Commentary: San Franciscans Tired of “Free” Parking Dysfunction

Photo: ## Seita/Flickr##

Year after year, the champions of free car parking come to defend its sanctity when the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) works up the guts to raise the issue in its search for budget solutions.

As surely as drivers will cruise endlessly for coveted free parking spots every Sunday, opponents like San Francisco Examiner’s Ken Garcia will attempt to stifle calls for the expansion of metered parking hours.

Unfortunately, public discourse on the issue is repeatedly timed with the SFMTA’s budget deadline, helping to feed the widespread misconception that pricing parking is nothing more than a money grab and obscuring its potential as a sorely overdue solution for rationalizing the use of our streets.

In his column yesterday, Garcia called for squashing once and for all the “tired” practice of using cars as “roving cash machines.”

Nevermind that San Francisco is already resorting to general fund bonds to pave the streets in lieu of payments from the motor vehicle owners who wear them down. To Garcia, putting a rational price on parking spaces is “a kind of ‘gouge and go’ philosophy to get city transportation planners off the hook for their bosses’ inability to run their own department efficiently.” Unfortunately, Mayor Ed Lee went along with Garcia’s rant.

To be sure, there are many steps the SFMTA could take to be more efficient, but the question of how to price parking isn’t necessarily about the budget. It’s about fixing an outdated system of wasteful giveaways that ultimately benefit no one — not even drivers.

As Streetsblog has written extensively, when parking is underpriced, we all pick up the tab. On Sundays and weeknights after 6 p.m., free parking throughout the city means drivers have no incentive to limit their stay during high-demand periods and busy commercial districts are inundated with car traffic as drivers circle for parking.

The costs add up, with as much as 30 percent of downtown drivers in some cities on the hunt for a place to leave their car.

We’ve all come to expect to pay the market-rate price for a scarce resource, whether it’s a movie ticket on a Friday night or an apartment in San Francisco. Why should the consumption of 140 square feet of public space to store an automobile be any different?

Of course, rather than paying in cash, drivers pay for “free” parking by queuing up. The problem is, they make others pay too. You can see the true cost of free parking every Sunday in my neighborhood, the Inner Sunset. Frustrated drivers make endless loops around the same blocks. Many give up and double park on streets like Irving, forcing bicycle riders onto the streetcar tracks and often blocking the N-Judah until the operator blares the horn at them.

That’s the dysfunction that Garcia wants to perpetuate. Meanwhile, a better system is right under his nose. The SFPark program’s innovative strides toward pricing parking accurately have been widely lauded in this city and across the country.

Even Mayor Lee touted the rationale for parking pricing at SFPark’s launch in April: “You know, when you’re driving around looking for a parking space and you’re double parking and you’re running around trying to see whether something will open, you’re dumb.”

“We want to be less dumb about this,” said Lee.

But now, Lee appears to be abandoning intelligent policy and playing it safe like his predecessor. He told Garcia that raising more parking revenue, including updating meter hours, is “an old, re-hashed idea” and that we need a better, “long-term solution.”

Lee’s assertion that adjusting meter hours is an old idea is absolutely correct. San Francisco’s parking meter hours basically haven’t been updated since they were first installed in 1947 to encourage turnover during business hours.

Many things have changed since then — like business hours.

But as long as city leaders keep playing to the misguided attacks of those like Garcia, San Francisco will remain behind the times.

  • Anonymous

    Though Muni and roads certainly need the money, maybe it would be a good idea to somehow detach the revenue from SFPark from the MTA’s budget and put it into something else. One could even return the money in the form of rebates to residents, because I do think the benefits are greater than just the $, and it’s frustrating to see the ideas constantly derided as money-grabs.

  • Anonymous

    I do not understand why we must continue to subsidize the auto as much as we do. Also, meters on Sundays will not hurt business districts – in fact the unlimited meters are harmful. I live just off Irving in the Inner Sunset and see it all the time – idiots park their cars after 6 on Saturdays and leave them until first thing Monday Morning. That doesn’t “help business,” and it in fact keeps  those who require a car to enjoy the businesses to park, often illegally, on side streets.

    I am tired of this discussion dominated by rhetoric and slogans, and not on facts. The fact is the key to a good business district is walkability and a diversity of businesses so the area serves a mix of locals and those from Elsewhere who can enjoy it via public transportation or a car if need be. We have a farmer’s market in the Inner Sunset that occupies the parking lot in the mornings, and despite a few local naysayers, the area is not now an impoverished wasteland, and in fact you have more people shopping at both the market and the local businesses.

    A pity SF chose either to vote for “Mayor” Cuteypie Mustasche or not at all – they are ensuring more years of looting via work orders and pro-car policies with the boss at Room 200. Thanks for nothing, SF “voters!”

  • Joel

    They could even go towards community benefit districts that fund street beautification/streetscape projects in the immediate area.

