SF Chronicle Regurgitates Misinformation From the Free Parking Crowd

Does this parking lot in the Fillmore reflect a more “balanced” SF in the eyes of op-ed writer Bill Bowen? Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SF Chronicle printed an op-ed this weekend, written by the Republican-backed group that aims to “restore balance” on San Francisco’s streets. And by “balance,” they mean enshrining a status quo where cars, not people, get the lion’s share of the public streets, in the form of more pavement and more traffic.

Unfortunately, the Chronicle didn’t seem to have a problem reprinting the misinformation that plagues the column, which was written by right-wing author Bill Bowen. Given that the Chronicle failed to challenge, or even “balance,” Bowen’s unfounded claims and factual errors, we thought we’d clear some things up.

Transportation policy has been set by the agency’s governing board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. By law, a majority must be regular riders of Muni.

The loudest voices? The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and those who envision a “car-free” city, despite the fact that 79 percent of households have a motor vehicle and nearly half of those commuting to work do so by car.

This is a misleading and hyperbolic way to misrepresent policies aimed at giving San Franciscans better alternatives to owning cars. Another way to look at car ownership stats: 37.1 percent of households own only one car, so 58 percent of households own one or zero cars. Despite having a solid car-light majority, San Francisco already devotes most of its street space to moving and parking cars — mostly for free — and furthermore has long mandated off-street parking with every new building even while demonstrable shortages exist of many other land uses (notably housing). Meanwhile, most of those cars stand still most of the time: only 36.6 percent of San Franciscans drive alone to work, with most accomplishing their daily tasks by foot, transit, or bike.

The assertion that the SF Bicycle Coalition is responsible for the SFMTA’s shift away from car-centric policies might be flattering to the organization, but SFBC doesn’t call for a “car-free city.” Instead, they sensibly advocate safer streets, to make bicycling a safe and comfortable option for more residents and more trips.

The failed effort to dissuade people from using cars falls into two categories:

Don’t build it and they won’t come: With San Francisco growing by 10,000 residents per year, the strategy is to force people out of cars by making parking impossible. Where construction codes once required a developer to provide at least one parking space per apartment, new apartment building often offer far fewer. Thousands of parking spaces have been eliminated as new buildings rise on empty lots. Bicycle lanes now take an increased portion of the streets. No new public parking lots have been built in nearly 20 years. New proposals would dedicate 1,000 existing parking spaces to ride-share vehicles and “parklets.”

Actually, a guaranteed parking space is a huge artificial incentive for residents to own and drive cars, even when they otherwise wouldn’t. This was confirmed by research published in 2012 by University of Pennsylvania planning professor Rachel Weinberger, who compared three New York city boroughs developed with different amounts of off-street parking.

The research “demonstrates a clear relationship between increased access to guaranteed parking at home and a propensity to drive to work in the Manhattan Core,” Weinberger wrote, as Streetsblog reported after it was released. “Off-street parking correlates to driving to work both indirectly by its contribution to car ownership and directly by easing car use.”

In other words, if a home comes with a parking space, its residents will feel inclined to use it. And providing that parking reduces the supply and raises the cost of housing. In neighborhoods where residents can use their unwanted parking space for storage, they often do: A study found that half of residential garages in the Mission were used for storage, not to park cars, thus defeating the requirement’s purpose.

It’s not as if there’s some natural amount of parking spaces that cities must build to satiate demand. Building forever more parking to chase that unattainable goal of “enough parking” comes at great cost. On the other hand, reserving spots for car-share (which we assume Bowen means when he refers to “ride-share” spots) reduces parking demand by a factor of about 13 to one, which any advocate of parking availability should be loudly cheering. And Bowen tosses parklets into the list of “forcible” evils, even though they’re requested by merchants who think the sliver of street space fronting their shop can serve a higher use than car storage.

Make car ownership so expensive that most residents will give up the convenience: Rates for city-owned parking garages, parking meters, residential parking permits and parking tickets have all had double-digit increases. There was a move – which will be temporarily suspended – to begin Sunday parking meter enforcement. “Peak-demand period” meter rates were introduced. The transit agency has called for tripling the vehicle license fee charged by the state by adding a city surcharge in order to raise another $100 million per year from motorists. Fees on cars exceed user fares as a source of funding for the public transit system. Some of this cost for motorists is just the normal behavior of an inefficient agency; some of it is social engineering.

