Sean Parker Provides Bulk of Funding To Pro-Parking, Pro-Car Ballot Initiative in SF

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The tech industry’s political orientation around transit is decidedly incoherent.

On the one hand, you have this investment relationship between Uber and self-driving car maker Google that could ultimately obviate the need for car ownership in dense, urban environments. Then you have scores of small startups like Fleet, Tomo Labs, Leap Transit, Chariot and Nightschool that are creating for-profit routes or shared rides around the Bay Area at hours when local public train systems are either at capacity or not running.

Then there’s Sean Parker.

He’s the major source of funding for a pro-parking and pro-car ballot initiative called “Restoring Transportation Balance” that will appear on the San Francisco ballot in November. He put in $49,000, while the Republican party chipped in another $10,000. Parker did not reply to requests for comment.

Among other changes, the initiative requires that:

1. Parking meters should not operate on any City and County holiday listed sfgov.org, on Sundays, or outside the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Commencing July 1, 2015, fees for parking garages, meters, parking tickets, and neighborhood parking permits should be frozen for five years, allowing the City to annually adjust thereafter only for Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases.

2. The introduction of parking meters or variable meter pricing into neighborhoods where they currently do not exist should be allowed only upon petition by the majority of the affected households and merchants.

3. A portion of any additional parking or motorists’ fees and new bond monies earmarked for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) should go to the construction and operation of neighborhood parking garages.

There’s a long list of reasons why free parking is bad policy, most thoroughly detailed in UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup’s book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Free parking subsidizes driving and is a gross mis-allocation of fixed urban space. The 300 square feet or so that is often required to house a single car costs significantly less than other uses of that space, be it for housing, retail or commercial office space. Parking spaces also eat into tax revenue if the same space was used instead for small businesses or residential property.

Bay Area transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin posted this provocative tweet the other month:

(I think his numbers are off on parking costs, as parking spots in many of the city’s eastern neighborhoods already rent for between $200-350 per month. But you get the picture.)

Free parking and the cruising it instigates also created the perverse incentives that gave rise to predatory parking startups like MonkeyParking. When MonkeyParking and other startups cropped up to let users sell information about the availability of free parking spaces to others, the city government had already been building dynamic pricing into parking through an innovative pilot program. But this proposition would could make this pilot DOA, if not hampered by neighborhood review.

The San Francisco city government recently caved to car owners by making Sunday parking free and giving up $11 million in revenue that probably could have gone toward rides for low-income seniors and youth. Merchants and car owners demanding parking have also thrown up roadblocks against the city’s efforts to implement two bus rapid transit lines that could in theory be precursors to subway lines on Geary and Van Ness. (Again, creating another market opportunity for private bus startups like Chariot and Leap Transit.)

So before you go on about services like Uber and Lyft or these private bus lines creating disinvestment in public transit, keep in mind that the car (and the highway infrastructure and parking spots it needed) was the ultimate instrument of disinvestment in urban mass transit in the first half of the 20th century.

As one commenter put it, “The 1950s are calling and they want their parking spot back!”