Parking Expert: Underpriced Parking Permits Won’t Curb Cruising for Spots

Underpriced curb parking contributes to the traffic mess on 17th Street near Folsom. Photo: Aaron Bialick

A lot of traffic in the northeast Mission consists of drivers cruising for parking spots. Motorists in the area circle for an average of 27 minutes in search of a free spot on weekday mornings, according to the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, which has held community outreach meetings in recent months to develop a plan for new parking meters and permit restrictions to curb excess traffic in the neighborhood.

In response to fervent opposition to metered parking in the eastern neighborhoods, the SFMTA has pushed back its timeline for installing meters, devoting more attention to data collection and community feedback as it develops parking management plans. On March 21, the agency will present a proposal for the northeast Mission, before beginning the same process of community meetings in the Potrero Hill and Dogpatch neighborhoods.

Rather than asking car-owning residents to pay the going rate for on-street parking, Tony Kelly, a runner-up in the most recent District 10 supervisor race and president of the Potrero Hill Boosters Association, says he has a better idea. In an op-ed in the SF Chronicle today, Kelly said the SFMTA should implement meters and residential parking permits — $104 annual bumper stickers that give parking priority to local car owners — but let permit holders park at meters in the area for free.

Kelly claims that the proposal, which hasn’t been used in any other neighborhood, would free up parking for residents by shooing away car commuters. (According to the SFMTA, only 26 percent of cars parked in the neighborhood are registered in the local zip codes.) He calls it “a better solution, one suggested by planners, transit advocates and local businesses, that can prioritize parking for residents and also handle parking congestion the way the MTA wants.”

Kelly asserts that the northeast Mission is being unfairly targeted because other neighborhoods get RPP zones and no meters, and accuses the SFMTA of “turning its back on decades of transit-first policy.” (In fact, the transit-first policy makes no mention of parking permits.)

Do planners really think parking permits that exempt residents from paying for metered parking are such a good idea?

In a recent interview, Jeff Tumlin, a principal at the transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard and author of the book Sustainable Transportation Planning, told Streetsblog why RPP zones alone aren’t enough to manage demand. Tumlin is working as a consultant for the SFMTA on its eastern neighborhood parking management plans.

While the SFMTA’s proposals could include RPP zones (though they’re normally initiated by petition), Tumlin explained that RPP is generally ineffective, by itself, at creating enough available spots to curb cruising, because the price of the permits bears no relation to demand for parking. “In denser neighborhoods, an RPP sticker ends up basically becoming a hunting license, rather than a tool for balancing supply and demand,” he said. “Typically, the city sells far more stickers than there are spaces, so it fails in its goal in trying to create parking availability.”

State law prohibits cities from charging more for permits than the costs to run the program. The annual $104 fee for a permit [PDF] amounts to 28 cents per day (a graduated price doesn’t kick in until a household’s fifth permit, which costs twice the normal price). At the same time, private parking spots go for hundreds of dollars per month.

Meanwhile, Tumlin said, “If we let residents park in every commercial space, then it would greatly restrict the ability for the commercial and entertainment users to create the availability that they need.” Allowing permit holders to park for free at some meters, and not others — a perk that exists in no other neighborhood — could also create confusion for parkers and enforcement officers.

“The strategy has been to recognize that the only tool that is truly going to be able to create availability for everyone — whether they’re a resident, or employees, or visitors, is going to be the market,” he said. But until California changes its law on parking permits — which is based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding a case in Virginia — RPPs in San Francisco cannot be priced according to the market.

On Streetsblog’s comment section today, Kelly wrote that if “anyone is interested in changing that policy citywide, or for substantially raising the fees for parking permits, I would be very happy to join that discussion. But instead, the MTA is proposing one policy for San Francisco and another policy for the Mission.”

The meters being planned in the eastern neighborhoods won’t be part of the SFPark program, which uses sensors and “smart meters” to allow prices to be adjusted according to demand throughout the day. The original plans were part of SFPark, but opposition from residents led the SFMTA to opt for conventional meters instead. Tumlin did say, however, that prices on the northeast Mission meters would be set based on data collected by on-the-ground staff, and that he expects they’ll be lower than average parking meter prices. (SFPark meters go as low as $0.25 and can actually save motorists money in comparison to conventional meters).

