The parking war

The era of free parking in San Francisco may be over -- but the MTA has some bitter pills to swallow, too

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EDITORIAL When you talk about changing parking rules in San Francisco, you're setting off the political equivalent of shooting war. Nobody wants more parking tickets, nobody wants more expensive parking meters, nobody wants to pay for parking that's been free for years — and the Municipal Transportation Agency has, by most accounts, done a pretty poor job of selling its new parking management program.

That's too bad, because the MTA proposals aren't all bad. In fact, the agency is doing exactly the right thing by looking at a long-term citywide plan for altering the way people pay for and use on-street parking. If the bureaucrats at a city department that isn't used to San Francisco's often slow community-oriented planning process can shift their outreach efforts into a different gear, there's no reason they can't come up with a plan that most neighborhood residents and small businesses will support.

The MTA's SFPark program uses high-tech meters that accept credit cards and change prices at different points of the day to maximize turnover on the streets. That's actually good for local businesses — the less time people spend circling the block looking for a parking space, the more likely they are to stop and shop. Limiting the number of cars cruising for a space improves traffic flow. And parking for an hour or two at a meter is still much cheaper than parking in a garage.

But when the MTA announced that it was expanding SFPark into the Northeast Mission, Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and Mission Bay, the neighborhoods rebelled. Some of that was just anger over the prospect of meters being installed on streets that don't have them. Some of it comes from the changing land use in areas that are increasingly both residential and commercial. Some of it comes from the intense development pressure in those areas.

But a lot of it was a legitimate response to a perception that the MTA was trying to ram the changes through without making a serious effort to work with the community. It's not surprising — the MTA has been somewhat isolated from the politics of land use and planning in the city. So the staff isn't used to the fact that San Francisco is a process-oriented place where a wide range of constituent groups want input before anything happens where they live or work.

The neighborhoods need to understand reality, too: The era of free parking in San Francisco is coming to an end. That's a good thing — the city as a matter of policy should discourage the use of cars, and charging drivers for parking (and using that money to improve Muni) is an obvious solution. And the proposals aren't that onerous: Paying 25 cents an hour for all-day parking where you work is hardly a terrible financing burden. (And let's face it — the neighborhood parking stickers are way, way too cheap.)

But much of the southeast is badly served by transit and there are vehicle-intensive production, distribution and repair uses, and MTA needs to understand that. The agency has wisely delayed the program -- and after its shown it can work with the neighborhoods, this sort of bold initiative will be possible.