One of the most misunderstood roles at the SFMTA is that of the parking control officer or PCO. In this episode of Taken with Transportation, host Melissa Culross spends time on the streets of San Francisco with PCOs Scott Ong, Todd Baxter and Ruben Reveles, as well as Parking Enforcement Assistant Director and Captain Kent Chiu, to learn why parking enforcement is essential and what parking control officers do. She discovers that they are much more than just so-called "meter maids."
MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: One of the tougher and possibly most misunderstood jobs at the SFMTA is that of the Parking Control Officer.
RUBEN REVELES: Lots of people perceive us as just meter maids. We’re not meter maids; we do a lot more than that.
MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and we’re spending some time with some of the agency’s parking control officers, or PCOs[BA1] , to learn what they do and how they help keep San Francisco running efficiently. It’s a sunny morning at San Francisco State University, and PCOs Scott Ong and Todd Baxter are enforcing the rules for using disabled placards to park in blue zones or in metered spaces for free. We see a young man pull into a space. He has a disabled placard but, as it turns out, is misusing it. Ong explains the penalties to the man.
SCOTT: Placard’s being confiscated, two citations issued by my partner, here. Okay, now one’s gonna be for the meter. $92, okay.
DRIVER: (laughing in shock) Oh, my god, I parked here for five seconds. I gotta pay a hundred!
SCOTT: Two citations issued, okay.
DRIVER: What’s the second one?
SCOTT: Like I said, the first one is for the meter. Second one is kinda hefty.
DRIVER: D’oh! What?!?
SCOTT: ‘Kay, 866.
DRIVER: (laughing in disbelief) Oh, my… (sighs)
SCOTT: These[SM2] fines are not, uh, by MTA. This is from California.
SCOTT: You can always contest the citations. On the back right here: request for review. You can write a letter. It’s up to them when they read it at the citation hearing.
SCOTT: If they throw it out, yea or nea.
MELISSA: The young man takes the two citations and heads to class while Ong goes over what just happened and how he and Baxter determined the violation.
SCOTT: The gentleman parked his vehicle at a metered spot, hung up the placard. We stayed to the side. He got out of the vehicle, put on his backpack, and we gave him the opportunity to pay for the meter. He walked away from the meter, showing no attempt to pay for the parking space. So therefore, we approached him, identified ourselves verbally and with our badges, and, uh, asked to verify his placard that he hung with his ID. While doing that, we asked him, “Who does the placard belong to?” and instantly, he said, “Oh, this is my mother’s placard.” I said, “Where’s your mother at?” He said, “Uh, she’s in Fairfield.” Therefore, we call that a misuse. So, he got issued two citations. One for the meter and the other one for the misuse, and we confiscated the placard.
MELISSA: The Department of Motor Vehicles issues disabled parking placards to PEOPLE, not VEHICLES. So, if the young man’s mother had been with him, using the placard to park without paying would have been fine, but she was miles away. (More nat sound to facilitate minor subject change…) About half an hour or so later, we come upon a vehicle with a placard that is parked illegally in front of an apartment building near campus. We immediately hear a woman calling out of a window, but it takes us a minute to spot her.
SCOTT: Oh, hey! Yes, ma’am, you need to move. It’s in the “cross hatch.” It’s basically for a van who has, uh, you know, the fold out thing[SM3] . And then the wheelchair can roll out.
WOMAN: Okay, all right. I’ll move it right now.
SCOTT: You got it.
MELISSA: Ong tells the woman that with her placard, she can park in any of the other spaces in the area, including blue zones, but not in that “cross hatch” space reserved for vehicles with access ramps. No citation is issued, and we move on. PCO Todd Baxter then talks about what a typical day is like for him and Ong on this detail.
TODD-3: We roll around the city. We try to verify placards, make sure that they’re currently valid. Oftentimes it could be expired. Other violations could be lost-stolen. The owner could be deceased, and someone else is using it. It could be, um, reported unclaimed or surrendered. Scott and I just roam around and look for people in the blue zones, at meters, uh, residential parking timed areas, um, wherever the placards will be put up, we kinda roll around, check ‘em out and, uh, make sure they’re good.
