MTA Could Boost Revenue by Enforcing Downtown Commuter Parking Law

monthly_rate.jpgUnlike numerous downtown garages, this one adheres to planning code and charges a non-discounted monthly parking rate. Photo: Michael Rhodes.

You’d hardly know that it’s illegal to charge discounted daily and monthly parking rates at numerous downtown San Francisco garages because enforcement of the law is almost non-existent.

Planning Code Section
prohibits discount rates for all-day or monthly parking in
off-street parking spaces downtown (the C-3 District in planning code
parlance). It’s intended to discourage commuting by car to San
Francisco’s crowded downtown, while encouraging transit and leaving
spots open for shorter car trips, like shopping and appointments.

Because the Planning Department doesn’t have an effective enforcement wing, nor a financial incentive to enforce parking rules, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) is considering how it could take over enforcement of the commuter parking law, a move the MTA believes could net an additional $6 million annually.

"Enforcement has not been done in any systematic way that I’m aware of,"
said the Planning Department’s Josh Switzky. "It’s normally done on a
complaint basis. It’s a matter of practicality and workload."

said the Planning Department is enthusiastic about the idea of handing
the responsibility over to the MTA, which already enforces many other
parking rules in the city and has a major financial incentive
to enforce the code aggressively.

At present, the average monthly fee for parking downtown is $285, according to a recently completed parking census. That’s an average hourly rate of $1.78 based on a 40-hour workweek. If the ordinance were strictly enforced, based on current market rates all parkers would pay an hourly rate of around $2.30, regardless of their length of stay.

By enforcing existing law the MTA would gain additional revenue to help close
budget gaps of $45 million and $55 million in the next two fiscal
years, without resorting to cutting even more Muni service. By
discouraging discount rates, garage operators would charge more for
long-term parking and the MTA will get more in parking tax revenue and
income from its own garages.

While the MTA expects some monthly parkers would simply stop using the garages, leading to a small decrease in parking demand, the higher average hourly rates would more than make up for the change. At its own garages, it estimates the new price structure could bring in an extra $2.5 million.

The downtown commuter parking law originally went into effect in 1985 with sweeping changes to the planning code as part of the Downtown Plan. Like many provisions in the Downtown Plan, said Livable City’s Tom Radulovich, it was intended to limit parking overall downtown, discourage commuting by car because it creates traffic snarls at peak times, and prioritize existing parking for merchants and short trips.

But while some newer garages are following the code to the letter, it hasn’t been applied retroactively to garages built before 1985. Some of "MTA’s own lots and garage are run that way," Radulovich pointed out. "They’re not running any of their parking as called for by city policy."

In fact, most city garages in the C-3 district do offer daily, monthly, and early bird special rates — all of which are prohibited by the Planning Code if they don’t meet the criteria set out in Section 155(g). So do the majority of pre-1985 private garages downtown. By contrast, a brief survey of just a few recent buildings found strict adherence to the rule, with rates that closely matched the code’s requirement: The rate for four hours of parking must be no more than four times the hourly rate, and the rate for eight or more hours of parking must be no less than 10 times the hourly rate.

For instance, the garage at 560 Mission Street, built in the last decade, had an hourly rate of $2.13, a four-hour rate of $8.50, and a daily rate of $23.38 — all closely following the code. Its monthly rate of $450 seems to derive from the hourly rate multiplied by ten (the minimum daily rate) times a monthly average of about 21 workdays (the garage is closed on weekends and holidays.)

While there may be plenty of post-1985 garages that aren’t in compliance, the pre-1985 garages likely add up to a far greater target for enforcement. But to act on that, the MTA will need to establish its legal right to do so. "The Planning Code generally doesn’t apply retroactively," said Planning’s Switzky.

"There’s various ways to do that," countered Radulovich. "You’d need a land use attorney’s opinion. Some controls can be applied retroactively."

It’s possible the MTA could simply enforce the code as it’s written on all C-3 garages, but if it does require legislative action, the agency is already looking in that direction: MTA staff has even proposed expanding the code provision to the whole city, potentially bringing in an additional $5.2 million.

From a congestion management standpoint, that would be especially crucial as many garage operators provide shuttles from parking facilities just outside downtown to the center of the Financial District.

"Of course, in some places, the C-3 zone is just the blocks on either side of Market Street," said Radulovich. "If you’re very diligently enforcing those regulations, but a block away from Market Street isn’t enforced at all, that’s not going to be very effective."

