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Parking Fines Raise Drivers' Ire Column drew a slew of angry e-mail, calls


March 10, 2001

San Francisco — If you're ever in the need to liven things up at a party, here's a simple way: mention the initials DPT.

And if you feel the need to go out and touch an electrical wire, it's probably a lot safer just to write a column about parking in San Francisco.

The surveys about the most contentious issues in town usually list Muni, housing and homelessness. But from my experience, the city's parking and traffic woes generate a more heated response than even your friendly, ridiculously rising utility bill.

Two days ago, I wrote about the Department of Parking and Traffic's desire to greatly increase the fines for alleged parking infractions in the City by the Bay. And some 220 phone calls and e-mails later, I'm wondering if Willie Brown shouldn't open a Department of Public Therapy to deal with the civic trauma residents feel over the issue.

Here we have one of the most expensive cities in the world trying to make extra bucks on the backs of beleaguered drivers -- who are so short of parking space they feel no alternative but to break the law. This does not justify them doing so, but does at least offer an explanation as to why reasonable people will suffer numerous parking citations because there is simply no place for them to park.

And what is DPT's response? To continue to take away parking spaces and try to increase the fines for people illegally parked. This falls under the toothpaste tube theory of life -- with the inevitable results when people are being squeezed at both ends.

Bureaucracies like DPT excel at avoiding the fallout. I do not. In the past 48 hours I have been called everything from a protector of normal citizens to an idiot puppet of those horrible people known as car owners, with the suggestions for my fate ranging from being forced to move to San Jose (Go Sharks!) to being tied to the back of a Buick and dragged around the city's car-filled streets.

One caller, almost less than hysterical, said that everybody in San Francisco should sell their cars and only ride Muni or take cabs.

As if you can get a cab in San Francisco.

And should I count on Muni to take my kids to school, go to work, pick them up, take them to (basketball, soccer, baseball, piano) practice, and get home by dinner time? Not in this century and certainly not in the last.

Reason takes a daily beating in this town, but when it comes to parking and traffic, it's subject to drive-by shootings.

First, let's set the record straight. To the two dozen people who unleashed their fury at me for allegedly defending parking on sidewalks, let the column show that I do not, nor have I ever, approved of blocking sidewalks with cars. People who do rightly deserve to be ticketed, and as DPT's ever-increasing cash reserves show, they usually are.

I do, however, believe that people should be allowed the right to park in their driveways as long as they don't block the sidewalk and allow room for pedestrians, dogs, strollers and luge enthusiasts to pass. That should not be a ticketing offense and DPT's parking control officers need to learn the difference.

But DPT's problems go deeper than its need for personnel retraining. Judging by my mail, the vast majority of residents do not approve of the department's desire for an increase in fines and most view it as another revenue-enhancement scheme by a department that has no equal when it comes to raising money.

It's a view that is shared by more than just an unhappy group of recently tagged citizens, since no less an authority than Supervisor Jake McGoldrick told me that the word down at City Hall is that DPT wants to raise an additional $10 million each year, in part because much of the money goes to help pay for Muni.

"There are better ways to fund Muni than by issuing more tickets or by approving punitive taxation measures to balance the budget," McGoldrick said.

The word tax was used often in the responses I received, and readers seem to think they shouldn't have to pay additional costs for living in an extraordinarily expensive city. DPT chief Fred Hamdun insists, of course, that the steep increase in fines is an attempt at behavior modification, not a revenue grab -- a hard argument to make to the countless number of people who already pay hundreds of dollars a year for having the temerity to own, operate and park a car in San Francisco.

I received more than a dozen new horror stories about drivers who encountered unreasonable parking control officers, but the one that really stood out is a case that does not single out an individual ticket writer but rather underscores the kind of thinking that is all too prevalent at DPT.

David Long, who manages an apartment building on Leavenworth Street near Chestnut, said that a few weeks ago, DPT officers began writing tickets to cars that were (legally) parked at a 90 degree angle to the curb -- a practice that has been allowed on the street for more than 20 years. It's a practice borne of urban reality, because five cars can fit if they're parked perpendicular to the curb but only two or three can fit if they're parked parallel to the sidewalk.

"You don't take parking spots away in one of the most congested areas of a city that is in desperate need of more parking spaces," Long said. "Every space counts in San Francisco -- and every space that is lost means another car parked on the sidewalk."

Long said he contacted the DPT supervisor who has taken it upon himself to change the long-standing practice. And his response?

"He said that if there's no sign to park at 90 degrees you can't do it, even though it's been done here for decades," Long told me. "And by the way, he said that signs weren't his business. If we wanted to get one, we would have to call another department."

That's just the kind of reasonableness and common sense we've come to expect of DPT, which, by the way, is getting its share of reviews from citizens on the fine increase plan.

But it's not enough. McGoldrick says that if people want to air their views,

they should call the members of the Parking and Traffic Commission and the members of the Board of Supervisors, since both will pass ultimate judgment on Hamdun's proposal.

The commission members are Rev. James McCray Jr., Peter Mezey, Cesar Ascarrunz, Steven Jin Lee and Min Paek. They can be reached by contacting the commission secretary at (415) 554-9811 or by writing to 25 Van Ness Ave., Suite 410, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Your favorite supervisors can be reached at (415) 554-5184.

People have no trouble reaching me.

So stay off the sidewalk and may your next space be a big, empty, legal and unmetered one.

You can reach Ken Garcia at (415) 777-7152 or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfchronicle.com.

© 2001 Ken Garcia, San Francisco Chronicle


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