Anniversary Issue: Beyond the automobile

› steve@sfbg.com

More:

Download the the transportation roundtable discussion (DivShare)

Transportation is the linchpin of sustainability. Fix the transportation system, and almost every other aspect of the city’s ecological health improves: public health, conservation of resources, climate change, economics, and maintaining our culture and sense of community.

The region’s unsustainable transportation system is the biggest cause of global warming (more than half the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles) and one of the biggest recipients of taxpayer money. And right now, most of those public funds from the state and federal governments are going to expand and maintain freeway systems, a priority that exacerbates our problems and delays the inevitable day of reckoning.

It’s going to have to change — and we can do it the easy way or the hard way.

“We’ll get to a more sustainable transportation system. The question is, are we going to be smart enough to make quality of life for people high within that sustainable transportation system?” said Dave Snyder, who revived the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and founded Transportation for a Livable City (now known as Livable City) before becoming transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “People will drive less, but will they have dignified alternatives? That’s the question.”

That notion — that transportation sustainability is inevitable, but that it’ll be painful if we don’t start now in a deliberate way — was shared by all 10 transportation experts recently interviewed by the Guardian. And most agreed that needed reform involves shifting resources away from the automobile infrastructure, which is already crowding out more sustainable options and will gobble up an even bigger piece of the pie in the future if we continue to expand it.

“Yeah, it’ll be more sustainable, but will it be just? Will it be healthful? Will it be effective? Those are the questions,” said Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. “You can’t argue against geology. The planet is running out of oil. We’re going to have a more sustainable transportation system in the future. That’s a given. The question is, is it going to meet our other needs? Is it going to be what we need it to be?”

And the answer to all those questions is going to be no — as long as politicians choose to fund wasteful projects such as a fourth bore in the Caldecott Tunnel and transferring $4 billion from transit agencies to close California budget deficits accruing since 2000.

“Our leaders need to be putting our money where our collective mouth is and stop raiding these funds,” Carli Paine, transportation program director for Transportation and Land Use Coalition, told us. “I’m hopeful, but I think we all need to do more.”

 

TRANSIT AND BIKES

There is reason to be hopeful. With increased awareness of global warming and high gasoline prices, public transit ridership has increased significantly in the Bay Area. And one study indicates that the number of people bicycling in San Francisco has quadrupled in the last few years.

“Look at what’s happening on the streets of San Francisco: you have biking practically doubling every year without any new bike infrastructure. I think the demand is out there. The question is, when is the political leadership going to catch up to demand?” Jean Fraser, who sits on the SPUR and SFBC boards and until recently ran the San Francisco Health Plan under Mayor Gavin Newsom, told us.

But the political leadership and federal transportation spending priorities are behind the times. Of the $835 million in federal funds administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the nine Bay Area counties in 2006-07, 51.4 percent went to maintain and expand state highways. Only 2.5 percent went for expansion of public transit, and 2.4 percent for bike and pedestrian projects. Overall, Paine said, about 80 percent of all state and federal transportation funding goes to facilities for automobiles, leaving all modes of transportation to fight for the rest.

“Historically we favor the automobile at the expense of all those other modes,” Radulovich said at a forum of experts assembled by the Guardian (a recording of the discussion is available at sfbg.com). “It’s been given primacy, and I think everyone around this table is saying, in one way or another, that we need a more balanced approach. We need a more sustainable, sensible, and just way of allocating space on our roads.”

Yet the Bay Area is now locking in those wasteful patterns of the past with plans for about $6 billion in highway expansions, which means the MTC will have to spend even more every year keeping those roads in shape. Highway maintenance is the biggest line item in the MTC budget, at $275 million.

“We can’t pay for what we have now — to maintain it, repair it, seismically retrofit it — so why we’re building more is kind of beyond me,” Radulovich said. “We continue to invest in the wrong things.”

The experts also question big-ticket transit items such as the Central Subway project, a 1.7-mile link from SoMa to Chinatown that will cost an estimated $1.4 billion to build and about $4 million per year to run.

“There are 300 small capital projects we need to see,” Snyder said. “That’s really the answer. The idea of a few big capital projects as the answer to our problems is our problem. What we really need are 100 new bike lanes. We need 500 new bus bulbs. We need 300 new buses. It’s not the big sexy project, but 300 small projects.”

