Intimidation Deters Some Sidewalk Parking Enforcement

Drivers block sidewalks rampantly in the Sunset. Photo: ## Department of Sidewalk Parking##
Drivers block sidewalks rampantly in the Sunset. Photo: ## Department of Sidewalk Parking##

As the SFMTA strives to hone its parking enforcement effectiveness, assaults against Parking Control Officers (PCOs) have remained not only a threat to the safety of civil servants in the line of duty, but also an obstacle to the safety of our streets which they are vitally charged with maintaining.

In response to SFMTA Board Director Cheryl Brinkman’s pressing the issue of sidewalk parking at Tuesday’s Policy and Governance Committee meeting, Deputy Director of Enforcement Joy Houlihan cited “neighborhood sensitivity” as one problem faced by PCOs when they attempt to issue tickets for violations.

In some areas like the Sunset District, according to Houlihan, the dominant attitude is: “Don’t ever enforce in my neighborhood.”

It goes without saying that the safety of PCOs should be a top priority, and the SFMTA did launch an assault prevention campaign, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for tolerating illegally stored private property that creates a public nuisance and endangers some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

“It is one of those violations that can be invisible to car drivers, but to pedestrians and especially to wheelchair users, it’s huge,” said Brinkman.

Houlihan said other neighborhoods like the Haight and the Castro overwhelmingly ask for enforcement. That attitude is likely more representative of neighborhoods where residents tend to walk frequently and not even own cars.

While the Sunset’s relatively high car ownership may be one factor in its stronger resistance to enforcement, the way management instructs PCOs to cite sidewalk violations also comes into question. A sign of dissonance between policy and practice within the agency arose as SFMTA CEO Nat Ford recounted the official strategy on sidewalk parking.

“As a practice, historically, we didn’t cite unless we got a call,” Ford said.

“Correct, and we still do,” Houlihan responded.

Ford then clarified the standing policy: “We changed that about a year or two ago, which is, whatever a PCO sees, we cite. That delineation was made.”

However, it seems that consistent enforcement may not be the regular practice as Houlihan described blanket stings that are often used in problem areas after local violators are given two-weeks “fair warning.” Ford sought to assure Houlihan that the policy of having PCOs cite violations as they see them was not in question, and didn’t need to be reexamined.

Along with sidewalks, blocked intersections and crosswalks remain another rampant problem posed by people driving, endangering non-motorized street users and slowing transit vehicles. Although such moving violations involving confrontation with drivers are usually left to police, PCOs share responsibility in this area.

Sustainable Streets Director Bond Yee explained that a change in the California Vehicle Code ten years ago allows blocking an intersection to be cited as a parking infraction and mailed to the driver, thereby removing the risk for PCOs. Whether or not this could be used as a viable solution for regular parking enforcement in areas where officers feel at risk was not discussed.

In her presentation, Houlihan did report higher PCO effectiveness overall due to stepped-up training efforts. Despite having furlough days and 21 fewer officers, findings from November 2010 showed a 16.5 percent improvement in citations issued for violations of residential parking permit areas, overtime parking, yellow zones, tow-away zones, and bike lanes when compared to the same period in 2009.

Although total citations issued have fallen over the last year, revenue over the past five years has apparently remained flat and Houlihan says each officer is issuing more tickets overall.

Brinkman said the SFMTA needs to plan for a budget that is less dependent on citations as fines rise and parking behavior improves, and as SFPark allows more accurate parking pricing and easier payment.

“It’s interesting because you have the PCOs who are no longer doing the street sweeping, we’ve got those PCOs redeployed. I would imagine with increased enforcement in [other] areas, we’re going to start seeing fewer violations, and that’s probably unintentionally created a cascading citation decrease,” she noted.

  • it’s awesome when we stereotype whole neighborhoods, and it’s even more awesome when positive things to improve walkability and safety, like the inner sunset traffic calming plan, the proposed parklet, and people who, on their own, are making sidewalks easier to use and more pleasant, are ignored so we can perpetuate stereotypes.