“It is the city’s policy to charge the lowest price at which a few parking spaces are always available on each block. That’s another thing I think that citizens have a hard time trusting,” said Tumlin. “The city as a whole will always make more money off of a successful neighborhood — a place that is more livable, that is economically successful — than it will ever make off of parking meters.”

Where parking meters are installed, Tumlin said the SFMTA is looking “to make it really, really easy to pay your fair share for renting this chunk of street space from the public to store your private goods.” All of the city’s meters can already be paid by phone, and the agency is working on getting them all to accept credit cards and payment in advance of enforcement hours.

“The idea that’s been driving a lot of people crazy is that they’re going to have to walk down the block in their pajamas at 8 o’clock every weekday morning with a sack of quarters. An approach like that does not work,” he said. With any of the city’s new meters, “If you get home late at night, and the meters start running at 9 o’clock in the morning, then you can easily call up and purchase whatever time you need for the next day.”

“I think most people will recognize that the street space has real value, and that it is only fair for all motorists to pay equally for renting that space.”

  • Mario Tanev

    In an ideal world where status quo doesn’t matter, there would be no parking subsidies for anyone, not even one for residents. Good luck with that!

    To those living in reality a conjecture about a solution that allows permits on some blocks but not others being “confusing to inspectors and residents” is not good enough for a policy decision. 

    The truth is, the status quo is worse than what’s being proposed – there are barely any meters anywhere in the city (and in NE Mission specifically). Yes, allowing residents to park at some parking meters may be confusing to some and render demand management less effective (until parking permits, e.g. bulk discounts are also priced on some market), but it can’t be less effective than what we have now. Specifically in NE Mission only 20% of parkers are residents, so they can’t possibly screw up the parking meter efficacy that badly.

    Those who oppose this moderate proposal need to be cognizant of what the alternative is. And the alternative to me is continuous dysfunction. On the other side is the crazy Marie Eliza of ENUF who thinks there should be no parking meters on Valencia.

    Maybe SFMTA will succeed in steamrolling the opposition this time around, but if it tried this city-wide, I think it might fail. This proposal allows for a city-wide solution, especially one that works for the mixed-zones we are getting more of.

    And the truth is, it will be a long time until drivers will feel it’s acceptable to feed a meter all year long. The residents of Russian Hill don’t have to, so I don’t think anyone is even thinking of proposing to force many residents to use meters. In my conversations with them SFMTA mentioned potentially allowing residents on a mixed block to park on another purely residential block or to have meters only on part of a block.

    I do agree though, that the state law should be changed to allow dynamic pricing of the parking permits. As a transit advocate, I can understand those who have a mental barrier to proposals like this due to the fact that the RPP program is a giveaway. But if you think incrementally, this proposal is an improvement over the status quo.

  • mikesonn

    Thank you Aaron.

  • Mario Tanev

    And here is my criticism of Tony Kelly’s article: RPPs have nothing to do with transit-first and are themselves severely underpriced. I feel if that weren’t the case, advocates wouldn’t have such a hard time with this proposal.

    The quote he gives is from this SFMTA page, not from transit-first:

  • Triple0

    Funny that he never mentioned any of these ideas when he was seeking the endorsement of the SFBC.  I wonder why.

  • Abe

    I live the idea of removing the meters on Valencia– with no parking turnover the bike lanes will be free and clear.

    …oh wait, forgot about the double-parkers

  • Reality Check

    Tony Kelly’s proposal is not better than the status quo when you consider that every other RPP district will start clamoring for special perks if this idea is ever enacted.

  • Mario Tanev

    Reality Check,

    What is the special perk? This proposal is regarding areas that currently do NOT HAVE meters. It’s about creating a middle ground on the spectrum between 2 extremes. Do you think that our bureaucracy is incapable of codifying 3 categories of parking spots, only 2?

    I think businesses at Polk should demand meters at Hyde and Leavenworth for their customers instead of opposing bike lanes, and that should give SFMTA more revenue and reduce some type of traffic (commuter or visitor who doesn’t want to pay).

  • I emphatically disagree with Tumlin. I don’t think we can say what an RPP program alone will or won’t do before it is implemented.  And it has not been implemented in a large part of the Mission, so parking is miserable!!!! (Honestly, what is so hard about this to understand? NO RPP=PARKING MISERY IN CONGESTED AREAS.) Will three-fourths of the cars presently parked in the Mission go away? Probably not, but maybe a third will. Try it. See what happens.

