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Cone wars: The people who squat on parking spots—and the neighbors who hate it

In San Francisco's Excelsior, orange traffic cones mark territory and spark conflict.

A man stands on a sunny street with parked cars, colorful houses, hills in the background, and a traffic cone nearby.
Daniel Contreras says a neighbor puts a cone by the curb across the street from his house in Excelsior daily. It drives him crazy. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

San Francisco’s densely packed Excelsior neighborhood is blessed with many things, but available street parking isn’t one of them. Occasionally, you’ll find a spot—only to notice it’s been blocked with a bright orange traffic cone. 

This is the handiwork of the cone people. For decades, Excelsior homeowners say, residents have called dibs on parking spots with the same cones often marking off construction sites or closed roads. It's a way of life in this corner of San Francisco—and sometimes the only way for car owners to stay sane.

Those who resort to squatting on coveted street parking spots have many reasons for their actions. They say nearby public transit just isn’t good enough to get to work on time. Or they need to get home after work to care for loved ones. Or they're just too busy to park blocks away.

A traffic cone sits between two parked cars, one covered with a tarp and the other exposed.
Homeowners in San Francisco's Excelsior neighborhood say they've been using cones for decades to call dibs on street parking spots. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A steep street lined with parked cars and houses, with a city skyline in the distance.
Cones block off street parking in front of homes on Goettingen Street in the Portola neighborhood on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Julio Gonzalez, a 74-year-old retired San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency worker, has placed a cone in front of his home for over 20 years. He says it’s so his wife has somewhere to park when she gets home from work.

Gonzalez, who lives on Moscow Street, admitted to placing the cone after The Standard moved it aside, parked in his wife’s spot and knocked on his door, asking if that was OK.

“No, my wife comes home at 1 a.m.,” he said. “That’s her spot.” 

Gonzalez has lived here since 1970, he said. When his wife gets home from her job at San Francisco International Airport, most nearby spots are taken except for those close to the Crocker Amazon baseball field. It’s there, he said, that an attacker slashed his stomach and hand roughly 20 years ago. 

“She’ll have to go to the park, and it’s dangerous at night,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, however, said what he is doing actually is legal because he has a permit from the SFMTA that costs $60 annually and lets him place a cone in the street in front of his home. He did not produce the permit when The Standard asked to examine it. The transit agency says no such permit exists. 

‘I can’t look for parking all day’

Lorna Ropati, who lives across the street from Gonzalez, said she, too, puts a cone in front of her house every day.

She said that spots are in high demand because many households in the area are multigenerational, often with older parents living with their adult kids and sometimes extended family members, who may all have their own cars. Ropati said she cares for her mother, her adult brother and his son, who all live in her home.

Two houses with distinct colors flank a traffic cone; flowers and a palm tree adorn the sunny scene.
Residents say street parking spots are in high demand in Excelsior because many households in the area are multigenerational. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Asked if she considered it unfair to her neighbors to block spots in front of her house, Ropati was philosophical. “I agree, but it’s not fair for us who live here to walk blocks to our homes every day,” she said. “I have to care for my mom; I can’t waste time. I can’t look for parking all day.”

Ropati said the city should implement a residential parking permit for her neighborhood to free up spots. She claimed that people who live in other areas sometimes take up spaces for up to three days. Residents have to go through a lengthy petition process to have a permit zone installed, according to the SFMTA.

Willie, a firefighter who lives on Burrows Street and who declined to give his last name, said he disagrees with his neighbors blocking the curb with cones.

Yes, Excelsior residents need cars because of a lack of public transit in the neighborhood, he allowed. The neighborhood only has one bus servicing the immediate hilltop area, the 54-Felton, which doesn’t run to downtown. “It’s tough out here without the bus lines,” he said. “If you’re going south, there’s nothing.”

Still, to this firefighter, the rules are the rules.

“You can’t block it,” Willie said. “It’s the public street.”

‘They’ll holler at you’

A review of 311 data shows that in the past six months, there have been 465 complaints in the Excelsior related to parking, including complaints categorized as illegal parking and blocked driveways.

Daniel Contreras, a 23-year-old UC Berkeley linguistics student who lives on Vienna Street, said moving a cone can lead to confrontation among neighbors.

“People get pissed here if you take their spots,” Contreras said. A neighbor puts a cone by the curb across the street from his house daily, he said. It drives him crazy, but there is nothing he can do.

A person stands on a sunny street corner with houses and a distant city skyline.
Daniel Contreras says moving parking cones pisses people off. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Another resident of Moscow Street, Dave, who declined to give his last name, said removing a cone can lead to years of strain between neighbors. Dave, who's lived here for 10 years, said his neighbor has been blocking off a spot with a cone since he moved to the street 27 years ago.

“I think people kinda know not to park in someone else’s spot; otherwise, they’ll holler at you,” he said.

Dave said his neighbor places a cone along the curb to save a parking spot, and that neighbor had confronted him in the past when he moved the cone out of the way to park on the street.

“If I park there, he’ll give me a hard time,” Dave said. “When I moved here, he made it clear he’s the cone guy.”

SFMTA spokesperson Michael Roccaforte wrote in an email that it’s illegal to block the curb with a cone but added that the city’s Department of Public Works is responsible for removing the cones.

“It is not permitted to use a cone to block a parking space and there’s also no such $60-per-year permit from the SFMTA that would allow you to do so,” Roccaforte wrote. “While we do oversee parking, our responsibility on enforcement is focused on illegally parked vehicles.”

A crushed orange traffic cone lies beside a pole, surrounded by overgrown grass and debris.
San Francisco transit officials say it's illegal to block street parking spots with cones. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said the department does move cones if people complain about them blocking the road and if they are not for construction. 

Both Gordon and Roccaforte said their departments don’t track cone removals and could not confirm how common the practice of placing cones to save street parking is across the city’s neighborhoods.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who represents the area at City Hall and is running for mayor, declined to comment.

The Standard did a rough count of cones around the Excelsior streets featured in this article. Over two days, 52 cones were spotted on 14 streets. Oxford Street had the most cones, boasting nine across three blocks. Naples and Vienna streets tied for second with eight cones, but they were spread more thinly, across nine blocks.

As for Moscow Street, only two cones were witnessed on a recent drive-by. One of those was Gonzalez's. Days later, when a Standard photographer dropped by his address, the homeowner was nowhere to be found. But a cone was still there, silently marking his spot.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at garrett@sfstandard.com