Where to start? Under SFpark, the SFMTA has actually dropped its garage parking rates to as low as $1 an hour to help fill up its underutilized spaces. Overall, SFpark has decreased rates by 1 percent, while saving drivers countless hours trying to find open parking spots, all through the “social engineering” of market pricing. Residential parking permits still only cost $109 per year, or just 30 cents per day. All in all, 90 percent of SF’s 441,950 public parking spaces — longer than the U.S. west coast — remain free, not “expensive,” to use at all hours.

Lastly, Bowen doesn’t explain his strange mention of the Sunday parking meter repeal being “temporary,” but I surmise it reflects his group’s delusional view that the free parking crowd somehow doesn’t hold sway at City Hall. “At the moment, Mayor Ed Lee does not support the VLF surcharge. Both it and Sunday parking meters will be back,” he wrote. Could SF really be so fortunate?

  • Lee Ross

    The Chronicle NEVER changes. It may be ‘hip’ when it comes to ‘life style’ issues. But when City Hall and Money converge the Chron will always be ‘Right’ up there with Big Business. Small wonder that this total shill Willie Brown is given space to pontificate his nonsense every Sunday.

  • Fran Taylor

    The best quote from author Bowen’s website:

    “Bill’s political inspiration comes from William F. Buckley Jr., Melvin Laird, and Condoleezza Rice.”

    Streetsblog readers too young to have endured the war-mongering, race-baiting, delusional, Constitution-shredding Nixon administration (old age has mellowed my venom toward Tricky Dick — words would have been much harsher in 1970) might not recognize Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense during the invasion of Cambodia, prolongation of Vietnam War, and carpet bombing of Laos. Condi Rice and her imaginary mushroom cloud smoking gun in Iraq should be familiar to all. At least the pompous Buckley didn’t have blood on his hands.

  • Interesting how “free market” conservatives are so attached to a subsidy.

  • Marxist libertarians. Weird!

  • I think the cars first crowd senses an opportunity, and why not?: Chiu backs down on Polk; Lee backs down on Sunday Meters (then, not surprisingly, Reiskin toes the line; Google buses get the mimes all riled up — so the frenzy-whipping propaganda machine of Sebra Leaves, sfparkripoff (Rob Francis), and Rob Anderson (who now seems to be posting as “ramajora” whatever that means) is in overdrive, likely buoyed by some sap of a Republican donor, and their chosen target is bicycles and bicycle infrastructure.

    I honestly don’t know how this will turn out, but I sense a certain groundswell of opposition, and they’re using the SFBC as their bogeyman, leveraging the frustration people feel about congestion and parking as their wedge.

    The question is, why? These people are political hacks. They don’t just do this stuff for no reason. If we follow the money, who stands to gain here? I just don’t get it. The oil and car companies wouldn’t be orchestrating this, so who is?

  • Pretty typical, actually. Car subsidy is always exempt, by one rationalization or another.

  • murphstahoe

    Parking garage construction companies.

  • From my end, the main problem with the Chron (and pretty much every other paper, aside from the NYT and a few others) is that they take an issue, get opinions from two opposing factions, and call it a day. For example: so what if 97% of scientists believe in climate change? Print the pro and the con and say it’s “balanced.”

    This likely isn’t going to get better in the age of newspaper budget/staffing reductions, but I hope reporting/forums like Streetsblog will continue to help!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    See also: “High speed rail is socialism!” billboards along I-5, a real honest example of actual socialism.

  • Sometimes hatred of dirty hippies is just hatred of dirty hippies. I mean bicyclists or whatever.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Shouldn’t parking garage construction companies support efforts to cut back on free city-sponsored competition?

  • RoyTT

    Aren’t you massaging the statistics yourself though? If 37% of households own one car and 58% own one or zero cars, then it follows that 21% have zero cars. And that 42% have two or more cars. That in turn means that 79% of SF households have at least one car, or almost four out of five.

    You are calling that situation a “solid car-light majority”. Yet almost 80% of SF households have a car. Isn’t that the real solid majority that the Chronicle is attempting to target here?

  • I’m a dirty hippy trapped in a businessman’s body.

  • True. If they build a new “neighborhood garage” in each district, that’s some substantial money. Now, should we put that five-story garage next to Fredricksen’s? How about next to Humphrey Slocum? Ah — we can drop that in right across from Caffe Trieste in my neighborhood…I’m sure everyone will be OK with that.