MELISSA: Baxter adds that this detail is about more than citations. It’s about making sure an important accommodation is available.
TODD-1: These spaces are…they’re needed. The people that park there need them. And making sure that the people that are parking there should be there…it’s needed. So, we always wanna make sure that the people that are needing the spot can always have the spot if, if it’s available.
MELISSA: Ong adds to that.
SCOTT-1: You know, think about your, your, your grandparents or your parents or somebody who, that you know, a family member who really needs that spot, who really needs to be closer to wherever they gotta go. The convenience for the person who, who, who needs that. I feel like we’re doing something good. The general public, I feel, they look at us like we are, uh, I guess you can say monsters. But on this detail, when we go and take a bad placard off of the street, people that really do need the spot, they see it, and they see what you’re doing, and they thank us for it. It’s kind of, uh, nice to get a thank you verses somebody who’s screaming at us.
MELISSA: And speaking of that…even though, as we heard, the young man the pair cited today was good natured about it and respectful, Baxter says that isn’t always the case.
TODD-2: None of us really wanna cite anyone. We’re in a profession where, you know, we’re taking money out of people’s pockets. So, no one’s ever really going to be happy getting uh, a ticket, especially the tickets that we issue. So, if we do have confrontation, then we try to use what we, you know, have been taught in our, uh, our classes that we take just to diffuse situations, and, you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
MELISSA: After spending some time with Ong and Baxter, we catch up with Parking Enforcement Assistant Director and Captain Kent Chiu just outside his office South of Market> We talk about the parking enforcement program, in general.
KENT-1: We’re about 300 or so people, low 200s actively right now. Lot of the general public see us as just, what we deem as general enforcement. And this would include our officers, either by foot or, uh, driving the three-wheeled vehicles or on bicycle where they either enforce meters or immediate hazards. General enforcement also includes residential parking. We also got yellow zone programs, which is kinda self-explanatory. Any car that shouldn’t be in the yellow zone or commercial zone, we help move ‘em and tow ‘em along. We also help with the Port. We also help with major events. Uh, a lot of people see us with traffic control, but I guess what’s unstated is, aside from writing tickets and doing traffic control, is, is how much we deal with the general public in itself. The city has been pushing a lot on having more events within the city, just like we had in the past, and we’ve been asked a lot more now to support a lot of traffic control, helping with guidance, um, moving along traffic, assisting with turnover, just creating general order for traffic. And this includes all major events, if not sport events. We support our two major teams in, in the city for Chase and the Giants. Also, any weekend events, parades, fairs, conventions especially, especially in the city, Construction and development haven’t stopped, and we’ve been supporting a lot of that, as well.
MELISSA: We ask Chiu what would happen if there were no parking regulations or enforcement…and instead, we simply let people park wherever they want for as long as they want. His answer is simple: that would be problematic, at best, because parking is at a such premium in San Francisco.
KENT-2: If I do drive, and I do wanna park in the city, I wanna be able to have a parking spot. And it goes to the underlying basic premise of our job is maintaining the turnover on parking, allow people to park. Another thing is, if when you do drive or, or catching the bus, whatever, you want the flow of traffic to be maintained, and that’s also part of our job. Let’s say another thing: crosswalks. For someone to park or block a crosswalk, or someone to double park, you know, prevent a bicyclist from, from going through their allotted lane, well, hey, that’s where we come in, and we move those cars along, or we go and cite ‘em.
MELISSA: Chiu says that people tend to think the work of PCOs is just to generate revenue, but in addition to everything else he’s mentioned, parking control officers also help keep our streets and everyone who uses them safe, including during emergency situations.
