Should parking spaces become a thing of the past?

Parking is a premium in San Francisco. Photo:

Every June, during the Union Street Festival, Marina residents get a glimpse of the district’s future. Hint: I’m not referring to all of the kids running around blowing bubbles and consuming cotton candy. The future I’m talking about is the forthcoming day when pedestrians, not parking spots, will line the Marina’s streets. Simple economics spell the end of the parking spot.


Here’s why the Marina may be the first San Francisco district to remove street parking.

Where there’s no demand, there’s no supply. Marina residents — increasingly less reliant on cars for transportation — may soon not need a place to park a car (assuming they even own one). In 2011, 51.6 percent of Marina residents drove to work (44.2 percent drove alone, the rest carpooled). With the proliferation of ride sharing, scooter-grabbing, and public transit awareness, just under 41 percent of workers used a car to get to work in 2016 (33 percent drove alone). In the same year, 35 percent of the city’s workers drove alone and 7.2 percent carpooled, bringing the total to 42.2 percent citywide.

So absent owning a car, how are the Marina’s laborers getting to work? Many are heading for the bus. From 2011 through 2016, public transit use by Marina workers jumped by 6 percentage points. The evidence suggests that Muni and BART use will only increase in the near future. From 2015 to 2016, for example, public transit use increased by 1.6 percentage points. Workers have also made use of what the census refers to as “other” modes of transportation. Given that 76 percent of bike-share rides nationwide occur during the week, it’s not too far of a leap to assume many commuters pick pedalling to work as their preferred option. Case in point: Just four months after Lime bikes were introduced in the Bay Area, there were 22,250 active users.

Other Marina workers simply forgo commuting at all. The percentage of people working from home climbed from 9.8 percent of workers to 10.8 percent from 2015 to 2016. What’s more, economists generally forecast that working from home will become available to more workers as video-chatting and file-sharing expands into new sectors.

Another shift in demand for parking: tourists opting to ride-share, scoot, or cycle instead of renting a car. Lime and other multimodal transit companies have quickly discovered tourists’ travel preferences and moved them away from rental cars. Hertz and others have closed hundreds of shops in recent years in response to tourists finding new options more affordable and efficient. Accordingly, the city has seen a significant increase in the supply of alternate modes of transportation that don’t require conventional parking places.


Demand for parking in the Marina also comes from across the bay. But this source of potential parking demand is falling as well. When compared to Fiscal Year 2016/2017, the most recent summary statistics for monthly average southbound travel on the Golden Gate Bridge shows fewer cars coming into the city. In fact, in just one year the monthly average diminished by 7,000 cars. So even commuters from elsewhere are finding new ways to get to work and challenging the idea that parking spots will also be a part of the city’s streets.

On the other side of the equation, supply is similarly taking a hit. Businesses, developers, and urbanists alike all recognize that space allocated for parking might not be that land’s most valuable use. Across the city, parklets have replaced parking places as companies decide that giving many customers a nice spot to enjoy their coffee or dinner is far more valuable than providing a single customer with a place to park. These changes have not come without controversy, but once green spaces come to replace parking spaces, neighbors can quickly see the positive effects on the community.

A final factor threatening the prevalence of parking spots: the majority of Marina residents don’t own a car. Less than 30 percent of San Francisco households in 2016 owned a car, a 4 percent decline from the year before. Car-less households may soon tire of effectively subsidizing parking and the negative externalities it creates. Consider that surface parking spots cost $5,000 to $10,000 to construct; even more staggering, structured parking spots tally to $25,000 to $50,000 per spot.

Those are just the surface-level costs (pun intended); the hidden costs of parking cannot be fully quantified. Economists like Donald C. Shoup have long argued that people rarely pay the full social cost of parking. Shoup found that 99 percent of all automobile trips in the U.S. terminate at a free parking space (in other words, an unmetered space). The result of this effective subsidy? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Way back in 2002, according to Shoup, the nationwide total of forgone parking payments was $127 billion.

The pedestrian utopia that is the Union Street Festival could be the new normal in the Marina. We can realize that dream by demanding a district that prioritizes pedestrians, not parking places.


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