  • mikesonn

    Thank you Aaron. This should be linked in the side bar so next this comes up (and it will, over and over and over again), we all have something to reference to. I’m sick and tired of having to drag up topics already covered, find and then repost things that have already been posted.

    Now, if only the SFMTA would read Streetsblog…

  • Sprague

    Thank you, Aaron, for pointing out the illogic of Ken Garcia’s writing.  Garcia’s viewpoint perpetuates the common San Francisco lifestyle/mindframe where one lives as a suburbanite in an urban environment – using one’s car as the way to get around and conveniently ignoring its cost to society.  And, of course, the innovation of SFPark should be implemented on Sundays and on evenings to help businesses and reduce congestion.

  • Tyler Elliott

    I’d say its the heavy trucks and buses that are actually destroying the streets, not motorists that require parking.

  • Jackbarry

    I propose that the SFMTA  require anyone who parks overnight, on a public have a “Nite Parking Permit” on their dashboard…  Sell it for $100 a year, like the daytime  one now in use. Right now people who own a house and do not “overnight park” on the street..are giving their curb frontage to their neighbor at no cost to the neighbor…..
    I would have the City issue ONE Nite Permit, per 25 foot frontage, to the property owner, no more than one.  Let the owner who had the permit…rent it out for “what the market will bear.  ..The city gets  $100 per lot, and the buyer makes a profit….  Sounds terrible, doesn’t it.?

    I have a neighbor with 7 cars in his family. They live in a pair of flats, and use one  of the two garages as a workshop, and put 6 cars on the street.  Cute.

    The City’s rules, right now, do encourage car usage… Let us debate the wisdom of this.

    jack barry in the Sunset.

  • TwinPeaks_SF

    Of course heavy trucks have a much larger effect on pavement conditions, but the deterioration caused by tens of thousands of cars each day is not insignificant. When up to 50% of auto traffic on a given street is from people circling around looking for parking, we are talking about some large effects.

  • Anonymous

    No doubt that trucks should also have to pay for their usage of the roads, and much more so than passenger cars because their weight is so much greater. But the reality is, that excepting some major thoroughfares, heavy trucks do not make up a significant amount of road traffic in SF.

    However, we aren’t just considering road damage here. We are considering all the other externalized effects of cars, from pollution to deaths and injury from accidents to noise to contributing to the obesity epidemic. Again, trucks are a part of that, but by no means the greatest part in a city like SF.

  • Anonymous

    That’s great and all, but so much more complicated than just putting SFPark meters all over the city and not letting them expire. We have an easy solution to this, but for political reasons (addiction to cars) we are choosing not to implement it.

  • mikesonn

    I also think it’s a good argument for raising the yearly residential parking rate to more than $8/mo, even if it doesn’t completely solve the “overnight parking” issue.

  • Anonymous

    $60-$80 million per year from a weekday evening outbound only congestion charge cannot be castrated by handicap placards and helps decrease a lot of public health problems … Why isn’t this on the drawing board? Are the people who use the streets (read: probably not downtown residents judging by car usage and ownership for daily commutes) paying for their upkeep at any where ner the costs?

  • Anonymous

    Wrong wrong wrong. If people can’t come to the city and enjoy a few hours of fun without running back and forth to their meters, they won’t come at all.

    You know you are simply anti-car. Admit it, and get over it. The roads weren’t paved for bikes. We’re willing to share, but stop overreaching.

    And BTW, the parking meters in SOMA by the train station have simple resulted in TONS of open parking during the day for the SF Tennis Club. That it. Residents can’t park there (they keep ticketing even if you have a permit, yes) and commuters who would like to NOT take their cars down the Peninsula are out of luck because the meters are 2 hours. Terrible public policy and a waste of space.

    I don’t advocate giving drivers a free ride, but stop trying to manipulate the system to suck every penny out of our taxpaying wallets. That’s all this is about, and you know it.

  • And BTW, the ONLY people who benefit from increased parking fees and
    more meters are rich people.

    Incorrect. In a world of scarcity, rich people already are the beneficiaries, no matter what. Charging them more for parking that is funneled to the MTA allows us to provide better mass transit for the actual blue collar workers, retirees, and middle class – who take 700,000 rides on MUNI daily, 400,000 rides on BART daily, 45,000 rides on Caltrain daily, etc…

    Whenever I hear protests like this, investigation typically proves that the complaint is coming from one of the said rich people who will be able to pay more in parking costs, but just doesn’t want to because they could care less about public transit.

  • mikesonn

    Side note, roads were originally paved for bikes.

