Parking Shared Cars Instead of Private Cars Isn’t Exactly “Privatization”

A flyer distributed in the Lower Haight recently made the absurd argument that converting private car parking into car-share parking is “privatization.” Photo: Amy Stephenson/Hoodline

The SFMTA’s endeavor to reserve on-street car parking spaces for car-share vehicles has yielded complaints from some car owners who, ironically, decry the “privatization” of space currently used to store private cars.

These folks don’t seem to acknowledge the extensive research showing that each car-share vehicle replaces, on average, nine to 13 privately-owned cars. They should be embracing the arrival of a program that provides a convenient alternative to car ownership, allowing some of their neighbors to sell infrequently used cars, and ultimately make more parking available.

An on-street car-share parking spot in SoMa. Photo: Andy Thornley/Flickr

But the greater point that some folks seem to be missing is this: No use of public street space is more “private” than dedicated storage of private individuals’ automobiles. To decry converting comparatively few of these spaces to welcome a much more efficient form of auto storage — making each space useful for dozens of people, rather than one or two — is absurd.

Yet that’s what Calvin and Michelle Welch argue, in flyers they distributed that protest two on-street car-share spaces in the Lower Haight, as Hoodline recently reported. “It would privatize a shared, currently free, scarce public resource making it available only to paid members of a car share program,” the Welches wrote. (It’s worth noting that Calvin Welch is a longtime activist who opposes the construction of new market-rate housing.)

Our societal blind spot tends to make it easy to forget that the vast majority of street space has been given over to moving and storing cars, many of them owned and used by just one person each. San Francisco’s 275,450 on-street parking spaces would stretch, lined end-to-end, longer than the California coastline. Ninety percent of this prime real estate is free to use at all times of day.

The privatization of the streets already happened in the early part of the last century. Today, there is no private use of public space more widespread than free car storage.

On the other hand, each of the 12 on-street car-share spots that exist in SF today are paid for with car-share member fees, and serve 20 individual users on average. Some serve 40. It’s hard to imagine that any free street parking spot turns over more than a few times a day. Car-owning neighbors regularly leave angry notes on cars that sit longer than the legally-allowed 72 hours.

Those stats are from Brent O’Brien of the non-profit City CarShare, which spearheaded the on-street car-share pilot program with the SFMTA. City CarShare is one of three organizations which will get parking spaces in the program. The organizations will pay between $50 to $225 per month to use spaces that car owners currently pay nothing for.

Most of the users surveyed who use the 12 on-street spots say that, without nearby car-share access, they would probably buy their own cars, O’Brien told the SFMTA Board of Directors at a meeting this week.

Bill Bowen, a right-wing author and proponent of the “Restore Transportation Balance” ballot initiative, told the SFMTA Board that his coalition sees the program as “losing 450 spaces, with no thought about how to add that back anywhere.” (The SFMTA is currently moving forward with 450 car-share spaces, the first half of the 900 planned.)

“Many of our members feel it’s inappropriate to rent public space, which is much in demand and much-needed, to private companies,” Bowen said.

Public space is much needed? No doubt about that. Unfortunately, huge swaths of it have been given over to car parking, in its most private and least efficient form. San Franciscans have recognized this and embraced the conversion of parking spaces into parklets, which are paid for by their hosts. Speaking of which: Bowen is apparently unaware that fees are also paid to rent public space for uses like loading zones, film locations, and festivals.

Several members of the SFMTA Board identified themselves as car-share users, including Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman, who said she doesn’t own a vehicle. She pointed out that the assertion that only private car owners have the right to use curb space dismisses those who go car-free, to the benefit of the greater public. And, she noted, San Francisco’s curbs are already plagued with driveways which give garage owners free and exclusive use of curb space.

“Even if you don’t own a car, every citizen has the right to use that curb space,” said Brinkman. “Anything that we can do to help people live in this city without owning a personal car is a win for all of us. Whether we own a car, rent a car, bike, walk, or take a bus, fewer cars is a good thing.”

The next batch of 36 on-street car-share parking locations is up for preliminary approval at an SFMTA engineering hearing tomorrow at 10 a.m. at City Hall. You can voice your support for spots on the agenda in person or by emailing sustainable.streets@sfmta.com. See the latest edition of the map of 450 proposed car-share spaces [PDF] on the SFMTA website.

  • murphstahoe

    There is no rationality to it. This is simply “I personally won’t use car share so I am going to throw up as much FUD to beat it because I don’t benefit from it”. It’s a classic and usually correct tactic, and the response should be to ignore this group (that will never give support) and work on getting turnout from those who directly benefit, and convincing those who don’t have such a knee jerk reaction to consider the possibility that the program will actually have a net positive indirect benefit to someone who is opposed to personally using car share.

