The Land of the Free (Parking)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of you who didn’t watch the San Francisco MTA Board meeting yesterday on your live-feed or on SFGTV that the meeting devolved into a referendum on the merits of free, or nearly free, parking. With half a dozen television cameras lined up along the far side of City Hall’s Room 400, approximately 60 people took the microphone to testify, some with the opprobrium of a pastor admonishing the unrepentant, all with a fervor that few other issues in urban life can stimulate.

Every small business owner who addressed the MTA Board about its parking meter study asserted that
extending parking meter hours beyond 6 pm would drive their customers
to distraction, compelling them to seek the lush asphalt pastures of
suburban malls, where they never have to worry about a parking ticket
again. Never mind that three quarters of your customers, on average, come to your stores by foot, by Muni, or by bike. Never mind that parking meters were first installed in San Francisco in 1947 to promote turnover to help your business, nor that meter hours basically haven’t been changed since then.

Elliot Wagner, owner of Dimitra’s Skincare and MediSpa in West Portal, said, "If you add in the consistent increasing in meter rates plus the vigorous enforcement, the outcome is simply that you will be driving people to Stonestown, which is next door, and there’s ample parking, all free, and they’ll never, never get a $53 ticket. The $2-3 per hour cost in parking meters is in fact a de facto 2-3 percent parking tax that we add onto every shopping bill."

Ken Cleaveland of the Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) argued that the study was not "in-depth enough," and said, "At this time I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, certainly not for our local economy.  Most of the residents and businesses really are not prepared to pay more for parking." He said the city needs to build a lot more off-street parking garages and requested the MTA conduct a thorough cost-benefit impact analysis in every commercial zone where they proposed extending meters before they extend the meters.

Jim Lazarus of the Chamber of Commerce, who committed to convene "all the merchants and neighborhood groups in the city, bring them together with your staff, day after day, to work this out," had a very dim view of the study. He also highlighted a trend on streets like Clement in the Richmond, where residents park in metered spaces after the meters are turned off:

On Clement, where you have residents above commercial, those parking places at nighttime on Clement are used by the residents as well. You’re taxing residents, potentially hundreds of dollars a year for that resident without off-street parking that comes home at 5:30 or quarter to 6 and has to park at that meter. You’re going to tax that person until 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock at night to park at that meter. That doesn’t work in this city…. You cannot kill our commercial districts. You cannot pit merchants against residents and residents against merchants. 

schmidt2_small.jpgForest Schmidt of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition testifying to the MTA Board. Photo: Michael Rhodes

By far the most quixotic of the nearly four hours of public testimony were several speakers organized against the MTA study by the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, better known for its opposition to the war in Iraq ("No Blood for Oil!") and, locally, to Chevron’s environmental record. Members of A.N.S.W.E.R. greeted those entering Room 400 with lavender fliers bearing the picture of a parking meter with "Fail" in the meter window and a sampling of misguided populism: "Stop the Parking Meter Hike! Make the rich pay, not the workers! It’s time to organize and defeat the parking meter robbery!"

Forest Schmidt, representing A.N.S.W.E.R., said in his testimony:

When people receive tickets from an expired meter, they’re treated like they’ve committed a criminal offense.  The reality is that there are not enough parking spaces in the city.  It is a tax that is disproportionately put on the poor, the working class and small business owners. The reality is that… it comes out of their rent, their bills, the money they have for food. The working class population in San Francisco is being driven out.  I hope that this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because people are having their cars stolen from them because of this random taxation. If you make $15,000 a year, if you only get one $50 ticket a month, it’s a 4 percent income tax. This is ridiculous, it’s out of control.

Never mind that car ownership and poverty rarely go hand in hand, especially in San Francisco, or that a person making $15,000 each year would be paying more than half of their salary for the upkeep of their car (car ownership costs on average $8,758 on average per year). Never mind that the 700,000 daily Muni passengers, demographically much closer to working poor, will be forced to bear another round of fare increases should the MTA Board fail to find creative sources of revenue, such as the parking study.

CC Puede’s Fran Taylor pounced on the dubious claim that free parking is social justice, asking rhetorically: "I wonder if the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition is as embarrassed to be in bed with the landlords as the Chamber of Commerce is to be in bed with the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition.  Where were these people in 2005 when Muni fares went up? Where were they in 2009 when they went up again…? The crocodile tears I hear for the working class? The real working class, the real poor, they’re on the bus."

And this from Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, "These parking spaces weren’t here when the Spaniards arrived, they were built by somebody, they’re maintained at some cost, and the notion that they are free in a city that is very short of real estate and space and somehow it’s about human rights in the constitution that we should have these parking spaces available to everyone–well, no…. I’d rather live in a city where we paid for parking and transit was free."

