Parking reform for a livable city

One of the most effective ways to reduce traffic congestion and pollution, and encourage a shift to sustainable transportation modes, is through parking reform – smarter pricing and management of available parking, and reducing parking subsidies and requirements. Livable City’s parking reform strategy seeks to harness the power of markets and technology to further social, economic, and environmental goals.

We support pricing on-street parking to create available spaces at most times. Proper pricing reduces traffic congestion from cars cruising for parking, generates parking turnover that helps neighborhood businesses, and increases revenue from parking meters and permits. We support reinvesting some of these on-street parking revenues back into neighborhood walking, cycling, transit, streetscape, and greening projects.

Off-street parking requirements harm the environment by encouraging automobile traffic and pollution, and increase the cost of housing, goods, and services for San Francisco’s residents and businesses. We are working to reduce or eliminate off-street parking requirements in the city’s most congested and transit-rich neighborhoods, ensure that parking costs are “unbundled” from the cost of buying or renting housing or commercial space, and restricting excessive parking and driveways where they do harm to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

Putting new thinking about parking into practice

Old New
Parking is a social good. Parking is not an entitlement.
More parking is always better. Too much parking can create problems.
Parking demand is fixed, regardless of price or transportation alternatives. Parking demand is elastic, and depends on price and the availability of transportation alternatives.
Governments should establish minimum parking requirements. Governments shouldn’t mandate parking, and should instead establish maximum parking allowances where they make sense.
Parking costs should be bundled into the cost of housing, goods, and services Parking costs should be unbundled from the cost of housing, goods, and services.
Parking is a burden to government, and subsidies to parking will compete with other priorities for available funding. Parking can be a source of revenue for government, and if priced correctly can fund other city priorities.
Parking should be priced to encourage full utilization. Parking should be priced so as to create some available spaces at most times.
Cities shoud use time limits to increase parking availability and turnover. Cities should use price to increase parking availability and turnover.


Successes to date

San Francisco first instituted parking requirements in 1955, when planners were busily trying to adapt cities to the needs of the automobile, rather than the other way around. (see A brief history of parking requirements in San Francisco)

The early 1960′s saw San Francisco’s “Freeway revolt”, and the 1970′s saw the rise of the environment movement, the opening of BART and San Francisco’s first “transit first” policy, and the first “traffic calming” efforts to take back San Francisco’s streets from the automobile. In the 1980′s, new thinking about parking began to take hold among progressive planners. San Francisco adopted the Downtown Plan in the mid-1980′s, which established strict limits on the amount of new office parking to discourage commuting by automobile.

The last decade has seen a good deal of progress in reducing parking requirements, and most of this progress has occurred in the last few years. The Mission Bay Redevelopment Plan, adopted in 1997, was the first area of the city to have no residential parking requirement. Livable City was founded in 2002, and made parking reform a centerpiece of our strategy for creating a more livable, affordable, sustainable, and vital San Francisco.

The City adopted the Rincon Hill plan in 2005, which became the first neighborhood to have no parking requirements for any use, the second neighborhood to eliminate minimum residential parking requirements, and the first to require unbunding, car share, and secure bicycle parking for new residential developments.

Livable City worked with Supervisors Peskin and Daly to pass the landmark downtown parking reform in 2006. This ordinance finally eliminated minimum parking requirements for housing in the downtown commercial (C-3) zoning districts, and set the first parking maximum below one space per unit It requires active, pedestrian-oriented uses on ground floors of buildings and limits driveway cuts and garage entrances on important pedestrian, bicycle, and transit streets in the downtown. The ordinance expanded residential unbundling to downtown, and expanded car-share and secure bicycle parking requirements citywide.

San Franciscans overwhelmingly rejected Measure H in November 2007, which would have increased the amount of office parking downtown, and imposed a uniform set of parking requirements on new buildings across the city. The defeat of Measure H upheld the city’s decades-old strategy of limiting commuter parking downtown, and preserved the right of neighborhoods to craft parking solutions that fit their needs and character.

On April 15, the Board of Supervisors adopted the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, which extended the progressive parking policies (trading minimums for maximums, unbundling, and driveway controls) from Downtown and Rincon Hill into the Hayes Valley, Duboce Triangle, and North Mission neighborhoods.

Current campaigns

2008: a big year for parking reform

2008 saw the biggest changes to on-street parking management and off-street parking requirements since 1955, when parking requirements were first imposed citywide.