    And nothing is more FUD than harkening to words like “Privatization” – even if we have the irony that most of the RTB crowd would probably vote to privatize MUNI.

  • Justin

    “Do you support the city’s proposal to to give two parking places on Page St to private car sharing companies?” Sounds pretty good to me. I don’t seem to see the problem with that. Removing two parking spaces is just seriously a drop in the bucket.

  • “Private” is the wrong scare word to use here. Are they trying to imply that the city should run a municipal car share program instead?

  • Megan Gee

    It is impossible to find parking around there, should you ever have a car. But if you were using car share (which most people in SF really should) then it’s no problem!

  • vcs

    There are certainly divergent messages around this. CityCarShare presents itself as local co-op organically-grown Priuses. Meanwhile ZipCar is Avis’ Wall Street play into this market.

    Someone could read this as SFMTA supporting the collective good, or SFMTA supporting Big Business Reagan-style Privatization. And they would both be somewhat right.

    In any case, I’m happy for this program because with all the gas stations around here being redeveloped for housing, the car share companies will still have less spots than they started with.

  • Dave Moore

    There’s a pretty clear difference between space that’s available to any person with a car and space that’s been dedicated to a private and potentially for profit company, even if it’s in service of people who then pay for it. Maybe these parking spots aren’t “public” since they are used by private citizens with cars, but is that really all that different from someone putting a blanket down in a public park for a picnic? They’ve claimed that public space for personal use for a limited period of time. In this case the parking space (and parklets) are clearly underpriced, as demonstrated by how quick people are to sign up for them. We ought to find a way to price them such that the people who use them are paying in an equitable way, be it though paid parking, residential parking permits, parklets or companies leasing them. It’s more a question of machinery. How do we make it so it’s easy to park on the street and pay for it? The SFPark meters seem like a starting point but they should somehow be combined with the RPP program so it’s straight-forward to pay without risk of penalty. Then the tradeoff to the city will be more clear when considering converting those spaces to other uses.

  • murphstahoe

    they should somehow be combined with the RPP program so it’s straight-forward to pay without risk of penalty

    I’m down with that. Sacramento is not.

  • Dave Moore

    It would be interesting to find out what a street spot is worth on the open market. I don’t think there’s an easy way as the city isn’t allow to charge more than the amount necessary to pay for management of the program, which even with all the games they play is wildly low. Of course merchants want parklets at those prices. They get space that’s more usable by their customers than anyone else for dirt cheap. And of course car share services want them. It’s cheaper than leasing them from businesses. If all the space was for pay we’d figure out pretty quickly what the value was. Paying for curb cuts or RPP or space by the hour, day, week or year all seems totally reasonable as long as the system to do so makes sense and is applied even handedly across all users.

  • murphstahoe

    There are probably many leased, specific, off-street but “non-secure”, non-covered spots out there to survey. There are definitely plenty of garage spots to survey.

    In addition to car share services wanting street spots instead of leasing them from businesses because of price, a spot on a residential street is closer to their customers than a spot in a business. That makes the car sharing services more viable, and more popular. The city has a defined interest in achieving that goal, which I assert saves the city money (that’s obviously a complicated equation – fewer cars = less DMV fees, fewer parking tickets, but less infrastructure costs to support those cars).

  • murphstahoe

    If this argument is valid, isn’t the argument valid for Bike Share docks as well?

  • @vcs – City CarShare is dedicated to the proposition that one needs a car to be both “wicked sexy” and “crunchy green,” according to their ad at the Civic Center BART/Muni station. I guess people using public transit are unattractive and sprayed with pesticides.

    I do look forward to the day when the Arco station is knocked down and replaced with housing for toxic celibates.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Maybe not because Bike Share isn’t a private company even if it’s contracted out to a private company? This gets so complicated so fast. All I know is losing 1-2 spots within a multi block area to something that will benefit multiple people is both evil socialism and extreme privatization.

  • Odd that the affordable housing advocate Calvin Welch is opposing this. CarShare provides low-cost access to a safe, well-maintained vehicle, whereas private automobile ownership is one of the greatest expenses and hassles lower-income people face. I remember being young and broke, and yet spending precious dollars to keep my old rust bucket running (plus parking tickets — ouch!) because I “needed” it.

  • I think I dated a toxic celibate once. Maybe twice.

  • murphstahoe

    I shudder – was living in Cambridge and when my rust bucket was dying, I “just bought a new car” and drained my bank account that had been growing rapidly because I didn’t have a car payment. There was a train from Cambridge to Maynard – a short bike ride from my job – and a vanpool from there direct to my office. Living in Cambridge a car wasn’t a huge need, I took the T everywhere except work or random road trips (that rental cars would have done the trick). That 20k or so would probably be 200k now, having been spent on real estate in Boston or SF. Was that car really worth 200k?

