Before the crack of daybreak, a nondescript white van cruises the residential streets of central Berkeley picking up people unknown to neighbors.
For early risers along the residential blocks several blocks west of the downtown, the van has been a curious sight. But for city workers searching for a parking spot on far flung residential side streets, the van is a dependable lift to work.
Since 2001, the Berkeley Police Department has spent around $12,000 annually for the van to shuttle department employees from city residential streets where they park to their jobs at police headquarters and City Hall.
The goal, said Patrol Captain Doug Hambleton, is to provide safe transport to city employees and take some of the parking pressure off blocks adjacent to city offices.
But several residents on the most affected block aren’t pleased that Berkeley is encouraging city employees to drive to work and monopolize parking on residential streets.
“It’s not fair,” said Hank Clayton. “We pay the taxes. Either the workers should pay for parking or the city should build a garage. They shouldn’t park at our expense.”
Clayton, who lives on Bancroft Way between Roosevelt and McGee streets, the nearest block to city offices that doesn’t have a two-hour parking restriction, said his block is the top prize for downtown commuters looking for a spot. It’s three blocks from the Public Safety Building on Center Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
“It’s not just the city workers. You’ve got the postal employees, business workers, high school seniors all competing against each other,” he said.
Clayton’s next door neighbor Tim Moellering, a Berkeley High teacher, said he stopped using his car during the day because he knew there would be no spots for him when he returned.
“The traffic here has increased dramatically,” he said, “because people are cruising for a place to park.”
From around 6 a.m. to just before 8 a.m., the van, driven by a part-time police employee, circles the blocks from between Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Sacramento Street, between Channing Street to the south and Addison Street to the north. The prime pick-up points are those blocks without two-hour residential preferential parking limits.
To keep city workers and other all day parkers off his street, Clayton needed to get more than 50 percent of the neighbors on his block to sign a petition requesting the block join the city’s residential preferential parking program. Most neighboring blocks have signed up for the program which allows them to pay a fee to restrict parking to under two hours for those who don’t live on the block.
However, last year Clayton couldn’t muster up enough signatures from homeowners. He blamed the petition’s failure on a lack of interest from two businesses on the block and a high number of absentee landlords. But several neighbors interviewed said they would rather hunt for parking spaces than pay $30 for the permit to park on their own block.
Still, with the city currently pressuring UC Berkeley to reduce new parking construction and encourage employees to commute on public transit, Councilmember Dona Spring said the city van shuttle sends the wrong message.
“It’s a bad example for the city to set for other government agencies,” she said. “Instead of creating a shuttle to parking lots, we’re shuttling employees to residential streets.”
Spring said she received neighborhood complaints about the van when it first started, but that former Police Chief Dash Butler brushed aside her recommendation that the department lease space from neighboring church parking lots.
“He said the staff was so demoralized because they didn’t have a place to park,” she said.
Parking for police officers and other city employees was more plentiful before the late 1990s when the city built the public safety building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the site of two surface level parking lots. At the behest of residents around McKinley Street, just west of the public safety building, the city closed down two more staff parking lots, which are set to be auctioned off this year to residential housing developers.
Capt. Hambleton said the police started the shuttle to offset the loss of the parking lots.
“We were getting a lot of complaints about employees parking in the neighborhood and going to move their cars during the day,” he said. “Having the shuttle spreads cars out so we don’t have as great an impact on any one neighborhood.”
Hambleton added that police officers’ tendency to work overtime made it harder for them to carpool or rely on public transportation. Since the city closed the four staff parking lots, it has sought to discourage employees from driving alone to work, he said.
Employees receive free AC Transit passes, $20 monthly commuter checks to pay for BART tickets, discount parking at the center street garage for carpools and a guaranteed taxi ride home in the case of an emergency, said Matt Nichols of the city’s transportation department.
He added that operating a parking lot shuttle would likely be too expensive for the city especially considering that employees could just hop on an AC Transit bus. The success of the city’s program in boosting public transportation use remains unknown. The last city study showing that 47 percent of city workers drove to work alone was conducted in 2001, before the city rolled out the transit incentive program.ª