  • Michael Smith

    I think Joy Houlihan was possibly misquoted. Seems that Joy actually must have said “neighborhood sensitivity of those who simply cannot be bothered to pull their cars into their garages”. Responsible car drivers, pedestrians, disabled folks, etc simply don’t seem to count.

  • Neil

    Cite what they see? Not in my neighborhood (Richmond). Add kids biking to the list of people jeopardized by sidewalk parking. I know kids are an endangered species in SF, still to put what few we have left at risk by forcing them off the curb seems mean spirited. There just doesn’t seem to be any heart behind the MTA’s desire to enforce this law and I hope Brinkman can whip the agency into shape on this issue.

  • Michael Smith

    I’m really curious who sets the policy at the MTA for writing tickets. It should of course be a decision by the MTA Board. Has someone circumvented the board with respect to making policy decisions???

  • Yeah, Ford is just straight-up lying on that way. No way PCOs cite on sight, anywhere. I see so many repeat offenders, and that wouldn’t happen if they had learned their lesson through a few citations.

  • Dave

    Personally, I think the efforts should be entirely directed at those who truly obstruct the sidewalk (like the core in the foreground of the article photo) and those who park parallel to the street on the sidewalk (the urban version of parking a car in the front yard.)

    I don’t have a problem, in areas with wide sidewalks, with someone that parks partly in the driveway and partly in the street (perpendicular to the street) where there is still plenty of room left for pedestrians, including those in wheelchairs or with mobility issues, to walk through without having to significant alter their path. This only works for flat driveways/sidewalks. If the position of your car means that pedestrians have to negotiate around it or walk on an area that slopes down in the garage, for example, then I think that driver should be cited.

    My point is that there are plenty of streets where it’s possible to both use a bit of the sidewalk to improve parking availability without impacting pedestrians at all. There are also parts of the city where the conditions do not allow this. Parking Control Officers should be able to use their judgment to know the difference and cite appropriately. In the photo, there appear to be several cars which deserve to get tickets.

    I’m also an advocate for people who have garages and cars to USE the garages for their intended purpose as car storage. The logistics of enforcement might be difficult, but I don’t think you should be eligible for a street parking permit if you have a garage that you are using to store your junk instead of your car.

  • JD

    I would love to here someone talk about the city’s policy on citing people who double-park in bike lanes. This is especially bad on Valencia St. It is quite dangerous since it forces the bicyclists out into the lane … and plus, double-parkers are often starting and stopping (or flinging doors open) without warning, which risks collisions with bicyclists or, if the bicyclists has to swerve to avoid them, with other cars. I would love to see this enforced, at least through warnings. Just have a PCO come out on a Thu through Saturday night and drive up and down Valencia between about 26th and 14th for a few hours and they could basically give tickets (or warnings) continuously.

  • Morton

    I think a lot of people see a distinction between the enforcement of parking rules downtown and in commercial districts, versus outside your own home.

    You can see that DPT implicitly accepts this distinction when, for instance, they do not ticket people for temporarily parking on the sidewalk outside their own home while they wait for the street cleaning to go by. Nor when you can street park once the cleaners have gone through, even though the time period is not over. Nor when they see an offense but nobody is inconvenienced.

    I had a traffic op recently “warn” me for double-parking while picking up dry cleaning rather than cite me. He could see I was a harried family man doing his best and not the anti-christ.

    Not all of these “exceptions” are written. It’s more a “best practice”. But it’s also a very human view. Contrast that with the way the traffic cops cite and tow offendors downtown at one minute past the time when the parking lane becomes a commuting lane.

    Chalk versus cheese.

    If the DPT draws a distinction between egregious violation of parking rules downtown, while demonstrating some leniency in residential neighborhoods, then that seems like a decent posture to take.

  • @Dave: Those are the most important violations to cite, and we should start there. In my opinion, cars already occupy way too much space in our city, and any violation should be cited. Having said that, if we end up with a city where only the violations that you describe are cited, I’ll be content with that.

  • Morton


    I have had the same thoughts about people who fill their garages with junk and then park on the street, thereby depriving their less fortunate neighbors who don’t have garages of crucial parking.