Another proposal presented by MTA staff on March 2 would charge a higher parking tax rate to garages that don’t comply with the ordinance. That would certainly require legislative action, but would ensure extra revenue for the MTA, while giving garage operators some flexibility.

As with any process that requires inter-agency cooperation, having the MTA take over enforcement of Section 155(g) of the Planning Code won’t happen without effort, but both agencies are eager to get started.

"It’s worthy of attention, and it’s probably about time," said Switzky.

  • Nick

    There’s an interesting trend in the outer neighborhoods of SF that corelates to this issue. Quite a few motorists don’t want to pay $20+ for parking in downtown each day.

    They’ve developed a work around where they drive into the City, park for free in residential neighborhoods, then take transit the rest of the way ($2 or $3 fare).

    Most of it is centered around Balboa and Glen Park BART, and West Portal and Forest Hill Muni stations.

    I’m not saying it should be taken away by any means. A better solution would be to somehow charge a fee for the wide swaths of free parking that is so prevalent once you exit the downtown core.

  • patrick

    Sounds like they should implement a 2 hour parking time limit & preferential parking in areas where this is common.

  • JohnB


    Much of the reason for residents parking permits is to prevent just that i.e. commuters driving into SF and parking 2 miles out and hopping a bus or streetcar.

    So it’s already in operation in many areas, which is why the commuters increasingly park further out where such permits make no sense, and take a longer bus trip.

    And if that keeps cars out of downtown, which it does, then isn’t that the whole point? It’s not the problem; it’s the solution.

  • Heh! You guys kill me! @Nick Martin and @patrick Lewis!

  • Mission Mom

    What an interesting article. Thanks, Streetsblog!

  • JohnB


    Since residents parking limits generally apply only during business hours, it is clear that they are intended to dissuade commuter parking out along transit lines.

    I’m not otherwise sure what your point is here. Don’t you want those cars out of downtown? Don’t you want car drives driven onto mass transit?

  • Joseph

    Is it April Fool’s day yet? MTA opening up new revenue streams? Not related to just higher fares? Pinch me.

  • JohnB


    How is preventing private businesses from rewarding their best customers adding to Muni’s revenue stream?

    Did I miss something in the article?

  • The Upright Biker

    Does this apply to lots as well as garages?

  • patrick

    JohnB, I believe there are some public garages that the MTA owns that are not following the current law, so if the rates are raised, there would be more revenue. I also believe that there is a tax on parking, so if private garages raise their monthly rates, there will also be additional revenue from that.

  • JohnB


    Sure if a City agency owns and runs the garage, that’s a different matter. If they want to lose customers and the taxpayers are happy to subsidize that, that’s their choice.

    I’m thinking more of Joe the Car Park Investor who pays millions to buy a lot and wants to adopt a pricing structure that maximizes income and rewards good customers.

    I’d guess a “differential” tax structure would constitute a government “taking”.

  • Joseph


    To stay in accordance with the 1985 downtown plan, I guess we’ll now have to see more creative approaches to customer appreciation.

    Bring on the bundled hot breakfasts and dry-cleaning services when you buy 3 months of parking.

  • EL

    One key fact to mention is that discounted monthly parking rates are often used to sell excess garage capacity that isn’t used by hourly parkers. In many places, if monthly parking rates are revised to zero discount, then the garage occupancy levels will fall, and the hourly rates will have to be reduced to help bring occupancy levels back up. I question whether the MTA will actually see any additional revenue in the end.

  • Maybe that means we have too much downtown parking then.

  • James Figone

    @mikesonn – In addition to raising money for the MTA, higher parking rates are intended to discourage driving into downtown. If the rates are effective in reducing driving to downtown, there may indeed be a surplus of parking that could be converted to better use. For example, a parking garage at Sansome & Green was converted to office spacea few years back.

  • @James Figone, that’d be awesome. Maybe some spots converted into covered bike parking. Ooo, the possibilities.

  • patrick

    EL, that’s true, but on the other hand I doubt the MTA has been very effective at keeping parking rates at the fair market level for public lots (in fact for at least 1 lot I know this to be the case from experience), so there is probably room to raise rates.

  • @JohnB I know that’s exactly why those permit areas exist. I assumed patrick did too and that he was making a joke, by explicitly recommending what is exactly the residential permit program.

