San Francisco First City in the Nation to Count Its Parking Spaces

Port_meters_small.jpgMeters along the Embarcadero are part of the Port of San Francisco’s SFPark trial. Photo: Matthew Roth

No sizable city in the country, or likely the world, has been able to say with any certainty how many parking spaces it has, public or private, until now. Over the last 18 months, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) has tallied every publicly accessible parking space within city limits, including free and metered spaces on-street and every publicly accessible garage [PDF map].

The total number of spaces, as Mayor Gavin Newsom recently announced on his Youtube site, is 441,541. Of the total, over 280,000 are on-street spaces, 25,000 of which are metered. For just the on-street spaces, that is roughly the equivalent area of Golden Gate Park.

"Most cities have very little knowledge of their parking inventory," said Rachel Weinberger, a planning professor at the University of
Pennsylvania and former transportation policy adviser to New York Mayor
Michael Bloomberg. Weinberger called the parking census a "tremendous effort."

"Without the basic knowledge [city planners] have no basis on which to make
decisions about future supply policy, about current management policy or
even about how their transportation systems are working."

Don Shoup, planning professor at UCLA and author of the definitive book on the history of parking, The High Cost of Free Parking, was excited to hear the
news. "San Francisco’s census of parking spaces is a great achievement, and the
first of its kind anywhere," he said.

The release of the public parking space census coincides with the redesign of the website for SFPark, an occupancy-based parking management trial funded with a $19.8 million federal congestion mitigation grant, which among many objectives, seeks to manage the supply of parking by adjusting the cost to match demand. To put that in laymen’s terms, if SFPark works well, there should be enough parking at the curb so that drivers don’t have to circle the block endlessly searching for that elusive space. By gradually adjusting the price of parking up or down in the pilot areas, the city expects to create roughly one or two free spaces per block face at any time, the original purpose of parking meters when they were introduced in the 1930s.

Jay Primus, who directs the SFPark trial for the MTA, said the parking census was the first step toward a better understanding of how parking works in San Francisco, filling a void where city planners could only make rough estimates previously. "If you can’t manage what you can’t count, doing a careful survey and documenting all publicly available parking was a critical first step for the MTA for how we manage parking more intelligently," he said.

Primus explained that his team combed through copious records to determine total public garage spaces, including the MTA’s own facilities and city tax records for private facilities. For on-street unmetered spaces, he sent interns out across the city to count every fifth block, a 20 percent sample size. At every free opportunity, he sends out more interns and recently estimated they had increased their sample size to 35 percent. Time willing, he hoped to count every single space on every street.

Aside from satisfying his own penchant for good data, Primus said the data was essential if they expect the SFPark pilots to succeed in making parking more convenient for drivers and reducing traffic.

SFPark_Map_small.jpgClick image to enlarge. Map depicting SFPark trial areas. Courtesy:

In order to expand the impact of the data, the MTA has released it to third-party developers on the Data SF Website, which the agency hopes will spur creative applications for smart phones much as software engineers have done
with the MTA’s route and schedule information. With these applications, Primus expected to "see less circling for parking, less
wasted fuel, and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. It could help to save people
both time and money," he said.

"San Francisco is on the forefront of parking management," said Mayor
Newsom, who has championed open data through DataSF. "By combining this data with our innovative approach to local
government open data, we continue to transform government to work better
for all of us."

Beyond the benefits to drivers and the savings from reduced congestion, the parking census data will inform the general discussion of parking supply and development, which can become highly contentious and emotional.

Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University Geography Professor, said San Francisco Planning Commission hearings sometimes devolve into unhelpful arguments over the supply of parking without good data to back up either side’s assertions.

"It’s very important to have as fact-based a conversation as possible," said Henderson.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s Joshua Switzky agreed with the importance of the data. "It’s the kind of information that always comes up during review of big
projects, especially when parking is being debated," he said. "Everyone — from
neighborhood groups, to planning commissioners, to transit advocates —
wants to know the general parking supply in an area."