    And of course adding to street congestion to the detriment of everyone.

    OTOH, I hate anything that smacks of a Big Brother State, and telling people what they can and cannot do with their own private property also troubles me.

    Tough one.

    But yes, I think that the sidewalk parking ordinance should not be enforced in cases wherre it is clear that everyone can get past anyway. That must of course include wheelchairs and double-strollers. But nobody needs all 12 feet of a sidewalk. Six feet of clearance sounds like a reasonable rule of thumb.

  • @Morton: It’s not reasonable at all. Sidewalks are for more than walking and storing private property. They are for children to play in, neighbors to have BBQs on, etc.

    Let’s just see what happens if I hold an unpermitted BBQ in one of the lanes on my street. No problem, right? Cars can still get through, one direction at a time.

    Why do we give more deference to private automobiles than we do to humans?

  • Next time you happen upon a car parked on the sidewalk, try this fun experiment. Call in the violation (553-1200, 1 for English, 6 for sidewalk parking) and then wait. Sure PCOs are supposed to cite whenever they see a violation, and even Ms. Houlihan admits they have a policy of citing when they get a call. But just give this a try and see if it works.

  • Morton


    I was not saying that parking on the sidewalk is reasonable. Ideally nobody would ever have to do it.

    What I was saying is that there is a clear distinction between parking temporarily on the sidewalk outsdie your own home while the street cleaning breezes through


    egregiously and wantonly blocking sidewalks all day long.

    Some cases of “illegal” parking are worse than others. And the DPT practices appear to support that distinction. Would you prefer the DPT ignored context and reasonableness?

  • Alex

    @Josh: I do just that (actually I call 311 and have them transfer me to whatever that number is). I’ve generally not had a problem getting a PCO out to write a ticket. The last time I called I got someone who couldn’t understand WHERE xyz Ave and Taraval St were. The time before that I hung around and waited for the PCO. Took fifteen minutes on the dot.

    @Stuart: More than lying (which Ford’s become adept at), I suspect that there’s just a gulf between what the top half is mandating and what the bottom half is doing (or feels comfortable doing).

  • @Morton: Yes, there is a distinction. And like I said in a previous comment, if we got rid of the most egregious cases, I’d be content with that.

    And, yes, I’d prefer that the DPT ignored context and reasonableness. While some cases are more reasonable than others, almost all of them, save for emergencies, are unreasonable.

    Say you find that there is frequently no parking when you need to pick up your dry cleaning. Perhaps, then, you shouldn’t be driving. Even just your momentary double parking, bike lane parking, or sidewalk parking is dangerous to all road users, not to mention the stress that it causes.

    So, sure, if we get 50% of the way and only really cite the worst offenders, I’ll be happy. But ideally we’ll cite all offenders, because in all of the cases they are rude, unreasonable, and creating a hazard.

  • Fran Taylor

    Defining some sidewalk parking as reasonable is precisely the problem. It will increase hostility toward PCOs, as drivers will naturally think their own parking decisions are among the reasonable ones. Some time back, residents of Clipper Street in Noe Valley were up in arms at being ticketed for parking “in their driveways” and actually suggested that pedestrians should just use the other side of the street. Seemed reasonable to them.

    Asking for arbitrary enforcement is like pinning a target on the PCOs, who would be much better served by a firm rule that isn’t undermined by a mainstream newspaper pooh-poohing the problem, a department giving mixed messages to the public, and city leadership refusing to acknowledge that a problem exists. Instead, these entities should all send a very public message that sidewalk parking is wrong and stop sniveling about how hard it is to park and claiming that people “have to” park on the sidewalk.

  • If safety is a concern, why not just ask the SFPD to do enforcement for the first few weeks, then once it becomes accepted let the PCOs take over?

    I suspect this is more of an excuse MTA leadership is using to hide the fact that their real motivation is to avoid the hassle of riling up property owners with entitlement complexes.

