Why is it getting easier to park on my street?

When my downstairs neighbor came up for dinner last week, the conversation turned to parking. We live in a fairly dense residential part of San Francisco, don’t have off-street parking, and both own cars. Parking is a hassle: Break-ins are common, there are street-cleaning days when either side of the street gets crowded, and coming home late sometimes means leaving my car three blocks up a steep hill.

But my neighbor said something that night that surprised me until I realized it was true: Parking is getting easier here.

We’re used to thinking of street parking as one of the headaches that come with urban living. Coming from the suburbs, I never really mastered parallel parking until I moved here. Seeing an empty curb right in front of my apartment feels sort of like finding a dollar on the sidewalk. But now that I think about it, that treat is becoming less rare.

Could this really be happening?

San Francisco continues to boom. It’s gained nearly 100,000 residents since the year 2000 and more than 9,000 in the past year, reaching a record high population of almost 875,000, according to the California Department of Finance. Our neighborhood has felt the impact: Several big new condos and apartment buildings have gone up since height limits were increased a few years ago. None provides a parking space for every unit. We’ve also seen a tech startup move into a small building down the street.

What we’re seeing is an apparent reversal, in one small way, of everything we’ve come to expect from growth and transportation in this country. While traffic in the neighborhood and the city has gotten worse throughout this region’s economic boom, local street parking around here seems to be going the opposite way.

How could parking be getting easier? We identified two likely factors, each related in some way to the boom itself.

The tech effect

As in most San Francisco neighborhoods, many of the new arrivals wear hoodies, appear to be in their twenties, and stare at their phones as they walk down the street. I haven’t asked, but they probably work for tech companies.

Young people are rejecting — or at least postponing — car ownership at significant rates. In 2014, just over three-quarters of people aged 20-24 had driver’s licenses, down from 91.8 percent in 1983. And this is one of the easiest places in the country to get away with it. For those who work in suburban office parks, private commuter buses stop right down the street. For working and playing here in the city, there are plenty of ways to get around without owning a car.

After all, this is the home of car sharing (Zipcar, Getaround, and the like), ride-hailing apps (Uber and Lyft), bus-like private van services (Chariot) and two-wheeler transportation apps like Scoot and Ford GoBike. Urban design scholar Leopold Wambersie de Brouwer discussed the explosion of new transportation options, and how they might relate to each other, in a brilliant Medium post earlier this year. He takes a balanced view that’s rare on this topic, and the piece is well worth a read.

My neighbor and I concluded that either new arrivals are replacing residents who parked on the street, or current neighbors are giving up their cars.

Locals’ advantage

One thing that isn’t driving this change, to any significant degree, is city government. Residents enjoy nearly unlimited free parking on non-metered streets within the neighborhood, even while outsiders are generally limited to two hours. For this, the locals pay less than $200 per year, per car. The city is forming more parking districts like this, adding other minor restrictions, and raising the cost of the annual permits, but it’s still essentially free parking. This can’t possibly recognize the full economic value of the street space that parked cars use.

My neighbor and I aren’t complaining, because this system benefits us and fits our lifestyles. He drives to work outside the city because he found the public transit commute unreliable. I haven’t driven to work in years, but since I already own a car with low gas and maintenance costs, it’s more economical to keep it than to rent. Car ownership also offers greater freedom to drive out of the city whenever I like (not solely “the aura of freedom” that de Brouwer identifies) because I never have to reserve a vehicle from a service.

Yet the whole phenomenon of residential street parking may not have much time left on the meter of history.

The bigger picture

As cities promote alternatives to private vehicle use, competition for streetscape space is growing. Over the past few years, San Francisco has converted open street lanes to bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, and sidewalk space. Sidewalk additions have included wider sidewalks along entire blocks, permanent “bulb-outs” that extend the curb into the street for part of the block, and “parklets,” which turn former parking spaces into public use zones with places to sit, often in front of cafes.

In some cases, these new features coexist with street parking. In others, parking gives way in the interest of promoting alternatives to personal cars. One new plan to make cycling safer on a block with train tracks in the middle of the street would eliminate 45 spaces in a residential area. Parking in that area will probably get harder before it gets easier. But this kind of competition for space may lead more residents to give up their cars until an equilibrium is reached, like in our neighborhood.

The hot trends in car tech, electric and autonomous, might also lead to less private-car parking on streets. Today, electric cars are hard to own without an off-street space where they can be charged. Some owners can probably make it work with chargers at their workplaces, but street parking will get less attractive as electrics proliferate, unless cities or their partners make a heavy investment in curbside chargers.

Just hop in?

In the future, combining electric and autonomous technology should make it easier to turn cars into roving transportation pods that city dwellers won’t need to own or to store near their homes. A self-driving car could pick up me or my neighbor whenever we  wanted and presumably cost less than an Uber or Lyft with a human driver. I would find a service like that more attractive than, say, Zipcar, which asks renters to fill the tank, return the car at a certain time, and take responsibility for driving a car they don’t own.

Self-driving cars could charge themselves and run virtually around the clock. They would only need a shop for occasional maintenance and a parking space somewhere in the region for times when there were more cars than needed. They might be stored on city streets at times, but probably not overnight or for days on end. And would consumers buy their own autonomous cars and then park them on the street? I’m guessing most would draw the line on ownership well before that.

All these visions are far from becoming real. Even after cars can drive themselves and roam around picking up riders, they’ll probably share the road with conventional vehicles for decades. Street parking spaces, and the residents who use them, will hang on tenaciously for a long time. But parallel-parking prowess and snagging that choice spot right in front of your apartment may go the way of advanced equestrian skills.

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