Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Can Our Collective Post-Traumatic Parking Disorder Be Cured?

Photos by Aubrie Pick

I bought a car in January. It’s for sale.

Don’t get me wrong—I like having a car. I like being able to blast up to Tahoe late at night. I like being able to grab a bunch of friends and hit the Headlands for a weekend hike. I like the Wine Country and Santa Cruz. I like Costco and Lowe’s.

The car gives me access to all of the amazing things going on around San Francisco. Hell, owning a car gives me access to San Francisco itself—the museums, restaurants, parks, shopping, and bars. Because, seriously, without a car how else are you going to get around to see all of it? You’re going to take Muni? BWAAHAHA! Even if it weren’t unpleasant, crowded, and hazardous to anyone without the balance of Thundercat, Muni would still have the problem of never showing up. Not to worry though. Our new mayor Ed Lee proclaimed in February that public transportation isn’t a priority because the San Francisco Municipal Railway System is “on its way to improvement.” (Has the mayor tried to take a bus from the Mission to Crissy Field? Block out 90 minutes.) BART is slightly better if you’re headed to the tiny, crooked sliver of the city it passes through on its way from Fremont to SFO. But it stops running at midnight. Great. I’ll just drive home drunk from Oakland.

Yeah, public transportation here is a joke, and I want to live my life here to its fullest. So why am I selling my wheels? I’m not riddled by environmental guilt, if that’s what you’re thinking. And it’s not a financial thing. No, my ride’s going up on Craigslist because, despite all the freedom it affords me, it also holds me prisoner. To be more precise, it’s parking the car that holds me prisoner. You live here. You know what I’m talking about.

When I moved here from New York, I was told to expect some flakiness from San Franciscans. And I have. But the longer I live in the 415, the more I realize that this flakiness isn’t a West Coast thing. It’s a reaction to the vehicular hostage situation that Bay Area-ites suffer through daily. How many times has a friend bailed on you because he was afraid to give up his parking space? Better yet, how many times have you bailed on a friend who invited you to pop in to say, Magnolia for a beer, because you didn’t want to circle Haight Street for hours? Maybe you blamed it on your wife or a hard day at work. Maybe you said you were feeling under the weather.

Don’t feel too bad—you’re not going to hell. Not alone, at least. Most of the city plays this game. And the trauma of looking for parking is just one of the causes of San Francisco’s post-traumatic parking disorder. The rest of the pain comes after you’ve found an open space.

Let’s say, by some miracle, you’re presented with a spot. It’s time to break out your curb color decoder ring. Is it yellow, green, or red? If 85 percent of the paint is faded and flaked off, does it still count? Or maybe it’s white—what does white mean again?

Perhaps it’s better to try a meter instead of risking it at a colored curb. In that case, dig out your reading glasses. Look not only at the meter instructions and hours, but at the signs posted above, which might outline the passenger loading hours, the tow-away “No Stopping” peak hours, the street-cleaning hours. Is it after 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month? Did you see an eagle clutching two snakes flying in the eastern sky this morning? This year, SF’s basic expired parking meter fine was raised to $65 ($90 if you’re a day late paying it), proving that you were dead wrong when you thought the Critical Reading portion of your SAT test would never be put to practical use. Get it wrong and one of those baby Interceptors will be by shortly, ready to slap you with a bill.

Ironically, the problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of parking spaces. In fact, SF is the first city in the country to have done a full census of parking spaces, and it turns out we have quite a lot of ports for your Prius: more than 280,000 on the street. The most recent data shows that there are 470,481 registered vehicles in the city, which should net us a parking space for every 1.68 cars. It’s like we all have our own parking spot. Except we can’t find it.

So what’s the deal? Are 200,000 of those 280,000 spaces really in the Outer Sunset? Are those jerks with the Range Rovers, who manage to take up three spots so as to not get a ding, really ruining it for the rest of us? The city, to its credit, is trying to find out. Kind of.

You might have noticed those little white plastic pucks sloppily glued to the street all over town. Those are parking sensors. They’re part of an initiative called SF Park that should make it easier to find a place to check your Audi.

The idea is that the sensor will know when there isn’t a car parked in a space, and will send that information to a data center that will then pipe the information over to a website or iPhone app (no fooling) that alerts drivers. If you think texting and driving is a hazard, imagine someone circling your block with his eyes glued to his phone, looking for a parking spot in cyberspace.

Hey, no, I’m sure it will be fine. But will it help anything? The prospect of heading directly to a predetermined spot when you’re late is attractive. But I’m still wondering how an app is going to compete with the typical San Franciscan, trained over the years to hone his Malthusian instincts and superparkingvision, which help him spot a berth on South Park from inside the ballpark. Maybe one of those Blade Runner meters will help out with a “Reserved” sign or something.

Still, I get the sense SF Park does more for the US Department of Transportation than it does for San Francisco. Eighty percent of the project is funded by the DOT, and nobody’s hiding the fact that this is a two-year pilot program. But the other 20 percent of this project comes from San Francisco taxpayers, and I’m not sure this is going to quench the anxiety you have over losing your plum spot in Noe Valley—where street cleaning and residential permit hours, not meters, are what keep you home watching Top Chef reruns on Thursday nights.

If the Board of Supes had given me the choice of what to do with the cash that the city is putting towards Parking 2.0, I might’ve suggested a different course. Maybe a few extra bus lines or a light rail project. Or maybe a subway system that heads to Marin—you know, something that makes it possible for San Franciscans to ditch their cars altogether.

Click here for the definitive guide to San Francisco parking, also published in the April Issue of 7x7 Magazine.