San Francisco’s Own Oil Spill: The Wasteful Hunt for Free Parking

3254686730_28ea2e6769_b.jpgClement Street: scene of over-parked Sunday afternoons. Flickr photo: Rubin 110

Editor’s note: This will be Michael Rhodes’ last regular post as a reporter for Streetsblog. He’s leaving us for an urban planning career, but hopes to occasionally contribute columns like this in the future.

Clement Street. Sunday. Noon. Drivers are circling around the block in their cars, looking out with hawk’s eyes for a parking space, often oblivious to the people on foot of all ages who give Clement its bustle.

The parking spaces on Clement are free in a monetary sense — it’s Sacred Sunday, after all — but there’s hardly a “free” spot to be found, as the under-priced curb gives an incentive to claim that space Saturday night.

One question for each of the supervisors and the Mayor, all of whom have some say over the matter, is: If the city doesn’t provide free seats on the bus on Sundays, why does it provide free public parking spaces?

There are some very good reasons the city doesn’t provide free bus rides on Sundays — or evenings, for that matter. For Muni riders, the experience would actually be less pleasant: Muni vehicles might get so packed that riders would start getting passed up at bus stops, and might have to wait even longer to get a seat. For the city, it would be a big hit to revenue, which goes to paying for the service in the first place.

When it comes to parking meters, the exact same logic should apply. If the city doesn’t charge for parking spaces, suddenly it becomes almost impossible to find a spot, making the experience worse for drivers and anyone in their path as they circle endlessly for parking. It also deprives the city of money to compensate for the free real estate it’s providing to cars and, this being by voter-mandate a Transit First city, to pay for the transit service it strives to provide.

But while the Mayor accepted the results of a study that found that free transit isn’t all that viable of an option right now, he’s been far more reluctant to accept the results of another study that found that free parking is even more problematic.

parking.jpgClick to enlarge: Parking occupancy rates on Sundays, when meters are off. Source: SFMTA parking study.

On Clement Street, for instance, the study found that occupancy rates for on-street parking spaces are in excess of 100 percent on Sunday afternoons between Arguello and Funston Avenue (near Park Presidio.) That means that not only are all of the legitimate parking spaces taken, cars are actually illegally parked in no-parking zones or are double-parked.

That’s the parking equivalent of a Muni bus that’s so packed that passengers are hanging off the sides of the bus and even finding a little extra space on its roof. A small price to pay for “free,” right?

Perhaps if Muni service had always been free on Sundays, and customers had gotten used to the savings  and the awful conditions, there might be howls of protest and discontent if someone proposed charging for Sunday service. It might seem like a revenue grab from the city, or some kind of intrusion into a hallowed time of the week. But it would still be the right thing to do, for the same reason it’s right to charge to ride on Saturday, Sunday, or any other day.

That’s doubly true for parking. People are used to getting it for free on Sundays and evenings, but it’s not really the best arrangement for anyone. And unlike transit, the city doesn’t have an official policy of encouraging driving, so it makes no sense to invite driving over transit use by making it free. In fact, trying to find a parking spot in many San Francisco districts is so difficult on Sundays, when the meters are off, it’s almost as if free parking is actually the city’s sneaky way of getting people out of their cars and onto transit, bikes, and their feet!

But if that’s the strategy, it’s an imperfect one. All those circling drivers make it much less pleasant to walk around a street like Clement on a lazy Sunday, and even worse to bike or ride a bus behind a car inching along at five miles per hour in search of a spot.

More Than One Solution

The Mayor has put almost all the pressure to restore Muni service on Muni drivers by asking them to make contract concessions for the next two years. That would save the city $18.7 million over two years, enough money to restore Muni service to pre-service-cut levels and maybe even add a little service on top of that.

In his hard sell, though, the Mayor has been quick to suppress any other possible revenue options for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, going so far as to suggest that new revenue could make Muni operators think it’s less important to accept concessions.

Extending parking meter hours to evenings and Sundays in places where not charging is leading to extreme scarcity of parking spaces could bring in $17.6 million over the same two-year period, also enough to restore Muni service. Or, if operators re-vote on the concessions package and accept it, the SFMTA would have enough money to increase service by 10 percent on top of pre-cut levels. (In case the Mayor needs any help selling that idea to the operators union, he may want to remind them that more service would mean a lot more operator jobs.)

