No such thing as a free lunch. Or parking spot.

I’ve been kicking this Atlantic Cities article around my browser for a couple of weeks, trying to figure out how to respond to it coherently. San Francisco, as a way of raising money, has proposed charging for parking on Sundays. It’s not the first city to do this, and as one might expect, taking away free parking on the Lord’s Day has led clergy in SF to claim that this is a slap in the face of believers everywhere. So I’ll admit to taking the bait here, because one of my longest-running pet peeves w/r/t public policy is when religious communities assume that just by yelling “But my religion says x!” they deserve to have their complaints taken extra seriously.

This is the rest of our fault too, because as a society, we’re in the habit of humoring people who talk like this. When churchgoers complain that paid Sunday parking makes it harder for them to go to church, many well-meaning people will assume that these sorts of complaints have more gravity or are somehow more legitimate merely because they’re made on religious grounds. But the fact that a law inconveniences religious people in some way isn’t prima facie evidence that it’s a bad law (otherwise, we’d provide free parking from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as well). Paid parking on Sunday might actually be a bad policy idea for a number of reasons, but while “People go to church” can be part of the argument against it, it shouldn’t be the whole thing.

The Atlantic article’s choice of which San Francisco church to profile is interesting, because the one the author chooses, Glide Memorial Church, is actually right in the middle of downtown San Francisco, about a block from the Powell Street BART stop and a handful of MUNI lines. I don’t know much about how often the Bay Area’s transit system runs on Sundays, so I’m willing to entertain the notion that it’s so godawful that driving is just the only way to get around (in D.C., where I live, that can sometimes be the case). But in general, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Sunday is no longer a day when entire cities shut down. Taking up space in a dense city center costs money, and while a parking spot in downtown SF will obviously be more valuable on weekdays than Sundays, it’s not as if its value on Sunday drops to zero (there’s actually a whole book on this topic, called The High Cost of Free Parking, which I admittedly haven’t read).

I wrote above that paid parking on Sunday might actually be a bad idea, and I say that because I have some experience with this myself (in the Bay Area, no less). A little over a year ago, I was there visiting some friends, and we took advantage of Sunday free parking to drive out to the city’s northwest corner and see its Pacific Ocean beaches (which, ps, are incredible). When you get about halfway across the SF Peninsula, the city turns very residential, and that part of it isn’t well-covered by transit. So there’s really no reason to charge for parking in a place like that, and I’d say that decisions about who pays for parking on Sundays should be made with those sorts of local factors in mind…access to transit, commercial versus residential space in a neighborhood, and so on. If the author of the Atlantic piece had chosen to profile a church out in that part of the city, I think they’d have had a more sympathetic case study—not because of religion, but because they’d be looking at a part of town that’s really inaccessible unless you have a car.

But that’s my point…there are good reasons to decide in favor of free parking on Sundays, but “It makes things easier for religious people” isn’t one of them. We’re faced with a somewhat similar problem in D.C., where residential neighborhoods get overrun every Sunday with people who drive from Maryland to churches in the city, double-park, and often make it impossible for residents of those neighborhoods to leave their homes. The D.C. police department looks the other way, because presumably they think it looks bad to ticket churchgoers. David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington wrote a post with some good suggestions on how to deal with this problem in a way that respects both residents and the churches that are historic parts of these neighborhoods. But leaving aside the particular (i.e. particularly brutal) logistics of D.C. parking, there’s an overall dynamic here that’s poisonous for city health—the idea that we should write and enforce our laws in a way that takes the interests of church, synagogues, and mosques into special account.


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