Why Free Sunday Parking Is a Bad Deal for Everyone

Weekend meter fees can reduce circling time, help local businesses, and generate money for transit.

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Last week San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced his desire to end metered Sunday parking in the city. Lee made the call in the name of keeping the city affordable, but the decision is clearly a political move to appease vehicled voters in advance of a major transportation referendum he'd like to pass this fall. The bargain may not seem bad on paper — the license fees are expected to generate $73 million a year, ten times the Sunday meter take. But it undermines San Francisco's place as a model of progressive street policy.

The city has been a national leader in parking for years now, with its SFpark program showing the enormous benefits that come from properly pricing street space. The Sunday street metering program began about a year ago. Its chief goals were to boost business by making it easier for drivers to park in commercial districts, to reduce circling time and congestion by improving spot availability, and to subsidize operational costs for the Muni transit service.

By these and other measures Sunday meters have been a great success. Four charts from an evaluation of the program released in December tell the story (via Streetsblog).

Availability

This chart shows the target on-street occupancy on Sundays over the past two years. In 2012, before the metered program began, occupancy neared 90 percent at times, making it extremely difficult for drivers to find a spot. In 2013, with the program underway, occupancy hit the availability sweet spot from about 10 in the morning until 10 at night. All told, availability on Sundays went from 15 to 31 percent during metered hours.

Circling

With more availability comes less circling and congestion. As the chart shows, parking search time dropped from more than 5 minutes to under 2 minutes at noon on Sundays once the metered program went into effect. The full daily average was halved from 4 minutes to 2 minutes. In addition to curb access, Sunday drivers rightly get something far more valuable for their parking money: time.

Turnover

Part of the reason San Francisco once offered free Sunday parking is that businesses were closed that day. Clearly, as this chart shows, that's no longer the case. An open business needs customers, and that's what the Sunday metered provide. According to the December report, turnover at the metered street spaces increased 20 percent. There's a reason the city's Chamber of Commerce supports the program: more parkers, more money.

Transit Revenue

Speaking of money, the Sunday metered program generated plenty of it. The recent report states the program brought in more than $3 million in fiscal 2013 and had already drummed up $2 million more in the first quarter of 2014. Mayor Lee disliked how much money was coming through parking tickets, but as this chart shows, citations were falling over time — no doubt as drivers became more familiar with the program. And according to the December report, only 23 people contacted the city to complain about the meter policy.

San Francisco certainly needs to address its "affordability crisis," as SPUR's Gabriel Metcalf called it at Cities earlier this week. The city seemed to be on the right path toward transport equity, handling the private tech bus debate by charging a fee for curb space, but helping Sunday drivers at the expense of Sunday riders sends the opposite message. That's not a transit-first policy; that's transit-first except on Sundays.

Top image: Moreno Novello/Shutterstock.com

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