San Francisco Provides $20.6 Billion in Public Housing...For Cars

Availability of public parking spaces per square mile by neighborhood. Image: SFMTA, Streetsblog SF

It's true. There is a parking crisis in San Francisco. But we're not suffering from a lack of parking. According to a recent SFMTA study, San Francisco has 441,950 public parking spaces. 275,450 of those parking spaces are on-street. The remaining spots reside in garages around the city. As the SF Examiner points out, if these on-street parking spaces were laid out end to end, they would stretch the entire length of the California coastline.

While that's a fun knowledge bomb to drop at parties, what about the economic impact of devoting all of that land to idle autos? In San Francisco, especially during our current housing crisis, that land has a high value.

Cost of real estate in US cities. Source: Business Insider

According to Business Insider, the median list price of housing in San Francisco is $666 per square foot. I consider this a pretty reasonable number since there are many cases where buyers are paying much more than the list price. But it's obvious that parking spaces aren't as valuable as homes, so let's just cut it in half and give parking spaces a value of $333 per square foot.

Each parking space is between 17 and 20 feet long and about 7 feet wide. So the average parking space represents approximately 140 square feet of the most valuable real estate in the country.

At $333 per square foot, San Francisco could hypothetically list each and every public parking space for a median price of $46,620. If we multiply that by the amount of public parking we can see that San Francisco is providing $20.6 billion and 61.8 million square feet in public housing...for cars.

While there are many negative impacts of such heavy subsidization of automobile ownership, there's a monetary opportunity cost to proving this much real estate to transportation for the rich.

San Francisco's single largest revenue source is property taxes. The amount of money a property owner pays to the city is based on the value of their property. In San Francisco that rate is $1.188 per $100 of assessed value.

If privately owned, all of the public parking in San Francisco would generate $244.8 million a year in property tax revenue. Subtract the $86.3 million the city earns on parking tickets and the $41.5 million it collects from parking meters each year (and ignore what the city spends on maintenance). You see that public parking in San Francisco represents a $117 million opportunity cost to the city and the taxpayers.

I'm aware that $46,620 may not represent the market value of a parking space. But the only way to know the value for sure would be to allow the market to decide. My point is that the cost of public parking is quantifiable, and we're losing money.