  • I am committed this year to making sidewalk parking my pet issue, and really doing something about it. If anyone would like to “join forces” and coordinate strategy, please send me an email at

  • Moka

    Total bullshit. The officers do NOT cite on sight. Street cleaning days see the worst sidewalk parking offenses but the officers always ignore it.

    Sadly I think only an expensive ADA or simlar lawsuit will beat some sense into the city. I sometimes observe a blind man in my neighborhood having to walk into the street around cars blocking the sidewalk. I wonder how long until some gold-digging lawyer picks up on this issue. Ford’s statements about enforcement and some simple photographic / video evidence would make a good starting point for a case to prove that the city willfully endangers it’s most vulnerable residents. The most laughable thing is that the city recently installed ADA compliant curb ramps at the intersections here. Of course the are of no use, when on any you’ve days there are several cars obstructing the sidewalk!

  • In my neighborhood, it’s impossible to park parallel on the sidewalk, but it’s easy to put your car facing the garage and block the entire sidewalk. I don’t rat on my neighbors, but only in situations where my vehicle may get hit (failure to curb wheels) or some kind safety risk.

    If the city wants an easy way to get money, start doing more tight screening on illegal disabled parking placards. KRON’s Stanley Roberts followed DPT officers at the AT&T Park parking lots and nearby streets during the World Series, and the officers caught tons of people and issued hefty fines.

  • Jym Dyer

    @Dave – There are many problems with allowing cars to use “a bit of the sidewalk.” For starters, its premise is that a motorist presumes to decide how other people use their own public space, which is intolerable, and is exactly the rationalization used for the problem they currently cause. Second, it violates state law. Third, sidewalks are not built to store the weight of a car.

    @Morton – There is nothing tough here. The sidewalk is the public way, and forbidding people to park on it does not impugn on property rights. (There is some confusion because people refer to our sidewalks as “their driveways.” Their driveways end at the property line.) Additionally, it is not “reasonableness” for car-owners to decide on behalf of other people how much of our own sidewalks they can magnanimously let us use.

  • Katherine Roberts

    Morton — You can’t possibly believe that “nobody needs all 12 feet of a sidewalk.” What if there’s a multi-generational outing with say, elderly people, young adults, children, a stroller or 2, and a few people walking arm-in-arm? Are you going to tell them they should “break it up” and walk single-file, so you can run inside and drop off your dry-cleaning? Or push their stroller out into the street, in the way of oncoming buses? Or maybe just go out with fewer people next time? Talk about a “Big Brother State” — once you start deciding how much of the sidewalk pedestrians are entitled to, that’s even scarier than George Orwell, because your own selfishness is blinding you to the needs of other people, and deluding you into thinking that it’s your place to tell them how much of the sidewalk they can use.

  • Katherine Roberts

    p.s. Questioning how “reasonable” laws are before you decide whether or not you will comply with them is pretty dangerous territory, too. I usually assume laws are meant to be complied with AS WRITTEN. Otherwise, you have people deciding that it’s not REASONABLE to have 35mph zones, or to require people to stop at red lights, or to come to a complete stop at stop signs, etc. That leads to the treacherous conditions we experience on city streets every single day. It’s a slippery slope when you set yourself up as the authority on the extent to which laws need to be complied with. It’s much safer to say that parking on the sidewalk is illegal in the State of California, and as a responsible motorist, you will comply with that.

  • Morton


    Your example of a large family walking down the sidewalk arm-in-arm to take the entire 12 feet is a little far-fetched. They’d have to constantly move out of formation for other pedestrians, dogs, strollers, carts, wheelchairs and other sidewalk users and obstructions.

    What I was trying to explain – getting back to the original topic – was why the DPT doesn’t always “cite on sight”, and why a significant amount of discretion is shown, e.g. during street-cleaning hours.

    Most reasonable people can discren the difference between a major safety hazard and a minor technical infringement. And I’d worry far more if there was a zero-tolerance enforcement policy that was blind to context, especially if it were just to maximize revenue.

  • moka

    Morton: there are other things the sidewalk can be used other than pedestrians, such as gardens and trees. A little mentioned fact is that most of the cars that park on the sidewalk are parked on illegally concreted over front gardens. Yes, there is a law against concreting over the front yard space in front of a house, but that law too is never enforced.

