Cleaning Up SF’s Car-Littered Sidewalks Will Take More Than Parking Tickets

Cars littered on San Francisco’s sidewalks are a painfully common sight. The problem is perhaps most prevalent in outer neighborhoods like the Sunset and Bayview, where, for decades, homeowners with residential garages have paved over their front yards. The pedestrian environment on these streets is left degraded, with swaths of dead space where families and people with disabilities are often forced to walk around an obstacle course of cars and driveway ramps.

Make no mistake: It’s illegal to park on any part of a sidewalk or in a “setback” between the sidewalk and a building. The practice of paving over front yards was also banned in 2002.

Yet conditions in these neighborhoods make clear that the SF Municipal Transportation Agency does not enforce sidewalk parking on sight (though officials have claimed that’s the policy). Meanwhile, the Planning Department says it only fines homeowners who pave their yards when someone files a complaint. The issue recently got some attention in an SF Chronicle article last week, as well as the latest segment of KRON 4’s People Behaving Badly.

With all this space physically molded for car storage — practically every last inch on many streets — Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich said cleaning up San Francisco’s car-littered sidewalks will take more than getting parking control officers to hand out tickets. The Planning Department — which has no staff to proactively enforce rules against illegal setback pavings, according to the Chronicle — would have to crack down on violators, reversing decades of institutional tolerance for the practice.

“The city has turned a blind eye for so long that they have created a de facto entitlement” to illegal parking, Radulovich said. “City agencies have created an uncomfortable dilemma for themselves – start enforcing the law and deal with the fallout, or continue to ignore the problem and watch it grow worse.”

The setbacks, side yards, and backyards required in the city’s planning code “were intended to create usable open space and/or gardens, not open parking,” said Radulovich. Greenery lost to pavement also means more stormwater flowing into the often-overloaded sewer system.

Parking on sidewalks and setbacks is so common, it seems many car owners may not even realize it’s illegal. After all, everyone else is doing it. On the side of the block where I live in the Inner Sunset (shown in the segment above), it’s normal for car-owning residents to park in front of nearly every house on a paved setback. This leaves an ugly, unwelcoming walking environment, with many car owners encroaching on the sidewalk. When a PCO was ticketing one sidewalk-blocking driver, I heard the officer say, “It’s called a driveway for a reason,” explaining that they’re not meant for parking.

While San Franciscans wait for the SFMTA and the Planning Department get a handle on the sidewalk parking mess, they can call in violations. In my experience, the SFMTA often does respond at the scene. Here’s how to get their attention:

  • To report a sidewalk parking violation to the SFMTA, call the enforcement hotline at (415) 553-1200, then dial 1 for English, then 6 for sidewalk parking.
  • To report a land-use violation such as “Use of required front or rear setback as parking,” check out the Planning Department’s website for instructions on filing a complaint by online form, phone, email, postal mail, or in person.
  • My experience with reporting sidewalk parking violations is that they say they will send someone out, but no tickets actually ever get issued no matter how blatant the violation is.

  • Anonymous

    You can ask for a CAD number and call back to see if the PCO lied about the call (“no violation”, etc.).  I’ve caught them at least once.

  • jimmy

    What does CAD stand for?

  • Eli

    I have to admit this was one of the big reasons I moved out of SF to Seattle for grad school, and stayed here when I returned to the tech industry: lots of rhetoric around being transit-first and walkable, but very little action. Even sidewalks couldn’t be taken for granted as reliable pedestrian space.

    I’m going back to visit SF next weekend to visit friends see if it’s yet become that walkable city that it likes to market itself to be, but I’m guessing I won’t be coming back to stay.

  • Guest

    Maybe it’s time to scope out the problem in a systematic manner and perhaps rather than forcing a 100% compliance in 90 days, require incremental improvement.  Maybe a street tree to start.  The only thing worse than concrete and parking is unkempt landscaping and eroding soil. 

    DPW or the planning department should get going on a citywide survey, just like how for the first time (that i’ve seen), DPW has been working on a pretty extensive sidewalk and repair survey.  In fact, I would suggest that they do this at the same time and simply take a picture and note which properties are obviously out of compliance with 100% hardscape.  One step at a time…

  • vcs

    Yeah, the rhetoric versus reality in SF is disheartening.

    In the case of lawn parking-lots, it’s a side-effect of the unofficial policy allowing owners to illegally subdivide the homes and add in-law units.

  • Gilla

    I was was in the uter Mission this weekend near Geneva and the sidewalk parking is even worse than the Susnset. But I can’t help feeling much of the blame for this can be attributed to our very poor public transportation system. If public transit was quick and convenient, who would need so many cars?