  • Messenger451

    Contrary to what the editor learned in his rhetoric classes, “privatization” is the right word. The city is semi-permanently transferring the use rights for this public property to a private entity, in this case for the purposes of making profit by running a car share company. That’s privatization, which is fundamentally different from the swapping one temporary private use for another when residents park on the street surface. Good or bad, it’s something categorically different.

  • bikelashed

    I attended the hearing on this last week (one of the spots is near my apartment) and it was SF planning writ small. Probably forty people came out to speak against the proposal. Half of them were backlashers who felt like cars don’t have enough space on our roads. The other half were the “liberals” who are all for car share…just not on their block. The subsidy argument came up several times, but no one noticed that they, themselves, are getting a subsidy that non-car owners do not receive. Even if they pay for a residential parking permit, that’s only $0.30 a day!

    I hope the SFMTA approves this pilot project, but if they listen to with the squeaky wheel it’s going to go down in flames. I strongly recommend carshare members and supporters email your support for this pilot or take the time to speak in favor of it.

  • bikelashed

    One of the city employees at the hearing last week seriously suggested a municipal car share as the best possible outcome (but that it wasn’t going to happen). I disagree, if municipal car share is run anything like the municipal railroad they’d probably buy a fleet of unmaintained 1972 Ford Pintos.

  • yermom72

    Streetsblog can be pretty clueless sometimes. A space that is available to the public, being given over to the control of a private company, is a serious issue. In the case of parking spots for car-sharing, it depends on the car-sharing service’s relationship to the city. If we’re talking about for-profit companies then that would be a form of enclosure of publicly owned space for private gain.

  • coolbabybookworm

    The space would still be available to the public through the services. This is like saying you can’t have a farmers market in a plaza because you want to stand where the produce stand is and they are a business, but ignoring the fact that they’re bringing a service to the area. This pilot program is another use for that public space that opens up private car storage to people who don’t own a car as well as increasing mobility. Sounds great to me, as someone who could use more car sharing in my neighborhood since there isn’t any right now.

  • yermom72

    But access would be controlled by a private, for-profit entity. You might as well let car rental companies park their cars along the streets for free.

    BTW, in any of these scenarios, you still end up with a line of parked cars filling part of the street.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Rental car companies as well as auto body shops and tow shops already park their cars along the streets for free so that nightmare scenario has already come to pass.

    Access to many things, such as electricity, gas, garbage, construction, phone service, housing, internet, etc. is controlled by private, for-profit companies. Just because the company is private doesn’t mean that this is bad, although I am generally against privatization and monopolization of essential services. Also worth noting, City car share is not a for-profit company, although the other two companies are.

    You’re right, this doesn’t remove parking from the streets, but it does enable more people to access a car when they need it and the potential to get rid of a car that they under use or cannot afford. That will make parking easier for everyone in the long run.

  • gneiss

    The city is *not* given these spaces away. The car share companies are paying a monthly fee for using these spaces and they are providing a service that anyone in the public can use. As has been said above, it is no different then letting people use parking spaces for parklets or loading zones that are correspondingly paid for by private entities.

  • Russell Blank

    Why should the city subsidize car ownership by housing individuals private property (their car) with public resources (land)? That seems to me a more pernicious example of extreme privatization and evil socialism.

  • 94103er

    Dude, turn on your sarcasm detector.

  • 94103er

    Cars for rent parked on the street?!? What the hell would be wrong with that? Can someone send those over to my neighborhood?

  • Russell Blank

    I think you’re confusing me with the other Lebowski.

    If “All I know is losing 1-2 spots within a multi block area to something that will benefit multiple people is both evil socialism and extreme privatization.” is an example of sarcasm… someone needs to work on their sarcasm before they apply for that job with The Onion.

  • Just like every loading zone in front of every business, private school, etc.

  • Ah, love the loading zone mention.

  • jd_x

    And come to think of it, how is charging a private company for street parking any different than privatizing land buy letting people buy houses? Space used to park cars has nothing to do with letting people travel down roads (which is a public right). It is purely storage of private property, just like a garage (or even the rest of a house for that matter). Yet you have to pay for a garage but somehow we give that space away for free or vastly subsidized when it’s on the road.

    You want to store your private property (car)? Pay for it! Just like we do for *everything* else: clothes, appliances, books, guitars, hiking gear, boxes of old crap, furniture, computers, etc., etc. As a society, we have agreed that you should have to pay for space to store all your stuff … except a car. How does that make any rational sense, and how can anybody defend that?

    And, for this reason, we don’t complain when people buy houses because now that land isn’t available to the public. Why should it be any different on the part of the road that is purely used for storage? This whole idea is so convoluted that I’m amazed people can actually sit here and argue about it.

