Green city, part one: cut back cars

EDITORIAL San Francisco needs a real green city agenda — not something that comes out of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s corrupt propaganda operation or from the timid folks in the Mayor’s Office but a comprehensive environmental plan for the next 10 years that aims at making San Francisco the nation’s number one city for green policy.

There’s no point in thinking small: this is the year for dramatic talk about real environmental action. And it doesn’t have to be overwhelmed by global problems; there’s so much to be done right here at home.

We will be laying out a much longer, more detailed platform over the next few months, but here’s one way to start:

San Francisco ought to commit to cutting car use in the city by at least 50 percent in the next five years.

How do you do that? By making cars unnecessary and slightly more expensive.

The nation’s addiction to oil didn’t come by accident. As Thomas Friedman wrote in the April 15 New York Times, then-president Dwight Eisenhower responded to the cold war in part by building the Interstate Highway System, which allowed the military to move people and weapons quickly — but also set the nation on a path to the car-driven development and land use that are now poisoning the environment and global politics. Turning that around requires tremendous dedication and political leadership, but San Francisco shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the country.

A citywide auto-reduction plan would involve sweeping land-use changes. Some streets, such as Market, should be closed to cars entirely. Much downtown parking should be eliminated. More bike lanes and transit-only roads, more pedestrian-friendly shopping areas, and other measures of that sort would not only help discourage car use but also make the city a more livable place.

But there’s more: a city that discourages car use has to build housing for local workers — that means affordable housing for the city’s service-industry and public-sector workforce. All new housing needs to be evaluated on that basis: will people who work in San Francisco be able to live here — and avoid long commutes? Most housing currently in the planning pipeline utterly fails that test.

To make cars irrelevant, public transportation has to be vastly improved. As Sups. Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin point out in the Opinion on page 7, that means better management. But more than anything, it means money — big money. Muni fares ought to be reduced dramatically (or eliminated altogether) — but in exchange, Muni needs a dedicated funding source. A special fee on downtown businesses makes sense. A citywide transit assessment on property owners might be necessary.

It’s not fair to place a burdensome tax on cars that makes it possible only for the rich to drive — but simply restoring in San Francisco the vehicle fee Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wiped out would cover Muni’s deficit. Assemblymember Mark Leno is working on this, and it should be a top civic priority. So should pushing high-speed rail (see page 19), which would eliminate tens of thousands of car trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

There are lots of ways to approach this goal; the supervisors and the mayor just need to set it and enforce it. *