Three parking meters with their numbers scratched off.
Three parking meters with their numbers scratched off. Photos by Beth Winegarner.

Across the city, vandals keep scratching off the meter numbers that drivers use in mobile apps to pay for parking. Nobody knows exactly who or why, but two things are certain: The phenomenon creates headaches for motorists and parking enforcement officers alike, and it’s costing the city untold amounts of money. 

The city’s 12,000 single-space meters, installed in 2012, give drivers the option of paying for parking with coins or an app. Those who use the app must plug in their meter’s unique identification number, printed on a decal on the street-facing side of the meter. It’s also on the sidewalk-facing side, and on the meter’s LCD screen, but many locals don’t know that. If they can’t read the number on the street side, they may shrug and walk off without paying. 

That’s what Rachel Chalmers did when she parked in SoMa one day for a business meeting, and found that the number on her meter had been gouged off. “I went on to my meeting [without paying], expecting a ticket,” she said. “But no ticket materialized.”

Parking is a major source of revenue for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Its single-space meters brought in $51 million in 2022, according to Stephen Chun, a spokesperson for the agency. 

Meter vandalism, including when meter numbers are defaced, “poses significant issues to revenue as it relates to our agency’s overall budget,” Chun said. “As such, we devote a considerable amount of resources, with teams out six days a week, to assess and repair meters across the city.” 

In 2022, SFMTA staff corrected 9,592 cases of meter vandalism and graffiti on single-space parking meters, Chun said. Over the course of the next couple of years, the agency is rolling out kiosks where motorists parking on a city block can pay — and kiosk numbers are posted high up on poles, putting them out of easy reach of vandals. 

However, the kiosks are unlikely to be a complete solution. In 2022, SFMTA staff replaced 230 number decals on single-space meters and 102 number decals on the kiosks. When the kiosk installation is complete in late 2024, San Francisco will still have 12,000 meters, plus about 2,500 kiosks, Chun said. 

“It’s unfortunate,” said Queena Chen, a member of the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council, speaking independently of the council. “The MTA has a very large shortfall. If they were able to maintain the meters better, they’d have more revenue. There are times when I see meters broken for months, but everyone’s always parking in those spots.” 

That said, the SFMTA doesn’t put a dollar figure on how much it costs to repair meter vandalism, nor how much income it loses when cars park for free at damaged meters, Chun said. The agency is also facing a projected $214 million deficit by 2026. 

As to who’s damaging meter numbers? It’s not entirely clear. It would be easy to chalk it up to people fighting the elitism of paying through an app. After all, locals have railed against other efforts to move away from cash payment for public services, such as Muni (see these comments), or for bathroom access. And not everyone has a credit card or a mobile phone. 

Chun wouldn’t offer any solid explanations for the phenomena, though he said, “in some instances, the person receiving [a] citation may be the person scratching off the meter number.”

Chen also suspects it’s people trying to avoid paying for parking. 

“From what I’ve seen … a lot of people try to tamper with the meters, because once they break, you don’t get a ticket, and you don’t have to pay,” she said. 

An anonymous San Francisco parking enforcement officer, posting on Reddit as sfmetermaid, posted a related suspicion a couple of years ago. 

“This is not to inconvenience you. It is to us. We have to run the meter number before we can cite you,” sfmetermaid wrote. “By doing this, it makes us go to the meter screen to look for the meter number on the bottom, thus giving you ‘more time’ to catch us before we give you the ticket.”

If so, these vandals aren’t outsmarting the system as well as they may think. When parking meters are vandalized to the point that they’re inoperable, drivers can park in the space for free, up to the time limit posted on the meter, Chun said. 

But that doesn’t apply to meters with defaced numbers. Drivers are still expected to pay; that’s why the numbers are posted in so many locations on each meter, he said. 

It also thwarts anyone trying to pay their fair share for parking. Even when faced with a scratched-off number, many drivers do their best. As recounted in a December Mission Local investigation, when one motorist paid and then tried to guess at the meter number, he guessed wrong — and received a citation for his efforts. 

Local writer Pia Chatterjee walked up and down a row of meters on a block in the Mission, child in tow, hoping to guess at her meter’s damaged number. In her case, the number had been damaged on both sides of the meter, and she didn’t know it was available on the screen.  

“I made a good enough guess to elude tickets,” she said.  


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COPY EDITOR. Beth Winegarner is a Bay Area native who’s lived in San Francisco since 2004, and she’s in the Mission at least once a week. She’s written for local publications like the SF Weekly, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine, as well as the New Yorker, the Guardian, Wired, Mother Jones and others. Her favorite tacos and alambres come from El Farolito.