    And that’s not even getting into the idea that car share has been shown to reduce the amount of cars owned which has a net positive benefit for increasing parking availability.

  • coolbabybookworm

    It wasn’t sarcasm per say, more mocking of people protesting this by showing the logical acrobatics that need to be made to be against expanding car share access. If you re-read the quotation of mine that you posted, it states that something that will benefit many people, at small cost, is both socialism and privatization (opposite of socialism). It’s neither.

  • KillMoto

    Sounds like street parking is worth $50 to $225 per month. Charge all users that much (to be fair of course) and there will be plenty of spots for car share…

  • yermom72

    This is part of the distinction I was pointing out in the first post, that City CarShare (for example) is not the same as Avis.

  • yermom72

    Nevertheless, that is how enclosure (or privatization) works. It starts with space or resource being taken out of public hands into private. The trouble is, it gets hard to get it back once this happens.

  • yermom72

    “And come to think of it, how is charging a private company for street
    parking any different than privatizing land buy letting people buy
    houses?”

    You’re on the right track with that. As a wise man once said, “property is theft”…

  • jd_x

    Okay, if that’s how you feel, then you’re on the wrong website. You’re issue isn’t with converting street parking into car share places but with the whole idea of private property. That’s an issue way too large for this forum.

  • coolbabybookworm

    If private car parking is the hill you choose to die on in an anti-private property stance then you do you, but I think cars and car dependency are much more closely tied to capitalism and private property than a few companies, with city regulation, operating with potentially a few hundred reserved on-street parking spaces.

  • Andy Chow

    So what is inherently wrong for being a private, for-profit provider? Are they assuming that because it is a private, for-profit, they’re more likely to cut corners or rip people off? I don’t see a Greyhound bus to be less safe than a Muni bus. I don’t see flight attendants working for a for-profit airlines to have less concern for their passengers safety than a Muni driver.

    Part of the reasons why some services are mostly provided directly by government employees is politics. In some areas they are provided by private contractors or directly for private companies without a degradation of quality (and in cases may be even better service). As for car sharing, there are more than one company around and having some level of competition help keep cost reasonable and good service quality.

  • yermom72

    Really, the argument here was about whether this would in fact count as “privatization” like the flyer said. And it does.

  • yermom72

    But that really is part of the point, that as far as saving the environment goes, “cars and capitalism” are part of the problem, not the solution.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Calvin used to be a progressive. Now he wants to advantage the wealthiest 70% at the expense of the poorer 30% that don’t own cars. I am betting that he owns a car and doesn’t want to lose his perqs.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I disagree, it’s not privatization, it’s improving access. People without cars, previously excluded from using car parking spaces and who you have not addressed once, will be able to access this public resource even though it’s through a private contractor. Public agencies are unable to provide the car-sharing capacity that these companies can offer and therefore it’s private companies offering the service.

  • coolbabybookworm

    A+ trolling. To start with “Streetsblog can be pretty clueless sometimes” and ending with an anti-all-cars stance in defense of private parking.

  • I think you have perceived and described the situation accurately. Even old hippies gain a sense of entitlement when it comes to parking their cars.

  • yermom72

    You don’t seem to be arguing that it is not privatization, just that you support it. It is privatization. That was the point I was making.

  • coolbabybookworm

    If the city had a car sharing department being sold to Avis that would be privatization. That the city is allowing a company to use city streets to expand mobility access is not privatization. If the city was letting a private company sell public parking then that would be privatization. Just because a company is involved doesn’t make it privatization, even if you don’t like it.

  • yermom72

    It’s about a part of the public street being put in the control of a private, for-profit corporation.

    I’m against it, in particular because I think it’s a slippery slope.

    You’re for it, but for some reason you resist recognizing that it is in fact a form of privatization.

    Oh well then!

  • coolbabybookworm

    If the streets were actually public then I would feel differently, but we’re talking about private car storage, not public right of way. You still haven’t addressed that 30% of the population doesn’t even own a car. This is like being against public bathrooms that are operated by a private company. If there’s not a public option and it increases public services then how is it privatization? Why don’t you protest Recology’s monopoly contract or Ed Lee’s actions on behalf of PG&E?

  • yermom72

    But if you want to get private car storage off the streets, you should be trying to replace it with something else. Rental cars are still a “private” use of the space, and once you give away public space like that, it is difficult to get it back. You are focused on a short term gain, and not thinking about the potential long term effects this kind of shift to private entities controlling street space could have.

  • coolbabybookworm

    This is a pilot so it’s not even set in stone as you seem to think it is, this isn’t like when San Francisco bought permanent water rights in the Sierras for one price. I am thinking about the long term impacts of this and that’s a big reason why I support it. If you really cared about getting private car storage off the streets you would too.

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