The mobility of space

Pub date June 30, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

Jason Henderson is standing on Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, shielding his eyes from the midsummer sun, as he explains how this area, which once lay in the shadowy underbelly of the Central Freeway, was reclaimed as a pedestrian-friendly park.

"In 1989 the freeway went all the way to Turk Street," said Henderson, an assistant professor of geography at San Francisco State University, describing how the raised concrete roadbed, built in the 1950s, cut across this neighborhood and blocked the sky — until the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and damaged the final section so badly it had to be torn down.

That natural disaster triggered a public discussion about the use of the surrounding space, and a 15-year fight that culminated in 2005 in the dedication of the Green, which is part of the Octavia Boulevard Project. Neighbors and business owners pushed the city to convert a damaged freeway into a landscaped park.

That sort of change fascinates Henderson. "I am interested in how people move around cities, and how urban space is configured for movement," he said.

The young professor was raised in New Orleans and wrote his dissertation on transportation and land use debates in Atlanta — which, as Henderson notes, is "the poster child for sprawl but became a hotbed in the ’90s of a national discourse about how we should grow, which became this very interesting debate about reurbanizing."

Henderson’s research focuses on the politics of mobility. He decided to move to San Francisco in 2003 because he saw it as an opportunity to live in a city where a car is not necessary and to study the history of the city’s freeway revolt, which began in the 1960s.

And while he is proud of this park, which was dedicated as Hayes Green then renamed for the late Patricia Walkup, a Hayes Valley resident who tirelessly advocated for the park until her death in 2006, Henderson thinks the local politics of parking have reached "a spatial stalemate."

"During the freeway revolt of the 1960s, San Francisco rejected the freeway but not the automobile," Henderson explained. "But even as San Francisco residents decided that they did not want big gashes of freeway through their waterfront, the Marina, and Golden Gate Park, the city continued to have laws that said every housing unit was to have one parking space.

"So the city adopted a transit-first policy on paper, but didn’t take space away from cars. And if you don’t do anything, you’re not solving the problem."

The problem in San Francisco is what he called the "essentializing of cars."

"A core idea within the parking debate is that there is a universal love affair with the automobile," Henderson explained. "But Obama is downsizing GM and Chrysler, and for the first time since 1960, vehicle miles traveled have started to go down. Until last year, the mantra was that Americans are going to drive. But then we found out that at $4 a gallon, this country freaks out and changes."

Earlier this year, Henderson published a paper that analyzes the city’s politics of parking through the lens of two ballot initiatives from the November 2007 San Francisco election.

"San Francisco’s parking debate is not just about parking. It is a contest over how the city should be configured and organized, and for whom," Henderson wrote in his paper, titled "The Spaces of Parking: Mapping the Politics of Mobility in San Francisco."

His research led him to conclude that progressives, who want to make the city more bike- and public-transportion friendly, are pitted against the more conservative elements (he calls them neoconservatives), who want to increase space for parking and cars at all costs, with the moderate (or in his words, "neoliberal") factions tangled in between.

Part of Henderson’s critique involves estimating the hidden costs of parking — and as it turns out, that can be done using Google and Craiglist. According to a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2008 fact sheet, there are an estimated 320,000 on-street parking spaces in San Francisco, including metered spaces, each consuming, on average, about 160 square feet.

According to a 2002 presentation by Jeffery Tumlin, a national transportation consultant, if the city rented these spaces for the lowball rate of $1,000 a year, San Francisco would rake in $320 million annually.

There would be no shortage of demand — market prices are way higher. Henderson’s review of Craiglist unearthed folks who looking to rent parking spaces in San Francisco and willing to pay from $100 to $500 a month.

But SFMTA — which issues more than 89,000 residential parking permits annually and recently opted to cut Muni service and routes and increase fares on public transit rather than extend parking meter hours to balance its budget shortfall — decided to increase the cost of these parking permits, starting July 1, by only $2, from $72 to $74 — per year. That’s less than 10 percent of market value.

The resulting revenue will be dedicated to the cost of administrating the program — not to offset the hidden costs of parking, which include carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution, congestion, and occupying valuable space.

Henderson is intrigued by the relationship between parking policy and a complex set of factors that include public health, obesity, and the cost of affordable housing. He notes that if a city’s housing policy requires developers to provide a parking space for each housing unit, too often developers don’t build that housing, or build it smaller, or build it as part of a luxury complex.

"The progressive response to this dilemma is to try to get government to eliminate the one parking-space-per-unit goal and cap the total amount of parking built. Meanwhile, the neocons, who believe government should be active in creating more parking, rail against more bus lanes," Henderson said.

As he notes, common to both groups is the desire for government to help them achieve their vision.

"Much as we see San Francisco as a progressive place, it’s also peopled by neoliberals and very conservative folks — and progressive and neoliberals coalesce on the issue of ‘smart growth.’ And there are lot of progressives who have a car and say, ‘I don’t want to be car dependent; I’d like to do city share, but I’d feel stranded.’ And those who say ‘I always want to have my own car, but I only drive it once a month.’"

Conceding that "tweaking the system" will cost money, Henderson cites congestion pricing as an area where the various factions can find agreement.

"The important question is, what will the revenue be used for?" Henderson said, noting that some will argue that if you charge motorists to use roads, then the money should be used to improve the roads, which is what has happened with toll roads in Texas.

But in San Francisco, activist are pushing the opposite approach. "Whereas the sustainable transportation movement in San Francisco wants to use the revenue from congestion pricing to fix Muni and discourage driving," he continued.

In his paper on parking policy, Henderson details exactly how parking allocations push up the price of housing — and change the face of ongoing developments.

A typical off-road parking space takes up 350 square feet when room to move in and out is factored in — and that’s comparable to many offices and living spaces in San Francisco. The parking alone costs $50,000 to $100,000 to develop — a cost that’s passed on to the homebuyer.

But in most neighborhoods, developers can’t avoid parking, because of planning laws. "This means that neighborhoods like the iconic North Beach simply could not be built today," Henderson wrote, noting how mandatory parking provisions mean that the lower floors of new buildings are likely to contain parking garages, not storefronts and cafes, and garage entrances take away street parking and limit where street trees can be planted.

"But at least contesting car space is on the table in San Francisco" Henderson said. "That makes it an intriguing bellwether for other places."