We want free parking!

Pub date October 28, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY The strong visceral reactions to extending parking meter hours in San Francisco and Oakland present a difficult challenge to those who seek to have motorists pay for more of their societal impacts and help offset declining public transit resources.

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency held an Oct. 20 public hearing on its proposal to extend parking meter hours to evenings and Sundays in order to better manage parking demand and raise $8.8 million for Muni in the process, the proposal was fiercely attacked as a tax on motorists and burden on businesses.

That outrage was expected from conservative factions — landlords, west side residents, and much of the business community — who consistently oppose progressive reforms. But it was surprising to hear the antiwar ANSWER coalition, an immigrant group, and self-described socialists also angrily opposing the proposal.

"The working class is being driven out, and I hope this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back," ANSWER’s Forrest Schmidt said at the hearing, calling for taxes on rich individuals and companies instead. "Someone else needs to pay for the budget deficit that giant corporations created."

"This is a class issue. The rich and the well-to-do don’t have to worry about where to park in this small and crowded city. They have garages or can afford to pay for parking. It is overwhelmingly working class people who are being hit and who will be hit much, much harder if the new policy goes into effect," ANSWER (which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) wrote in a press release the next day.

But it’s a demonstrably false statement that the working class will be disproportionately affected by the proposal. Average incomes for drivers are far higher than those of Muni riders, who have borne the brunt of MTA budget cuts and will be hit even harder if this proposal fails.

A recent Transportation Authority study associated with the stalled proposal to charge a congestion-pricing fee on motorists entering the city core found that only 6 percent of them earned less than $50,000 per year. And in the census tract around ANSWER’s Mission District office, where Schmidt said poor workers who need cars are being aggressively ticketed, less than half the households actually own cars.

Beyond the fact that drivers are generally richer than the carless, there’s the established fact that they don’t come anywhere close to paying for their full societal impacts, from road building and maintenance to health care costs from accidents and air pollution to global warming.

"These are facts that a lot of people ignore," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, calling ANSWER’s position "just a very limited perspective that they haven’t thought through yet."

Indeed, when I discussed the campaign with ANSWER’s regional director, Richard Becker, his arguments were almost entirely anecdotal. "I participate in the scramble for parking on a daily basis," he said.

The emotional reactions to taking away free parking also cause critics to lose sight of the facts. The proposal only affects metered spots in commercial districts, not street parking in neighborhoods. And the study treats every neighborhood differently based on parking demand, with the goal of reaching 85 percent occupancy to make parking more available — the very thing many critics of the proposal are demanding.

"They don’t understand that if we don’t raise the price of parking, we’re going to raise the price of Muni. They are extremely naïve beyond all reason," said Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor who has studied the politics of parking and is current writing a book on the subject.

"There are people who want to democratize unsustainable lifestyles," Radulovich said, calling it "a strategy without a future."

Transportation activist Dave Snyder got into a heated discussion with some ANSWER members outside the hearing room, faulting them for failing to oppose the Muni fare hikes and service cuts that were approved last spring and for refusing to accept the need to discourage environmentally damaging activities like driving cars.

"To use price to discourage that is indeed a regressive tax. It’s still worth doing, but we have to think about [ANSWER’s reaction]," Snyder later told us.

But Henderson, Snyder, and Radulovich see a silver lining in this discussion. "It’s a sign of progress," Henderson said. "The more this floats to the surface and we can deal with it now, the better we’ll all be in the long run."