But the Mayor, as well as every member of the Board of Supervisors but one, has said no to extending parking meter enforcement hours. Some say businesses don’t want it, or residents will have more trouble finding a spot to store their car for the evening. Worst of all, voters might revolt, the Mayor fears, like the now notorious response to extended parking meter hours in Oakland last year.

There are a few things to remember, though. First off, this isn’t Oakland. San Francisco is officially a Transit First city, and unlike Oakland, it would be extending meter hours based on exhaustive parking occupancy surveys, not a rash decision to cover a citywide budget gap.

Second, this isn’t last year: Unlike last year, there are millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf Coast, a chilling reminder of the cost of excess oil consumption. As Jason Henderson wrote on Streetsblog recently, that should give people pause before they hop in the car, and people should try to drive at least 20 percent less as a result.

If the city’s elected officials need further support for extending parking meter hours beyond the fact that it actually makes it easier to find a spot and patronize a business while compensating the city for the cost of owning and maintaining parking spaces, they might look to Henderson’s essay and think of it on a citywide scale. As a Transit First city that cares about the environment, we have an imperative to drive less and reduce our oil consumption. Stopping the circling for parking on Sundays by charging a fair price would be an excellent place to start.

As helpful to Muni’s budget as labor concessions would be, the city can’t stop looking at other revenue sources, especially ones that — unlike cutting worker compensation — could actually have additional economic benefits.

In the meantime, I’ll be avoiding Clement Street during prime dim sum hours on Sunday, when parking occupancy rates reach 104 percent, and will opt to visit on Saturday instead. Watching all those poor drivers look so hard for a spot just makes it too hard to enjoy a good brunch.

  • Michael, you are the man and shall be missed. Great piece. Now, to get Newsom to read it.

  • Nick

    I love Streetsblog reporters, they’re truly the “Robinhood of street space.”

    The data here shows that car drivers will take every inch of space you give them and more. We’ll get it back piece by piece. And the battle goes on.

  • The Oakland bashing here doesn’t make sense because Oakland is also officially a transit-first city, in theory if not in practice. From the Oakland General Plan:

    Policy T3.6 Encouraging Transit: The City should encourage and promote use of public transit in Oakland by expediting the movement of and access to transit vehicles on designated “transit streets” as shown on the Transportation Plan (Policies T3.6 and T3.67 are based on the City Council’s passage of “Transit First” policy in October 1996)

    Policy T3.7 Resolving Transportation Conflicts: The City, in constructing and maintaining its transportation infrastructure, should resolve any conflicts between public transit and single occupant vehicles in favor of the transportation mode that has the potential to provide the greatest mobility and access for people, rather than vehicles, giving due consideration to the environmental, public safety, economic development, health, and social equity impacts.

  • Sungsu Ahn

    In Vancouver, Canada, meters are in effect from 9 AM to 10 PM seven days a week, including holidays. Rates are set “to encourage the turnover of vehicles in areas where there is a demand for short-term parking.”

  • Sean

    As much as I agree with this article I have to say calling it our “own oil spill” is very sensationalist. Take a look at some of the photos of the damage done to the Gulf coastline — if you -actually- think that the parking issue is anything like it then I really don’t know what to say.

    Again, I absolutely think we need to get action going on charging for Sunday parking, but it is NOT an oil spill.

  • Sprague

    Fantastic piece. Thank you for so clearly illuminating the inconsistencies with free parking on Sundays and Muni fares on Sundays.

    Being reminded of the detrimental effects our driving habits cost this planet is very important. Too seldomly do we reflect upon the price of living in such a wasteful manner.

    Good luck to you, Michael, and thank you for many informative and inspirational articles.

  • Kat

    “In the meantime, I’ll be avoiding Clement Street during prime dim sum hours on Sunday, when parking occupancy rates reach 104 percent, and will opt to visit on Saturday instead. Watching all those poor drivers look so hard for a spot just makes it too hard to enjoy a good brunch.”

    I think that hits the nail on the head. I’ve definitely fallen victim to the “free parking is a game, so circle copiously” mindset a few times. Tom Vanderbilt also had a pretty good description in his book about drivers who circle a parking lot looking for the best, closest place. Reading that made me realize how stupid and pointless it was to occasionally circle the (long) blocks near Stonestown on 19th looking for a free parking spot for the day, where I would then have to walk a mile to get to SFSU, in a process that door to door takes longer than biking. The psychology of “free” is weird.

