How Getting Rid of Parking Can Drive Away Drug Dealers

A lack of cars makes it harder to hide bad behavior.

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One block of San Francisco's notoriously drug-infested Tenderloin neighborhood is more problematic than the rest. The first block of Turk Street saw 35 times more violent crime per 1,000 residents than the rest of the city, according to a 2011 study. And the combination of a vulnerable population and proximity to major transit ways make it a particularly comfortable place for dealers. 

Recently, however, the city took a drastic step to disrupt this environment.

Earlier this month, the city turned that block into a "no parking" zone. The 60-day pilot program, conceived of by the city and local non-profit Central City SRO Collaborative, came together after a series of meetings with residents. Jane Kim, the District Supervisor who oversees the Tenderloin, says taking away parking makes sense. The vast majority of Tenderloin residents don't own cars, yet drug dealers were habitually using vehicles to screen their operations.

Kim says she's not sure this "leap of faith" strategy will work. But initial feedback has been positive. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article reports a dramatic decrease in idling pedestrians and drug dealing on the street.

Over the next months, the city will be evaluating the program based on crime reports and, more importantly, narrative data gathered by police and observers.

Critics wonder whether it'll only push the problem elsewhere. For the police and local officials, though, disrupting the status quo is valuable enough. Tenderloin police Captain Jason Cherniss argues that the prevalence of drug dealing in any new spots won't be as strong. "The migration won't be as robust, the drug dealers will be more dispersed," he says.

The police hopes getting rid of parking on this block will drive away drug dealers and increase the visibility of sidewalks. (Google Street View

The Baltimore Police tested the same idea years ago. According to a 2008 Baltimore Sun report, police got rid of parking along four blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, a commercial district on the west side of the city. The impact was immediate -- according to the article, one store owner who once had to chase 20 to 30 suspected drug dealers away from his shop every day suddenly only had to chase one or two. 

In a recent phone interview, Rick Sussman, whose pawnshop sits on a block affected by the policy, says the no-parking rule lasted about a year. It's now a 15-minute parking zone. Sussman confirms the policy had a "night and day" positive effect, and the drug dealing has not returned.

But the policy also hurt merchants. Sussman says the lack of alternative parking solutions drove customers away. As the president of the Pennsylvania Avenue Merchants Association, Sussman eventually pleaded with the city to bring back parking but keep the police presence that came with enforcing parking tickets on his street. 

"It's one of those programs where, more important than the act of not having parking, is the mindset and resources associate with it,” says Sussman. He believes the police enforcement of the no-parking rule became a strong signal to the drug dealers that this is not just a "show of force type of thing" that lasts one or two days. It's that long-term psychological effect that keeps the drug dealers away, he says.

Back in the Tenderloin, the no-parking pilot program is just one small part of the overall public safety plan, one that seems to emphasize crime prevention through environmental design. Since last summer, Cherniss has been pushing to get rid of a drug-infested bus shelter. He's awaiting a decision from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency next month. Supervisor Kim is also working to turn a few of Tenderloin’s 72 liquor stores into healthy corner stores that sell fresh food instead of alcohol and tobacco.

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