San Francisco has helped lead a nationwide trend of using the space by the curb for things besides parking — such as restaurant seating, extra sidewalk space, and bike-share stations. You can see all that happening at once on a single narrow, crowded street: Valencia, in the Mission. The curb space there is precious. But could you put a price tag on it?
Even on a chilly Tuesday evening, Valencia Street in the Mission is full of activity. Bikes are zipping by, passengers are popping in and out of Ubers, and I’m sitting down to eat an empanada in what used to be a parking space.
“As you can see we're not too big inside,” says Paula Capovilla, co-owner of Venga Empanadas.
Venga is a small place on Valencia with about a dozen seats indoors. In 2017 they expanded, by taking over the parking space out front, and turning it into a seating area.
This configuration, called the parklet, was invented in San Francisco in 2005 by the design studio Rebar. This parklet here is pretty basic: an extra trapezoid of sidewalk sticking out into the street, penned in by an orange metal wall, some plants, and a wooden counter.
“Now we have people inside and outside, and they love it,” says Capovilla.
Valencia, maybe more than any other street in San Francisco, shows the ways that the space next to the curb — the space that used to just be for parking — is rapidly changing.
This one block, between 15th and 16th streets, has two restaurant parklets, a Ford GoBike stand, a “bulb-out” sidewalk extension, motorcycle parking, and of course, many parking spots for cars.
Valencia could show us the way other streets are going. So I wanted to find the answer to what I hoped was a pretty basic question: How much is a parking space worth? Whether it’s a bike station, a parklet, or just a normal parking space, how much do people pay to use it?
San Francisco parking meter #700-04250
I decide to start with a parking spot, and I choose the one right next to the Venga Empanadas parklet. How much money does that parking meter rake in during the course of a year?
Hank Willson is the guy to ask. As Parking Policy Manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, he’s got a database of every metered parking spot in the city.
In his office, he opens a computer window. I feel like I’m peeking behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz. Every parking spot is a little colored dot on the map.
Willson zooms in, and finds the dot in front of Venga Empanadas.
“It appears that it's meter ID number 700-04250,” he says.
Willson pulls up all the information about that meter, including when it’s been used, and how much people have paid.
According to the database, the meter in front of Venga made $5,900 in 2017. The city collected another $1,014 in citation fines over the course of the year. So adding up parking fees and fines, drivers collectively pay almost $7,000 a year to use this space.
So what does Venga Empanadas pay to use the space right next to it as a parklet?
A public space, maintained by a private business
Valencia has more parklets than any other street in the city, reflecting how quickly the street has gentrified. The parklets fit the new hipster vibe, and they create more space for businesses on the crowded street.
Venga Empanadas opened their parklet in January 2017, after going through a city permitting process that the owners say took about a year and a half.
Venga paid over $4,000 in initial fees, according to city officials. Pablo Romano, the restaurant’s co-owner along with Capovilla, says actually constructing the parklet cost roughly another $16,000.
Parklets are technically public parks, maintained by the businesses that sponsor them. Anyone can sit at Venga’s parklet, whether they’re eating empanadas or not.
The business is required to maintain the parklet, keeping it clean, clear of graffiti, and otherwise up to city code.
Romano says the required maintenance costs around $500 a year. Renewing the permit annually costs about $280.
The owners guess that the parklet has brought in about 15 to 20 percent more customers since they opened it last January. So once it’s built, the parklet is a pretty sweet deal.
“For us, it’s good to have the parklet,” says Capovilla.
No charge for GoBike to build a bike share station
Just down the street from the parklet is another newcomer on the block: A bikeshare station.
Brian Wiedenmeier, the director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, rides up on a big blue Ford GoBike. He admits it’s a little clunkier than his personal bicycle.
“You sacrifice some things for convenience,” Wiedenmeier laughs.
The Bicycle Coalition advocated for San Francisco to create the shared bicycle system, which has expanded rapidly since summer 2017, when Ford Motor Company became the program’s sponsor.
Wiedenmeier likes that when he uses a shared bike, he doesn’t have to worry about it getting stolen. When he goes places where he “might not feel comfortable” locking his own bike outside, he says “GoBike has actually been pretty convenient.”
This station here on Valencia and 16th was installed in July 2017. It takes up what used to be three parking spots.
Some Mission locals, most notably the group Calle 24, have pushed back against the bike stations. They see them as amenities meant for wealthy newcomers to the Mission. On one of the bike stands a red sticker says, “MAKE GENTRIFIERS’ LIVES UNLIVABLE.”
To longtime residents, it can feel like a corporate takeover of local parking spots by Ford Motor Company. So does the city make big money by selling their parking spots off to Ford?
The bike share system is operated by the New York-based company Motivate, which runs similar programs across the country. Ford (and other sponsors, like Alaska Airlines) pay Motivate to put their branding on the bicycles and docking stations. Motivate would not disclose the value of those sponsorships.
The bike-share program is implemented through a partnership with San Francisco, and other cities in the Bay Area. The SFMTA works with Motivate to decide where to put docking stations. San Francisco does not charge Motivate (or Ford) to use those spaces, because the city sees bike sharing as a public benefit.
Motivate would not say how much it costs to build and maintain a bike station. However, we can get a rough idea of those costs: If a private property owner (such as a college) wants to build a bike station on their property, outside the GoBike coverage area, Motivate charges $75,000 in the first year, and $10,000 in subsequent years.
Another way to look at the value of a bike share station is to think about how much it’s worth to GoBike riders who use it.
According to Motivate, this station on Valencia is one of the most popular in the system. Based on the numbers so far, the company estimates at least 10,000 trips will begin at this station each year. A single ride on a Go Bike costs three dollars. Multiply that by 10,000 rides, and that comes out to $30,000 a year. (The actual amount that riders pay to use this station is a lot harder to add up, because most riders pay a flat annual membership.)
The city loses direct revenue. Do they care?
So lets tally up.
We’ve learned that a parking spot can make the city around $7,000 a year.
Turn that spot into a parklet? After initial fees, the city gets less than $200 a year.
And a bike station taking up three spots? That’s worth thousands of dollars to Motivate and to bikers, but the city doesn’t see a cent.
Yet Willson, the parking manager, says the city isn’t really thinking about money when they turn a parking space into something else. He says that during the planning process for a new parklet or bike share station, he’s never been asked to consider how much meter revenue would be lost.
Instead, Willson says, the city tries to manage the curb space however benefits the most residents.
And for all the parking spots that are still parking spots? The city has a strategy to squeeze the most usefulness out of those too.
San Francisco has become a leader in what’s called demand-responsive pricing. This year, the city did away with the flat $2.25 rate that used cover most meters. From now on, the cost of every meter will rise and fall based on demand.
How does that work? Find out in part 2 of Curb Wars.