Supes Farrell and Cohen Have Yet to Grasp Why Free Parking Hurts SF

Mark Farrell and Malia Cohen emerged as the most vocal proponents of free car parking on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at a hearing on parking meters last week. Farrell called the hearing in February based on an admittedly “unfounded” suspicion that the SF Municipal Transportation Agency was planning to install parking meters in District 2, which he represents.

Supervisors Mark Farrell and Malia Cohen: Misguided champions for free parking.

Despite the traffic dysfunction caused by free parking, which leads motorists to cruise fruitlessly in search of an open space, Cohen made her anti-parking meter stance clear at the introduction of the hearing. “I’m looking forward to, possibly, [SFMTA Director] Ed Reiskin saying, ‘I quit, you won, we’re not going to be doing parking meters,'” she said, eliciting applause from an audience composed mostly of the city’s usual stable of free parking activists.

Electeds like Farrell and Cohen still see parking as an entitlement for drivers, and tend to resist any effort to encroach on that entitlement. Based on what they said at the hearing, they believe the amount of driving is fixed, and that the demand for car parking is a natural force that must be accommodated, not managed to achieve goals like traffic reduction, transit efficiency, and street safety. They say they won’t tolerate parking reform unless Muni is first improved to their standards. (Oddly, we never seem to hear these folks actually push for more Muni funding, or call for safer streets for walking and biking.)

Meanwhile, the SFMTA’s SFPark program has enjoyed broad political support where it has replaced existing parking meters with smart meters. Those meters adjust prices to demand throughout the day to keep about one parking space open on every block and provide multiple payment options. Prices have dropped about as often as they’ve been raised, so SFPark has actually saved motorists money and reduced citations.

While supervisors and the mayor have gotten behind SFPark as a symbol of San Francisco’s innovation, that’s not the case when it comes to converting free parking spaces to SFPark meters — even in neighborhoods like the northeast Mission, where drivers circle around endlessly for spots on weekday mornings.

At the hearing, Farrell and Cohen waved the flag for the camp that insists San Franciscans shouldn’t pay for car storage. “What do you do first: Do you make public transportation so attractive that people will voluntarily choose to abandon their cars, or leave them at home, and take public transportation?” said Farrell. “Or do you make it so challenging and frustrating to drive a car, with increased parking rates and what have you, that people are — this is extreme, but — coerced out of their cars? I think I hear from a lot of folks that it’s the latter, not the former.”

The problem with that assertion is that free parking is itself a subsidy that leads more people to drive, creating a traffic-clogged street environment that degrades transit service and makes bicycling unpleasant. That only further coerces people into cars. So while it’s clear that Muni, walking, and biking conditions do need to be improved, continuing to give away in-demand parking spaces for free only perpetuates the vicious cycle.

“We have a charter mandate to” manage parking, said Reiskin. “It would be irresponsible of us to do otherwise.”

When drivers can’t find spot, they circle around or double park, delaying Muni and endangering people walking and biking. Photo: Aaron Bialick

For decades, the city didn’t pursue this mandate — its parking policy was to keep prices low despite rising demand, and it’s the system that most, like Farrell and Cohen, have become used to. “At least two generations of transportation planners worked to convince everyone that parking demand and auto trips are inelastic, and demand is unaffected by price or availability,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City. “Now folks like Ed are trying to convince us that parking works like pretty much everything else.”

For those who truly need to drive the most, Reiskin pointed out that charging for parking according to demand is the best way to ensure it’s readily available for them. If the SFMTA charges some fee to rent prime parking spots, people who don’t absolutely need to drive or own a car are more likely to consider other options. In addition, those who do need to drive will be less likely to occupy their spot all day, opening it up for use by others.

“I do believe that we can accommodate many more trips by modes other than automobile,” said Reiskin, “so that when people do need to drive in a car, they can get to where they’re going and they can park their car.”

Cohen and Farrell have acknowledged that parking meters are good for retail businesses, as they increase turnover for customers, but insist that they don’t belong on streets that don’t have retail. But whether there’s retail or not, free parking in neighborhoods where spaces are saturated will still clog streets with drivers circling for spots. It hurts those neighborhoods and there’s no reason to perpetuate that dysfunction. Unfortunately, state law forces the SFMTA to keep parking permits ridiculously cheap, and the city gives them out in unlimited numbers, so meters are currently the only effective way to manage demand for street parking.

