San Francisco's War on Car Owners

We’ve got a conundrum out here on the Left Coast. San Francisco is flooded with money for billion dollar transportation projects (partly as a result of our Representative, Nancy Pelosi guiding the 2009 Stimulus Plan) – the problematic Bay Bridge; the billion-dollar-a-mile Central Subway; the new approach to the Golden Gate Bridge; the new Transbay Terminal to receive High Speed Rail (?) But we also have an ideologically-driven set of policies designed to inflict maximum pain on the 79% of San Francisco households who have cars. What’s going on?

In 1999, the voters approved the consolidation of the bus/light rail agency (Muni) with the Department of Parking and Transportation with a charge to be “Transit First”. A few years later the Taxi Commission was rolled in. Not wishing to be bothered by constituent complaints about bus routes and Stop signs, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors gave Muni significant autonomy, and for 15 years transportation policy has been set by the agency’s governing Board – appointed by the mayor and approved by the supervisors – a majority of whose members must be be regular riders of Muni. The loudest voices? – the Bicycle Coalition and those who envision a “car-free” city.

The failed effort to dissuade people from using cars falls into two categories:

1. Don’t build it and they won’t come. Where construction codes once required at least one garage space per apartment, new high rise units usually do not have a space. Thousands of parking spaces have been eliminated with new buildings placed on empty lots and bicycle lanes taking an increased portion of the streets; no new parking lots have been build in 25 years. New proposals would dedicate 1000 parking spaces to “ride share” vehicles. With San Francisco growing by 10,000 residents per year, the strategy is to force people out of cars by making parking impossible.

2. Make car ownership so expensive that most residents will give up the convenience. Rates for City owned parking garages, parking meters, residential parking permits, and parking tickets have all had double digit increases along with a move to Sunday meter enforcement, and the spread of “peak-demand period” meter rates. The MTA and the mayor are talking of adding a vehicle license fee of about $100 per vehicle on top of the $50 fee the state charges. Fees on cars exceed user fares as source of funding for the public transit system. Some of this is just the normal behavior of a voracious government; more is due to the desire to drive out cars in the name of social engineering. The result is another set of irritants driving out the middle class.

We may have reached a tipping point. The November ballot will include a $500 million bond to purchase new transit vehicles and reengineer the streets to be more bicycle friendly. The vehicle license fee increase and Sunday parking meters may be deferred until after the bond passes, but they are in the offing.  There is, however, an emerging coalition of neighborhood activists, small businesses, first responders, disabled advocates, and just plain ordinary folks emerging under the banner of RestoreBalance14 with a set of policy prescriptions: limit hours for parking meters; freeze rates; require neighborhood agreement for meter expansion; use a portion of any new revenues to build garages where neighborhoods want them; enforce traffic laws for all modes of transportation; provide representation for all modes of transportation on the MTA Board.

Past efforts to reform the MTA or establish performance standards for public transit have fizzled. With the administration able to punish people or businesses who go against the progressive leadership there are many who have historically been reluctant to come forward, leaving lots of Ying and no Yang. But there is hope – the 79% of San Francisco households who have cars despite the 15 year campaign against them provide a pretty good base if their advocates are able to tell their story.


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