    Meters are for commercial areas, presumably so people can drive their cars to patronize businesses in the area for short periods of time. Maybe I’m missing something, but if residents can park at meters for free, they have no incentive to leave their spot except weekly street cleaning. This means there would be no turnover of any spot occupied by a resident. This means there would be precisely zero available spots for commercial customers, just about the opposite of the intention. (Again, am I missing something here?) Why would this be anything close to a good idea?

    Why is the city waiting? Assign an RPP zone to every possible inch of curbside parking (except metered parking) for the entire northeast quadrant of the city.  (Everything east of Stanyan and north of Cesar Chavez. Do this first. Many, many parking problems will go away. Then deal with meters where it makes sense once the true parking picture emerges, after the commuters are gone, after all the second, third, fourth and fifth cars that people hang onto because parking is free are gone, after the vacationers are gone, after the moochers from other neighborhoods are gone, after the out of town people camping in RVs are gone, after the cars of people who are holding on to their old car until their five year old becomes sixteen are gone. And pound on the state legislature to give San Francisco the same flexibility to set RPP rates as they do meter rates, so as to be able to intelligently manage scare public space in the second densest city in the nation.

  • mikesonn

    I’d still disagree with your proposal if RPP was equal to market rate ($250+/mo). Meters are for turn over in front of businesses, not for residents to store their car, no matter the price. Mixed use isn’t the point, there is mixed use on EVERY commercial corridor in the city.

  • There seems to be a contradiction in your post. I’m not sure how RPPs work in San Francisco — can you park on an RPP block without a permit?

    If you can, then I don’t see how an RPP would keep all those commuters, 2nd-5th cars, etc, off of your block.

    If you can’t, then an RPP seems like a spectacularly poor choice for a mixed-use block. Unless you’re proposing something like metering half of the spaces and putting the other half in the RPP.

  • 26 percent of the cars in this area are registered in local zip codes?

    I take it back. I want to see this implemented ASAP. Put the meters in and let the RPP owners park for free.

    Drop this proposal and the heads of the ENUF people would start spinning so fast they would fly off into orbit. There is no way that 74 percent of the cars are people coming in from out of the neighborhood and parking there. There is a HUGE number of cars parked there, owned by locals, but registered elsewhere to save on insurance. All of a sudden, you want a parking permit, you need to re-register your car. In addition to $104 for the permit you are out a few hundred or more in registration and insurance. But how do you show up at a City Planning meeting and say “I don’t want RPP because then I will have to register my car where I live!”

    Parking would get easier just from the people who start moving their crap out of the garage and parking their Antioch registered car in the garage.

  • In an RPP block you can park for two hours without a permit during permit times.

  • voltairesmistress

     Man, you got that right!  Those out of zip code area cars DO belong a lot of times to local residents falsifying their addresses to get cheaper insurance.  RPP would be a place to start.  But I do hope they put smart meters by businesses too, so that I can park briefly while using said businesses.

  • voltairesmistress

     Karen, RPP at current rates is not working in Nob Hill and Russian Hill areas, at least at night when everyone returns from work.  WAY more drivers with RPP stickers looking for parking than there are spots.  RPP works in some neighborhoods at night, just fine, but not in really dense ones.  We need to start pricing the stickers differently by in different neighborhoods, according to market demand.

  • Tony Kelly

    OK, so this article is clear that ‘RPP zones alone aren’t enough to manage demand,’ and ‘RPP is generally ineffective, by itself.’  that’s pretty clear.

    but that isn’t my proposal, is it?
    so what, exactly, is the point of the article?

    MTA data shows that the parking congestion in the Mission isn’t caused by cars registered in the Mission.  (only 16% of the cars typically parked during the day are from zip code 94110.)  and in fact, my proposal has more meters, and more managed parking spaces, than any MTA proposal for the Northeast Mission.  so what is with the phobia about Mission residents suddenly bringing out all their hidden cars and swamping a new RPP zone?  that’s a bit absurd.

    if you are interested in changing RPP citywide, happy to talk, have at it.  but that is also a different conversation than the proposal published yesterday.

    anyone can talk to me directly about this stuff at

  • I definitely agree that RPP should be priced according to neighborhood density, even if it takes going all the way to the Supreme Court. (It was mentioned in the post above that California’s law might be due to a Supreme Court decision? Mind-boggling, if true. I would hate to think even the Supreme Court is involved in protecting free parking over the health and congestion benefits of low car ownership in cities.)

