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Don't Park There 

The Unwritten Rules of Parking in San Francisco

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
Anyone who's spent more than an hour in San Francisco is painfully familiar with our city's schizophrenic parking laws. There are two sets of parking rules in this town: the formal regulations found on the books, and the informal regulations that the meter maids go by. It's these mysterious, informal regulations that count. These are generally not set in writing, but begin as verbal guidelines passed down from the Department of Parking and Traffic hierarchy to the meter maids, or as standards of practice that develop organically on the street. Can you park in a street-cleaning spot after the street-cleaning trucks have passed? Will you be ticketed if you're only a teensy bit into the red zone? Will you be towed for parking in front of a fire hydrant? Out of an overwhelming sense of civic duty and self-sacrifice, Dog Bites decided to divine the secrets of San Francisco's unwritten rules of parking. Oh, and we also ran up quite a tab with the DPT.

We spent the better part of two months interviewing meter maids, which meant running around the city chasing stupid little golf carts. (This proved more difficult than anticipated; the moment you get within reach, they zip away, leading us to wonder if meter maids are trained by Muni drivers.) We also chatted up meter maid supervisors, DPT officials, and San Franciscans with significant parking-related insights. We found that a general consensus does exist for the unwritten rules -- and by keeping our handy guide tacked to your dashboard, you can greatly improve your parking karma.

But first, a few basics.

Despite the sexed-up stories you occasionally hear, meter maids do not have "quotas." Nor are meter maids under orders to seek out borderline, "Mickey Mouse"- type offenses to fill the city's coffers. In fact, it's just the opposite. On a typical day in San Francisco, about 6,000 tickets are issued and 220 cars are towed -- and these numbers should be much higher.

There are so many parking offenses at any given moment in this city that meter maids can't keep up. When we asked meter maids if it's difficult to find violators, they simply laughed. ("Just open your eyes," was a popular response.) Although numbers are hard to come by, San Francisco has about 150,000 fewer on-street parking spots than registered vehicles. The quota rumor was born out of the DPT's attempts to get a few slacker meter maids off their butts and back to work. Whether you want to call it a "parking violator surplus" or a "meter maid shortage," the situation forces parking officials to be selective about which offenses they ticket and which they ignore.

Be thankful you've got Dog Bites to tell you which is which.

The second thing you need to know: "Complaints" are king. A complaint is when some upstanding citizen (or dickhead, depending on your viewpoint) calls in a violation to the DPT. For day-to-day enforcement, meter maids give some latitude. But when it comes to complaints, the law is scrupulously applied, and the unwritten rules go out the window. Which means you should honor thy neighbor. Or do a damn good job of faking it.

Finally, we'd like to make a statement that's bound to be controversial: Meter maids are nice. Sure, there are a few who are psychotic assholes from hell. But we were pleasantly surprised to find that, when it's not your car they're ticketing, the majority of meter maids are quite amiable, fair-minded, and, above all, patient. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute: You spend 40 hours a week surrounded by people who hate you, caught in the middle of a war between DPT management and the general public. And you do all this in a golf cart, when what you really need is a tank. Yes, some meter maids are mean, or slightly bonkers. ("Shellshocked" might be the better word.) But that's to be expected in a profession in which every human being you encounter, whether it's in the office or on the streets, wants to slug you. Think about it.

And now for an important disclaimer: (Y ahora para una denegación importante:)

Please (please!) remember that although Dog Bites found a high degree of consensus regarding these unwritten rules, that doesn't mean they're followed 100 percent of the time by 100 percent of meter maids. We did run all of them past a DPT spokesperson, who kindly told us she could only vouch for the laws on the books. It's unlikely you'll see many exceptions to our rules, but it's bound to happen eventually. So if you get a ticket, don't go siccing your attorney on us, OK?

Back Draft

On a particularly interesting day of our adventure, we talked to a meter maid about the subject of modestly priced tickets: If you need to break the law, which violations are the cheapest? To our surprise, she told us that fire hydrants are on the low end of the scale, at $50. Could that be right? We had assumed that fire hydrant violations were serious, and fell into the category of unauthorized use of a disabled placard ($500), parking in a disabled spot ($275), or parking in a bus stop ($250). Maybe the big money flows for the tow? Well, the law says you can be towed, she said, but usually meter maids are too busy towing for "higher-priority" violations, such as blocked driveways. The only time you'll get towed for parking at a fire hydrant is if it's called in as a complaint -- and only if the caller specifically requests that you be towed, which is a rare occurrence.

We polled at least a dozen other meter maids and meter maid supervisors, and they all said the same thing. Hmmm. This might explain why parking in front of fire hydrants is such an epidemic in San Francisco. The ticket's half the price of parking on the sidewalk, and the practice is also less risky, since people are more apt to call in sidewalk violations. "This isn't a damn parking lot," a homeowner might say to himself, but he hardly ever thinks, "Better get that guy in front of the hydrant ticketed and towed in case there's a fire."

About The Authors

Rachel Quinn


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