Bob Planthold of the Senior Action Network reminded the MTA Board that they have a duty to find revenue to better fund paratransit and to enforce parking violations such as parking on sidewalks. "You’ve had the opportunity as an MTA Board from the very beginning to put funding measures on the ballot. This is a potential internal funding measure that can help paratransit and better enforcement. You can do something by principle, or you can cave in to political whims and pressure."

In the end, MTA Chief Nat Ford told his Board he would prepare a schedule of public outreach meetings and the agency would take the proposal throughout the city to get public opinion on it. MTA Board Director Malcolm Heinicke urged Ford to heed the advice of several speakers to set up a one-year trial of extended meters in a commercial district where that might not be too controversial and gather data based on the experiment.  Ford said he would direct staff to do so.

MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan reminded his board that MTA staff presented them with three service cuts options for balancing the budget, each more "draconian" than the last. The board chose the middle option with the understanding they would have to come back and find more revenue or face service cuts. "I think about that, what it means if we don’t find additional revenues for this agency. The last thing that I’d like to do on this board is cut any additional service. To my mind we’re here to provide service."

So then it comes to whether or not the MTA Board has the fortitude to
back an unpopular parking proposal to fulfill its Transit-First mandate. If it’s true that Mayor Newsom is washing his hands of the study and leaving it to the MTA Board and the Supes, this small paean to rational parking policy proffered by MTA staff might not be dead yet. 

  • If you can drive there in 5 minutes in San Francisco, you can bike there in 7 – 10 minutes. Really. There aren’t all that many days you can’t bike due to weather. People in Copenhagen, where they actually have winter, bike year around.
    (They have very cute little bike lane snow plows.)

    Check out this video! Three guys on Xtracycles towing a truck. Seriously.

  • poor people drive cars

    Many poor, working people are forced, due to the economic crisis, to drive longer distances to work. If you work out of county for example, you may have to rely on three different transit systems, over four hours a day of extra public transit time and costs for using three different transit systems can exceed twenty five dollars a day. You tell a worker, who has had their car towed because of parking tickets aquired upon returning home from work, in say, the Mission District, how to get to work the next day and you explain to them that parking and driving is a “priveledge” or that “poor people don’t drive cars.” Actually, by supporting the parking meter extended hours, you are supporting the position that they shouldn’t.
    I don’t drive a car any more. I don’t have to drive to work, I don’t have to drive children or sick, disabled or elderly family members and am able to rely on public transportation. I resent, as a poor, working person the arguements being put forward by those supporting the extended meter hours. I also don’t agree that the arguement should be framed as “cars” vs. “public transportation” when really poor working people should not be punished for having to drive and public transportation should be cheap or free any way.
    And by the way, I have had my car towed and my power turned off, simply because working 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job, did not afford me the “priveledge” of being able to pay the rent, buy the food and also drive the car and keep the lights on. I guess that is a priveledge only upper and middle class people get.

  • poor people drive cars

    One more thing, to those activists concerned about the impact of cars on the enviroment, I would wager that the greatest threat to the planet is war and occupation and not the poor working person driving their heap to their job.

  • patrick

    First, nobody here said poor people don’t drive cars

    Second, if somebody lives in the Mission they have easy access to BART, which serves 4 counties, so that example is misleading at best.

    Third, yes, there are a very small percentage of poor who live in SF and work outside and have to drive very far, only the tiny portion of that tiny group would be affected by extended parking meters: the poor who work far away from any transit and live in an area that has commercial parking used by residents after 6, but even then, they can feed the meeter, so there is no reason they would have to get tickets and be towed. Yes, it would cost that tiny group of people money, but there’s no tickets or towing.

    Finally, the poor take MUNI in far greater numbers and a far greater percentage than the affluent, so far more people would be hurt by the service cuts and fare hikes that would ensue if parking were not raised to market rates.

    Why should wealthy people’s parking be subsidized at the expensive of the working poor?

    By the way, I’ve had my car towed too due to not being able to afford to pay tickets. But I’m not going to blame it on other people. I know I couldn’t afford my car, and I didn’t need it. I made choices and then had to pay the repercussions of my choices.

  • patrick

    The Iraq war is about securing oil supplies (needed to drive cars), terrorism was just an excuse to go in there. So if you want to do your part to reduce war and occupation, I suggest you avoid driving.

  • James

    Missing in this debate is the issue of reducing the need to own a car. Cars and the associated need for street space to park them could be reduced by the proliferation of shared cars (zipcar or ccs) on the street as opposed to in private lots. This is especially true on hilly areas where there should be available cars at the tops of hills vs at the bottom.

    Reducing the number of cars via car sharing will allow those who must have a car to park them more easily. Does anyone know if the city would allow street space to be used for car sharing?

  • “If you can drive there in 5 minutes in San Francisco, you can bike there in 7 – 10 minutes.”