In April, the Board of Supervisors finally adopted the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, which eliminated parking requirements in the neighborhoods west of the Civic Center. In December, Board of Supervisors adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods plans, which propose eliminating parking requirements in portions of South of Market, the Mission, Showplace Square, and the Central Waterfront. The draft Western SoMa plan was released mid-2008, which will recommend eliminating or reducing parking requirements in the entire Western SoMa area.

Two citywide parking reform initiatives approved in 2008 improved the way we manage parking in the city, and helped to forge a new consensus on the role parking ought to play in a more livable San Francisco – the comprehensive parking reform ordinance of 2008, and MTA’s SFpark program.


Comprehensive parking reform approved by the Board of Supervisors

A comprehensive parking reform ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, was adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in June. Livable City helped draft the ordinance, which builds on the success of 2006′s downtown parking reform. Working closely with planners, housing developers, and urbanists, we helped craft a set of commonsense reforms which “could please both sides on parking issues”(SF Examiner). The ordinance expanded “unbunding’ of parking (separating housing costs from parking costs) citywide, and allows developers to use space-efficient parking methods (valet parking, lifts, and stackers) without special permission. The ordinance also eliminated minimum parking requirements for senior housing, housing for people with disabilities, and housing dedicated to low-income residents. This provision will lower the cost of producing new housing, as project sponsors can build just the amount of parking residents need, rather than what the planning code requires. The ordinance also strengthens the city’s commitment to car sharing, by requiring developers seeking excessive parking to demonstrate that car share can’t address their projects parking demand.


SFpark program moves forward

In 2011, San Francisco’s SFpark program started in several pilot neighborhoods around the City. The SFpark program includes many of the progressive parking reform ideas long championed by Livable City. Sensors in parking spaces on the street and in city-owned lots gather accurate information about how on-street parking is used, and how many spaces are available. The information gathered is used to adjust parking rates in response to demand, towards the goal of creating some available spaces at all times of day. Creating available spaces is a convenience to merchants and residents, and reduces traffic by eliminating cars cruising for parking spaces. The program has also installed ‘smart meters’ that make it easier for MTA to adjust rates up or down based on demand and to adjust time limits and hours of operation, and make it easier to pay for parking with credit cards, smart cards, and cash.

Adding new parking is costly, both in environmental and economic terms; SFpark will allow the city to much better manage existing parking for the benefit of residents and businesses.

SFpark’s pilot projects build on the findings of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s On-Street Parking Management and Pricing Study. The SFCTA study looked in depth at parking issues in four San Francisco neighborhoods – Cow Hollow, West Portal, Hayes Valley, and Bernal Heights. The study surveyed parking availability, parking turnover, and parking duration, and interviewed merchants and residents. Among the study’s findings were that both businesses and residents were willing to pay more for parking in return for greater availability, and that while merchants in the four neighborhoods thought that 72% of their customers “drove exclusively” to the neighborhood, over 70% of their customers walked, cycled, or took transit ( SFCTA’s final public presentation can be viewed here).

Neighborhood transportation plans

Livable City is working to get the Planning Department to create neighborhood transportation plans for transit-intensive neighborhooods, including Downtown and the City’s Better Neighborhoods and Eastern Neighborhoods planning areas. Our advocacy led to the Planning Department finding funding for a Mission District Transportation and Streetscape Plan, and we are working with the Planning Department to refine the scope of work for a comprehensive transporatation and streetscape plan for Downtown and South of Market that will include public transit improvements, safer and well-designed streets, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and other pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements, and a transportation demand management strategy.

Parking benefit districts

Livable City is working to enact a parking benefit district ordinance, like those in place in Pasadena, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and other California cities. Parking benefit districts are a surcharge on local parking meter rates, agreed to by the community, of which half go to Muni and other citywide programs, and the other half stays in the community for local pedestrian, bicycle, streetscape, and maintenance programs. Livable City supported SFCTA/Planning Department study of parking benefit districts that should be complete by the end of the year.

Parking impact fees

Livable City will work with the Planning Department to study a fee on new parking spaces in the downtown and elsewhere which mitigates the impact on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit movement created by the traffic they generate.