  • Justin

    Great article, thanks for covering it in detail. Regarding your headline, though, actually writing parking tickets would probably go a long way. People blatantly disrespect the sidewalk because there is virtually no risk of being ticketed. If people thought they would have to pay for breaking the law, they might think twice. 

    I call SFMTA regularly to complain about sidewalk parking and rarely get anywhere. Frustrated that tickets were not being issued despite entire sidewalks blocked, I was finally able to talk to one of the PCOs that responds to calls. Standing by a car that was more on the sidewalk than in the driveway, he said “technically it’s illegal, but we try to give people a break because it’s hard to park in this city.” He told me to take it up with his supervisor — supervisors are “never in the office,” so you have to leave a message. I have left 10+ messages and have never been called back.

    Regarding the swarms of cars on sidewalks during street sweeping, a PCO witnessing it once told me it’s legal as long as you stay with the car (Lie: When I called SFMTA, the dispatcher told me “we encourage people to park on the sidewalk before the street sweeper comes by, since we don’t want them blocking the road.” I was referred to the supervisor of Street Cleaning, who did not return my calls. 

  • Fran Taylor

    Comparing residential permit parking (RPP) violations with sidewalk parking:
    –RPP affects only certain streets in the city, only at certain times, typically 8-6 Monday through Friday
    –sidewalk parking affects every street in the city, 24/7
    –RPP is time-limited, requiring the ticketing parking control officer to note the unpermited car and return after the time limit, typically an hour, to see if the car is still there, so two trips are necessary
    –sidewalk parking is not time-limited and could be cited on first sight; an offending vehicle is also much more visible than a small sticker
    So why does the SFMTA ticket seven times more RPP violations than sidewalk parking violations (2011 figures: 169,203 versus 23,737)?

  • Barry

    Illegal parking in the required front setback is often a result of other issues.  Illegal dwelling units in ground floor spaces in the Richmond and Sunset District push household storage into the former garage space which pushes the parking out into the front setback area.  The parking in the front setback could also reflect too many residents in the dwelling with too many automobiles which compete for a limited number of on-street parking spaces. 

  • Anonymous

    So long as the City continues its all too common practice of writing laws it has no intention of actually enforcing, this will go on. The City needs to make a decision – do we allow such lawbreaking and just say “let’s be liberal and allow law breaking” or does it decide to do something very forceful to tell people they’re breaking the law and there are consequences, and those consequences are serious ,not lots of hugs and lollipops.

  • voltairesmistress

    The picture used to illustrate the problem of sidewalk parking does NOT show sidewalk parking.  Instead, it shows private automobiles parked in private driveways and private front yards.  Why confuse viewers and conflate the issue of sidewalk parking with private driveway/front yard parking?  Both parking practices may be illegal, but the former is a safety and convenience issue for the greater walking public, while the latter is a question of esthetics.  We really need to prioritize our issues.  Citing people parked in theri own driveways and not blocking pedestrian use is about #999 on the list 1,000 most important things to improve city living.

  • mikesonn

    A vast majority of the time (the screen shot from the video being an exception), driveway parking = sidewalk parking. This took me 2 seconds to find on Google street view:

    And yes it is a question of aesthetics, but our city should be a place where it is enjoyable to walk. Cars littering every available square foot of non-building real estate does not a wakable city make.

    EDIT: Same block even!

  • voltairesmistress

     mikesonn, If owners enclosed and landscaped their front yards, installed permeable pavers and obscured to some extent the presence of their parked cars, do you think anybody would care that they parked their vehicles in their own yards?  Still, a not-very-important issue in my opinion, but the “problem” would be mitigated.

    These esthetic “problems” seem more like trying to right-size every resident to fit the esthetic ideals of the upper middle class Smith & Hawken / Whole Foods crowd.  Heterogeneity of life-styles and esthetics is something a truly metropolitan and open minded city should encourage.

  • mikesonn

    Permeable pavers address a very real run-off issue.

    And I’m going to just ignore your backhanded “upper middle class” comment.

  • “the latter is a question of esthetics.  We really need to prioritize our issues.”

    Do you know how much money SF spends on its sewer system? I don’t but here’s a guess… “a lot”.

    The city is – at great expense – taking out pieces of concrete sidewalk all over the city and putting in landscaping/street trees.

    The enclosure of the yards to produce an “effective garage” would be a circumvention of the setbacks which are there for a reason.