SF’s free parking warriors all in one place: (Left to right) Robert Francis, creator of ##, ## Eliza## of ##, Chris Provan of ## Polk Sreet##, Howard Chabner, who ## over the Fell and Oak safety improvements##, and Michael Pappas, director of the SF Interfaith Council, who ## Sunday meters##. Images: SFGovTV

Unsurprisingly, the cast of speakers at the hearing’s public comment period consisted of a group of familiar foes of the SFMTA’s recent efforts to remove or charge for parking — from ENUF, to church leaders who fought Sunday meters, to Save Polk Street. Their consistent message was that driving and free parking are essential to family life and commerce in the city.

But the insistence that San Franciscans don’t have the option of driving less, or can’t pay as little as 50 cents an hour to rent a slice of prime real estate, is farcical in a city where 70 percent of households own one or zero cars and 30 percent are fully car-free, while 97 percent of downtown driving is done by people with household incomes of more than $50,000 per year.

As D9 Supervisor David Campos, who has mostly taken a neutral position on the expansion of parking meters in the northeast Mission, pointed out: “There are a number of families for whom driving a car may not be an option, financially… who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford to buy a car and can’t actually use anything other than Muni.”

So far, no supervisor has had the courage to vocally support more parking meters. Supervisor Eric Mar, who noted that he’s a “big supporter of our transit-first policy,” did say he thinks “a lot of the planning that’s gone on by really smart and wise people within the MTA should be looked at as not a threat to neighborhoods, but a starting point to be able to find some common ground.”

San Franciscans need leaders willing to say that the status quo of free parking, which induces traffic and benefits a disproportionately wealthy segment of the population, has hurt the city for far too long. But it won’t end until elected officials like Cohen and Farrell drop the outmoded pandering and instead stand behind progressive efforts like SFPark — even when it feels politically risky.

  • Great column!

  • Anonymous

    This may be a crazy idea, but what if the SFMTA did a pilot program where they didn’t enforce meters for a month, citywide? Effectively there would be no meters in the city. If it turns out that everybody loves it, great! My guess, however, is that before that month was over there would be editorials in every paper demanding that parking meters be reinstated, but there’s only one way to know for sure.

    It’s possible that, without meters, people would drive less since they wouldn’t want to give up their parking spot for fear of never getting it back 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Why not incentivize parking meters by giving property owners a cut of the revenue generated by the meter in front of their property? Send them a check once a year for 0.005 of every dollar. People would be clamoring to have a meter in front of their homes!

  • mikesonn

    Because it is a public space or did you forget?

  • Anonymous

    Property owners pay for the sidewalk upkeep and street trees in the public space in front of their homes and businesses. Think of it as a tax break.

  • A contract they entered into willingly.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing is voluntary when the coercive power of the state is involved.

  • Anonymous

    “Do you make public transportation so attractive that people will voluntarily choose to abandon their cars… and take public transportation?” said Farrell. “Or do you make it so challenging…that people are… coerced out of their cars?”

    How does this guy not understand that creating attractive and efficient public transit inherently means removing parking and traffic lanes. It’s not a “chicken or egg” choice, it’s more like the egg (reduced parking) is an ingredient in a chicken pot pie (efficient transit) we are making.

    Also, lots of people have already been “coerced” out of their cars, they are the ones biking, walking, and busing around the city already. If you are just starting to experience this reality then lucky you. Stop whining about it as though your problems are unique, and instead try helping to make the city a better place for all the biking, walking, and busing you will inevitably have to start doing.

  • Brilliant!
    SFMTA might not be able to convince the Port of SF to join in, but screw them, they’ve charged on Sunday for years, they can be the foil.

  • John Stechschulte

    Returning a fraction of the income to the local property owners is a very small price to pay to make the policy more politically viable, even if it’s not perfectly fair. At the very least, some or all of the profit from the meters should be spent in the neighborhood where it’s gathered.

    The classic example for this is Old Town Pasadena in LA. Parking revenue is used to maintain the sidewalks and provide other improvements since meters were installed in 1993, which has been done with the full support of local businesses.

  • Mario Tanev

    If SFMTA were to find replacement for the funding stemming from meters, I wouldn’t be opposed. Perhaps SFMTA can then enforce a no-circling rule, where those circling will be given a ticket on site. That will probably discourage a fair bit of driving.

