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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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News + PoliticsTransportationAre cars, buses, bikes, small businesses, and safe walking a zero-sum game?

Are cars, buses, bikes, small businesses, and safe walking a zero-sum game?

Or is there a way to make SF really a transit-first city without making a lot of people miserable?


The Chron says that San Francisco is making life miserable for people with cars. Mark Farrell, a candidate for mayor, wants to re-open Market Street to car traffic. A lot of folks who live on the West side of town are angry about the Great Highway closure and new plans for West Portal.

People who ride bicycles are worried about cars, as they should be. Cars can kill bikers. People who walk around are worried about cars, too, as they should be. Cars kill pedestrians. Small merchants and restaurants say bike lanes and slow streets are ruining business.

It sometimes seems as if everyone is mad and there’s no way to make drivers, bikers, merchants, and walkers better off without making someone worse off. Most of these folks are not rich or powerful; they’re just trying to make a living and get around town.

Muni needs to change. So do a lot of other things.

So let me offer some perspective.

San Francisco is the second-densest urban area in the county, after Manhattan, where hardly anyone drives around to get places. It’s also part of California, where transit has been secondary to car culture since the 1940s.

In Manhattan, most people going to work or to shop or to the doctor or to see friends take the subway. That city invested more than a century ago in the type of public transit that works well in dense areas.

Instead, California built freeways (a project that often didn’t work out too well). Bay Area leaders created a post-war development model based on suburbs feeding people into San Francisco in cars (one deck of the Bay Bridge used to hold trains, that ran from the East Bay into the city; that was changed to fit the 1950s culture of cars).

BART was never a San Francisco transit system; it was designed to bring East Bay and Peninsula commuters into downtown. The Muni Metro system is also designed to bring people downtown, not across town.

So San Francisco transit is, by definition, slow: The buses on light rail vehicles have to share the roads with cars, and have to stop at stop signs and red lights. The Bus Rapid Transit lanes help, but they are limited. And they still have to stop at cross streets.

Manhattan is also a perfect place for subways, since it’s a long, narrow island. San Francisco is a square. Thanks to old-fashioned downtown-centric planning, cross-town transit has always suffered.

If, for example, you are a senior and you live in West Portal and have a medical appointment, say, at Kaiser in the Richmond, it’s not easy to get there on the bus. Only two routes get you through Golden Gate Park, and one runs on 19th Avenue, which is also State Highway 1, a path to the Golden Gate Bridge, and always, always choked with traffic. The other route, on the 44, requires several walks of a couple of blocks each. The whole process takes at least 45 minutes, if all the connections work.

It takes about 15 minutes to drive.

So people drive.

When I was in high school and college and went to Manhattan to party, we either took the subway or a cab to get around. Most of the traffic on the streets was taxis, and they weren’t all that expensive.

In San Francisco, Uber and Lyft now dominate, they’ve jacked up the rates (and cut the share that drivers get) and there are so many of those cars on the road that that they make traffic way worse, and they aren’t affordable for regular use.

Oh and by the way: Uber plans to destroy public transit, ultimately with robot cars.

I almost never drive, but I’m still young and healthy enough to ride a 25-year-old bicycle everywhere I go. The new electric bikes make it easier on the hills, although they aren’t cheap. Still, not everyone can ride a bike.

Then there’s the school problem. The SF public schools have eliminated almost all of the regular school bus lines because they can’t afford to pay for the service. My kids got Muni passes when they were in middle school, but you can’t send a kindergartener to school on Muni. A lot of working parents don’t have the time, hours every day, to ride with them, drop them, and ride the bus home or to work.

And, for a lot of good reasons, hardly anyone can walk to the school they are assigned.

That doesn’t even account for after-school programs or activities, that are probably far from the school site. (When my kids were little, I worked in Potrero Hill, my daughter went to school in the Castro, then had gymnastics after school on Bayshore.)

So parents drive their kids to school. (Some of them take their little kids around on electric bikes, which is wonderful—but given the traffic problems in this city, a bit scary).

I’m not saying this is right, or perfect, and there are people who manage to raise kids in the city without ever using a car, and bless them. But it’s not easy.

When the supes voted to close JFK Drive in the park to cars, which I supported, Sup. Shamann Walton raised a point: There were race and class issues here, since a lot of folks in Bayview Hunters Point can’t easily get to Golden Gate Park on Muni.

San Francisco is a transit-first city, and ought to be, but right now that’s an aspiration. It’s getting worse, too: Muni is facing a serious financial crisis.

Seems to me this is a problem that can be solved, not by making the lives of people who have to drive miserable, and damaging small businesses, but by making the alternative easy. (San Francisco does too many things that make working-class people and small businesses miserable.)

It’s going to be expensive: Muni was designed for a world that doesn’t exist, when most people worked downtown.

In the end, the city is probably going to have get rid of the trolley coaches, with their fixed routes, and replace them with electric buses that can move around the city and change routes quickly depending on demand. (AI might actually be useful for this.)

Every part of town will need bus-only routes, or even streets. Seniors and people with mobility issues (or parent with little kids) should be able to summon a public shuttle as easily as you can call for an Uber—and the state needs to let the city strictly limit the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles on the streets. SFUSD needs to restore robust school bus service.

If we are going to have robot vehicles, they should be small buses, run by the city, that can pick up and drop off riders on demand. People who want to shop, or go to a restaurant, on a street like Valencia or West Portal should be able to get their easily, in a lane that’s open only to public shuttles. The city needs to transform away from the paradigm that ruled for the past 75 years.

Eventually, hardly anyone will need a private car. That’s the solution.

I know: They say we can’t afford it. BART wants a new sales tax. Muni needs a new source of revenue, which will hit the working class the hardest.

I’m sick of hearing that we can’t afford things, because actually, we don’t have to stick it to the working class, and there’s plenty of money out there; yes we can.         

That’s the conversation we need to have.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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