Residential Parking Reform for Downtown San Francisco
Over two decades ago, San Francisco adopted its innovative Downtown Plan, which sought to increase the number of jobs downtown while limiting parking. Since then, thousands of new jobs have been created downtown with few new parking spaces, which allowed downtown to grow while encouraging thousands of people to walk, bicycle and take public transit, and minimizing increases in traffic congestion.
Last fall, Supervisor Chris Daly introduced legislation that will continue these good planning principles of preventing city streets from being overwhelmed with auto traffic as downtown adds thousands of new housing units in the coming years. This legislation amends the planning code sections dealing with residential parking in the Downtown Commercial (C-3) zoning districts. An earlier version was approved by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, but vetoed by the mayor.
A reintroduced version of the downtown parking reform ordinance, sponsored by supervisors Peskin and Daly, was signed into law as ordinance 129-06 on Tuesday, June 23rd. The new version includes most of the provisions of the previous version, while carving out a few exceptions under which parking would be allowed on upper floors, and on certain pedestrian-, transit-, and bicycle-priority streets in the downtown.
This comprehensive legislation will reduce traffic congestion downtown, make downtown housing more affordable, create more car-free housing downtown, and preserve and enhance the safety and quality of downtown streets for walking, bicycling, and public transit.
Why is downtown parking reform needed?
This legislation will address two of San Francisco’s most vexing problems, housing affordability and traffic congestion. The legislation will increase the supply and affordability of downtown housing, while preserving the downtown's historic transit-oriented character and reducing traffic in the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. This legislation will:
- Make housing more affordable: A UC Berkeley study found that housing without parking sold for 12% less than comparable units with parking, were affordable to 24% more San Francisco households, and sold an average of 41 days faster than condominium units with parking. A study by the Sedway Group found that downtown condominiums without parking were up to 21% more affordable than comparable units with parking.
- Create more housing options for real San Francisco households, not wealthy out-of-towners: The 2000 census found that approximately 30% of San Francisco households didn’t own a car; the percentage of car-free households in transit-rich areas exceeds 50%, including up to 70% in the Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods. All the downtown housing currently being developed with one (or more) parking space per unit will change the character of transit-rich downtown neighborhoods.
- Make Downtown more family-friendly: A recent study by the Department of Children, Youth and their Families found that the city's unsafe streets are one of the top reasons that families with children are leaving San Francisco. Making our downtown streets safer and downtown housing more affordable will help attract and retain families with children.
- Reduce traffic congestion: A 2005 San Francisco State University study found that each residential parking space generates several vehicle trips per week, and that travel behavior differed greatly between residents of buildings with one space per unit and buildings with reduced parking where people were more likely to bike, walk, or take transit. The Transportation Authority projects 250,000 new vehicle trips in San Francisco by 2025 if we don’t change our transportation policies; this legislation will help us reduce new vehicle trips while using our limited street capacity most efficiently.
- Stop the privatization of downtown streets: Private automobiles are the most space-intensive form of transportation, and have been allowed to compromise the safety and mobility of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. Reduced parking will generate fewer vehicle trips, which makes it easier to reclaim road space downtown for wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and transit lanes. It will also allow us to create more housing and jobs overall in the downtown.
- Create transportation options for downtown residents: Building transportation options, like car sharing and bicycle parking, into each new development reduces traffic and provides transportation options for residents.
- Make downtown a better neighbor: Downtown traffic spills into the dense residential neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, like the SoMa and Tenderloin, which despite having some of the lowest car ownership rates in the city have some of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths and injuries from auto collisions. Reducing traffic will reduce the public health and environmental impacts on these neighborhoods.
- Support production, distribution, and repair (PDR) jobs: reducing traffic generated by residential uses will facilitate goods movement to production, distribution, and repair (PDR) uses on the edges of downtown;
- Improve pedestrian safety and economic vitality: excessive traffic and inadequate sidewalks compromise pedestrian safetyespecially for children and the elderly and hurt the economic vitality of neighborhood-serving retail. This legislation will reduce traffic conflicts and improve the attractiveness and safety of walking, bicycling, and transit use in our downtown, by eliminating garage entrances and portes cochere on major transit, bicycle, and transit routes.
What will the legislation do?
- Eliminate minimum parking requirements for downtown housing. This simply means that the City will no longer force housing developers to provide unneeded parking.
- Establish a by-right maximum of 1 space for every 4 units, with additional parking allowed under section 309 of the planning code if more affordable units are provided.
- Establish a maximum parking ratio for dwelling units of 3 spaces for every 4 units. One space per unit is allowed for units with two or more bedrooms. Developers and individual tenants are free to secure additional parking spaces off-site.
- Provide flexibility in configuring off-street parking to give developers the flexibility they need to create space-efficient parking through the use of tandem, valet, and stacked mechanical parking.
- Require off-street parking to be below ground, or on the ground floor with active uses on all public frontages to prevent ugly, multi-story concrete parking garages and blank building fronts in San Francisco’s beautiful downtown; some exceptions are allowed with a conditional use authorization by the planning commission, which is appealable to the Board of Supervisors..
- Establish limits on width of garage openings to off-street parking and loading. Excessively wide garage openings encourage cars to shoot out of building at high speeds and endanger pedestrians and bicyclists.
- Prohibit residential portes-cochere for loading or parking, and prohibit garage entrances on important pedestrian, bicycle and transit streets, including Market Street, Folsom Street, Embarcadero, Stockton Street, California Street, Geary Street, Powell Street, Montgomery Street, and Grant Avenue. Driveways and narrowed sidewalks for portes-cochere and garage entrances create conflicts between autos and other modes.
- Require secure bicycle parking citywide for residential buildings of four or more units. 1 space is required for every 2 units in projects up to 50 units, and 1 space per 4 units in projects larger than 50 units. These standards are already common in new neighborhood plans, and reflect survey results that show approximately 50% of San Franciscans own bicycles. Secure bicycle parking will encourage more cyclists, as studies show that concern about bicycle theft is a common barrier that prevents people from biking.
- Require that parking spaces be sold/leased separately from dwellings in projects of more than 10 units, and provides exceptions for affordable housing projects. By “unbundling” the price charged for housing from the price charged for parking, people have the choice to purchase only as much parking as they need, people without cars aren’t forced to pay for parking they don’t need, and everyone pays less for their housing.
- Require car share spaces citywide at the ratio of 1 dedicated space for car sharing vehicles for each 200 dwelling units. Studies show that car-sharing services in the Bay Area are proven to reduce the number of vehicles people own and the number of car trips taken, while providing a car when needed.
 Wenyu Jia and Marty Wachs (1998). “Parking and Affordable Housing. Access No. 13, Fall 1998. University of California Transportation Center, Berkeley.
 Amy Herman. “Study Findings Regarding Condominium Parking Ratios.” Sedway Group. (San Francisco: 2001).
 Rocco Pendola, Stephanie Ruddy, Elmer Tosta (2005) “What’s Parking Got to Do with It?” Spring 2005, Senior Seminar, San Francisco State University Urban Studies Department.
 2025 Countywide Transportation Plan (2003). San Francisco County Transportation Authority.
 October 1997 San Francisco Voter Survey, David Binder Research .
 Transportation Alternatives, New York City.