Free Parking Forever: Motorhead Group Wants to “Restore Balance” in SF

Won’t somebody think of the cars? Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

The vast majority of San Francisco’s street space is devoted primarily to moving and storing cars, and most of that curbside parking for private automobiles is given away for free. Most of the city’s street infrastructure is not paid for by fees related to driving, so it is disproportionately bankrolled by those who don’t drive, through general taxes. By any objective measure, the state of affairs on San Francisco’s streets is heavily tilted toward cars and designed to incur minimal personal cost to drivers.

At least, that goes for those of us here in the reality-based community. Then there’s the alternate reality espoused by one group, calling itself the “Free the Streets Coalition,” who believe the city’s streets are too unfriendly to cars. The “coalition” of undisclosed size has filed a ballot initiative with the city seeking to “restore transportation balance in San Francisco.” Chief among the group’s proposals is permanently enshrining existing free parking hours, prohibiting new parking meters except by petition, and encouraging the creation of new parking garages.

The group has only released the names of three organizers — Jason Clark, who ran on the Republican ticket for State Assembly in 2012; Claire Zvanski, the former president of the Health Service System Board; and David Looman, a political consultant.

These folks don’t see the SFMTA Board’s recent reversion of Sunday parking metering at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee as a sign of how motorist entitlement already holds sway at City Hall. Instead, they see the fact that the policy was instituted in the first place as a sign that motorists are a persecuted group. The status quo of free parking giveaways cannot be impinged upon — not even a bit.

“We hope to repeal Sunday parking meters forever, not just as a gimmick to encourage motorists to support higher taxes and fees this November and in future elections,” the group said in a sheet sent out to the media.

Free the Streets, they write, is “a group of passionate San Franciscans who want to ensure our streets are safe, well maintained, and efficient to use for everybody.” Here’s their definition of “transportation balance”:

We achieve transportation balance when pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and transit riders all can share the roads safely and efficiently. When a parent with small children is able to drive to the store, park nearby, and get their shopping done with a minimum of hassle. When commuters are able to board a Muni train, street car, or bus and know it will get them to their destination on time. When pedestrians know if they follow the signals they will be safe crossing an intersection. When bicyclists are able to navigate our streets in a way that gets them to their destination quickly and safely. When disabled individuals don’t have to leave two hours before a doctor’s appointment because they cannot rely on Muni to get them there or are concerned there will not be a parking space close enough to the office.

Well that all sounds good. So does free ice cream for everybody. But what does this vision have to do with free and abundant car parking? Keeping curbside parking free or underpriced just makes it harder for people who are driving to find an open spot, which leads drivers to circle around distractedly in search of a spot, creating congestion that impedes transit and other drivers. And adding more garages just means there’s less space for useful human habitat — things like housing, stores, and workplaces. In the real world, this makes it harder to walk and bike places, while generating more car traffic that clogs the streets and slows down everybody — including people who drive.

But in the world this group inhabits, it’s as if most of the 20th century in San Francisco wasn’t marked by a massive re-allocation of space to automobiles, leaving the legacy of slow transit and dangerous streets that we’re still living with today. And what of the barely-implemented Transit-First Policy, approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1973 and re-affirmed by voters in 1999 with the addition of pedestrians and bicyclists? Free the Streets acknowledges the policy, but says it “has morphed into one that favors only public transportation and bicycles.”

The group would have to collect 9,702 valid signatures by July 7 for their initiative to qualify for the ballot this November. “We anticipate surpassing that number,” they said.

Read the group’s full Q&A here [DOCX], and the text of the ballot initiative here [DOCX].

  • Jesse

    Their Ballot Initiative – “Traffic laws should be enforced equally for everyone using San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks.” How many distracted and fast walking pedestrians killed and maimed people last year again?

  • BBnet3000

    You would think the Republican guy would have at least taken an Intro to Economics class.

    Parking space at the curbside is finite, even if we use all of our curb space for that (which generally we do). San Francisco is dense. If the parent with small children is able to drive to the store and park nearby, theyre going to have to pay for it.

    Meanwhile, people with kids in The Netherlands just load them on the bike and ride to the store, or walk to the store because its nearby.