    I would point out that Nob Hill and Russian Hill are two of the densest, wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire country. Very hard to get those folks not to own cars, although if RPP were close to market rate it would help. In the Mission, $104, though also too low, will have a great deal more effect. The Mission is also a great deal less dense. 

    In my neighborhood the RPP extends to 9pm which means that folks who are gone during the day still have to join to park in the evenings. Something the city could do to make living in neighborhoods with RPP permits easier is to allow those registered in the program to purchase one-day guest permits ($15–pricey enough to make you think twice) on line rather than have to show up in person or transact by mail. Also their price for a two week guest permit ($35) is way too cheap and invites abuse. It should really be at least $10 a day.

    Many years ago, when the RPP was first instituted in my neighborhood and I was invited to sign a petition requesting it I said, “No way!! Why would I want to tax myself to park on the street?”  But since it’s been implemented, I’ve seen many benefits that people may not realize. 
    1) No strange, junky cars are abandoned on the street collecting dozens of tickets for six months before they are finally towed away. If any appear (and almost none do anymore) they get towed away much faster now.
    2) My neighbors really have over time reduced the number of cars owned per adult. Not everybody, but especially the younger ones have only one car per family.
    3) It really has stopped people parking in our neighborhood and then taking Muni to work. I wouldn’t say we had a ton of that before, but there was some.
    4) My neighbors with garages actually use them to park cars because there is economic value in doing so.Two exceptions, my recently deceased elderly neighbor who had no car his entire life (but didn’t rent out his garage, a source of mystery because he could’ve used the money), and us–we have a double garage and use one side to park 7 bikes.
    5) Only two neighbors have trophy cars parked in their garages that they almost never use. Both of them got these cars before the RPP went in. Without the RPP I’m pretty sure there would be more seldom-used trophy cars in garages with the often-used cars parked on the street.

    It is true the RPP is a hassle when guests from out of town visit.

    I have friends who used to live in Brookline near Boston. Brookline allows no parking on the street longer than 2 hours and no parking on the street at all between 2am and 6am. Everyone with a vehicle in the neighborhood pays for some kind of off street space to park. This hasn’t kept people from living in Brookline. In fact, it’s a highly desired place to live.

    What I truly don’t get is why the MTA thought putting in meters would be more popular and receive less pushback than instituting a mandatory RPP zone. To most San Franciscans meters couldn’t be anymore an instrument of the devil if you stamped each one with a cloven hoof.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Tony Kelly’s moderate proposal seems like it would be politically feasible and would have most of the benefits of meters without permit parking. 

    Jeff Tumlin’s objections don’t make sense:

    — RPP zones alone aren’t enough to manage demand. 
    Yes, but the proposal here is not for an RPP zone alone. It is for an RPP zone plus meters.

    — “If we let residents park in every commercial space, then it would
    greatly restrict the ability for the commercial and entertainment users
    to create the availability that they need,”
    The obvious solution is to allow RPP parking on residential streets, but not on commercial streets. With signage, it should be easy for residents to get the point that they cannot park in front of businesses unless they pay the meter.

  • Michael Morris

    Jacob Lynn – Parking permit streets generally require a parking permit between the hours of 9-5 m-f, otherwise anyone can park there. And I assume the RPP spots are still subject to the 72 hour rule, but not positive.

  • I guess it depends on what is defined as “commerical” and what is defined as “mixed use.” If residents were not able to park 24/7 for free in truly commercial areas, if the entire Mission District were turned into RPP zones, then yes, residents could get a free pass on parking in the mixed use areas. But they should pay going meter rate for commercial spots. (The original proposal really does seem as if residents could park for free in commercial areas as well as mixed use. If that were the case, you might as well not have meters anywhere at all.)

    I agree it would be easy enough to delineate “commercial” from “mixed use” with street signs and stickers on the parking meters. But then the battle will become which blocks are deemed commercial enough to require commercial (everybody pays) meters and which are not.

    For neighborhood residential parking, RPP is a better pricing tool than meters. You pay it once a year, it’s clear, you can plan and make decisions based on it. Meters are for forcing turnover more than setting a stable, expected price on 365 days/year parking. If the issue is the RPP is too low, that is what needs to be fixed with the state legislature rather than coming up with ingenious, tortuous work-arounds.The state needs to stop handcuffing San Francisco from doing what makes sense in a dense city because legislators from the suburbs find paying for street parking unimaginable.

