruisers. At least one parking space per street in congested parts of town (especially Downtown and in SOMA) should be converted to bike racks to allow safe bike parking that does not require parking meters.

    i bet you that would do a lot to move things along : )

  • @ Adrienne and annual parking fee –

    There already is a residential parking permit system in place: http://www.sfmta.com/cms/pperm/13442.html – it supports street cleaning, and is a patchwork, since some neighborhoods are exempt, due to the hills that prevent street cleaning equipment from getting in. That’s the existing compromise. To make the residential parking permit system complete, it should account for these geographic realities.

    Otherwise, I quite agree that there should be no free parking anywhere (downtown SOMA parking to attract customers can cost a business $2000/mo), or anywhen – with stricter enforcement of the existing laws against double-parking, etc.

    How that can remain flexible for Sunday church-goers, and funeral convoys in key parts of the city needs to be considered.

  • @Zac Appleton and anyone else with this question:
    I don’t see why going to church and funeral services requires free parking (or illegal median parking, e.g. Valencia). What part of devotion and bereavement suggests that parking should be free or city code is irrelevant? I think it reflects how deeply ingrained automobility is in our psyches to suggest as much.

    @Susan Vaughn: Shoup’s “High Cost of Free Parking” has some background on how the “right” to park at the curb became standard practice as cars became more common personal possessions. It is particularly interesting to look at cities like SF and NYC as car ownership increased and spacial constraints required writing or changing policy to accommodate car storage. I’m not sure if anyone has compiled a list of cities that have Providence-style restrictions. Shoup or Robert Cervero at Berkeley would be good places to start.

  • CBrinkman

    We had an interesting reminder of the dysfunction of our parking “systems” while discussing Sunday Streets in the Mission and the impact it will have on the church parkers. I had not considered until recently how many of the church-goers drive in from out of the city. We have to worry about what the backlash might be when they lose their free (illegal) parking for 2 Sundays. We bend over backwards in this City for cars and drivers when so many studies show that is not economically or socially beneficial.

  • patrick

    Yeah, I don’t see why Churchgoers get free parking every Sunday, seems like it might even be illegal to give them sort of preference… separation of church & state anybody?

  • Zac A

    Thanks for your comments. My main point is that any improvement for any one party in our 49 square miles has to account for and engage all the other parties who also use the same space, often at the same time. As CBrinkman recognized, the churchgoers are an important traffic population for that network of our fair city, and to prevent a backlash their interests have to be engaged as we move forward to deal with underpriced parking spaces throughout the city. It’s not a question of whether they’re free-riding parking space or whether someone should pay – it’s that they’re at the table to discuss this in the first place.

    I often see several generations of a family climbing out of their aging minivans parked on the Valencia median to get to church on Sunday. Any design proposal that makes it impossible or strongly weighed against that connection happening is a bad design…and possibly unconstitutional. The challenge then is to get that network of people to their destination without a car. At a minimum, that means far better seniors-friendly pedestrian access from the BARTs on Mission to Church St.

    Mission itself is overdue for renovation – I think we can still have strong local character, without half the grit, and none of the tripping hazards residents grindingly accept.

    For the funeral processions, that too can be organized differently – to have gatherings and convoys mediated by BART/MUNI. The barest minimum of the closest relations need accompany the body, while the rest meet up at a rally point to proceed with the convoy to the cemetary. Of course, if I had unlimited capital, I’d have a rickshaw/pedi-cab company do local funeral convoy runs. It certainly is a difficult business model to sell, even to just one of the 10 funeral companies in the city, but our populous species forces all of us to invent new ways of doing things.

  • Zac A


    Wrong citation of constitutional law I’m afraid. The Civil Rights movement had strong arguments on this sort of thing.

    The situation is this: people have a right to move and do what they like within the limits of the law. Limited urban space is a public good that has to be allocated to the maximum benefit of all the different things people want to do in that space.

    Unfortunately, it’s just plain lazy design (with questionable motives) that has forced so many to turn to the car.

  • Bert

    @ Adrienne and annual parking fee
    Meters till 2am? You obviously don’t have meters in front of your house.
    Ticket all Double parkers? While I agree double parkers are a problem How are you supposed to unload your sleeping child on your metered street? Not everyone living here in the city is a single hipster who can do everything on their fixie. I’m all for finding money for muni, but I’m not convinced that longer meter hours are the answer, higher meter pricing would be more helpful. Does the the additional revenue come from meters or from tickets? How much will it cost to have more meter maid enforcement? We saw what happened with the street sweeping changes..saved 1 million in expenses at a cost of 3 million in ticket revenue.

  • Denise

    You will all be happy to know that when my friend died of a heart attack after running the Boston marathon, his 74 year old father who drove to San Francisco for the funeral got a parking ticket at the funeral home. I am sure you think he should have biked from Arizona, but neither time nor his health allowed it. As his only child is dead, he will not be poluting our streets with his car ever again.

  • the greasy bear

    Denise, that is a disgusting and fallacious post. As if sympathy for the dead translates into free parking for private motorists on public streets in San Francisco forever.

  • Denise

    Greasy Bear – It is certainly not fallacious as it did indeed happen. And as I stated, he will not be returning to San Francisco and therefor not need the use any free parking on “public” streets. By the way Greasy, I ride the bus, it just so happens that this was one of the few days I got a ride with friends and got a personal view of our traffic inforcement.

  • ZA

    Denise, condolences for the loss of your friend and sympathy for the experience of your friend’s father. I assume that he drove from AZ due to funding issues? The logical breakdown is the point at which the mourning father decided to extend the use of his car from inter-city to intra-city. It’s entirely natural for someone not used to SF to default to that choice, but if he was staying with friends, his son’s abode, or his son’s friends, or at a hotel – there are usually alternatives to driving oneself.

    It seems to me the equally sad undercurrent to that experience were few locals to give this mourning out-of-towner tips and help.


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