  • Mario Tanev

    To be fair, a lot of parking removal lately has been in favor of bicycle projects (Fell/Oak, 17th St, the talked about Polk St project). Those people don’t view bicycling as a real mode of transportation. It’s SFMTA’s fault for not removing parking in favor of transit improvements. If it did, it would be a lot harder for those people to claim SFMTA should be trying to focus on Muni, and that it’s doing nothing to improve it. That is possibly coming due to the TEP and it’ll get really interesting.

  • Anonymous

    So then how about citations in that neighborhood? Should the money from these go to that neighborhood? Or how about money from RPPs? What makes meters unique so that they should be treated differently?

    The answer: nothing. To start saying all money has to localized to a neighborhood is insane. We all live in the same city and we should start acting like it. It’s ridiculous that we all pretend like each neighborhood lives in isolation from all others.

  • Homeowners already have an incentive to support meters in front of their house. It means they can charge more when they rent out the spot in their garage that isn’t filled with their own bicycles.

  • I don’t care how many parking spaces Polk St. has. Would I drive there? Heck no! The spots would all be taken, so a lot of good that would do me. Actually, I’d just park in the nearby garage. A lot of the clamor for parking is really just people who are allergic to paying for it.

    “They took away 3 spots on this block. Boo hoo!”
    “The garage 1 block away is empty.”
    “Ew, I’d have to pay for that. I have principles!”

  • TomF

    If there was no parking meter there when that contract was entered into, then one can argue a different case.

    At minimum, if a parking meter appears outside my home, I should at least be exempted from having to feed it by, say, having a residents’ parking permit.

  • Anonymous

    Hear, hear!

  • Anonymous

    I have a friend with this exact sentiment. He’s usually late when we meet up for movies because he’s looking for parking (never mind that for the theaters downtown BART is quicker from his house than driving anyway). I recently convinced him to use the Embarcadero Center garage for a packed show at the Embarcadero– turns out he didn’t even need to pay since the theater validated!

  • What we have here is two kinds of foolishness, one from the supervisor representing the richest folks in the city and one from the supervisor representing the poorest.

    Let’s take Farrell first, the supervisor for the Marina, Presidio, Presidio Heights, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff. It seems obvious that his wealthy voter base wants to protect car privilege. They own a lot of cars! They have no access to Bart or Muni light rail. They may walk some, but rarely take Muni or bike. They drive a lot.

    But these folks are really, really, really, really (lets add a couple more really’s in comparison to most of the US) wealthy. They can afford to pay for parking without a second thought. They just don’t like to. But these folks (and Supervisor Farrell) are being penny-wise and pound foolish. They are not thinking the issue through. The only way these folks don’t have access to parking is if it is free or too cheap–then other people fill it up! If parking is priced even moderately, then other people will take transit, walk or bike. This will reduce congestion when they drive! They will get where they are going faster! And the parking will be available when they want it. Most of these folks value their time at a rate far above $100 per hour, and yet they want to spend an extra twenty minutes in traffic and hunting for parking so they can avoid $3 in meters? If these people had a brain in their head, they would be begging the city for as much transit, bicycle infrastructure and costly parking as possible. It would make their lives in a congested city quickly growing in density immensely easier.

    And by encouraging biking and walking through their own neighborhoods and shopping districts, they might find they and their neighbors actually kind of enjoy walking and biking short distances. After all, a lot of these folks work out with their personal trainers and are in good shape. They will find that increased walking and biking in their neighborhood will make their neighborhood more pleasant for them, safer for their children, and improve their property values.

    Now let’s turn to his polar opposite, Supervisor Cohen. With the exception of the north face of Potrero Hill, she represents the poorest part of the city and the part with poorest transit options. It is cut off from the rest of the city by freeways. Biking is dangerous. Car ownership levels are not high here and yet most households hang onto one car by the skin of their teeth because so few other options exist.

    And yet median income is so low, the cost of car ownership is an immense strain. This will only get worse. These households are likely spending a quarter of their income on transportation. Fighting to preserve these folk’s ability to own and operate cars is a losing battle. Car ownership levels and gasoline purchase in the US per capita are dropping. This will continue. Though it’s true that being priced out of gasoline and car ownership is happening abroad first (Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Egypt), in the US people with median incomes below $40K are going to be priced out of gasoline and car ownership before anyone else. Hanging onto a car-dependent way of life is a guarantee of poverty for these folks. And they will end up losing the car anyway.

