It is a contest over how the city should be configured and organized, and for whom," Henderson wrote in his paper, titled "The Spaces of Parking: Mapping the Politics of Mobility in San Francisco."
His research led him to conclude that progressives, who want to make the city more bike- and public-transportion friendly, are pitted against the more conservative elements (he calls them neoconservatives), who want to increase space for parking and cars at all costs, with the moderate (or in his words, "neoliberal") factions tangled in between.
Part of Henderson's critique involves estimating the hidden costs of parking and as it turns out, that can be done using Google and Craiglist. According to a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2008 fact sheet, there are an estimated 320,000 on-street parking spaces in San Francisco, including metered spaces, each consuming, on average, about 160 square feet.
According to a 2002 presentation by Jeffery Tumlin, a national transportation consultant, if the city rented these spaces for the lowball rate of $1,000 a year, San Francisco would rake in $320 million annually.
There would be no shortage of demand market prices are way higher. Henderson's review of Craiglist unearthed folks who looking to rent parking spaces in San Francisco and willing to pay from $100 to $500 a month.
But SFMTA which issues more than 89,000 residential parking permits annually and recently opted to cut Muni service and routes and increase fares on public transit rather than extend parking meter hours to balance its budget shortfall decided to increase the cost of these parking permits, starting July 1, by only $2, from $72 to $74 per year. That's less than 10 percent of market value.
The resulting revenue will be dedicated to the cost of administrating the program not to offset the hidden costs of parking, which include carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution, congestion, and occupying valuable space.
Henderson is intrigued by the relationship between parking policy and a complex set of factors that include public health, obesity, and the cost of affordable housing. He notes that if a city's housing policy requires developers to provide a parking space for each housing unit, too often developers don't build that housing, or build it smaller, or build it as part of a luxury complex.
"The progressive response to this dilemma is to try to get government to eliminate the one parking-space-per-unit goal and cap the total amount of parking built. Meanwhile, the neocons, who believe government should be active in creating more parking, rail against more bus lanes," Henderson said.
As he notes, common to both groups is the desire for government to help them achieve their vision.
"Much as we see San Francisco as a progressive place, it's also peopled by neoliberals and very conservative folks and progressive and neoliberals coalesce on the issue of 'smart growth.' And there are lot of progressives who have a car and say, 'I don't want to be car dependent; I'd like to do city share, but I'd feel stranded.' And those who say 'I always want to have my own car, but I only drive it once a month.'"
Conceding that "tweaking the system" will cost money, Henderson cites congestion pricing as an area where the various factions can find agreement.
"The important question is, what will the revenue be used for?" Henderson said, noting that some will argue that if you charge motorists to use roads, then the money should be used to improve the roads, which is what has happened with toll roads in Texas.
But in San Francisco, activist are pushing the opposite approach.