Are Residential Parking Permits Destroying the Planet?

Updated: Jun 11, 2018 11:22
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Guest post by Christian Utzman

For the longest time my gasoline bill used to be $20 a month, but these days it’s more like $200. What changed?  Residential Parking Permits (RPP) came to my neighborhood.  RPPs are stickers for your car that allow you to stay parked for longer than 2 hours in a designated Lettered Zone.  It’s amazing that a sticker have could such a huge impact on my carbon footprint, yet the conversation around RPP is never about car pollution, but only about open parking spaces.  At its most basic level, the more cars you allow to stay parked, the greener the system becomes… but the number of parked cars is poised to decrease substantially.

On June 5th, while our city will be distracted by the election, the RPP department address the SFMTA board of directors with a proposal to decrease the permits available to each address from 5 to 2 for all new zones, and from 5 to 4 for all current zones.  RPP is meant to ease parking problems for residential neighborhoods, but doesn’t work as well as proponents wish.  People opt into RPP hoping that their parking time will fall to zero, but it rarely does. RPP works by converting normal long-term residential parking into daytime short-term parking for anyone without a pass: if cars are prevented from staying parked, there will supposedly be more parking in the evenings for commuters.  The RPP department is proposing to force more cars onto the road, and some residents are hoping more parking places will be open in the evenings as a result.

Unfortunately, the reason parking is hard to find in San Francisco isn’t because too many people take the bus and “store” their car: it’s because more people live in homes than there are parking places.  The same number of cars parked in the morning still have to park in the evening, no matter how many are forced onto the road. As a result, some residents find that parking is still difficult and start to question why they paid for RPP in the first place.

Now if easy parking saves gas, but more locals are forced onto the road to achieve that savings, at what point does the pollution cost outweigh the benefits?  After some calculations (see “Math Zone” at the bottom), it breaks down like this: if your parking search takes 30 minutes, but RPP brings that down to 0 by forcing more than 33% of the previously parked cars onto the road, you’re polluting more than you save.  If parking takes you 15 minutes, moving 20% or more of the parked cars is your pollution tipping point.  If your search time is only 5 minutes, 7.7% is the tipping point.

When RPP came to my neighborhood, they used a study made by examining my neighborhood’s license plates.  They claimed that since only 40% of the license plates were registered to addresses in our neighborhood, the other 60% must be non-locals taking our parking spots. I stood up at a public hearing and pointed out that not only has my car never been registered at my address, but none of my past 12 roommates or romantic partners over the years had either.  The people in my life were all ineligible to buy a permit.  In fact, when looking at RPP participation in San Francisco, the SFMTA’s own survey found that only 43% of eligible households actually use the program while 57% do not: a very similar percentage to the cars registered in my neighborhood. This makes sense, given the current realities of citywide housing.  Younger people are often forced to move frequently and choose not to register their car to their apartment, instead registering with their parents’ permanent address.  It would be a fallacy to assume that a car’s out-of- neighborhood registration address means it is not local, and it is also undermined by the large proportion of eligible addresses that don’t buy into the system.

Converting our residential neighborhoods into short-term parking for 57% of our residents makes for a very dirty transit policy.  To truly reduce CO2 emissions, it should be easy to park at home and costly to park elsewhere.  But RPP doesn’t actually add parking spots, nor does it change the number of cars someone owns.  It only changes who is allowed to leave their cars at home.  This makes for a strong argument against having RPP at all.  Without RPP, you want to stay parked as long as possible for fear of losing your spot.  With RPP, cars that would normally stay parked are pushed out in order for commuters to take those places, attempting to reward daily drivers with easy evening parking.  It’s a system that forces more people to become frequent drivers, in an attempt to reward frequent drivers.  It’s almost as if RPP is a system designed without the environment in mind at all, but rather to allow commuters to weaponize short-term parking against their neighbors, in an attempt to reserve themselves a private parking spot on public streets.

The current system was dreamed up in an era where the nuclear family was the ideal, and the car was the transportation of the future.  As a result, it favors those who live that lifestyle (married homeowners who commute daily) and punishes those who don’t (single renters sharing apartments who use public transit).  The RPP department claims that the public shouldn’t consider their participation statistics.  They assume the only reason you wouldn’t buy a permit is because you have access to a garage: a situation not available to renters like myself.  In a city with so many diverse lifestyles and a housing market that has put home ownership out of almost everyone’s reach, our parking policies should evolve to include the realities of this generation.  San Francisco’s RPP system doesn’t currently care about letting your partner visit you, nor does it care that your car is registered at your parents’ house because they can afford the permanent address you’ll never have.

photo from SFCitizen

You would think that here in one of the most liberal cities in the world, we would be cutting car emissions and increasing public transit usage.  We definitely get a lot of talk from our elected officials claiming that’s their goal, but I don’t care how great you make bike lanes and bus travel if you make it illegal for us to leave our cars at home.  If we are serious about making San Francisco an alternative transportation city, RPP can’t continue with only 43% participation.