    Supervisor Cohen should be doing everything in her power to make it possible for these people to live well without a car, through better access to transit, safe walking and safe bikeways. This is the time to make deals: increase parking meters in the city only if access to transit, safe walking and safe bikeways in District 10 improves by 30% and every person in District 10 has a safe way to get back and forth downtown in less than 30 minutes from 4 am until midnight. Protecting car-privilege in the city can only hurt her constituency and ensure District 10 will continue to be ignored in terms of sustainable transportation. As the city grows denser and more and more people compete for limited space, who is going to get the parking–people from District 2 or District 10? Cohen is foolish, foolish, foolish.

    And for both Farrell and Cohen, if they have further political ambitions, they are reading the electorate tea leaves wrong. As baby boomers die off in San Francisco and non-car-owning millennials take their place, advocating for car privilege now will disqualify for them for higher office after 2015. (Unless, perhaps, Farrell moves to Marin.)

  • Anonymous

    You got the supervisors mixed up. Mar represents D1 (Richmond) Farrell represents D2 (Marina, etc). Otherwise great analysis as usual.

  • The contract entered into was maintainance of the sidewalk. The street in front of your house is *NOT* your property.

  • SFMTA uses that money to keep the fare for MUNI at $2. Buses that run through neighborhoods and are used by people that live in them.

  • It’s amusing how allergic people can be to paying for parking (which would save them time by making parking so much more available) but the toll lanes on 237 are wildly popular to people willing to pay more to escape traffic and save time.

  • Realized this (with horror) about 2 seconds after I posted. Thanks goodness for Disqus edit function.

  • Ryan Brady

    What is this, Monopoly?

  • Jake Wegmann

    But it’s politically savvy. It creates a brand new constituency in favor of parking pricing and blunts the opposition from the group of people most likely to fight it. It changes the dynamic — no amount of people like us going on and on about sustainable cities and so forth is going to do that. I think that it’s very, very difficult, maybe impossible, politically to take goodies away from people, especially in a city with as many entitled people as SF.

    P_chazz’s idea is essentially what Donald Shoup recommends, although he recommends pooling a cut of the parking revenue and then spending it on items that improve the neighborhood. How ’bout undergrounding some utility lines or planting some trees?

  • dat

    If only we had space in our garage that WASN’T filled with bicycles…

  • Jake Wegmann

    One more thought: you can try to fight the fact that homeowners feel some degree of control and ownership over what happens in the parking spaces in front of their house and on their street. But you will lose. Even in progressive SF, homeowners are the most powerful political force there is.

    As for me, I’d rather get some good policies done rather than be a purist.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a big difference in reinvesting parking meter funds into the city’s transportation budget and giving it to residents. The latter not only doesn’t improve transportation, it advances the belief that the residents have ownership of the street in front of their homes.

  • John Stechschulte

    I’m not saying it’s fair or right. I’m saying it’s politically expedient, and will lead to better parking policy throughout the city sooner. You’ll have people clamoring to get SFpark in their neighborhood, so that their sidewalks can be repaired and cleaned and their electric lines can be put underground etc.

    Also, parking in some areas is in high demand because the local businesses are very successful at attracting customers. If their parking rates are going to be higher because they’re successful, maybe it *is* fair for some of that revenue to stay in the neighborhood.

  • mikesonn


  • Anonymous

    What SF are you talking about? The SF I live in is composed of mostly renters and the areas where there are more homeowners are not really commercial mixed-use areas being considered for expanding parking meters. What would it matter if my landlord (who lives in Oakland) were to get some money from a meter that was installed in front of our building? Do you think he cares about a few hundred a year from the meter when the total rent he’s getting from the building is likely $100,000+? He doesn’t even get to vote in SF elections.

    I think there are benefits to getting driver buy in with keeping the money invested in that area, but since SF is a rather small city, I think the argument to invest the money city wide makes more sense. If the money was being used in Livermore it’d be a different story.

  • Anonymous

    Just saying something is politically expedient or good policy doesn’t make it so. Assuming that property/home owners (kind of different) are the most powerful political force in SF shows how little you’ve been involved in politics here.

