By Eric Jaffe, January 10, 2014
San Francisco just announced
a deal with the much-maligned private tech buses to charge them a fee
for using city bus stops. Under the reported terms, the buses that
shuttle commuters to and from Silicon Valley will pay the city about
$100,000 a year — about a dollar a day per stop. The response so far has
focused on whether or not this appeases the protestors, but that misses some of the larger picture: San Francisco just decided how much curb space is worth.
"They've established that there's an economic value to having dedicated curb space," says Columbia University planning scholar David King.
"This is a huge issue if we're thinking about not just the shuttle
buses but taxi services, ride-sharing services, and other things that
could really take advantage of having space at the bus stops."
What San Francisco has (seemingly inadvertently) done is expand the discussion of street pricing beyond parking spots to the rest of the space at the curb. Since city dollars pay for city streets, giving out free space at the curb
is a de facto taxpayer subsidy that creates traffic and encourages
driving. That's exactly why some cities (including San Francisco) have
embraced progressive policies that charge a market rate for street-parking spots in commercial districts.
But what would happen if the whole curb were priced? Transit vehicles
should surely get an exemption to dwell there, but what about Chinatown
buses, or delivery trucks, or
Uber and Lyft and Sidecar drivers, or even official taxis? How long
must a vehicle hog the curb to need a curb permit? Will cities that
generate revenue from curb space be more inclined to eliminate existing
paid parking spots in areas where the street might be used more
efficiently for another purpose?
"We should either allocate space at the curb economically and let
everyone choose how much to pay — though that includes the transit
agency — or we should just enforce restrictions," King says. "But bus
stops become an oasis, a place to stop."
This is a constructive conversation for cities. Some of the benefits
are obvious; curb fees could help cover the cost of infrastructure
maintenance and transit investment, and they shouldn't be too tough to
enforce (surveillance cameras capable of detecting permit stickers and
capturing license plate numbers would do the trick). We'd expect some
harmful side effects (like companies passing along fees to customers)
but surely this untapped revenue source deserves discussion.
It's not even clear that San Francisco has explored the full potential of its curb value. California state law prevents the city
from charging tech buses more than the new fee program costs to
implement, which suggests Google is being undercharged. And the tech
buses aren't allowed to use the most heavily trafficked (read: highest
value) stops. San Francisco might have been trying to end one fiery
debate with this deal, but in doing so it may have sparked another.