Now that the publicly accessible spaces have been counted, the MTA plans
to move forward with a count of private garages. Some of those
interviewed for this story imagined there could be as many as 800,000
spaces in total, or at least one parking space for every San Franciscan.

What the Census Reveals

Should San Francisco have a parking space for every person residing in the city? Should the city continue to mandate one new parking space for every residential unit built, the metric required in planning code in much of the city?

Using data from the MTA’s Transportation Fact Sheet, Weinberger noted that despite 28.5 percent of San Francisco households not owning cars, "enough households have multiple vehicles that the city’s population,
collectively, owns over 8 percent more vehicles
than households."

"As we all know, the more parking there is available, the more convenient

car use becomes relative to other travel options," said
Weinberger. "The more convenient
car use is the more likely a car will be used."

Shoup marveled at how much parking in San Francisco is free, especially when compared with the price of housing. "One surprising result is that 72 percent
of all the publicly-available parking spaces in the city are free," he said. "In
San Francisco, housing is expensive for people but free for most cars."

Todd Litman, the director of the Canadian think-tank Victoria Transport Policy Institute, said the census showed that "in many situations there is not actually a shortage of parking spaces, rather, the available spaces are not being well-utilized." Litman said the solutions were parking management strategies such as more car sharing, efficient pricing, and parking cash out, which "can address parking problems in ways that also help achieve economic, social and environmental objectives."

All the parking experts agreed that San Francisco was leading the way in the effort to better understand the relationship between parking policy and the context of the urban environment.

"Parking policy is a pretty powerful tool for shaping street use, urban
fabric and mode choice," said Weinberger. "The true power in this
information rests on what the city decides to use it for."

  • peternatural

    While people are mostly hating on parking, I’d like to give a shout out to the parked cars that often protect pedestrians on an otherwise exposed sidewalk from nearby traffic that can occasionally go smashing and tumbling and smearing out of control due to a medical emergency, mechanical failure, or driver distraction. Having a solid wall of parked SUVs and Hummers between you and the street can occasionally be a real life-saver! (And provide peace of mind 😉

  • JohnB – You don’t have the right to do “anything” with your property. This can include not being able to park a car on your yard. If your argument would apply, I could say “I have the right to put a big steaming pile of manure on my property”. While this is absurd, you should know just as well as most that you can’t add another story to your house without going through the 7th circle of hades – even though it’s your land – and after you pass through hades you might still not be allowed to do it.

    Asserting your right to put your shiny BMW on your yard means your next door neighbor can put a rusted hulk on blocks on his yard. In some places, this is legal. In some, it’s not. I trust Eric’s knowledge more than yours.

  • peternatural, curb cuts actually make your walk more dangerous as it introduces more pedestrian/car interaction. Not to mention that many people treat the sidewalk in front of their garage as a driveway that they can park in. But yes, a row of parked cars does create a nice barrier from high speed traffic.

  • I’d like to give a shout out to the parked cars that often protect pedestrians

    i’m with this, but i’d also like to give a shout out to how absurd the argument would be in a sane world — “hey, i know what will protect us from cars — more cars!”


    Seriously, tho, during this transition time — while we’re slowly removing cars from the city — parked cars can be somewhat useful in protecting us from moving cars, but the end goal should be to remove all cars from the city — they’re not conducive to a high quality of life.

    We know parked cars are dangerous to cyclists because doors fly open on both sides of the cars, and they often start rolling down hills, onto sidewalks, into the street, and dogs have a tendency to put parked cars with the engines running into gear, etc.

    And, of course, slowing cars down significantly when they travel through the city (’20 is plenty’) would be a great idea to push.

  • JohnB


    Placing a personal possession of mine on a paved area of my lot is nothing like asking the City to add an entire extra storey to my building.


    I wasn’t talking about applying to Planning for a Permit to create a parking space. I’m talking about parking a vehicle on my lot. Can you cite me a law preventing that because I know of none.

  • those dudes

    free parking is SO crazy – folks are either prohibited from, or require a permit, to put just about ANYTHING within the public right-of-way, except a car. if this census leads to some rationalization of this craziness, then its was time/money well spent!

