Deciphering San Francisco’s On-Street Parking Code - Café with Mario
Friday, October 23, 2009

Deciphering San Francisco’s On-Street Parking Code

Update:  This article has been updated with a close-up of the new signage that replaced the previous plethora of signage.  The update is provided at the end of the original article below.

As I shuffled through my 35mm transparencies shot during the glory days of Kodachrome 64 in preparation for my previously unthinkable undertaking of converting the entire collection over to digital format I stumbled upon a couple of images of a most unusual, yet memorable, on-street parking spot in San Francisco.

The shots were taken back on May 16th, 1994 (a Monday) as indicated on the markings on the slide frames and as I recall with the intention of submitting them to Road & Track magazine for publication consideration in their PS (‘Post Scripts’) feature at the back of the magazine. While the detailed complexity of the situation was not able to be captured in a single frame, today’s digital platform not only enables image enhancement but also provides for multimedia articulation.

Having lived in various neighborhoods in San Francisco for the better part of a decade, I am well versed in the elevated art of on-street parking in a city whose charming and defining Edwardian and Victorian structures were built prior to the automobile’s entitlement claims to dedicated space within a homes architectural design. In a city where circling in vain for an hour for that elusive parking spot before resigning to either a cab ride from a distant location or spinning the wheel of chance on another ticket, affixing one’s vehicle to a legal on-street parking spot instantly creates a willable possession or at the very least the mere accomplishment justifies an enviable broadcast boast on Twitter.

So as I drove east bound on California Street and backed into that vacant spot just a few feet shy of Van Ness Avenue on that early afternoon I licked my chops and slowly, very slowly, exited the car so that for at least a few seconds of fame I would become a surreal heroic villain to my friendly parking-space-seeking foes vulturing by. But my cloud nine state of blissful happiness was abruptly terminated when I plummeted to concrete reality once my eyes made landing on the sign-studded sidewalk minefield.

Before me was the biggest on-street parking conundrum ever. The red curbside spanning the 60 feet from the meter to Van Ness Ave and running along the north side of the Great Western Savings bank clearly delimited. Yet in addition, the spot was governed by four separate postings: the meter’s hours & days of enforcement plus - of course - the time remaining on the meter itself, a red street cleaning ordinance, a green residential parking ordinance, and most perplexing of all a meticulous red & black tow-away schedule. The inter-dependencies and aggregate of the regulations of which a single violation meant either a could-have-been-a-dinner-for-two citation or a could-have-been-a-new-camera trip to the impound lot was most confounding.

I spent a few minutes deciphering the on-street parking code and computed my A-permitted car met all the criteria for just enough time to complete my errand. So I plucked a few quarters in the meter which offered a 2-hour parking time limit, 9 AM to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday, and went on with my chore. As I returned to leave, I decided to roll my car back and snap a few shots to collect evidence of the scene. With a little vertical skewing and some gamma correction of a scanned image of the tow-away schedule, the masterpiece of the signage quartet, the schedule details can be read into a more legible table.

Still baffled to this day I used Google street view to quickly revisit the entrapment site. While the Great Western Savings building (a 1913 building designed by M.J.Lyon Company for a distributor of Buick and National Cars) has been restored to its original function as a Ford car dealership a parking meter still remains but the street cleaning sign, residential parking sign, and tow-away sign have been replaced with a single schedule whose details cannot be made out.

With a recharged curiosity, surely I will make a point during my next trip to San Francisco to digitally shoot the new sign and update this post.


Despite my frequent travels to San Francisco it was not until 2nd quarter 2013 (4 and a half years after the original post) that a window of time in my overbooked meeting schedules allowed me to revisit the site in question.  Indeed, as evidenced in the photograph below, the plethora of signage has been replaced with a single sign post along with a parking meter and the painted curb.  Gone are the excruciating detailed sign post, the permit parking sign, and the street cleaning sign which are all forever archived in the original post.

Even better the new signage (close-up image below), which is updated annually with an adhesive replacement sticker, only requires checking your calendar against the 10 (ten) restricted parking dates listed. The previous signage listed a whopping 68 (sixty-eight) regulated dates – almost 20% of the year!  That’s a 1 in 5 chance that the day you had parked there was restricted – and that is not including the permit parking restriction, the time meter, the street cleaning restriction, or the red curb.

When all combined the likelihood of being able to previously park there, legally of course and without getting a ticket, starts to approximate the chance of winning the lottery – which of course is what it truly feels like every time you do find legal street parking in San Francisco.


Item Reviewed: Deciphering San Francisco’s On-Street Parking Code Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Mario Larach