My Good friend George Lum, a longtime City employee and Fiscal Officer for the Courts, recently paid me a visit and expressed his views about how difficult and expensive it is to try and drive and park in San Francisco. I suspect his views reflect the thoughts of many residents who live in our City. He brought up some very interesting facts that I thought were worth repeating. Like myself and many other civil servants who believe in public accountability, George is astounded at the ignorance, arrogance and audacity of today’s generation of policy makers who seem to have their heads screwed on backwards and thus subject a trusting public to the expenses of their circular reasoning.
Consider for example the following facts: In 1970, the average fine for a parking meter violation was $3. Today the fine averages $50 to $70 depending upon what part of the City you received the ticket. In 1970, the City wide meter fee was 10 cents per-hour, today it ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 per-hour. You do the math. Has our City’s population increased? Have our curbs, streets and signage been maintained, as was the original purpose for the fees? Are the most recently proposed increases remotely related to the welfare of our struggling storeowners or residents who must use their autos? Do we even really know where the proceeds of these gigantic revenues are spent? I think it is high time for the public to weigh in and stop accepting all the lame reasons that the robber barons put forth in order to increase the amount of your money that they spend while building their political empires.
The Municipal Transportation Agency, in its latest round of incompetent lunacy, has proposed a 50 cent per-hour increase in Parking meters, and the extension of the hours of operation and enforcement of those meters every day and night until 10 PM and—get this—Sundays included! I mean really, who are these people working for? They also want to limit each meter user to one hour during the day and up to four hours during the evening and increase garage rates at least $2 more per-hour. All of this money grabbing is at the expense of those who out of necessity must drive a car as opposed to those who actually use municipal transportation. (Look out residents of District 7!) One genius who works at the chamber of commerce said “these proposals are great from a business perspective because it will encourage turnover!” (I believe this was the same character who proposed building-up our movie industry revenues by empowering 3rd rate local extras as opposed to enticing top-flight movie producers from Hollywood.) Well, to be honest with you and yes, realistic, these proposals will do absolutely nothing but further erode the attractiveness of downtown and neighborhood shops and penalize the auto driver. Any amateur student of public policy can tell you that someone suffers when fines and fees are increased. I don’t know of anyone who can get anything accomplished in one hour downtown and the four-hour limit in neighborhoods will only pit residents against merchants without any new parking being made available.
Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I had the pleasure of serving with Mr. Lum. As Court administrators, we had the opportunity to analyze the impact that an increase in parking fines and fees would have on the public, as it was then under the auspices of the Municipal Court. The surprising results invariably demonstrated that any such increases resulted in more scofflaws (people who don’t pay their fines), more expensive enforcement in relation to revenue netted and certainly less “customer satisfaction”. At least, back then, we tried to justify any increase with input from all concerned parties, and then provide the public with something in return for their inconvenience.
It was during that period of time that I originated the location for the new Civic Center Courthouse on McAllister and Van Ness, paid for by an extra $1.00 being added on to each fine collected. Today such analysis and constructive projects are totally ignored as the whole issue of public parking is seen only as it relates to the bottom line.
Another observation: back then a parking meter enforcement officer was hired at approximately $68,000 including benefits and was expected to generate about 150% of his or her cost to the City per-year. Today they are hired at a much, much more expensive rate when benefits are included, and expected to produce 300% percent revenue in relation to their cost. Parking and the fees and fines associated with it have become a massive money source and local politicians have discovered they can engage in “taxation without representation” without even having to explain where the money is going.
We are told that the newly proposed increases will generate an additional $9.5 million for a municipal transportation agency that is running a deficit of $129 million per year. What we are not being told is the additional personnel costs associated with the enforcement and collection for the extended hours and the effect upon our quality of life here in San Francisco.
I know there are many people who believe in the “transit first” policy that has been in effect for the past 30 years and there is merit to that. I would be much happier if the policy had produced a mass transit system that—after so much invested time, material and money—actually works, is efficient, and pays for itself without discriminating against people who use autos. The solution is to concentrate on improving the transit system by making it self-sufficient, streamlining the routes, reviewing the hiring and work practices of personnel, and imposing modern stringent guidelines.
Now back to the automobile and how to handle its parking. The answer is certainly not to penalize or discourage its user as this only hurts the local economy. Other cities—and yes, even our sister city down south, Los Angeles—has embarked upon a policy of accommodating the auto-user with reasonable parking and rates that encourage the revitalization of the downtown sector. The conversion of property to provide safe, reasonable and convenient parking for Americans’ unique and undeniable fascination with the auto is something that we should no longer deny but embrace. As much as we like to think that we here in San Francisco always know better, there are still some things that we must face up to. Our desire to demonstrate that almost all human activity can be regulated or legislated is beginning to make us look foolish and stifle our image as a world class City. We can do better than this!