Noe Valley Voice September 1999

Digital Parking Meters to Arrive in Noe Valley Next Year:
They'll Take Nickels and Dimes, and Plastic

By Steve Steinberg

This ever happen to you? After driving around the block for 10 minutes, you suddenly spot the perfect parking space on 24th Street. You glide your car into the space and jump out to put money in the meter. Then you discover while picking through your change that you don't have a quarter, the only coin the 24th Street parking meters will take.

Frantically, you run into a store to get change for a dollar, praying you won't get a $25 ticket during the few seconds you're gone. Then you see the Cushman chugging down the street. You race back to your car, your heart pounding. As you open the door, an SUV pulls up, honks, and asks if you're leaving.

Well, maybe you don't need to shop today. Maybe you'll just go home, take a nice long bath, and come back tomorrow with a bag full of quarters. You start up the motor and drive dejectedly away.

If this sounds familiar, you will be glad to know that relief is in sight: Early next year, the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic will start installing 23,000 electric parking meters in city neighborhoods, including Noe Valley.

The new meters will accept nickels and dimes in addition to quarters. And according to DPT director Stuart Sunshine, the electronic meters -- which have a digital readout instead of the old wind-up tickers -- will also take prepaid debit cards.

Sunshine says the department has been field-testing the new meters in West Portal, Chinatown, and the Castro for the past two years. He estimates that installation in other neighborhoods will begin in January or February. (Traffic engineer Bond Yee, who is directly involved in the proj-ect, points out that the next neighborhood in line will be the one whose merchants and residents lobby the hardest.)

So far, the e-meters have proved to be a boon to the city, Sunshine says. "We've seen a revenue increase of 90 percent in some of the test areas." He also notes that vandals and thieves are less likely to tamper with the new machines because of their special key system.

The mandate for the nickel-and-dime meters stems from a vote of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, taken in October of 1995. That vote came during a heated campaign over Proposition H, which had been placed on the ballot by residents who were angry that the city had done away with nickel-and-dime meters two years before. Proposition H would have forced the city to reinstall the old meters and reduce the parking fines, plus completely abolish the Department of Parking and Traffic.

Persuaded by opposition arguments that the measure would deplete city coffers as well as create even more traffic and parking congestion, voters defeated Prop. H. However, the city got the message and ordered Parking and Traffic to make sure the new electronic meters accepted small coins.

Why has it taken so long to accomplish the switch? Sunshine deflects that question by saying that he takes no responsibility for the delays caused by his predecessors -- of whom there have been three since 1995.

His goal now is to make the new meters user-friendly. To that end, he plans to consult with neighborhood residents to determine how much parking time the meters should allow and how much money that time should cost. His hunch is that initially the cost of parking at a Noe Valley meter would be about the same as it is in the Castro and West Portal test areas: a nickel for 6 minutes, a dime for 12, and a quarter for 30 minutes.

As for the debit cards, Sunshine envisions drivers being able to purchase cards with a value of up to $25. They would be sold, he says, in libraries, banks, and wherever Muni Fast Passes are available.

And what do folks in Noe Valley think of the new multi-coin meters?

"Sounds like a good idea to me," says Peggy, a 22nd Street resident. "Lots of time you have change, but no quarters." Peggy says she probably wouldn't bother to use the debit cards, though.

Kevin, a Diamond Heights resident who used to live in Noe Valley and still considers it his "real" neighborhood, thinks the city should stick with the quarters-only meters.

"I've gotten used to using quarters, and besides the city needs the money," Kevin says. He also predicts that even if the city sets the meters to accept nickels and dimes, "they'll change back in five years."

Local merchants have a mix of opinions about the meter changes.

"Five- and ten-cent meters are a fabulous idea," says Ron Wilson, manager of Real Food Company at 3939 24th St. "They allow people to go in and out of a store for a few minutes." He sees the debit cards as counterproductive, however. "They would give people too much money to play with when it comes to parking, and slow down the turnover rate."

But Glen Potter, owner of Accent on Flowers on 24th near Castro, likes the idea of converting to debit cards. "It would mean the city wouldn't have to collect and count coins all day."

Although Potter thinks multi-coin meters are also a good idea, "for when you run out of quarters," he is quite content with the present quarters-only system, since he believes it brings in much-needed revenue for the city.

Tom Maravilla, co-owner of Mikeytom Market at Church and Day streets, says he's not sure the debit cards would prove cost-effective or alleviate the parking situation. But Maravilla thinks the nickel-and-dime meters are "the right thing to do," he says. "Not having a quarter is not finding parking." And not finding a parking space often means you can't shop at your favorite store, he adds.

Meanwhile, Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, thinks we should be talking less about coins and more about changing the time limits on the meters. He favors a combination of half-hour and two-hour parking meters in Noe Valley. The long-term meters would "make it a heck of a lot easier for shoppers," Roddick says.

The last person the Voice interviewed for this story was Suzette Odlozil, owner of the French Tulip flower shop.

"Why didn't they just leave the old [nickel and dime] ones?" asked Odlozil, when approached at the corner of 24th and Sanchez. "I hate that the meters only take quarters. I never have a quarter. But now that we're stuck with them, I think they should leave them alone."

Then Odlozil, who had just parked her car at a meter on Sanchez, had to run off. "I have to go find a quarter," she said in an exasperated tone.