KENT-4: If there’s any immediate hazard, like a fire, it’s something we get called to. If we can hold a perimeter for something like that, it’s even better for the public at that point. It’s an extra layer. I mean, given we’re not declared as first responders, but we’re close enough to, you know, events like that, that where hey, we can contribute, and we can keep…keep life flowing, whatever the situation is.
MELISSA: and Chiu reiterates what Baxter and Ong told us about the potential for anger and confrontations over tickets.
KENT-5: Bottom line is signing up to be a parking control officer is dangerous to begin with just in terms of the nature of our job and how the public feels about us. And, given some of the socio-economic issues these days, it’s become more of an issue.
MELISSA: Of course, there are plenty of people who understand that it’s not right to get mad at PCOs for enforcing parking regulations. Linney Jack works at the Designer Consigner on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights.
LINNEY-2: Having gotten tickets, myself, and I feel anger toward the individual handing it out, even though it’s, you know, out of their control. They’re just the messenger. They just, they hand out bad days. So, I can totally see how people can take it out on them, but it’s part of their job.
MELISSA: Jack adds that she and her coworkers appreciate the PCOs who work in the area around the consignment shop.
LINNEY-1: From time to time, if we have someone doing a drop off, and their meter has run out, an officer will come in and kind of pop their head in and say, “Hey, I have an expired meter out here,” like, “Do you know anything about it?” Sometimes the customer will be like, “Oh, that’s me,” and they’ll turn around and, you know, fix it and what not. When someone comes in and does that, it’s nice to see, honestly.
MELISSA: Now we head over to Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin where PCO Ruben Reveles is supporting a homeless outreach operation to connect unhoused San Franciscans with services and clean the sidewalks where people have been living. The purpose of this detail is to make the area safe by clearing the street so the Homeless Outreach Team can do its work. Reveles tells us a few agencies are involved in these operations to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable residents are offered help.
RUBEN-6: It’s a combined team of SFPD, Fire Department, DPW, ah, we have a city inspector, and ourselves. It’s kind of like a family-run…you know, we take care of each other. Ah, we do our own little thing by giving the support.
MELISSA: Reveles has been working on homeless outreach support for about six months, and prior to that, he was on what’s known as complaint detail. He tells us he was assigned to a certain area and would respond to residents’ concerns.
RUBEN-4: You get calls from our dispatch saying, okay…we can have a list of three to four, and we go to certain ones. It, it could be one for blocking a driveway or someone on the sidewalk or someone in the red zone. We go ahead and, uh, cite them, and if it’s possible to tow their car, we tow the car if it’s blocking someone’s driveway. [VW4] Uh, we also do traffic control when there’s an accident or something that happens in that area. And um, when we don’t have any calls, then we’re just patrolling for people that are in violation.
RUBEN-5: We’re not just meter maids, you know. We do a lot more, and people don’t realize that. And that’s, uh, one that gets my goat all the time is when they call me a “meter maid” because I don’t know, I can’t remember when the time I did a meter, you know? So, you know, that’s a lie…I did do meters, but that’s not what I do, you know.
MELISSA: But ultimately, he approaches his work with more kindness than frustration.
RUBEN-3: You have to have a little compassion, too, you know, uh, with people, you know. If they come up to you, and, you know, you haven’t begun writing that ticket, you know, just remind them, “Hey, make sure you pay your meter,” or “Don’t block the red zone,” you know. There’s a reason why we’re out here.
MELISSA: And hopefully, people will have compassion for all the PCOs who do this very demanding job. Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.
[BA1]You might want to say parking control officers one more time. Or tell people PCO is short for parking control officer.
[SM2]This is not true. The ADA requires a minimum fine for parking in a blue zone. The misuse is established by the state and approve by the City.
[VW4]@melissa: I am okay with keeping this because this is talking about towing for blocking a driveway. Up to you.
[VW5]Can we explain our text before tow program here and tell people to sign up. We can't miss this opportunity.
[BA6]The mention of towing was deleted, so it's no longer necessary, right?
[VW7]Not necessary but would be nice. I leave it up to you.