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  1. Why is this a story? Anyone with a credit card can pay for their parking at one of these meters. More people have credit cards than the app.

    The real story is why is SFMTA wasting money it allegedly doesn’t have to replace 10yo meters that work perfectly fine for a system that will discourage more people from trying to pay for parking because it has an increased behavioral burden? The first time I tried to pay at one of the new kiosks it took 5 minutes for it to process my information and accept my credit card payment compared to 15 seconds with the single meters. Most metered spots aren’t enforced regularly enough for people to be willing to spend the extra time on top of the high price of metered parking to park legally. SFMTA will lose more money with the conversion. I was recently in Pasadena and they’re still using 40yo coin-only meters, but SFMTA thinks we need new meter technology every 10 years. No wonder there’s no money left for MUNI.

  2. Meter number scratching has been happening literally since they were first pasted on. All over North Beach someone took markers to the numbers and marked over every single meter about 5-6 years ago and most were still vandalized as of 2020 when I stopped working there. It was the same all over Union square.

    That said, I’ve been able to successfully contest every ticket I’ve been written since they upped “enforcement.” The two white zone tickets I got while I was parked in the driveway at my work. After 26 years of living in SF that’s the first time I’ve ever pulled that off and I’ve tried at least 20-25 times. It’s almost as if someone with a soul is working in their collections dept. this month.

  3. Meters til 10 and dangerous driverless vehicles. The City might as well just issue every resident a pair of chaps.

  4. Yeah, so once again the law abiding citizens are the ones who ultimately pay considering sfmta is now extending parking meter hours and adding Sundays. It’s maddening.

  5. I live in Soma near 9th. People who benefit from rigging the meters would see the pay-by-app as a threat. I can see why they might scratch off a number. Meters are routinely dead-dropped in my neighborhood by people who jam things into the coin slots so that several coins will go in but not drop. Later, these folk (or anyone in the know), can be seen to put a wire down into meter coin slots, extracting any coins that could not drop. It’s a real racket and performed on such a regular basis that most of our meters are unusable. And SFMTA won’t know unless someone reports it. The new kiosks will solve this dilemma.

  6. Bring forced to *download* an app IS really annoying. Why not just use a website? Why do I have to clear space on my phone to download an app just to go park? And then download it over a mobile data connection? That there isn’t a website option offends me.

    Not that I’m scratching off numbers, but there’s no way I want to download a different app for every city in the Bay Area. Or any app!
    I’ll just have to bring lots of coins next time.

  7. SFMTA gave me a parking ticket for a car I had NEVER parked in the city. I had driven over the gg bridge a couple of times, but certainly never stopped and never even drove the car on the street the ticket was issued on. They also got the color of my car wrong on the ticket.

    After multiple phone calls, a couple emails, and a written letter (all met with no responsibility or help in rectifying the situation), I had to eat a $200 or so ticket to renew registration on my other car.

    I hope their entire department goes under and there’s a free parking extravaganza in the streets.

  8. Why care about the city losing money to parking to vandal? You have stupidvisors (sic) that are planning to charge for parking 24/7 all day including Sunday and holidays and they are actively removing parking spot for more bike lanes and busses to ensure no one can go to restaurants or other businesses.

  9. Bad administration, you hire a bunch of people who are standing and do nothing, and now you want to live the meters until 10 pm ? Come on what a ripped off. Get competent people stop wasting our tax money

  10. How about they start ticketing people for parking in bike lanes? Should be extremely easy to make up their lost revenue if they actually enforced that rule!

    Yes, the Kiosks number decals also get vandalized, so Kiosks are not going to fix this. We need (like Singapore) parking location numbers on elevated signs, and a REFUND for time not used (yes, in Singapore, you pay by app and get a refund down to the minute for time not used).

  11. It is sad to see that the MTA CAC has been captured and reduced to uncritical cheerleaders for SFMTA (mis) management.

  12. Remove the stickers and use the # on the screen. Sorry, but they will have to get out of their vehicles to ticket someone. Oh the horror!

  13. You pay for 1 hour (or whatever) of parking at the kiosk that you’ve linked to your license plate.
    Who cares which legal parking space you’re at that’s associated with the kiosk?
    The meter reader scans your license plate and sees you’re paid up to such and such a time at that kiosk location.


    One prepays for parking – say $20.
    You park and enter your license plate into the kiosk.
    The time is recorded and the meter reader sees you’re paid up to whatever time is max allowable or whatever you’ve got left on your prepay.

    What am I missing here?

  14. The time bought, on the meter is not readable in the daytime, for the most part.
    Now they will run the meters until 10pm.

    For Christ’s Sake!!!! No wonder people are pissed off at the SFMTA…
    Not saying vandalism is right, but it sure is understandable