Livable City’s parking reform proposals

Policy Proposal
Current status & how to help
Permit secondary units along transit corridors. This proposal would permit homeowners in transit areas to build an additional unit (an “in-law apartment”) without having to build a new off-street parking space, adding thousands of units of mostly low-cost housing without adding traffic. See our campaign page for details. This is a top Livable City priority. Legislation was introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin in 2003, but has been stalled since then.Adoption of the Market & Octavia Neighborhood Plan removed two key barriers to legalizing existing or creating new secondary units within the plan area by eliminating off-street parking requirements and changing density controls. Livable City is working to amend or reverse other policies which deter secondary units, most likely as a pilot in one or more transit-intensive neighborhoods. See our campaign page for details.
Overcome financiers’ objections to parking reductions. Many developers claim they cannot find financing for housing projects that provide less than 1:1 parking. Livable City published a research paper which identified the market for housing with reduced parking.
Reduced parking in the Mid-Market corridor The Redevelopment Agency proposed a new residential neighborhood in Mid-Market. The initial plan included a proposal for 2000 short-term parking spaces, which Livable City worked to remove from the plan. At the Mayor’s insistence, the 2006 dowtown parking reform measure allows up to 3 new above-ground parking garages in the Mid-Market area. The Redevelopment plan was made moot by the dissolution of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 2012. Unfortunately several approved developments within the plan area, including the CityPlace shopping mall and Trinity Plaza, include excess parking. Livable City working to keep above-ground and excessive parking out of Mid-Market. Contact Tom Radulovich to help.
Transbay Redevelopment This neighborhood plan envisions a high-rise, mixed-use neighborhood around a regional rail and bus transit hub at the site of the Transbay Terminal. The plan includes approximately 3,500 housing units, of which 35% will be permanently affordable, and a network of public open spaces. The Transbay Plan was adopted in 2005. Livable City worked with the Redevelopment Agency and community groups to emphasize reduced parking, wider sidewalks, and the creation of two-way streets, bus lanes and bike lanes in the neighborhood. The plan allows one parking space per dwelling unit, which is too high, but Livable City secured a commitment to reopen the question of parking maximums should the maximum in the surrounding C-3 district be lowered. The 2006 Downtown Parking Reform ordinance did just that (see our campaign page for details), and Livable City is seeking to reduced allowed parking in Transbay parking to downtown levels – or lower. Contact Tom Radulovich to help.
Eliminate parking requirements for affordable, senior, and group housing. This would permit affordable housing developers, whose tenants do not need parking, to build more units for the same amount of subsidy. Livable City helped draft legislation approved in 2008, which eliminated minimum parking requirements for senior, permanently affordable, and group housing, and housing for people with disabilities, in all but the low-density RH-1 and RH-2 districts.
Reduce minimum parking requirement to zero along transit corridors. This would permit market-rate housing developers to build lower-cost units more appropriate to the character of existing transit-oriented neighborhoods. Livable City supported the elimination of minimum parking requirements in the Transbay and Rincon Hill Neighborhoods, which were passed into law in 2005. Livable City-sponsored legislation eliminated minimum requirements in the downtown commercial (C-3) neighborhoods; see ourcampaign page for details. Contact Tom Radulovich to help.
Eliminate the requirement that parking spaces be independently accessible. This would permit developers to meet parking requirements by using valet, tandem, lifts and stackers, robotic, or other innovative parking strategies, therefore permitting greater housing density and affordability. Livable City helped draft legislation approved in 2008, allowing space-efficient parking (valet, lifts, and stackers) across the city, and tandem parking spaces in all but the low-density RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods.
Reduce the maximum permitted parking in pilot neighborhood to less than 1 to 1. This would allow new housing to be built with less parking, making it more affordable and more appropriate to the character of existing transit-oriented neighborhoods. Livable City supported legislation to establish a maximum of .75:1 (three parking spaces for four units) in the city’s downtown commercial (C-3) neighborhoods; see our campaign page for details.The Market & Octavia Neighborhood Plan, approved in April 2008, maximum parking ratios of .25:1, .5:1 and .75:1, with an allowance for more spaces for larger units.

In December 2008, the Board of Supervisors passed the Eastern Neighborhoods plans, which eliminated minimum parking requirements in Eastern SoMa and Showplace Square, and parts of the Mission and Potrero Hill. We worked with Mission District groups to eliminate parking requirements in the Valencia and Mission commercial corridors.

In February 2009, the Board of Supervisors approved the Balboa Park Neighborhood Plan, which eliminated minimum parking requirements in the commercial districts around the Balboa Park Station.

Make above-grade parking a nonconforming use in certain districts. This would remove existing above-ground parking on lots where the owner wants to renovate the property. Livable City supported legislation that will eliminate most parking on upper floors, and require that ground-floor parking be wrapped in active uses and designed for easy conversion to future non-parking uses, in the downtown commercial (C-3) neighborhoods; see our campaign page for details. We will work to expand this to other transit-oriented neighborhoods. Volunteer to draft or promote legislation for your neighborhood! Contact Tom Radulovich to help.