    If it doesn’t involve a steep hill, biking is probably faster. I guarantee I can beat a car from Noe Valley to either Caltrain station by more than 5 minutes, based on daily evidence of passing dozens of cars on 24th, Valencia, 18th, Cesar Chavez, etc… let alone Market.

    “Third, yes, there are a very small percentage of poor who live in SF and work outside and have to drive very far”.

    I dunno, maybe it’s just me. I “go” very far to my job – with a bike and Caltrain. I wouldn’t do it except that it is a high paying job. If I were working at Starbucks instead of a high tech firm, I would not work at a Starbucks in Santa Clara. A vast majority of people are this way – low paying jobs are everywhere. It’s not one size fits all, certainly, but while government should in fact protect people from the tyranny of the majority, this is not one of the cases that need be applied. YMMV.

  • Here is a comment posted verbatim from the noevalleysf blog about a meeting with the D8 BOS candidates last night.


    Most amusing question: “Can each you show us your MUNI pass?”
    Best alternate response “I don’t have my wallet with me but I just bought a Smart Car.”

    Meters were discussed – I don’t believe anyone was in favor of the proposal as written. Ideas discussed included allowing for longer than one hour parking and having meters that take credit cards. Scott Weiner noted the impact the current proposal would have on those who clean office buildings at night (primarily low paid immigrants). Rafael Mandelman said if increasing parking fees meant being able to increase MUNI service he’d consider it. Several people were in favor of an annual car tax rather than more nickel and diming people but apparently that’s not possible. Rebecca Prozan noted that she would be representing car owners and has to be sensitive to their needs to. Laura Spanjian thought more people should buy Smart Cars.

    No mention of Google and Apple and other company) buses, but there was a fair bit of discussion on the sanctuary issue.

  • patrick

    @John Murphy

    Totally agree about biking. If I bike the 5 miles to work I can do it in 25 minutes, and that’s not pushing too hard or running any lights. Driving takes a minimum of 15 minutes, if there’s no traffic, which is rarely the case. Plus, my route bike route is far less direct than the driving route, as I have to go around some hills, and prefer to avoid highly trafficked roads if possible.

    “If I were working at Starbucks instead of a high tech firm, I would not work at a Starbucks in Santa Clara”

    That is exactly my point, there are very few cases where somebody HAS to drive long distances for a low paying job in the bay area.

  • patrick

    Oh, and my drive is about half freeway, and 1/3 streets time signaled.

    The nice thing about the bike ride is I never have to worry about traffic making the trip take twice as long or more. Biking always takes about the same amount of time.

  • Jay

    Why does MUNI keep asking for more funds? How come no-one is asking the MUNI to tighten its belt?
    MUNI pays cleaners over $100K/year (fact; check it on SFGate), and yet the cars are filthy and never cleaned.
    MUNI has stopped providing the basic services that they are supposed to provide. When you point this out, they shrug and ask for more money.

    What will we get in return for providing more money to MUNI? Their change machines are perpetually broken. Some of the bill changers are nearly 50 years old. MUNI does piss-poor job of managing their current funding, and any more money we provide will just go down the toilet.

  • Susan King

    There are lots of folks, esp. in the Mission, who share the opinion that raising parking or other fees on car ownership (such as towing and impounding cars that are not properly registered or heavily ticketed) are a burden to the poor and therefore regressive. The issue these folks face is that they need reliable, cheap transit, and clunker cars are cheaper than buying bus passes for the whole family.

    What we need is to have Muni be made free when parking is free, or better yet, make Muni free on Sunday and charge for metered parking and see how many folks opt to take the bus instead of driving and paying for parking. We need to have low-income advocates on our side when Muni raises fares and cuts services again- which seems inevitable, so working with them on addressing their concerns, as Fran notes, seems like a good idea.

  • The issue these folks face is that they need reliable, cheap transit, and clunker cars are cheaper than buying bus passes for the whole family.

    Insurance and registration alone would pay for at least one bus pass. Each parking ticket is a month’s bus pass. Maintainance of clunker and gas, oil changes, at least one annual bus pass. Replacement of said clunker, annual bus pass.

    It’s really a false economy. Our economy rewards greatly those who can spot false economies, because you are competing with so many who can’t.

  • This brings up a good point about MUNI’s ability to draw families. MUNI (Caltrain and BART) need to start offering some sort of daily family pass. Munich has a pass for 3 days for up to 4 people. They need to travel as a group since there is only one ticket, but provides a way for a family to avoid the burden of buying 4 tickets which usually pushes the cost over what the family perceives to be the cost of driving. Maybe that will help these poor families avoid loading up the family into a car, and instead loading them up on transit.

  • Jym

    =v= The entity calling her/him/itself “poor people drive cars” speaks fluent A.N.S.W.E.R.ese. It’s not oil war, it’s “war and occupation.” Uh-huh.

  • none

  • mikesonn

    Sad that we haven’t gotten any further along in this conversation in two years.


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