  • JohnB: road wear is proportional to the fourth power of axle load. This means that a car that weighs 1,000 kg causes one sixteenth the road wear of a car that weighs 2,000 kg. A bicycle, weighing 80 kg including the rider, causes about 1/400,000th as much road wear per km driven as a 2,000 kg car. This means that under any fair system, the total amount of user fees for the bicycle would be on the order of a few cents per lifetime.

  • I would be delighted to pay $10 a year registration/use fee for my bicycle if every SUV owner had to pay $4,000,000. Absolutely delighted.

  • JohnB


    You assume that user fees should be dependent on road wear and no other factor.

    But what about utility? A truck delivering medical supplies to an ER room may create far ore road wear than your bicycle, but it also delivers far more public good and utility.

    The methods we use to compute fair pricing for roads, even assuming we should do that at all, are open to debate.

  • The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recently undertook an effort to count all off-street parking in the 7-county region. We also completed a report on parking management strategies and a lot of the ideas mentioned by Donald Shoup.

    You can download that paper (and others) online:

  • JohnB, the law I am referring to is San Francisco Planning Code Article 1.2.

    Section 132, which regulates building setbacks, says that “no motor vehicle, trailer, boat or other vehicle shall be parked or stored within any such area, except as specified in Section 136.”

    Section 136 specifies, among other allowable obstructions, an exception that garages can exist within the setback “if their top surfaces are developed as usable open space,” and that driveways can exist but “in no case shall parking be allowed in the setback.”

    This section regulates the *required* setback, which is the average of the setbacks of the adjacent buildings. Buildings can have additional setback beyond this required setback, so if your building is very deeply set back, parking might be possible in the area in between the required setback and the building.

    In that case, within that additional lot depth, parking appears to be legal, but is restricted by Section 142: “Every off-street parking space not within a building, where not enclosed by solid building walls, shall be screened from view from all streets and alleys through use of garage doors or by some other means.”

    My reading of this is that you can legally keep vehicles in front of your building only under very limited circumstances: they must be further back on the lot than the average of the front of the adjacent buildings, and must be hidden from public view. But if you want to read and interpret for yourself, it is at

  • JohnB


    Well, I suspect if you delve deep enough into the bowels of the Planning Code, you can find that almost everything is illegal.

    But when you consider that there are estimated to be about 40,000 dwellings in San Francisco that are totally unregistered, not-to-code and illegal, and even that doesn’t get enforced, then clearly someone parking a boat on their lawn or on their driveway is not going to be picked up on either.

    The Planning folks generally only get involved when you apply to change something. Nobody is going to apply to park their boat on their lawn but presumably, if they did, then it would get rejected under 132.

    Otherwise, the world carries on. I don’t know anyone who DOESN’T park in their driveway.

  • JohnB,

    A lot of driveways are only slightly longer (deeper) then the side walk, so parking on it would infringe on the walking space.

    And I guess the planning code is kinda like the bible, just pick and choose which parts work best for you at any given moment.

  • SamS

    I have counted my parking spaces throughout Downtown Los Angeles (off-street/on-street)…I wonder how much time it would take to inventory all parking in the entire City of LA…I am sure Professor Shoup would appreciate that even more…

  • Damian

    Responding a week later (from March 30 comments)…

    mikesonn – I live in the Tendernob.

    JohnB – Silly me, thinking the city only issued only enough permits to fill the available spots. I should know better. Obviously, SF would need to run the program properly to guarantee spots to all parking pass holders if they were to charge a market rate.

    I also think that residential spots should be reserved for pass holders only 24 hrs a day. That may mean a long walk for visitors who drive, but in my experience that’s the way it is anyway.

    I threw out the $1500 per year figure. Maybe $1000 is a more realistic number for a guaranteed spot – I don’t know. I say do a study to figure out what people would be willing to pay for that guarantee, then give it to them at that price.

    With the increased revenue, the city could afford to run the program much better.

  • Peter

    But even if every household has a street parking spot, people would still get parking tickets for street cleaning. Here’s a website with a map of street cleaning in san francisco.  You have really have to check before you park, or you ll get a ticket


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