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A partial solution to S.F.'s parking wars? Turn over City Hall vehicles to the local CarShare program.

Wednesday, Mar 24 2004
A muffled thud shook the walls, then another, and another. Next, S.F. retiree Martin Macintyre heard an explosion of glass.

"It was like Baghdad," says Macintyre of the series of bricks that hit his home a couple of years ago, the fourth one shattering his living-room window. "It sounded like a gas explosion."

Next door, law student Tom Hicks and his wife were in bed last November when "we heard a series of low-impact thuds outside our window. In the morning we saw the entire front of the house was covered in eggs," Hicks says of the incident. "We spent two hours with a strong scrub brush, trying to get the yolks off."

Dr. Philip Lum, who lives across the street from Macintyre and Hicks, recalls a mysterious phone caller about three months ago who pretended to be a government official and summoned Lum to the curb outside his house.

"It led me to believe someone wanted me to walk out there and have a confrontation," Lum recalls.

Welcome to Baghdad (or Beirut) by the Bay, also known as Temescal Terrace, a short street near the University of San Francisco where late-to-class students will do almost anything for a place to park, and neighbors have made an avocation of having them towed -- only to suffer students' wrath.

"I'm towing on average one car a week. Sometimes it's two or three cars a week. Then you'll have school vacations where there will be fewer cars. I've towed at least 40 cars total," Hicks says.

Macintyre has lobbied City Hall for roughly 100 hours for increased towing enforcement. Lum makes a regular habit of calling the Department of Parking and Traffic to tow errant cars. Hicks, a second-year law student at USF, plans to escalate this war.

"I'm happy to do what I can to keep the pressure on folks," he says. "People will continue to be towed. The Department of Parking and Traffic will continue to hear from me. USF will continue to hear the heat, and they'll get increased resistance for possible plans for expansion. There is no friggin' way I as a neighborhood resident can even see how they can live within their existing space."

And so it is with San Francisco's parking wars. They inspire such passion that a USF law student says he'll fight his own school's expansion, and thereby prevent additional people from getting the same education he is, just to clear his driveway. Similar strife-filled sagas repeat themselves across the city. Parking lots are no solution -- they just draw more cars. Increased enforcement might help -- or it might create even more backlash.

Isn't there a better way?

There is: reduce the number of cars parked in San Francisco. And it just so happens that a meeting scheduled for this week between aides to Mayor Gavin Newsom and the director of City CarShare, a San Francisco nonprofit that rents cars by the hour, has the potential to lead S.F. down the road toward greater parking harmony.

The cause of parking peace might be furthered with a notion that's been the subject of much controversy: outsourcing.

With the backing of S.F. City CarShare, the cities of Berkeley and Philadelphia have already developed soon-to-be-announced plans to trade in sedans from their municipal employee fleets for vehicles managed by car-sharing organizations. As is typical of outsourcing deals, city officials in these cities have cost savings in mind.

In the Bay Area, 3,000 City CarShare members, myself included, divvy up the use of 80 CarShare sedans by reserving them by phone or over the Internet for $4 per hour and 44 cents per mile. Berkeley plans to replace 15 of its city-employee-pool vehicles with six CarShare-managed vehicles under a contract designed to save $350,000 over three years, according to Senior Transportation Planner Matt Nichols.

Philadelphia's CarShare started up after organizers contacted City CarShare here two years ago hoping to replicate the San Francisco organization.

"We helped establish them," says City CarShare Executive Director Larry Magid, formerly California's deputy director for transportation under Gov. Gray Davis. "We get contacted every week. We're working with people in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Philadelphia -- all over the country -- to start up what we've done in San Francisco."

The Philadelphia progeny is about to leap beyond its S.F. parent. In April, the city of Philadelphia is expected to announce a new program in which Philly CarShare vehicles will replace 55 SUVs and sedans operated by the city car pool. Officials hope eventually to replace the city's entire 450-vehicle fleet. Unlike Berkeley's plan, which would reserve cars exclusively for city employees during working hours, Philadelphia's city cars will be open to all residents.

Mayor Newsom has not stated he'll follow Berkeley's and Philadelphia's lead. And his spokesman did not return my call asking if he ever would. But there are indications our mayor's heart is in the right place.

During his campaign, Newsom pledged to expand City CarShare. After he was elected, he didn't let the issue drop. Instead he asked City CarShare director Magid to write a paper describing ways San Francisco might implement Newsom's promise to expand the service. Other people I've spoken to believe Newsom will follow through on his stated intention to increase car-sharing. The only question is by how much.

If a program similar to either Berkeley's or Philadelphia's were adopted in San Francisco, the effect would be mammoth. This city now operates 910 cars for its employees, excluding Fire and Police Department vehicles. If San Francisco got rid of cars at Berkeley's rate of 15 city vehicles for every six CarShare sedans, outsourcing our municipal vehicle fleet could save something like $21 million over three years, according to my calculations. If we took Philadelphia's approach, in which the city pool integrated into City CarShare full time, the savings would be greater still.

The idea of outsourcing the S.F. municipal fleet to City CarShare was first floated in City Hall circles three years ago, but union officials and bureaucrats connected to the Municipal Railway and the Department of Parking and Traffic resisted the idea, and it was dropped. That resistance may have mellowed with time. Muni Executive Director Michael Burns has signed his agency on as an S.F. CarShare corporate member, giving employees the opportunity to expense CarShare use for work-related trips.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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