  • BBnet3000

    People who say things like that dont really understand how policing works. Its all based on discretion and priorities. If we wanted to enforce every law all the time to the fullest extent, we’d need a full second police force, if not a third.

    Pretty sure a lot of people wouldnt like the Big Brother effect that would result anyway.

  • Joel

    One has to wonder if Ed Lee & Co. got wind of this initiative earlier, and tried to dissuade these people by preemptively ending Sunday meters. It would be quite unfortunate if that were the case.

  • Yet another example of why direct democracy is a terrible idea. Why haven’t we learned our lesson yet?

  • Guest

    Too bad we can’t build a time machine and send them (and their cars) back to the 1950s.

  • BBnet3000

    Indeed. As the saying goes, representative democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

  • Justin

    They call themselves “Free the Streets Coalition,” when they should really be called “Clog the Streets Coalition”

  • Bruce Halperin

    If this ballot measure passes, what’s the difference?

  • Bruce Halperin

    Just more proof that pandering to the car-first-and-only crowd doesn’t work. Thanks, Mayor Lee!

  • omn

    What intersection is that picture from? 4th and what? Looks great.

  • GC

    Howard, I think.

  • Yup.

  • GC

    Here’s the part where beneficiaries of social largesse act like persecuted victims as they perceive a threat to their special treatment.

  • New Yorker

    What clowns.

  • sforick

    So we should leave democracy to minority special interest lobbyists like the bicycle coalition?

  • deuce_sluice

    Ugh. And I’d be shocked if it didn’t pass.

  • murphstahoe

    You don’t want the bike coalition to have any power, you should have gotten Rob Anderson elected. You had you chance.

  • murphstahoe

    What’s amusing is that in an off year election, this might just be the amusing sort of ballot measure that cranks up turnout in San Francisco, to the benefit of any random Democratic-ish state ballot measures.

    A real conspiracy theorist would postulate that Lee himself is behind this in order to rouse up “the base” for the MUNI related ballot measures.

  • Government has to be open to compromise for everyone’s “special” interests. Inevitably these interests change over time and the government has to respond.

    The way we’ve implemented direct democracy results in untouchable laws. It’s not a sensible way to govern, this being yet another example.

  • The obvious solution to the problem of constrained enforcement resources is to have fewer laws.

  • jd_x

    False choice. The other option would be a little thing called representative democracy. The idea is that you vote for the leaders and that’s it. You then let them make the policy decisions. The average person who has a day job and hence doesn’t have the time to do enough research to make an informed decision, as well as often having little interest in being rational and open-minded, should not be deciding policy. If we then don’t like how the leaders performed once we elected them and let them “loose”, then you don’t elect them again next time.

    Direct democracy, or hyper democracy, becomes a clusterf*ck because everybody, most of who have no interest in truly understanding the issues, gets to have a say. And that’s just inane when it comes to the details of government. You elect the leader, and then stay out of it.

  • maaaty

    True that. Though if we did “free the streets,”‘ wouldn’t they rise up and leave, after so many years of trampling. Goodbye, streets! Welcome back, pastoral ideal.

  • Chris J.

    Any idea how that picture was taken? It looks like it’s in the middle of the street above the elevation of the traffic lights.

  • Chris J.

    Oh, right. There’s a pedestrian bridge at Yerba Buena.

  • andrelot

    And do elected representatives spend a lot of time thinking of issues? The real face of politics is that fundraising, photo-ops and other activities that merely boost chances of another re-election take far more time than deep reading or meeting with specialists for day-long discussions…

  • Bruce Halperin

    The best way to combat this might be with a competing ballot measure reaffirming Transit First and bringing the SFMTA’s budget for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects to higher than a pittance.

  • gregm123456


  • LAifer

    How about rather than ensuring free housing for all the cars instead having a ballot measure that ensured free housing for all the people? I’m sure some folks could get behind that one.

  • mike_napolis_beard

    Yet another example of feelings trumping facts. Tea Party West. Sad to see this type of majority-feigning-underdog-status-to-push-extremist-agendas (see Texas Board of Education) crap being pulled in a city many of us thought was better than this.

    Also, just noticed that the media contact is a Republican – not a surprise, but I am continually surprised at how conservatives are opposed to market-based parking pricing.