  • Anonymous

    More complicated? A whole lot less complicated than installing tens of thousands of meters…

  • Anonymous

    I agree that people shouldn’t have to run back and forth to meters– that’s silly, and benefits no one. So let’s fix it with technology. What I’d like to see is meters which allow you to stay for a long time (if you want to encourage short-term parking you can offer it at a discount, ie charge half the usual price for the first hour). Then, allow people to get refunds for unused time! This can be done with current technology– just run the same credit card a second time when you’re leaving. That way, people who don’t know how long they’ll spend somewhere can pay for the maximum amount of time without worrying about wasting a bunch of money. If they get delayed, they don’t need to rush back to their cars just because their meters are up. They won’t get tickets just because they forgot the time.

    In other words, let meters work like public garages already do.

    Yes, this will cost the MTA some money in refunds of unused time and foregone tickets. However, I think there are huge benefits in terms of public approval, and that way SFPark can really show its benefit. At the same time, I think people would be a lot more accommodating of higher rates if 1) they don’t feel like they’re getting ripped off and 2) they can charge it instead of paying cash.

    For example: imagine you’re running an errand which you think will take less than 15 minutes, but might take as many as 45. The meters charge $2 an hour. Because all the spaces near your destination are taken, you only find a spot a few blocks away. Now you have the choice: pay for 20 minutes (70c), but run the risk of having to run all the way back before you’re done to put in more coins, wasting time and money, or you can play it safe and put $2 in, potentially wasting a buck (yes, for some of us that’s significant– especially if you feel like it’s a waste). This is an annoying and stressful decision.

    On the other hand, if you could simply run your card and not worry about it, that’s a whole lot nicer. In fact, I’d wager that people would be happier paying $3.50 an hour that they didn’t have to worry about than $2 an hour that they did. After all, what’s two dollars on a credit card bill?

    (If the spots by the train station are going unused, that’s silly, and the rates or limits should be adjusted–which is really the point of SFPark, though it would be nice to have more flexibility on time limits. And rich people are DEFINITELY not the only ones who benefit from good rates. The extra money can go to pay for extra transit, and the reduction in traffic from searching for parking will itself speed up and decrease the cost of transit.)

  • peternatural

    sarahx: feeding the meters is illegal. Please don’t break the law.

    If you need to park longer than the legal limit at a particular spot, find another, e.g. in a garage.

    Your comment is about self-entitled motorists thinking their lifestyle should be subsidized by taxpayers, and you know it 😉

  • Tiny Tim

    Have never understood why there’s free parking under the Central Freeway and parts of SOMA where’s there’s no/little housing (13th Street area). Email inquiries a few years ago did not yield any responses.
    Free Sunday parking in downtown SF harkens back to a time when, on Sundays, few people ventured beyond 3rd Street, i.e., back to the Ferry Bldg., along Market St. Few businesses were open in that part and SOMA was not developed the way it is now. Museum row did not exist. Why there’s an objection to charging on what is just another commercial/entertainment day is beyond me. It’s also amazing that respondents, who are businesspeople do not wish to acknowledge that driving has its costs (repaving, air pollution health effects, congestion which affects transit riders, etc.) Any explanations, people?

  • Anonymous

    @baklazhan:disqus Except the SFPark system has already been developed and rolled-out. The meters are already out in many spots, and it is something the city has been planning on doing for some time. I’m just saying that we already have a mechanism in place for handling this issue, so no need to waste time and resources on another redundant system.

  • good roads movement

    The original movement to pave roads, called the “Good Roads Movement” happened before automobiles were invented, and was spearheaded by bicyclists.

  • Earthstepper

    Why in the world would anyone be in favor of adding parking fees until 9PM or 11PM?  It is just an outrageous assertion that it will solve any problems.  The SFMTA is a grossly negligent, uncreative, and bloated organization that deserves not a single $ more than it’s getting now.

    If people are double parked, then I suggest the police start ticketing those people.  I never double park, because I’m not a jerk who thinks he’s above the law.  So why don’t the police write up some tickets??  Do you reasonably expect a car owner with no garage space to pay $5 or more per day simply to park their car on the street after work until 9PM or even 11PM?  That’s an annualized “tax” of over $1000 per year, and it will NOT solve the problems. The answer is no, they will not.  And guess what they’ll do??  That’s right, they’ll circle and circle and circle until they find a non-metered spot, resulting in WORSE congestion, not better.  Think it through, people. I’m so sick and tired of being nickel and dimed in this town. Drivers do pay for the right to use the streets, which is paid at $3.75/per hour in parking meters during business hours.  Isn’t that enough?  Can’t we get some relief, ie: Sundays and evenings and keep some of our own money?  

    MTA should run their business like a business and they wouldn’t be begging for more revenues.

  • mikesonn

    “Drivers do pay for the right to use the streets, which is paid at $3.75/per hour in parking meters during business hours.”

    Skipping all the other inaccuracies in your comment, business hours now to go 9PM and include Sundays.

  • peternatural

     How about people who don’t use on-street parking very much and are sick of being nickel-and-dimed through property and sales taxes to pay for those who do?


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