Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Transit Agencies Step to the Curb for a Financial Lifeline

When it comes to transportation infrastructure, the street curb is increasingly viewed as a revenue source for cash-strapped public transit as it tries to recover from the lingering effects of pandemic ridership declines.

A public transit bus stopped at a crosswalk.
Public transit in San Francisco is looking to some of the city’s most prized real estate for financial help — the street curb.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is not unlike many public transit providers across the nation, still trying to reorient themselves to a post-COVID travel and commuting world that has kicked a worrisome dent into operating budgets. Today’s environment has spurred more conversations about exploring new funding opportunities.

Street curbs, a drop-off zone for everything from people to packages, and perhaps the most precious spot for parking cars, may be the golden egg of public transit.

Officials at SFMTA have advocated for rethinking outdated parking policy around nights and weekends to capture more revenue from the meter.

“I don’t think you should park for free when you go out to spend $300 on a dinner in San Francisco. I think you should pay the meter,” said Tom Maguire, director of streets at SFMTA, speaking earlier this month at the annual Curbivore conference in Los Angeles.

Parking meters are currently not active after 6 p.m., translating into free parking in the evening hours. SFMTA would also like to operate metered parking on Sundays.

“That is part of good curb and parking management. It makes sense on it’s own. But it’s also part of an equitable, citywide transit recovery strategy,” said Maguire.

SFMTA could capture an additional $15.8 million a year from expanding paid street parking to nights and weekends, according to a “budget overview” released by SFMTA in March 2022.

The proposal would be part of a larger aim toward the restoration of the “core network.” Transit service in San Francisco was scaled back during the COVID-19 pandemic and has still not fully recovered, in part due to funding challenges.

“We do not have the revenue right now to restore 100 percent of the service we ran before COVID,” Maguire said during the panel. This lack of revenue is related to declines in the city’s tax base as well as parking revenue, which has generally followed downtown office activity. Downtown vacancies are hovering around 27 percent, according to the publication San Francisco Standard.

Parking revenue dropped off significantly during the pandemic and has been slow to recover. It’s now at 85 percent of 2019 levels, according to recent SFMTA budget documents. Current trends indicate overall operational expenditures could surpass revenue at SFMTA by 15 percent within five years.

“With less revenue in place, we’re talking about a transit fiscal cliff in maybe one to two, three years for a lot of agencies around the state,” said Maguire.

A goal has to be to recover “as much of that core network as possible” in terms of frequency and reliability, he added.

Curb management technology could help to better monetize the curb, often described by transportation tech and other officials as one of transportation’s most valuable assets.

“You have a finite supply of curb space, and you have an infinite demand for that curb space,” said Gene Oh, CEO of Tranzito, a digital curb-management firm.

Tranzito has proposed the idea of reimagining bus stops as multiuse zones where packages could be delivered, as well as ride-hailing drop-offs.

“The technology then creates the ability for someone taking the bus to pick up a package on their way home,” said Oh.

It’s not clear how strongly transit agencies might embrace sharing their bus stops, however.

“I think the real question is what are we optimizing for, and who are we optimizing for,” said Maguire, adding that a top goal in San Francisco is to make the bus system “100 percent reliable” with buses arriving every two to three minutes.

“You really cannot have a vehicle there at all,” he remarked. “I think that’s the live question for us, as policymakers.”

That said, there is still plenty of room for collaboration between the public and private sectors, which can meet a range of goals, said Connie Llanos, interim general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT).

“The days where cities and the private sector were opposing each other really should be behind us,” said Llanos in some of her comments on the panel.

“We’re all interested in creating transportation that is more seamless, for everyone,” she added. “When you create a system that improves transportation for underserved or economically disadvantaged populations, we’re actually improving the system for everyone, across the board.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.
From Our Partners