    Imagine the above pictured street with trees, front yards, grass, gardens. It would be so much more pleasant, and who knows, maybe more people would feel inclined to stroll down it by foot!

  • @Morton – If an entire family out for a stroll seems far-fetched in this city, it’s because car-accommodation has made it difficult to go for a walk (and dangerous, this being the state’s #1 city for cars running people down).

    I see you’re shifting from abstract “reasonableness” to the more ad hominem “reasonable people,” but you still haven’t addressed the actual substance of the issue. The people parking on sidewalks (and in crosswalks, bus stops, and on Muni tracks “just for a minute”) already think they’re being reasonable, and will tell you that. According to them, there’s no problem at all.

  • Morton


    I did not know there was a law against paving over a garden. But I can understand why it isn’t enforced. Most people feel they can do what they want within their own property line.

    But that’s a serarate issue from parking on the sidewalk. Generally, if your front yard or driveway is big enough to park on, then you’re not obstructing the sidewalk, and so are not citable anyway.

    In my case, all but about 2 feet of my vehicle is on my own property, and the 2 feet sticking out into the sidewalk is easily navigated. So I would not expect to be ticketed for that and, in fact, have never been ticketed.

    Again, it all comes back to reasonableness.

  • Morton – why do you park on the sidewalk? Just curious?

  • Of course the easiest way to “enforce” on the car in the photo would be to refuse to walk out into the street by just clambering over the mini-van.

  • @John Murphy: I’ve felt a strong desire to do that recently. It may take a few ounces of liquid courage for me to pull that stunt.

  • Morton

    John Murphy

    I don’t park “on the sidewalk” in the sense that we were discussing.

    When I park on my own private property, all the wheels are within my property line, while about 2 feet of vehicle extend into the sidewalk, which still has plenty of width to allow pedestrian passage.

    Otherwise, I’d either have to park on the street, adding to the congestion and obstruction there. So it seems the least invasive way to park.

    The DPT don’t seem to mind, and nor do my neighbors.

    The only time when my neighbors actually park on the sidewalk is for street cleaning. When DPT do their pass, they ticket any cars left in the street, but not the ones parked on the sidewalk. You’d have to ask them the basis for that exemption.

  • Michael Smith

    Morton, it is a common misconception that one can park their vehicle “in their driveway” in front of their house. It is also a common misconception that one can do whatever they want on “their property”. But you are wrong on both accounts. There is a specific law in San Francisco that makes it illegal to park in front of your house, even your driveway. One of the big motivators is to prevent people from tearing out their front yard and replacing it a bunch of cars. And if it is your driveway then you really are supposed to pull into your garage. I’m sure you don’t want to believe this because when you have a car you don’t want to be inconvenienced with finding a legal parking space, but those are the rules of living in a city like San Francisco.

    And the argument of you being able to do what you want on private property doesn’t hold much water (well, except for maybe some Tea Party water). For example, you can’t put a billboard in front of your house, play loud music, have graffiti, etc. There are laws, for good reasons, and though they cause inconvenience to some, they still exist.

  • When I was a mother of young children, there were many times I had to push my child in her stroller onto the street to navigate around a car parked on the sidewalk. This is clearly unacceptable. I don’t know what people in wheelchairs do because often getting around a car blocking the sidewalk requires stepping on and off curbs.

    I do think in the city we have to get over the notion that the sidewalk in front of one’s house is one’s driveway. It is not. However, if you can park without your car impinging on the sidewalk, I don’t have a problem with it other than the fact that cars are kind of ugly and I’d rather see trees and flowers, etc. (Cars are like overhead wires–you don’t realize how ugly and oppressive their presence is until you’re in a space without them.)