  • Tony Kelly

    The SFBC questionnaire was … a questionnaire, and there was no discussion of parking management on it.  There was also no discussion of parking management in District 10 at the time, so it wasn’t a public issue.  

    I stand by all my answers on the SFBC questionnaire today, and my comments about how we need to reduce car impacts in the City are more true than ever.  I see no conflict between my SFBC questionnaire answers and my proposal to manage parking in the Mission, in fact I am proposing more meters and more managed parking spaces than the MTA.

  • mikesonn

    “There was also no discussion of parking management in District 10 at the time”

    And there is your problem.

  • Tony Kelly

    Exactly right.

  • A few more thoughts after staring at the current RPP map.  The proposed NE Mission RPP zone (at least in the map presented in the Chronicle) is far too small. It needs to extend at least to Potrero Ave or all the parking will just go into the non-RPP areas and make those absolute parking hells. (Again, to really reduce parking congestion, the entire northeast quadrant of the city should be RPP.) Also, the gaps in the I and W zones (and between the I and W zones) need to become RPP or those folks are going to be in a world of hurt.

    And then I have to wonder why have mixed use areas at all? Just allow any business or commercial entity (even non-profits), if they request it, to have commercial parking along the entire frontage of their building enforced during their hours of operation. Seems fair enough.To get buy in from the neighborhood, mandate that half of all parking meter revenue collected in each zone be spent in that zone, on projects to be decided by citizens of that zone. There will be a lot less grief all around.

  • vcs

    Murph — you are onto something. I used to be quite lax about updating my DMV info until I moved into a RPP area.

  • mikesonn

    @twitter-14678929:disqus you nailed it. They want status quo, the $100/yr is nothing compared to extra $100/mo for insurance rates.

  • Zrants

    Somebody is confused about a few things. Here we will just bring up one. At the meeting with SFMTA, ENUF asked about the type of meters they are planning to install and they said there are no plans to install anything other than the new meters. In fact if you follow the media you may have read that SFMTA plans to replace all the od meters with new meters. There is an upcoming contact to purchase new meters to do just that.

  • mikesonn


  • Zrants = Sebra Leaves = Mari Eliza

  • Anonymous

    That’s how it was in Boston… just about every neighborhood has an RPP and if you’re not registered there, no permit for you.

  • sebraleaves

    Tumlin was fired by the city of Santa Monica. Not sure we want to continue listening him and putting our faith in Nelson/Nygaard if they are responsible for the current state of traffic and parking in San Francisco. If their theories were accurate we should have no trouble parking in the neighborhoods they are “improved” so far. According to their claims we are a model city:

  • SFMTA has put out their updated proposal which includes both metered parking and unmetered RPP parking. I am guessing they’ll end up increasing the amount of RPP so it’s half the available curb parking. The map is very nice and lists most of the businesses in the area. It strikes me that what this conflict is really about is different than the surface meme of mean city bureaucrats making residents pay so small businesses have room for customers. It’s really about residents with cars who want free parking versus large businesses in the area with lots of employees who want free parking versus, well, everyone who would much prefer a park in the area to a parking lot. I would bet the large area employers–PG&E, UCSF, Comcast, (even, ahem, MUNI itself) are leaning heavily on the SFMTA for a solution that allocates them some curb space. Which is why the SFMTA is not going to entirely back down on the meters that will free up spaces every morning for these businesses.

    Now, having these employees pay for parking (even if it only works out to $4 a day) is a good thing! This starts making a $72 monthly Muni pass attractive. Quite a few will stop driving and choose another mode of transport instead. And PG&E and may very well feel they have as much right to the curbs surrounding their several blocks of real estate in the area as anyone who lives there. The people in the neighborhood who don’t even own cars will benefit from fewer induced drivers in the neighborhood. It is also in their best interest to encourage as many current car owners to go car-free as possible to improve air quality, reduce noise levels, and reduce their own risk of being hit by a car. There are other issues: the neighborhood is a carshare desert, the neighborhood would be perfect for bikeshare, the unsavoryness of the 16th/MIssion Bart plaza area induces driving from suburbs, etc.

    My letter about all these to the SFMTA (too long to post here): “Battle of the Curb”

  • Ian Turner

    Do you have a citation for this bit: “State law prohibits cities from charging more for permits than the costs to run the program”?


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