    There really doesn’t seem like any reason someone would park on the outer limits of SF to take a bus in. At that point you are far better off just parking at Colma or SSF BART, or at a Caltrain lot, both inexpensive and on fast transit. You can see on that map the permit zones are right around the 2 interior BART stations and the MUNI stations that are already underground e.g. not going to be a slow boat…

  • patrick

    It was a bit joke, a bit serious (the program itself seems like a joke to me).

    The distribution of residential parking permits in SF seems completely random. My neighborhood has none, but I’m surrounded on all sides by areas that do, and I can tell no discernible difference. That map you posted looks like a kid took some crayons to a street map of SF!

    I can imagine what Nick says is true though, somebody coming from the peninsula could take 280 and park a couple blocks from BART and take it the rest of the way downtown. No parking cost, a reasonably fast commute, minimal traffic, no having to deal with SamTrans, and a much shorter walk than taking Caltrain (assuming the job is in the financial district). I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with that unless it’s putting an undue parking burden on the neighborhood…

  • JohnB


    The purpose of residential permits is not just to protect those living near major transit lines.

    It also exists to help those who live in areas zoned for commercial, and which therefore attract a lot of inbound commuters who would otherwise park for free in streets that also have residential parking needs.

    My beef with the residential permits is that they are issued by license plate not driver, so if I have 2 vehicles that I occasionally want to park on the street (during the day for more than 2 hours) then I have to currently buy a separate permit for each, rather than one I could swap between the two vehicles.

    It’s also inconvenient if you borrow, rent or use many different vehicles, when you have to go get a temporary permit.

    Result – I don’t get a permit at all.

    Meaning if I am home during the working day, I have to either park in my driveway or move the vehicle every 2 hours. This means:

    1) The City gets no revenue
    2) I’m still parking on the street
    3) Gas gets wasted for no purpose
    4) I keep having to run out and erase chalk marks, or move vehicles

    Silly rules begat silly behavior.

  • $76/yr is breaking your bank JohnB?

  • JohnB


    They went up today, to $96. Plus they now charge a $3 “administrative fee” for the privilege of standing in line.

    So that’s $200 a year. Not a lot but not nothing either.

    But I’m lucky, I can park off-street. Most folks cannot. And for that $96 they still have to circle the block several times to find a spot.

  • $96? About time. But yeah, for $60 (or $70) per MONTH I still have to wait for buses that never show up on less lines. So I’m not crying too hard for the car drivers (well, I’m not crying at all).

  • patrick

    JohnB, that’s a choice you are making, you could make do with a single permit, and just have that car be the one that gets parked on the street. You’ve decided that going out and occasionally moving the car is worth $96 a year. There’s nothing wrong with that choice, but it’s the one you made.

    Making permits based on driver would have it’s own set of problems, such as: you would probably have to place it on the dash board, meaning somebody would every once in a while break into a car to steal somebody else’s placard. The stickers are pretty tough, if not impossible, to steal. Plus they are easier to read, no worrying about forgetting to switch placards and coming out to a ticket, etc…

    My reference to the system being a joke has more to do with if you look at the map, there are gaps that make no sense, in fact some in the middle of a single zone, as well as why some areas have it and some immediately adjacent don’t, perhaps there’s a rational explanation, but I can’t figure it out.

  • JohnB


    Well, I’ll admit that part of my issue is the principle i.e. being required to pay to park outside my own home. But I accept it as the price necessary to deter others from parking there.

    I usually only do the “chalk-erasing dance” when we have guests and visitors. It’s tolerable and I get a buzz out of it, as long as it’s not all the time.

    It’s also a real hassle to go down to that infernal office, but that’s another issue.

    The reason for the gaps may not be apparent from a map but may be more obvious from the topology. For instance, close to me the zone stops when the streets get very hilly and narrower, so less people try and park there.

    But wherever you draw the line, it’s going to appear arbitrary to some

  • I find it a real hassle to pay fares and wait for a bus that never shows. Guess it’s the fun of living in a city.

    And I’d argue that residential parking permits should carry more weight in SF then just deterring “others from parking there.” We have limited space. We all share this limited public right of way. And I don’t think you can argue that storing a private vehicle is not the best use of that limited shared space. Now you might argue this, but it is due time for a more true cost to be applied to that wasteful use of shared public space.