  • voltairesmistress

     mike, the upper middle class descriptor is not backhanded on my part.  I very much want to challenge people to think about what tolerance of others really means.  Too often, the reigning ideas and esthetics are those expressed by those with social power and racial privilege.  A quick look at the comments section on sfgate story about people paving their front yards over will show anyone that readers negatively associate the practice with immigrant, lower middle class Chinese.  As much as I would want to plant, not pave-paint, my own front yard, I have to recognize that I can do so because I can now (not previously!) afford to landscape.  There was a time when I couldn’t afford primroses!  Further, my esthetics and sense of place are informed by class-driven ideas and experiences of nature and wilderness, as well American suburban and urban experiences.  My wife who is Greek has very different notions from mine of trees and concrete, rural and urban imperatives, parking and driveways etc.  So, no, let’s not ignore cultural and class norms and how we sometimes unwittingly bang others over the head with our “better” sense of esthetics.

  • Kevin

     @732c4803eb2e277d0054b17154744686:disqus just dropped some knowledge

  • omcit

    In the picture above, the sidewalk is actually 20 feet wide. You can check property maps, in most cases the property line is where the building begins. Just because homeowners paint a part of the sidewalk in front of their house red or green, it does not mean that it becomes their property. The sections painted red or green above are in fact public right of way.

  • Anonymous

    I think the problem or misunderstanding here is the use of aesthetics to describe something that is more than just an aesthetic problem. We’re not talking about the the color of the house or whether it’s an authentically restored victorian, but how the land is being used and the environmental impacts.  That is not just aesthetics.

    While I appreciate Voltairesmistress’ sensitivity to the latent (or expressed?) racism and classism that this kind of discussion can bring out, this is about more than people’s yards being ugly but the negative consequences of using a yard as a parking spot. While cars in yards may not always encroach on a safe path for people to walk, it’s a fine line that is being crossed all too often.In regards to primroses, this is about the responsibility of property owners, so if you owned land in SF and couldn’t afford to not pave over your yard then I’m not really buying it.

  • voltairesmistress

     coolbaby, I don’t yet own property in SF — still saving for that, although I can now afford any plantings my landlord allows us to put in.  Many years ago, however, I couldn’t afford any ‘extras’ like outdoor plants, books, food out, etc.  My neighbors, sometimes owners of very modest places, also had to make economic trade-offs.  Pretty frequently, they kept landscaping to near zero as one of those “choices” in an unequal world.  Hope that clarifies things. 

  • mikesonn

    If you watched the video, owners who could prove they didn’t pave over since 2002 (I believe, could be 2001, doesn’t matter) can be grandfathered in. If they paved over since then, they need to undo the work. If those owners could pay to pave, they can pay to unpave.

    And just because SFGate made this racial (surprise!!) doesn’t mean that I am here on this thread. Planning code states these owners cannot pave over open space for many reasons, aesthetics just being one of many (and probably the least important or near the bottom).

  • @vcs – You’re barking up the wrong trees. Inlaws are dense housing and overall increase walkability. Cars are the problem, period, thousands of them on sidewalks as and lawns even where there aren’t any inlaws.

  •  I have land. 1.5 acres. With a lawn. Grass seed is really, really, really cheap. Fertilize once a year is a trivial expense, with or without weed killer. In the Sunset, the fog pretty much waters the grass and there are few days of scorching heat to kill the grass. My lawn is much larger than those pictured and I can mow it in under 10 minutes. These could probably be done with an electric mower that costs very little to purchase, operate, and maintain.

    Tree? 6 foot trees are pretty cheap and I’ve no green thumb yet I have managed to plant and not kill several. If you have a hardship (as a landowing San Francisco resident?) there’s a reasonable chance friends of the urban forest would give you one.

    Primroses? Sheesh.

  •  It seems to me that the runoff is being used as an excuse to promote the primarily aesthetics based agenda here.

  • Gneiss

    Andy – hate to burst your bubble, but it is about runoff.  The Surfrider Foundation is behind this measure, because runoff from city streets has a significant impact on water quality in the ocean and bay.  Here’s a quote from their ‘plant don’t pave website’ for you:

    The Plant Don’t Pave provides a simple way for individuals to contribute to cleaner water and greener neighborhoods. The primary goal is to decrease water runoff into storm drains by removing non-permeable surfaces, like concrete, and replacing them with permeable surfaces, like plants and soil. This helps reduce urban runoff into storm drains, which is a primary cause of water treatment overflows during periods of heavy rains.”

    They are sponsoring programs in the Outer Sunset with Community Challenge Grants to get people to replace the concrete in front of their houses with more permeable materials.

  • There are a lot of things that aren’t good for the environment. If people can live with the air pollution from automobiles then people can live with runoff. I don’t think that outside the environmental circle people would care about the runoff issue alone.

    But then if that runoff prevention measure results in getting rid of things that are aesthetically unpleasant for some, then they would certainly support it and appear to be environmentally conscience and not NIMBYish, selfless rather than selfish.