  • Brandon

    I can only scoff when i hear the phrase “transit first” in reference to Muni.

  • Which Supervisors support Sunday metering?

  • Yonathan Randolph

    I haven’t made up my mind on this debate yet. I always like to see economics being applied and would support congestion charges (e.g. on freeways, internet connections, and electricity), as long as the pricing is clearly communicated. And I agree with most things said on StreetsBlog.

    However, when it comes to the free parking on Sunday on streets like Clement and Irving, the free parking is probably one of the major *causes* of congestion. One of the reasons that so many people are lazily shopping is that their time isn’t being metered. So demanding a price on Sunday parking is like telling a department store that the solution to crowding when there’s a sale is to raise the price. Of course the congestion would be down, but so would business!

    Now, to some extent I agree that it’s psychological. Some people might prefer $0 parking and $1 wasted gas, over $1 parking and $0 gas, and this irrationality should be beaten out of them. But for the most part I believe we are seeing a real expression of people’s cost functions of time and money. If it benefits business, I’m all for granting one day a week to people who value their money over time.

    I also think that your Muni analogy is suspect because many price-sensitive customers already buy a fast pass, and then the marginal cost of a ride is always 0. I think people stop to shop from Muni more than they would if the marginal cost were always $2.

    If everybody’s preferences were the same, having a free parking day would not make sense. Neither would any sales, for that matter. But the population is more diverse than that. I don’t think the parking study answered the question of how important the Sunday customer base is to business and what customers would do if it were not free (especially since it seems the mode split survey was conducted on a Wednesday!) I think the decisions should be made per-neighborhood and a little more carefully (with experiments).

  • I support Sunday metering. I strongly believe that we need to support funding for sustainable modes of transportation over funding (implicitly or otherwise) for private car usage. I am a small business owner (The Best Impression commercial printing on 10th Street in western SoMa), and I appreciate the need for parking space turnover as a business owner. As a San Franciscan, I believe we need to walk the walk, so-to-speak, of being a “Transit First” city.

    Personally, I have not owned a car for the past 41 years. I love my bike (you can see this 61-year old riding around here: ). If I’m not riding my bike, I’m walking or riding MUNI.

    We cannot afford additional MUNI service cuts or fare increases. We should be charging for parking on Sundays.

  • Yonathan, while I can see what you are getting at with the sale comparison, it doesn’t hold water.

    Parking is a limited public resource. A sale item is something that is usually over stocked and there is a need to get it off the books.

    Also, it does no business any good to have potential customers circling the block when they could be shopping. And it doesn’t do the shopper any good when they are circling the block instead of shopping.

  • Yonathan Randolph

    mikesonn, if you’d like, you can compare free parking to free rides at a theme park after entering. Shouldn’t there also be a per-ride cost based on the congestion at each ride? It would scare off some customers but bring in others, depending on how sensitive customers are to money (and mental cost of tracking it) and time. Again, if it makes sense for the neighborhood to have a sale on Sundays, so be it.

    So it’s at least conceivable for free parking to have a positive effect on businesses despite the queuing. How many people would not be willing to refill their meter to shop at the new Goodwill on Irving or have a meal along with their groceries? I think it’s more complicated than StreetsBlog posts make it out to be.

  • Oh, of course it is complicated, that is why nothing has changed. If it was easy, there wouldn’t be a discussion.

    But you also have to look at the fact that many of the Sunday all-day free parkers are just nearby residents taking up spaces and not shopping. Parking meters were put in to create turn over for business. Commercial corridors, if businesses are open, would benefit from having that turn over.

  • Eric B

    Business owners would probably get on board if a significant percentage of the new revenue went toward a BID or other such neighborhood maintenance operation. 50% to a BID, 40% to MUNI, and 10% to bike/ped improvements (sharrows, ped bulb-outs, etc.).

  • paa

    I don’t know why businesses so often oppose Sunday metered parking. I’m not going to drive somewhere if I have to circle a block for 20 minutes due to people camped out all day in metered spots. I’d rather pay a buck or two, run my errands, and be on my way.

    Especially if it funds increased public transit options to business areas, I’d think businesses would be more supportive. But what do I know?

  • paa, that is what needs to be said. Why drive if you have to spend an extra half hour looking for parking.

    Eric, I agree and could get behind that. It doesn’t all have to go to MUNI and it shouldn’t. Charging for parking would reduce circling, reduce congestion, and maybe even reduce driving.

