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Commentary: Sidewalk Sitting? No Way! Sidewalk Parking? Stay All Day!

One weighs 200 pounds or less, the other maybe two tons or more. One is involved in odd scuffles, the other in nearly 40,000 deaths nationwide each year. One is being targeted by the mayor and the press in San Francisco, the other sails under the radar.

Even as Mayor Gavin Newsom, SFPD Chief George Gascón, and the San Francisco Chronicle press for a new law that would punish sitting or lying on the sidewalk, drivers continue to park with impunity across the pedestrian pathway, with nary a word from Newsom or the editorialists at the Chron, notably recent suburban transplant C.W. Nevius, who’s devoted several columns to the perils of sitting and lying.

Though cloaking their campaign for the new law in concern for beleaguered pedestrians, who they say must now run a gauntlet of surly youth and their unleashed dogs along Haight Street, Newsom and Nevius have completely ignored the real threat to pedestrians of cars obstructing their path.

Nevius, in fact, has a history of blaming pedestrians for their own injuries. In a column last October that was sharply criticized on Streetsblog, he attributed San Francisco’s high rate of pedestrian deaths and injuries to spacey walkers not looking where they were going, ignoring data to the contrary that cited driver speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks as major factors.

Some opponents have suggested that the push for sit/lie is actually a campaign tactic to stir up conservative voters in the fall, when several supervisorial races could shift seats on the board away from progressives. This makes sense, but I also think concern for property values plays a large part in the push from some Haight neighbors, who have shelled out big bucks for their houses but don’t feel like they enjoy a posh enough environment so long as these undesirables are allowed to occupy public space.

Property values have been an issue in the Mission, where some neighbors have tried to move day laborers away from their blocks. Other neighbors have spoken up for the rights of the day laborers, and many heated meetings and hearings have seen neighbors lined up against one another. The proposed sit/lie measure could target day laborers along Cesar Chavez and nearby streets, and the Day Labor Program was the scene last month of a lively protest against the proposed new law.

When I spoke as a supportive neighbor who lives a block away from Cesar Chavez, I pointed out the lack of sidewalk parking enforcement and asked, “Do cars have more rights than people?” The response was a resounding no.

Sit/lie targets commercial streets such as Haight, which are more visible to tourists. But residential streets, where sidewalk parking is rampant, are where our lives take place.

Sidewalks are an extension of our homes, where neighbors can enjoy casual contact, where the person walking the dog can bump into the person trimming the tree or the parent watching the child’s first ride without training wheels. We live in a city, and our sidewalks are as vital as our libraries, museums, and parks. When we have to slide over oil slicks and do a slalom to make it from one corner to another, walking becomes a chore.

Lighthouse_image_small.jpgAdvocates for the blind and disabled have repeatedly sought relief from sidewalk parking and attendant hazards. Photo: Matthew Roth.

Whatever the pros and cons of sit/lie, the massive media and political attention devoted to problems with a few youths and dogs on a few blocks contrasts with the total blackout of an issue that affects every San Franciscan who walks even a few blocks in just about any neighborhood. Unfortunately, this discrepancy is nothing new.

Compare the number of tickets given for residential parking permit (RPP) violations versus sidewalk parking. RPP enforcement, being time-related, by definition requires two visits by parking control officers (PCOs), first to note the time a non-permitted car is spotted and then a second time to check if it has exceeded the time limit. Cars blocking the sidewalk are immediately obvious. An RPP violation may inconvenience a few drivers if all other parking spots are taken and the space in question is needed by a resident. Sidewalk cars physically endanger all walkers trying to get by, especially the most vulnerable: the disabled or visually impaired, seniors and parents with children in strollers or holding toddlers by the hand.

Still, RPP tickets outnumber sidewalk tickets by a margin of five to one, year after year. Typically, sidewalk violations must be called in, and neighbors are often reluctant to snitch on each other, and the time lag between phone call and actual enforcement allows many violators to leave and avoid being ticketed. RPP has dedicated teams of PCOs that seek out violations.

Even the oft-cited thuggishness of the sitters and liers has its reflection in sidewalk drivers. Assaults on PCOs have increased in recent years. One PCO testified at a hearing on the extension of parking meter hours that extending hours into the evening would endanger PCOs ticketing cars at expired meters after dark. Sidewalk parking often occurs right in front of the perpetrator’s home, as a result of confusion about the definition of driveway versus public space.

PCOs ticketing such cars are especially vulnerable to assault, and this has been cited as a reason for official reluctance to enforce the law. So the thuggish threats of the sitters and liers are a reason we need a new law, but the thuggish actions of the sidewalk parkers are a reason not to enforce the laws we already have.

We’re being told that punks and pooches are the real danger to pedestrians. And if you’re forced to walk in the street by some lout parking across a driveway and you get hit in traffic as a result, you can count on Nevius to chalk up your contusions to pedestrian inattentiveness! 

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