    Just to note: we wouldn’t have to dedicate so much public space to car storage in this city if 1)people drove smaller cars, 2) people didn’t own two or three or four cars per household (many of which rarely get driven) 3) people felt they could bike safely or comfortably rely on MUNI. Potential solutions: 1) base the cost of neighborhood parking permits on vehicle length, 2) raise the cost of neighborhood parking permits and state vehicle registration fees until they are high enough that seldom-used cars are jettisoned as not worth it, and 3)improve MUNI reliability and bicycle infrastructure.

  • Bob Davis

    Improve Muni reliability! That’s the story that got me into SF Streetsblog in the first place. It’s a song with many verses, and is often sung on the “N-Judah Chronicles website”. I’m an outside observer, who visits SF a few times a year, but it does seem that there’s a lot of room for improvement in Muni performance. This is nothing new; I remember about 30 years ago when so many of Muni’s diesel buses were down for repairs, they had to rent a batch of old 1950’s era coaches from Southern California. Bus enthusiasts were probably thrilled, but to most citizens, it was just another sign that Muni couldn’t keep up.
    Regarding the main theme of this commentary, a while back I wrote an essay about why most local passenger travel in the US is done with personal motor vehicles: they cater to the less than admirable human characteristics of “selfishness”, “impatience” and “laziness”.

  • moka

    Morton: “Most people feel they can do what they want within their own property line.”

    This, of course, is not true. There are all kinds of rules that regulate what you can and cannot do with or on your property. And for good reason. You don’t live in a vacuum and what you do affects others.

    Not to mention, those front yards usually are not private property. SF houses in most cases have no setback, meaning that the house starts at the property line. The driveway is in this case in fact city property.

  • Nick

    The Sunset did see significant enforcement here about 2 years ago. The PCO’s have left but the sidewalk violators remain.

    When they did do enforcement they would come in groups of 3 or 4 (possibly as a show of force to deter violence). That might be why they stopped; it’s really expensive to have 1 person write a ticket while 3 watch.

  • Morton


    Regarding parking on your own property, what’s interesting about the picture that heads this column is that it looks like the vehicle in question is blocking almost all of the sidewalk, yet it could in fact have pulled forward several feet. Most of the vehicles shown behind it have done just that.

    The paved area to the left looks like it is his front yard, paved over, rather than the public sidewalk. So he could have avoided blocking the sidewalk, and avoided the risk of a ticket, simply by parking as far forward as he could.

    And even though, according to Michael above, you can get a ticket even for parking on your front yard, it seems that in practice that is not enforced.

    So that driver gets no pass from me. Although I think the DPT should always use discretion, it is incumbent on us all to mitigate the impact of such parking on public space. I have a little mark on my stoop that tells me exactly where to stop to minimize the incursion.

  • Bob Davis

    An observation on why the car in the photo isn’t further into the driveway: It’s hard to tell from the camera angle, but there could be a problem in opening the driver’s door without it being blocked by the sloping wall next to the driveway. It’s not like the older “bench seat” cars, where, if one has to, one can slide over and get out on the passenger’s side. Or we could go back to the days when that house was new and cars were higher off the ground. It doesn’t make leaving the car blocking the sidewalk any less of a nuisance, but it might explain what appears to be pure thoughtlessness.

  • Morton


    Yeah, good point, that might explain the carelessness in this case.

    Of course, as well as being unwilling to shuffle over to the passenger’s door, he could also have reversed in. So putting myself in the shoes of a DPT officer, I’d still cite him.

  • This only works with a flat input / sidewalks. If the position of the car, pedestrians have to negotiate around it, or go on a field that leads to the garage, for example, then I think the driver should be sued .. Although it could have been avoided to prevent ewalk sid, and to avoid a ticket, only the park, as far as he could.

  • Perhaps if the SFMTA stopped issuing bogus tickets, their victims wouldn’t want to kick their asses. When they lie about where and when your vehicle was parked in order to STEAL YOUR MONEY, you have the right to want to beat your moneys worth out of their hides. Since they’ve started issuing tickets from behind their desks, to cars not even in the city, they deserve a lot worse than a butt kicking. They should all be treated to some prison time and huge fines. SFMTA should be dissolved.

  • mikesonn

    Hey SFPD, he linked to his FB profile. Please follow up.


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