  • Sure, it’s complicated, but not so complicated that it can’t be overcome with technology. The question is not whether we have a technical solution (we do: it’s called SFPark), but whether we will rely on the impartial technology or toss out the data and politicize the issue.

    Implement parking sensors everywhere, optimize the system for 90% occupancy, and accept whatever price results. If there is not enough demand to achieve 90% occupancy on Sundays when parking is free, then the parking will remain free.

  • icarus12

    Make nearly all parking pay-as-you go, but let drivers park for extended periods, perhaps making it get more expensive at the curb for every half hour you stay — $1 for the first half hour, $2 for the second half hour, $3 for the third half hour, etc. Market-based pricing like that would keep parking spaces open, stop circling, free up the neighboring streets of commerce parking, encourage commerce, etc. And it would make us sometime drivers able to choose when and if to drive to a place.

    Just last Saturday my wife and I drove to the Roxie on 16th to see a movie showing nowhere else. All metered parking was for 1 hour and there was tons of it — way too much but useless to anyone wanting to see a movie, eat a meal in a sit-down restaurant (not a burrito quick fix). The city was losing money, potential patrons were turned away from local businesses, and the neighboring alleys were chock full of residents’ and visitors’ cars.

    We found a broken meter or would have parked on a non-metered alley. By doing that, however, we were part of the problem. Until I can get my wife to bike a lot (last weekend was her first extended city ride, yay!), we’ll be driving. At least let us pay for the privilege.

  • Alex

    Wow, it’s like reading the MTA’s own proposals already. Raise the rates where there is high demand, extend the maximum legal stay, and lower the rates where there’s less demand?

    Where’s the controversy?

    Beyond the one poster, I don’t know who actually supports the Sunday metering, but Carmen Chu (D4) certainly opposes it.

  • icarus12

    Alex, I think the Sunday and later evening parking is an idea/practice that, if well-implemented, will gain more support as people learn about it. There’s still a healthy suspicion from SF residents that it’s just one more way to soak the citizens by a govt that refuses to cut its bloated staff.

    I think I’m a case in point — I opposed it until I learned more about how it could be used to let people park and pay for several hours at a time in the evening especially. Once I learned that and also that eve commercial parking space was a headache because of people parking all evening/overnight for free, I got on board. Maybe that’s because I already pay to park where I live. I don’t want to subsidize others parking for free.

  • What’s desperately needed is depoliticization of parking policy. As long as a few car-loving business owners can get the supervisors and mayor to block the MTA from doing anything about parking, there will be no improvement.

    We need an amendment that directs and empowers the MTA to dynamically set parking prices so as to target 90% occupancy anywhere there is parking on public land at all times, and then bar politicians from meddling in the issue further.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @Yonathan Randolph: The market for people who are extremely cheap but still opt to drive an automobile to places like Clement Street may exist, but fortunately for members of that demographic, it’s always an option to park a couple blocks away from Clement on a residential side street and pay nothing, any time of any day. No need to bug up Clement on Sunday.

    The bigger problem is not that people who aren’t willing to pay for parking don’t have an option, but that people who are willing to pay for parking and don’t want to circle for 10+ minutes have no option to do so on Sundays or evenings.

  • I entirely support charging for Sunday and evening parking, provided that in the evenings people can park long enough to accommodate typical evening activities. Charging for car parking increases the value of a $2 Muni ride and makes me feel even better when I walk or ride my bike.

  • FL

    Why is everyone riled up about this? MTA already said they are going to do this in places that are requesting it later this year. They got to start somewhere to see how people react to it.

    One point I vehemently disagree about this article is the allusion that we should make the money to restore Muni service from meters and not ask Muni drivers for concessions. That’s total BS. Even if the money from meters were made to restore the service cuts, we still have the awful work rules to deal with that continue to plague service.

  • Souper


    I agree. The meter issue is a distraction. The problem with Muni is that the operators are paid too much, have benefits that are too generous, and work practices that are neanderthal.

    Extra monies from meters should go into a general transport fund, but should not be used to subsidized one of the most inefficient and disliked of all public sector workers.

    Micheal R,

    Those side streets around Clement are just as crowded as Clement itself. I frequently loop around Clement, Geary, California and the numbered streets looking for a place, and it’s all equally tough. Sometimes I end up parking in GG Park and walking.


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