THE BLOG
06/29/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2012

In San Francisco, Parking Tickets Are the New Taxation

SAN FRANCISCO -- "If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." So goes the hit song from 1967 that painted the city as a mecca of openness and freedom. Today, however, the lyrics might go something like this: "If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to have lots of coins in your pocket and don't violate any traffic rules, or else: fines, fines, fines."

Not so poetic, admittedly, nor pretty. But neither are the heavy fines and ticketing efforts that are being waged here due to the budget crisis in a drawn-out recession.

Take parking violations. Already among the highest in the nation, proposals are in the works for a $3 increase on parking violations, making a parking ticket a whopping $68. Street cleaning parking violations will put you back $55. But if you parked at a handicap zone without a permit or at a bus loading area, you might as well give up your car. It will set you back $976. Your second offense? $1,876.

Moving violation fines are also quite steep. Run a red light and it will cost you $436, up from $381 in 2008. If you didn't come to a full stop at a stop sign? That'll be $214.

The cash-strapped Municipal Transportation Agency desperately needs revenue. Since taxation isn't going to do it, overzealous fines will have to. San Francisco collected $41.5 million in parking meters revenues, and about $86.3 million in traffic fines in 2011 fiscal year. It projects to receive $112 million from traffic fines for 2012 and that number is likely to increase if the recession won't let up.

But a San Franciscan doesn't need to own a car to face exorbitant fines. Early one morning the other day on the metro platform at Embarcadero and Folsom, 20 inspectors in protective gear plus one bomb-sniffing dog swarmed the metro trains. Armed with handheld Clipper card readers to detect passengers' electronic payment cards, they inspected everyone in sight, and those who didn't pay were asked to "Step outside, please!"

Jaded commuters seemed at best resigned to the disturbance, but a well-manicured older woman clutched her bag and city map to her chest as if she was about to be robbed. When the train moved on, she said to her male companion, "Honestly, I thought we were having some kind of terrorists attack."

The person who was asked to "step outside" probably felt the same: Since his Clipper card didn't work, he was given a $100 fine, raised from $70 since last year.

Once a deterrent to bad behavior and infractions, ticketing and fines have become an important revenue stream in cash-strapped cities like San Francisco. The city budget deficit was estimated at about $380 million for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The crisis looming ahead is worse, with a deficit for 2012-13 estimated at $263 million, and for the following year a $375 million shortfall.

Many residents now feel that the city government has become a kind of Kleptocracy, a government run by thieves. That is, those in power tax residents through the form of heavy fines for much-needed cash, even as basic services are under threat.

Last year when news that parking meter violations might go up yet again, many angry readers wrote comments on SFgate.com, expressing their dismay and outrage. "Citations are not supposed to be a source of revenue!" noted one writer who said he doesn't own a car but is nevertheless livid. "They are supposed to be a DETERRENT!"

"It's clear that ultimately the city will lose revenue from both sales taxes and parking fines as people go elsewhere to shop," observed another.

Someone who claims to have worked once as an administrator for the San Francisco traffic fines bureau had this so say: "Fallacious logic of creating revenue for the City by outrageous parking fees is only reducing the revenue the City businesses both large and small would bring into the City coffers."

Trying to close a $53 million gap over the next two years, the Municipal Transportation Agency wants to enforce parking meters on Sunday. It also plans to add extra $5 to parking tickets that range from $40 to $60 for violations. In neighborhoods that don't yet have them the MTA is planning another 1,000 parking meters.

The overall message seems clear: Parking tickets are bad for business, deterring shoppers and diners alike from visiting the city.

For the working poor, the system of heavy fines can quickly become something close to tragedy.

Rosalina, a cleaning lady in her 40s who did not want to give her last name, was grief-stricken when she walked out of a posh condominium complex near Embarcadero and Harrison with her cleaning equipment to find a parking ticket on her old Toyota Corolla. She and her daughter had exceeded the two-hour limit for residential parking. In broken English, she said while wiping away tears: "I make five hour[s] to pay this. I get three [of] these [tickets in] one month. Soon, I [will have] no more car."

If you're going to San Francisco, you're going to meet some gentle people there.

People are in motion, certainly, but for the working and middle class it is generally a downward spiral.

And if there's a strange vibration to the City by the Bay, it's not one of freedom and openness -- more like a slow, strangling feeling.

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diasora. His next book, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.