    I say “No Walls in Our Neighborhoods!”

  • murphstahoe

    In the US, a household that has only one car is car-lite to the point of Euro-crazy. Considering that households include situations where 3 techies making $100k+ are living together, etc….

  • Guest

    I’m confused by this sentence: “Another way to look at car ownership stats: 37.1 percent of households
    own only one car, so 58 percent of households own one or zero cars.” Did you mean to say: Another way to look at car ownership stats: 37.1 percent of households
    own only one car, AND 58 percent of households own one or zero cars.?

  • 94103er

    Not in total disagreement, but I find the ‘who stands to gain’ question very easy to answer–why, themselves, of course! There’s nothing that triggers the reptilian brain (or crazy brain? you decide) so keenly as one’s own free, personal parking spot, and you just try to wrest that out of their cold, dead hands–they’ll want to pass it down to their kids!

    In Rob Anderson’s case, given that the guy allegedly doesn’t drive, we can just call him a bitter nihilist who wants the city to age and crumble into a smog-choked oblivion.

  • He seems to have a personal grudge against “bike people” (his term). AKA dirty hippies 😉

  • 94103er

    It’s important to separate out these stats–and in addition, it’s not all that helpful to look at outdated numbers unless we’re considering rates of change. I’m willing to bet there was a substantial bump in households becoming car-lite or car-free in the last five months alone, given the astonishing jump in car-sharing, ride-sharing, electric-scooting, making-hailing-a-taxi-less-shitty services.

    There’s still a hole in the puzzle which could bump up those numbers more: More convenient and competitively priced weekend-long car rentals. That’s what’s keeping our money-wasting carbon machine in our garage for now.

  • drooling_sheep

    79% of households have at least one car.
    Therefore 21% of households have no cars.
    37% of households have exactly one car.
    Therefore 21 + 37 = 58% of households have one or zero cars.

    The assumption being that households have more than one person, so those with more people than cars likely use another mode of transportation at least some of the time.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I rent from Hertz to take weekend trips. It’s actually easier for the whole weekend since they are closed Sundays. I pick it up Saturday morning, bring the car back Monday morning and it sometimes costs as little as $15 a day (not including gas) and at most costs 35-40 a day. Renting a car and gas for one weekend a month would still cost less than renting a garage space at my apartment…

    As for households becoming car-light or car free I’m not so sure the statistics support that. I was comparing SFMTA survey data from past years and the level of car ownership appeared to be increasing. I would guess because there’s more money slushing around. I’m not sure, but it is unfortunate. I would love links to updated data though if anyone has them, I had trouble finding it again the last time I looked.

  • It’s called the fallacy of the middle ground, a rhetorical staple of lazy journalism.

  • Hey guys, I’d actually like to ask that folks hold off from unnecessarily focusing specifically on Rob or any one such person in a similar situation. He’s actually been banned from commenting and can’t respond, so it’s only fair. Besides, it’s probably best not to conjure his presence into our psyche any more than needed…

  • Dave Moore

    I’m sure households with 7 cars use another mode of transportation (walking) at least some of the time. But I still see no reason to call every one of the 37.1 percent of households with one car “light”. Many of those households have exactly one person. So it’s likely not even a “solid majority”, by this very vague standard.

  • murphstahoe

    Average household size in SF – 2.3

  • Dave Moore

    That doesn’t say anything about the size of households with one car. For the 58 percent of households number to be in any way accurate every house with a single car has to have more than one person in it, which is clearly not the case

  • Just a motorist

    The motorists in this city are just now waking up to what SFMTA is doing as we see the cumulative impact of its poor policies. We want real transit like New York, based on fast subways not buses. We want real bicycle infrastructure with parallel streets dedicated to bicycles and resident traffic only. We want safe streets for all. Mixing cars, buses, trucks, and bicycles on ever narrowing streets is unsafe. We want transportation that works for the elderly, the disabled, families with children, not just the single young and healthy. We want streets that work for our emergency response vehicles. And, yes, cars and trucks are part of a true multimodal transportation system. The city recognizes the need to balance the rhetoric – watch the Mayor’s on-line budget meeting and note his delay in the VLF. To date, motorists have had no voice. All the noise that has receives city’s attention is from a small but vocal minority of special interest groups. As a motorist and a Democrat I support the transportation balance initiative as a way to start a dialog with the city.


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