If we do decide to keep RPP, then we need to add more drivers to the system.  Other forms of “proof of address” need to be accepted instead of both car registration address AND insurance address (like voting address, medical address, leases, bills, etc).  Yearly guest passes should be allowed for our romantic and/or sexual partners.  Low income residents should be given discounted/free passes, or the whole system needs to come down in price.  And last but not least, people who live next to RPP areas need to be allowed to buy permits. The more people we allow into the system, the fewer hit the road daily and the greener the system becomes.  We’ve already passed the 400 parts/million threshold for CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists warned us against, and we desperately need more ways to pull our planet back from destruction.

Please attend the meeting in San Francisco City Hall (Room 400) @ 1P.M on June 5th, and demand the city deny the RPP Department’s new proposal until they have a greener, more inclusive permitting system.  Write emails to and and ask they include the 57% of the households not in their system, instead of shrinking enrollment.  Share this article on social media and get the word out: our choice of whether or not to drive doesn’t need to be in the hands of the RPP department, but only if we demand it to be so.



Let’s invent a small neighborhood.  Cars vary in their CO2 emissions per mile, but keep it simple and say each car gives off 1 lb/mile of CO2.  Everyone’s daily commute is 20 miles round trip, and 10 people with cars live on our street with 10 open evening parking spots.  If no one drives to work, they save 200 lbs of CO2 from going into the atmosphere; if everyone drives, they pump 200 lbs of CO2 into the air.  After a 20 mile commute (20lbs of CO2/day), let’s add another 30 minutes to a car’s daily carbon footprint to search for parking (roughly, 10lbs).

If RPP totally fixes all parking problems, but does so at the expense of moving cars that otherwise wouldn’t have moved, we can calculate when RPP becomes environmentally effective: 33%.  If 3 of the 10 cars in our neighborhood want to stay parked but can’t because of RPP (using 60lbs of CO2 to commute), but the other 7 instantly find parking (saving 70lbs), it makes sense for RPP to force those 3 parked cars onto the road. However, if 4 cars want to stay parked but can’t (spending 80lbs of CO2), the gas saved by the other 6 cars instantly finding parking (60lbs) is not enough to justify ousting those 4 cars.  15 minute parking searches pollute only 5lbs, so the tipping point drops to 20%, and 5 minute parking searches use just 1.67 lbs, dropping the tipping point to 7.7%.

If the parked cars who’ve unwillingly moved for RPP suffer from parking problems, the tipping point drops even farther.  25% for 30 minute search times.  16.67% for 15 minute search times.  7.14% for 5 minute search times (a full 14 cars parking to 1 car forced to move).  With a tipping point potentially as low as 7.14%, the question then becomes: what’s happening to our environment if 57% of cars wanted to remain parked but couldn’t because of RPP?  In addition, these numbers are predicated on the idea that all parking problems are instantly solved by RPP.  If parking only marginally improves, the tipping points are even lower.

While the specific numbers I used are of course debatable, it is clear that the overall climate impact of RPP can easily be negative.  RPP policy changes should not be implemented without a full analysis of the environmental impact, as a change in eligibility requirements has a huge effect on the carbon footprint of the program.

Important Note: In order to better reflect actual real life conditions, I spoke with a professional mathematician to include more accurate numbers in the Math Zone.  I also was able to speak with Kathryn Studwell before the SFMTA board meeting on June 5th, and I finally received some official answers in person that I was unable to get via email or phone prior to going to press.

Firstly, the sub-department inside the RPP Department has collected no data in regards to fraudulent passes obtained by residents. While they have repeatedly defended their abnormally strict proof of residency requirements by claiming it was due to fraud prevention, they are not able to cite even a single instance to demonstrate abuse of their system.  Their new official reason for San Francisco’s strict RPP application requirements is “it’s the way we’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

Secondly, I asked why her department was requesting to reduce the number of passes available to residents (this motion was passed during the June 5th meeting). Ms. Studwell explained that she wanted the RPP program to be more in line with the SFMTA’s “Transit First” policy.  I pointed out that the RPP Department didn’t actually have control over car ownership: therefore, they aren’t able to equate fewer cars with fewer passes.  She agreed and said that since all they had was power over the curb, preventing drivers from using parking spaces as storage was the best solution they could manage.  I have changed the article to correctly represent the department’s position, but I’ll leave you with this thought: If the car owner can’t “store” their car at home, how is it possible for them to use public transit instead of driving?

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