For most city dwellers, parking’s an issue. In larger cities, essentially, your options boil down to either coughing up $25 for a garage, or you’re left circling the block again and again in hopes you’ll catch someone leaving a metered spot.

That’s made most of us here at the SmartVan public transportation people. But, of course, that’s not much good when your job involves taking a van out to jobs all day. And given how ubiquitous service calls are in just the tiny part of downtown San Francisco surrounding the SmartVan’s office (I counted four elevator-repair vans just on our block), the question struck me: How the hell do field techs find parking around here?

No Easy Answer

Turns out, there are a bunch of factors to consider when it comes to field tech parking, but the short answer is: it’s tough for them, too.

The biggest single determinant in whether you’ll waste 30 minutes driving in circles for a spot is whether your van has a commercial permit on its license plate. The commercial plate allows techs to park in a yellow zone (although, in this area, at least, they’re typically only 30-minute spots and are metered, too). Bigger companies that maintain a sizable fleet will typically pony up for the commercial tags, but it’s an expense that can deter some smaller operations — and that means they’re out of luck when it comes to pulling up right outside the building they’re working in. (The fees for commercial tags vary state-by-state and based on a van or truck’s weight, but essentially range from $100 or so to over $1,000.)

Tyrone, a field technician who was wiring a downtown conference room to handle online video conferencing, said his van didn’t have commercial tags, meaning he had to feed the meter like everyone else — if he could find one, that is.

“Sometimes we’ll send a scout ahead of time to see where you can park [near a job],” he said. “But in a covered garage, if you’ve got a rack on the van, it’s eight, eight-and-a-half feet, so you can’t get in there. Or sometimes they’ll charge you $40 for being over-sized.”

The company usually reimburses drivers for parking costs, he said. In the past, though, the parking rates at most downtown garages were about the same as the cost of a ticket, so he’d just as soon grab the better spot and risk a ticket.

Different Company, Different Rules

Just around the corner, a pair of Mitsubishi elevator repairmen were unloading their Chevy Express van to do routine maintenance on several buildings in the area. They, too, had managed to get lucky and grab a metered spot. (In downtown San Francisco, most meters take credit cards and offer pay-by-cell phone options, which helps things a lot.)

They said that if they’re really lucky, the building they’re working on will let them park in a loading dock, avoiding the whole process entirely. However, their van did have commercial tags, so that helps.

San Francisco has also implemented a program, SFPark, that can help predict what lots are full or empty, where there’s street parking, and what it’ll cost (new meters have dynamic pricing). The information is also available via smartphone through a free app. That can certainly help, but it doesn’t matter much if you’ve still got to park two blocks away from a job, and need to run back to feed the meter every 30 minutes.

Ticket Liability

Then, of course, there’s the issue of pesky (and increasingly expensive) parking tickets. The techs we spoke with acknowledged that working downtown often requires pushing the limits of the letter of the parking law. And that means you’ll sometimes get burned.

Companies appear to be split when it comes to who foots the bill for a parking ticket. Tyrone said his company usually pays for normal parking tickets — as long as they’re within the realm of reason. Others say their company forwards them the bill.

Nikki Woodward, a rep for American Traffic Solutions, told us that the typical response is for service organizations to simply eat the cost of a parking ticket. The trouble of tracking down who was driving which van where and when is simply too difficult for most sizable organizations — and that assumes the ticket’s even going to them. Sometimes violations get sent to fleet management companies first, then to the service organization, and then to an individual technician.

And if no one pays up, the company runs the risk of not being able to re-up the van’s registration at the DMV, or even getting a boot.

“Most companies don’t have the internal infrastructure themselves to track down drivers, so they typically just eat the cost,” Woodward said. “… So they’ll pay the violation to protect the vehicle.”

ATS offers a service whereby it can automate the mostly manual work of forwarding the liability for parking violations to employees. Woodward noted that giving the liability to the drivers themselves — bummer though it may be for them — allows people to challenge tickets in court. If a company just pays the ticket right away and then demands reimbursement from a driver, there’s no chance to appeal it. “Once a company pays a ticket, there’s no disputing it,” she said.

So for all the tips and tricks of the parking trade, the basic fact is that it’s still a big hassle. Just outside our office, an electrician’s white van was parked in a 30-minute metered zone. Naturally, it’d just gotten a ticket.

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.