Turning point

Pub date June 30, 2009


>>Deconstructing the politics of parking in San Francisco

>>Safer streets for cyclists cause growing pains for motorists


San Francisco has been a "transit-first" city since 1973, when the Board of Supervisors first adopted the policy of officially promoting public transit, pedestrians, and bicycles over the automobile. But the label has really been in name only — until this year.

Through an unusual confluence of policy initiatives that have been moving forward for several years, San Francisco is finally about to have a serious discussion about the automobile and its impacts. And parking policies are being used as the main tool to reduce traffic congestion, better set development impact fees, increase city revenue, and promote alternatives to the automobile.

"Our parking requirements need to be revised to support this [transit-first] policy by limiting parking supply — the single greatest incentive to drive — where transit and other modes are viable alternatives," reads the city’s Better Neighborhoods Plan.

While the very notion of deliberately limiting parking will likely be met with howls of protest by many drivers — indeed, urban planners already acknowledge that it’s probably not politically feasible to make drivers pay for their full impacts — they also say it’s the only way to decrease the over-dependence on the automobile.

"Without limiting parking, people will choose an auto-oriented lifestyle and continue to drive. Traffic will continue to worsen, and we will never shift the balance in favor of ways of getting around that are more effective in moving people," the plan continues.

Yet the push isn’t as dire for drivers as its stark language suggests, thanks to some innovative initiatives that could ironically make it even easier to park in some areas than it is now, in the process easing traffic congestion by eliminating the number of cars circling the block looking for parking spaces, which studies show can often account for up to one-third of the cars on the road.


The SF Park program is scheduled to begin later this summer in eight pilot areas, providing real-time parking data to give drivers better information on where to find spots and controlling demand with a market-based pricing system that raises rates when spots are scarce, encouraging turnover and freeing up spaces.

It is just one of many current initiatives. The city is looking at extending meter hours to nights and Sundays and adding parking meters in Golden Gate Park (those are simply revenue measures aimed at city budget deficits). Another study is examining the nexus between parking and developer impacts that could be used to charge new fees for construction. There’s also a comprehensive study of on-street parking policies that will be going before the Board of Supervisors (sitting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority) next month after nearly five years in the works.

Yet creating more progressive parking policies requires political will, which will surely be tested in the coming months. Indeed, this year’s battle over the Municipal Transportation Authority budget — whose $128 million deficit was closed by Muni fare increases and services cuts rather than parking increases by a ratio of about 4-1, thanks to pressure from drivers and Mayor Gavin Newsom — was an early indicator of the pitfalls that exist within the politics of parking.

Using a $20 million federal traffic congestion management grant, SFMTA has spent years developing the SF Park program, approving most of the details last fall and planning to roll it out by summer’s end.

"Under-regulated on-street parking results in limited parking availability, inefficient utilization of spaces, and excess vehicular circulation," begins the San Francisco On-Street Parking Management and Pricing Study Final Report, which is headed to the Board of Supervisors next month. "This program will assess the effectiveness of using pricing and complementary strategies as a way to manage demand for parking."

The program will be rolled out in eight areas, coordinating parking information in more than 6,000 street spaces and 20 city-owned parking garages, and using that information to adjust parking rates — charging more when spots are scarce and for additional hours — to try to achieve a parking occupancy rate of about 85 percent.

"An on-street parking occupancy of 85 percent has been demonstrated by parking experts … as the benchmark for the practical capacity of on-street parking. At 85 percent occupancy, approximately one available space is expected per block, thus limiting the cruising phenomenon and generally assuring the availability of a space," the study reads.

SFMTA spokesperson Judson True called SF Park "the future of parking management, adding that "we are taking a big bite of the parking management pie with SF Park, which is the most advanced parking management system of any U.S. city."