    Edit 2: More sleuthing reveals that the measure is coming from here:

  • This may be a more dangerous development than we think. Put your finger to the winds, and you may sense they are blowing in an ominous direction. By this, I mean that there seems to be a groundswell of opposition (misguided, but opposition nonetheless) to changes in the streetscape away from livability and mode share and back to auto supremacy.

    Look at the actions of our politicians: Chiu — MIA on ped/bike improvements for Polk and now on Columbus. Lee — Reversing Sunday metering, with the SFMTA board agreeing and even Supes like Wiener going mute on the issue. These people read the sentiment early and tack accordingly, and I’m telling you there’s something of a storm brewing here.

    Agree with @brucehalperin:disqus that a competing ballot measure is in order.

  • Michael Morris

    Who’s willing to give up their house so they can construct neighborhood parking garages?

  • Jeffrey Baker

    If you recall 2007, there was the ultra-reactionary Prop H from galactic jackass Don Fisher, which would have largely gutted the city’s planning code and allowed as much parking as anyone cared to build. The “competing ballot measure” Prop A was unfortunately just a giveaway written by transit union boosters. The funds from Prop A were supposed to make the TEP happen but lo, and behold, seven years later where has all the money gone? It’s just been expropriated to pay for random MTA operating costs.

    So I, for one, do not welcome a competing ballot measure.

  • yermom72

    Apparently you are unaware that calling them “motorhead” makes them sound cooler than they are. Motorhead rocks!

  • djconnel

    I was in a Starbucks 35 minutes yesterday after missing a train. The entire time the same group of 3 uniformed cops were standing outside chatting. Apparently “discretion and priorities” tilts towards caffeinated beverage.

  • murphstahoe

    That would have provided an interesting test. Ride down the sidewalk on your bike and see if that is a higher priority than coffee

  • murphstahoe

    These guys need to get their signatures, and then they need to raise money to campaign for their measure. Let them sink in their own crap.

  • Michael Smith

    This silly proposition won’t pass even if it gets on the ballot. But the increased pro-car anti-transit rhetoric will most likely cause the much need transportation bond and VLF props to go down in flames. It has been a huge mistake to encourage the free parking folks with removing Sunday meters and such.

  • Sprague

    I agree. If anything, Mayor Lee’s initiative to repeal Sunday meters (backed by the MTA Board’s rubber stamp) has emboldened the non-objective car-first crowd.

  • djconnel

    The usual approach is to get a similar, mutually exclusive ballot measure and split the vote. Maybe just go straight to free ice cream with an exclusion clause.

  • jd_x

    Sure, we have many problems with our elected officials because so much money is involved, especially at the federal level. Representative democracy is still the right tool, but they way we’ve implemented indeed has problems, no doubt. But the solution is certainly not to say we need every single person to think their opinion matters when they know nothing of the issue. At the end of the day, I have much more faith in an elected official who is usually forced to hear all sides of the debate than emotionally-charged individuals.

  • Prinzrob

    It’s only cool with an umlaut: Motörhead

  • mike_napolis_beard

    I’m surprised new freeway construction isn’t on their list of demands.

  • SFnative74

    Which frame do folks want?

  • @disqus_BqcFgCmZDL:disqus you hit the nail on the head that something like this could cause the transpo initiatives to go down.

    But don’t be so sanguine about the prospects of such a backward proposition — look at Prop 13, which everyone knew would destroy public institutions such as public schools and the UC system, but passed nonetheless. Look at the damage that far-out prop has done, and imagine it happening on our streets.

    I don’t think we should be complacent.

  • yermom72

    I salute your ability to create fancy lettering on the internets.

  • @sforick – Why make up a position that nobody wrote and stick the word “So” in front of it and a “?” at the end?

    In fact the establishment of the SFMTA and our current transit-first policy was solidly affirmed by voters. There was a well-funded attempt to gut it by sweatshop billionaire (and SUV enthusiast) Don Fisher, and voters rejected that.

  • murphstahoe

    Trick question – Lemmy is God.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Prop H went down in defeat, even with Billionaire Fisher’s lavish spending. This one will lose too. I think.

  • Jamison Wieser

    We only recently did strengthen the transit first language, and set priorities (1-5 are Muni focussed) with the Prop A charter amendment. Setting the right mission and goals isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of follow through to make them happen.


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