  • omcit

    Wow, they let anyone post here, don’t they… So trying to get rid of some concrete is selfish? Well, I can’t think of anything more selfish than paving over green areas so one can park their private automobiles on the sidewalk. Who is forcing their aesthetics on whom? I don’t think there’s a person in the world who finds gardens or trees not aesthetic (except maybe sociopaths), on the other hand, those who want to park 3 cars on the sidewalk indeed force their own ignorant, rude, and garbage view of the world on the rest of us. Geez… 

  • Gneiss

    This isn’t about people.  It’s about the city saving money.  If we can’t keep water quality in the bay and ocean above a certain level, then we risk having to institute some very costly upgrades to our wastewater treatment system to accommodate the storm water runoff.
    Boston (and by proxy the ratepayers of the MWRA) was forced by the federal government to spend billions to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems because they increasingly couldn’t manage to keep their harbor from filling with sewage from storm water overflow events.  If all it takes for the city to prevent this from becoming a problem is to break up some concrete to expose the soil and allow infiltration rather than having to upgrade our waste water plants, then we should all be for it because the alternative is quite costly.

  • The issue of people occupying the sidewalk with their car is not the same as using private property for parking. The first issue is about access and safety. The second issue is about aesthetics, war-on-cars, and runoffs (which can be addressed with better paving materials).

    As for the aesthetic issue, some people may not value green front lawn as much as others.

  • mikesonn

    “War-on-cars” “Some people settle for Muni and have green front lawn. Others trade their green lawn so that they can avoid Muni.”

    Always good for a laugh.

    “If people can live with the air pollution from automobiles then people can live with runoff.”

    Yeah, what’s some raw sewage in the bay? We all breath crappy air, why not drink actually crappy water?

  • Anonymous

    This has become the longest, most pointless thread ever to which I’ll add, I HATE lawns, I might even hate lawns more than cement, however, I recognize that cement is more damaging to the environment than lawns in cities due to run off issues. Banning cementing over front areas (that may still be public land) is different than mandating a certain aesthetic. This is not the equivalent to requiring a lawn or certain “niceness” to a yard.  We need to stop assuming that removing cement = a nice yard = a beautiful lawn. It can be a patch of dirt with whatever happens to manage to grow on its own (weeds). The patch of dirt with a scrawny tree and used needles in front of my apartment is better than the cement that would otherwise be there.

    Also, if the city is so good at requiring people to paint over graffiti, why are they so bad at enforcing both sidewalk parking and paving over front yards to use as parking spots?  Isn’t that exclusively aesthetic?

  • vcs

    Jym — not barking up any trees, just telling you what the city’s “logic” has been.

  • If you don’t believe that a lot of people have a goal of owning an automobile so they can leave transit, then you’re detached from reality. There might be a subculture growing that believes bikes and transit are preferable (similar to those who believe eating meat is immoral), but applying that belief on everyone else isn’t going to work, especially when Muni runs such a mediocre and unreliable service.

  • Anonymous

    @facebook-616986286:disqus of course people want to own cars, people want to do lots of things.  Property and car ownership entails a lot of responsibilities and that’s what I’ve been talking about.

  • If the so called responsibilities is net zero environmental impact, let’s try a ballot proposition to require every car and every residence to require an EIR and mitigation measures? Some of the bike folks may very much support it but I bet it will fail, even among those who are otherwise liberal.

    I am more and more amazed as to how out of touch some of the folks here.

  • mikesonn

    @facebook-616986286:disqus Who is calling for “net zero environmental impact”? Stop with the hyperbole.

  • Andy you are so far off base here it’s nuts.

    If you don’t think runoff is a problem check this.

    It’s not just that we end up spewing sewage into the bay, it spews into our streets, houses, and businesses.

  • DC

    San Francisco cares so much about cleaning its streets but gives a damn about its sidewalks, which have become latrines for the homeless population and a the greatest place to litter. Good job again again SF with your ingenious regulation.

  • Leon Foonman

    You are an eeejit.

  • Leon Foonman

    If people would just paint their concreted-in front yards with green paint, like they do in the outer Sunset, then it would solve the problem. People can continue to hide in their Fabulously Remodeled Homes with Fully Developed, Un-permitted second units (AirBnB!). It will be great, with NO Zoning Laws to prevent multiple units and dozens of people crammed in to one home, we can have more cars, parked on the green concrete. When the dozens of people get in their cars to drive around other neighborhoods, then the rest of us can enjoy the beautiful green concrete and cemented in yards, without those dirty trees and other useless shrubs.
    Remember, every tree is just another Lost Parking Place that you could put your BMW in, the one you pay those 500 a month lease payments on.


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