Is it time to end free parking in San Francisco?

Increasing the cost of parking and offloading city garages could shrink budget shortfall

As the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency faces catastrophic revenue losses and crippling budget shortfalls over the next two fiscal years, officials have said they will consider every measure possible to avoid even deeper service cuts and staff layoffs.

“The pandemic and budget crisis is the moment to rethink everything,” Matt Brezina of local street safety advocacy group People Protected said of the opportunity to recast the agency’s priorities in the context of economic calamity.

At the top of the list should be reform to The City’s parking program, Brezina and other advocates say.

Before the pandemic, the agency expected parking and traffic fees to account for 31 percent of its revenue, roughly $364 million. By comparison, transit fares would account for 18%, or $219 million. Both of these funding streams were declining even before the stay-at-home order.

But as the COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandate has persisted, the hit to SFMTA’s already tenuous revenue sources has continued to worsen as once-regular transit riders stay home and The City has less to allocate from the General Fund.

Though the newest federal relief package will provide San Francisco’s transit agency with enough money to stave off mass layoffs for this fiscal year, SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin has been clear the agency remains at risk of cuts to service or staff in fiscal year 2021-22 without more money in the bank.

Having already cut $118 million in expenditures this fiscal year and exhausted most of the one-time spending sources, some are calling on the agency to grow revenue through its parking program.

Free parking

In San Francisco, street parking is largely free.

The City owns 280,000 total on-street parking spaces. Of those, 26,200 are metered — 1,200 of these fall under the Port of San Francisco’s jurisdiction — and 80,000 require residential parking permits.

That leaves 173,800 spots that require no payment of any kind.

“This is a land subsidy for car ownership that works against The City’s goals of reducing air pollution, carbon emissions and pedestrian fatalities,” said Marcel Moran, a doctorate candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, where he focuses on transportation.

Moran and other advocates believe the first step to increasing revenue through the parking program is charging for all curbside parking, a change that could also deter car ownership more broadly.

Next would be raising the cost of those parking spots.

Right now, a residential parking permit runs $152 annually and SFMTA has historically put a ceiling on these fees so they don’t cost more than the administration and enforcement of the program. This policy has long generated frustration among environmental and transportation activists who say it subsidizes drivers, as opposed to encouraging the use of more sustainable mobility alternatives.

What remains unclear, though, is whether The City has the authority to charge market rate for residential parking permits, therefore earning a profit as opposed to just covering administrative costs.

Streetsblog reported that the City Attorney’s Office had counseled the transit agency this wasn’t within it’s purview. Others have said it’s well within the right of the municipality.

A parking meter is inclosed inside a closed-off Shared Spaces area outside the Devil’s Acre bar in North Beach on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Even SFMTA couldn’t give a straight answer.

“This is something we’ve been discussing with the city attorney on an ongoing basis. We’ve long thought about [the residential parking permit program] and how it should and can be changed/priced,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said. “It’s fortuitous that this discussion coincides with a time where we do have a mounting budget crisis.”

The City Attorney’s Office did not respond for comment by press time.

As for meters, they’re priced differently at various locations citywide based on demand. Every six weeks, a team adjusts meter rates block-by-block based on availability and time of day in an effort to strike a balance and make sure there are just enough open spots to satisfy demand.

Kato said those rates are rarely changed because “target availability levels” are generally being met.

Metered spots are also free citywide on Sundays, a fact Brezina calls an “insane abdication of The City’s duty to manage our public resources.”

Another wrinkle: Roughly 2,301 meters have been made inactive since January 2020, with the vast majority going dormant as part of their conversion into sites for Shared Spaces and other COVID-19-related functions, such as testing and food banks.

SFMTA spokesperson Kato said there’s “no way to determine how much money those spots would have made” due to the changes to parking demand and availability caused by the pandemic.

Shared Spaces is one of The City’s hallmark COVID response programs, credited with energizing businesses and giving life to local commercial corridors. But the most recent shelter-in-place order again banned all outdoor dining, leaving many of the converted parking spaces blocked by platforms or other commercial infrastructure and unable to earn money for anyone, business owners or SFMTA alike.

“We also recognize how important these spaces are to the survival and economic recovery of The City,” Kato said.

A trend toward driving

The SFMTA also oversees 38 off-street parking facilities that provide nearly 15,000 parking spaces. Before the pandemic, they generated roughly $90 million in annual gross revenues together using a responsive demand pricing strategy similar to what’s used for meters.

Some closed to the public due to the stay-at-home order, and others are earning only a fraction of the revenue relative to the value of the land, advocates say.

Brezina said many drivers opt for street parking because it’s more affordable, and he would like to see The City increase the price of meters and permits to push more people into pricier garages .

Then, he’d like to see SFMTA sell off some of its remaining off-street parking assets, an option that’s set to be considered in some form at the agency’s board workshop in February.

Together, Brezina believes these changes would drive significant revenue for San Francisco.

More cars on the road

Even before the pandemic, the number of drivers on San Francisco streets was increasing faster than the number of people using public transportation or micromobility options.

The most recent SFMTA Mobility Trends Report from 2018 found vehicular traffic had risen 27 percent since the turn of the decade, and the total number of vehicles registered in The City had grown by 26,000. Naturally, congestion increased alongside it.

By contrast, bike use increased by only 6 percent and mass transit ridership by just 5 percent.

That trend’s expected by many to be exacerbated as The City emerges from the pandemic. Many residents will continue to avoid unnecessary gatherings and crowds like those found on the Muni Metro heading downtown.

More recent data, albeit limited, also suggests transit recovery is lagging behind the use of cars.

In November, parking and traffic fees and fines brought in nearly $13 million in revenue. By contrast, transit fares generated approximately $1.2 million.

While both are overwhelmingly down from initial projections for the current fiscal year, transit revenue was down 96 percent as compared to November 2019, whereas parking revenue was down 48 percent.

Alarming to many advocates, this preferential shift towards driving directly complicates the transit-first policy in the City Charter, which commits San Francisco to prioritizing public transportation, encouraging cyclists and pedestrian activity and recognizing the link between sustainable mobility and environmental and economic justice.

“It’s not much more complicated than a mindset that car ownership and use should be the default use of public land,” Moran said of the current state of things. “It’s a land-use policy that exacerbates our near-term air quality and long-term climate, takes away space for any other use and makes walking, biking and transit riding less likely.”

The SFMTA has indicated it will explore a wide range of measures to address next year’s estimated budget deficit of at least $168 million.

“We continue to weigh every viable option when it comes to closing our budget gap,” Kato said. “These decisions will be part of ongoing conversations that will be brought before our board, and the public and our staff will be informed and apprised throughout the process.”

The soonest opportunity to see what the SFMTA’s plans might be around parking and parking infrastructure will be the Feb. 2 budget workshop, where the board will discuss options to close the budget shortfall for next fiscal year and address the larger structural deficit.

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