  • patrick

    I definitely understand the frustration of going to that office!

    I’m sure some of the zones make sense, but the ones I’m familiar with in my neighborhood makes very little sense. I cannot determine why there’s no preferential parking on my block, but only a few blocks away there is. There is no discernible difference between the two areas.

  • Patrick, the main logic to which blocks are included is just which blocks’ residents voted to join. Here is the form to petition to add blocks if you want:

  • JohnB


    Yes, residents can pressure for changes. Our block got residents’ parking extended until 9pm because we are near Kezar which has special events that run in the evening, which messes things up even though Kezar has its own lot.


    To my knowledge parking permits exist only to give parking preferences to residents and not to penalize those same residents! Nor is it a revenue center. As Eric notes above, being in a permit zone is usually something residents push for themselves.

    Moreover, I believe the Planning Code requirement for one off-street parking place for each newly built unit was, again, an attempt to get private cars parked off those same streets that you also want to free up. So I agree street parking isn’t the best use of public land and I personally do my best to avoid such “misuse”.

    Ideally you’d never see a car that wasn’t moving.

  • patrick

    Thanks Eric, that makes sense, and I think that’s a reasonable way to do it, I stand corrected!

  • JohnB, you see it as punishment, but I see it has using public space at a huge subsidy. I don’t own a car, so should I receive a check for keeping the space open? If I don’t get a check, I’m getting punished by congestion and pollution. It isn’t a revenue center, it is paying your fair share for using a public good.

  • JohnB


    I’m simply explaining how it works. I’m not sure I have an opinion on how it should work. I imagine that depends on your individual point of view.

    I pay for lots of things I don’t use as well e.g. welfare, public housing, SF General, food stamps, Medicaid etc. Should we start making users pay the full proce for those too so that I don’t have to?

  • I don’t get your argument. But that doesn’t really surprise me.

  • JohnB


    It’s not a complicated argument.

    You said you should get a refund for the road use you pay for because you don’t have a car.

    And I replied that by that argument I should get a refund for the welfare and public services that I pay for but don’t use.

    You’re just playing cute here, aren’t you?

  • I am pretty cute, at least that’s what my wife says.

    You argue all the time that public transit shouldn’t get a subsidy, then in the next breath say that you pay too much to park on “your” street in front of your house. Well, it isn’t “your” street, it is our street. And if you want the privilege to park there then accept the fact that it will cost you more now because more people also want to park in that same spot.

    And yes, I shouldn’t argue to get a refund, I don’t really want one. My refund (or should say reward) is not having to deal with parking or a car in general.

  • JohnB


    But again, I’m not paying because the voters have decided that my street parking spaces are valuable, nor because it is the fully-loaded cost of depriving society of that space.

    I’m paying purely the administrative charge for ensuring that outsiders don’t get to park near my house. And this arrangement was specifically requested by my neighbors and myself and NOT by the voters, the community or by the odd transit activist.

    It’s more voluntary non-profit NIMBY’ism than your desired exercise in social justice.

  • JohnB, you really brought out the teabag vocab on that one. Did you type it while watching Beck? “Social Justice”? That’s a mighty big word.

    You are right that is the reason why they issue permits, I’m arguing that works for Menlo Park, not San Francisco. And they are crafting legislation right now in Sacramento to change that. Having street parking is not a right, this isn’t 1950. You say the city issues too many permits, well then shrinking supply will raise prices. Demand for the spots is high, so that should raise prices but they are artificially low because the price is capped.

    Don’t get too scared now, but soon there will be more people in the world and we really need to figure out a better way to handle our limited public space. Private car ownership is a slap in the face as it over consumes and over privatives. If you’d like to own a car in the city, the cost is going to go up – parking at home or at work are just a small part of that. And I’m saying that because it is fact, not because I’m some odd transit activist.

  • *privatizes

  • JohnB


    We already charge for parking where there is excess demand. It’s called a parking meter.

    The purpose of residential permits is different. They are not designed to raise revenue but to give a break to residents who live in an area where outsiders visit by vehicle.

    I think both are important but also think we need to be clear about the differences and reasons behind them.

    I don’t claim to know how to solve problems like global over-population. I’m focusing here in the narrower issue of local parking.

  • JohnB, you see it as a revenue stream, I see it as paying for use of the public commons.


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