It’s just the latest work product from transportation planners that have spent years behind-the-scenes developing programs to deal with the city’s over-reliance on the automobiles. "It’s all part of a strategy of using parking as a demand management strategy," said Zabe Bent, a planner with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

She is working on the parking policies, as well as a proposal to charge motorists a congestion fee for driving into the downtown, which comes before the Board of Supervisors this fall (although implementation is probably at least three years away).

Bent said city officials are working on a number of fronts to shore up San Francisco’s "transit-first" status and prepare for growth in what is already one of the country’s most congested cities. So some of the decisions coming up are bound to be tough.

"It’s a tradeoff we need to make to achieve our goals," she said, noting that the central question transportation planners are wrestling with is, "How do we achieve a more sustainable growth pattern?"

Such noble intentions can always get hung up on politics, and the ever-present question of how to pay for it during an era of fiscal crisis. So it appears the city may have to get creative with funding its new approach to parking.

Alica John-Baptiste, the assistant planning director overseeing the parking impact fee study, said that while it does appear to be a big year for new parking policies, "this conversation has been underway for a number of years. A lot of the discussions we’ve had are now being studied."

Most recently it was the citizens committee that developed the Market-Octavia Plan — one of the first to cap how much parking developers may build along with the projects — that sought guidance about what the city could legally do to recover the full costs associated with automobiles.

"There were a bunch of questions that came up about parking as an issue," she said of the Market-Octavia process. So the Planning Department and other city agencies began to explore the cost of parking as part of the city’s update of the Transit Impact Fee that is charged to new development, with the idea of expanding that to include impacts to all modes of transportation.

"We are looking at parking as a land use and its impact to the [transportation] system," she continued. "This is a city that really wants to support other modes than just transit."

The contract for that parking nexus study was awarded to Cambridge Systematics earlier this month with initial recommendations expected by the end of the year. That study is expected to show that developers and drivers don’t come anywhere near paying for the full cost of the automobile to San Francisco. "These nexus studies usually suggest a much higher fee rate than is feasible to provide," she said.

In other words, drivers and developers would freak out if asked to pay for their full impacts, arguing that that doing so would stifle development, hurt the economy, punish those who need cars, etc. So the fees will likely be set lower than needed to cover the city’s costs.

Even in the short-term, simply extending meter hours into the evenings — as SFMTA is now studying to help the city deal with its budget deficit — is likely to trigger a pitched battle between progressive supervisors and politicians who side with some merchant groups that consider parking sacrosanct.
David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Merchants Association, will be one of those leading the charge. By way of argument, he criticized San Francisco as "a very business-unfriendly city" compared to competitors like Colma and Burlingame and laid out this scenario: "After 6 p.m., there are no power lunches going on. People want to relax. Imagine you sit down to a nice dinner. You’ve got your wine and are enjoying your appetizer and in the middle of your meal, you have to get up and feed the meter. When you return, the ambiance has been lost. What are the chances you’ll return to that restaurant?"
And so it goes with the politics of parking, where pressing realities clash with visceral reactions, driver prerogatives (such as the "right" to feed the meter, which actually isn’t legal), and other distracting entitlement issues.
Gabriella Poccia and Rachel Buhner contributed to this report.



Number of on-street parking spaces in SF: 320,000

Number these spaces that have meters: 24,000

Total parking spaces in San Francisco: 603,000

Number of cars and trucks registered in SF: 441,653

Annual revenue from meters and city-owned garages: $64.5 million

Annual revenue from parking citations: $90 million

Number of street spaces in 8 SF Park pilot zones: 6,000

Hourly meter rates in the zones, depending on demand: 25 cents to $6

Hourly garage rates in the zones, depending on demand: $1 to $10

Number of residential parking permits issued: 89,271

Cost of purchasing an on-street residential parking permit: $74 per year

Number of temporary permits: 2,867

Annual revenue from residential parking permits: $5.7 million
Cost of purchasing SF parking on Craiglist: $100 to $500 per month
Annual city revenue if residential permits were market-based: $320 million