  • John Stechschulte

    So, the original poster suggested that some of the money be returned to local property owners. That’s not quite what I’m in favor of. What I favor is spending a portion of the parking revenue on well-defined local projects like repairing and cleaning sidewalks, planting street trees, burying power lines, funding extra police presence, etc.

    Even better, define neighborhood groups who get to determine how their share of parking revenue will be spent in their neighborhood. Many cities already have neighborhood improvement districts. Use parking revenue to build community and build infrastructure.

    It’s the residents who benefit, not the property owners.

    The idea is not that the property owners also own their streets and should get a cut of the revenue, but that the person who chooses to store their vehicle in a particular neighborhood should contribute to the upkeep of that neighborhood.

  • What I favor is spending a portion of the parking revenue on
    well-defined local projects like repairing and cleaning sidewalks,
    planting street trees, burying power lines, funding extra police
    presence, etc.

    This concept was part of the discussion on evening metering, and the opponents of metering summarily dismissed it.

  • mikesonn

    Can’t reason with people who don’t want to reason.

  • The idea that SFMTA would take actions based on the result of a study is pretty funny.

  • John Stechschulte

    That doesn’t surprise me–they’ve already crystallized on their position, and I don’t expect them to be willing to compromise.

    It’s not the angry extreme who shows up at hearings who needs to be won over. It’s the vast middle who might lean one way or the other, but is open to reason.

    Besides, SFpark is already running in some areas. If some form of local benefits were implemented in those areas, eventually the results might speak for themselves.

  • voltairesmistress

    The supervisors’ false populism may be heart-felt but it is ignorant. I see no alternative to combatting it except reference to factual studies backed up by vocal constituents who have come to understand economics of parking and street design. It will be a slow but steady change in attitudes. Would help greatly if we could make significant progress in funding tep and viable transit, because drivers rightly see the transit alternative as more irksome than driving and parking.

  • Anonymous

    Not actually — the city put in the trees and then years later decided it wasn’t going to maintain them.

  • Anonymous

    That’s why you buy them off by cutting them in on a share of the revenue stream.

  • Anonymous

    It’s no use. This group would rather moralize and feel superior than get creative and actually accomplish something.

  • On the other hand you have people waiting on the sides of freeway to wait a couple of minutes to cross the bridge and save $2.

    The traditional progressive thought is that the society shouldn’t be nickel and dime people. So charging for parking is a conservative thought. On the same line, would you support getting rid of the fast pass and instead Muni deduct each fare for each boarding from Clipper (assuming that the one way fare would be lowered to offset the loss of pass)? That way people no longer have to rush to buy a pass each month and can save money by not riding Muni some of the times.

  • mikesonn

    That makes no sense at all.

  • The fact is that most politically liberal/progressive folks drive and that many will not buy the “market based” (politically conservative) sentiment towards automobiles. In fact if given a serious choice (like building a subway line to deliver fast transit with little to no sacrifice to auto access and capacity), they will choose building a subway because it doesn’t require any sacrifice and it would bring jobs, jobs, jobs.

  • they will choose building a subway because it doesn’t require any sacrifice

    Then they are complete idiots, to not understand that the subway (or freeway or bay bridge) is paid for with their tax dollars. Which is par for the course. The only thing that is apparently paid for with tax dollars is “things I don’t like” whereas “things I like” are paid for with magic fairy dust.

  • voltairesmistress

    This would be great on Polk Street and surrounding streets. They are hostile to the SFMTA. See how much the merchants like catering to car-bound customers then when left to an unregulated environment.

  • In the Bay Area most of us are pretty comfortable raising taxes for a lot of things. Sometimes taxes fail but more often than not they pass.

    I do not agree with the idea of spending a lot of money to get things done (that’s why I advocate for Caltrain and against BART expansions). But the general mindset for voters is that unless the project causes some serious impact on them (like original high speed rail through Peninsula), spending and building more is fine.

    In a more political conservative areas, transit spending will get more scrutiny but highway expansion will still get the pass.

  • Sometimes taxes fail but more often than not they pass.

    Would you like to give a citation? Doubtful – as your assertion is patently false.


    My feeling is that unless there’s some sort of self control (which I don’t think there will be), the cities and local authorities eventually will have such a high tax rate that there would be some kind of Prop 13 revolt. Right now voters are passing taxes 1/2 cent here and a quarter cent there but they add up. Once the cities and local authorities are out of their budget hole in a couple of years I think the sentiment will change.


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