The most cost-efficient, environmentally effective transportation projects, according to renowned urban design thinkers such as Jan Gehl from Denmark, are those that encourage walking or riding a bike.

“I think Jan Gehl put it best, which is to say a city that is sweet to pedestrians and sweet to bicyclists is going to be a sustainable city,” Fraser said. “So I think focusing on those two particular modes of transportation meets the other goals of the financial viability because they’re the cheapest ways to get people around — and the healthiest ways — which I submit is one of the other criteria for sustainable transportation…. And it helps with the social justice and social connections.”

 

IT’S GOOD FOR YOU

In fact, transportation sustainability has far-reaching implications for communities such as San Francisco.

“I think of sustainability in two ways,” Fraser said. “The first is sustainability for the environment. And since I have a background in health care, I think of a sustainable transportation system as one that’s actually healthy for us. In the past at least 50 years, we’ve actually engineered any kind of active transportation — walking to work or to school, biking to school — out of our cities.”

But it can be engineered back into the system with land use policies that encourage more density around transit corridors and economic policies that promote the creation of neighborhood-serving commercial development.

“If my day-to-day needs can be met by walking, I don’t put pressure on the transportation system,” Manish Champsee, a Mission District resident who heads the group Walk SF, told us.

The transportation system can either promote that sense of community or it can detract from it. Champsee said San Francisco needs more traffic-calming measures, citing the 32 pedestrian deaths in San Francisco last year. Almost a third as many people are killed in car accidents as die from homicides in San Francisco — but murder gets more resources and attention.

“There’s a real sense in the neighborhoods that the roadways and streetscapes are not part of the neighborhood, they’re not even what links one neighborhood to another. They’re sort of this other system that cuts through neighborhoods,” said Gillian Gillette of the group CC Puede, which promotes safety improvements on Cesar Chavez Street.

Radulovich notes that streets are social spaces and that decisions about how to use public spaces are critical to achieving sustainability.

“A sustainable transportation system is one that allows you to connect to other people,” he said. “Cities have always thrived on connections between humans, and I think some of the transportation choices we’ve made, with reliance on the automobile, have begun to sever a lot of human connections. So you’ve got to think about whether it’s socially sustainable. Also economically sustainable, or fiscally sustainable, because we just can’t pay for what we have.”

So then what do we do? The first step will take place next year when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize federal transportation spending and policies, presenting an opportunity that only comes once every four years. Transportation advocates from around the country are already gearing up for the fight.

“We’ve built out the freeways. They’re connecting the cities — they’re pretty much done. So what do we need to do to make streets more vibrant and have more space for people and not just automobiles?” asked Jeff Wood, program associate for the nonprofit group Reconnecting America and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.

Then, once communities such as San Francisco have more money and more flexibility on how to spend it, they can get to work on the other sustainability needs. “The key component is having all the transportation systems fully linked,” Paine said. That means coordinating the Bay Area’s 26 transit agencies; expanding on the new TransLink system to make buying tickets cheaper and easier; funding missing links such as connecting Caltrain from its terminus at King and Fourth streets to the new Transbay Terminal; and timing transfers so passengers aren’t wasting time waiting for connections.

And the one big-ticket transportation project supported by all the experts we consulted is high-speed rail, which goes before voters Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A. Not only is the project essential for facilitating trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it takes riders to the very core of the cities without their having to use roadways.

Paine also notes that the bond measure provides $995 million for regional rail improvements, with much of that going to the Bay Area. And that’s just the beginning of the resources that could be made available simply by flipping our transportation priorities and recognizing that the system needs to better accommodate all modes of getting around.

At the roundtable, I asked the group how much a reduction in automobile traffic we need to see in San Francisco 20 years from now to become sustainable — with safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians, free-flowing public transit, and vibrant public spaces. Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, an organizer with SEIU Local 1021 and the Transit Not Traffic Coalition, said “half.” Nobody disagreed.

That may sound outrageous by today’s standards, when cars use about 30 percent of our roadways to handle about 5 percent of the people-moving (a similar ratio to how Americans constitute 5 percent of the world’s population but use more than 25 percent of the world’s resources). A sustainable, just, efficient mix would drastically beef up the operating budgets of Muni, BART, and other transit agencies, and transfer all the capital set aside for new freeways into new transit lines that would better serve, for example, the Sunset and Excelsior districts.

Alternative transportation advocates insist that they aren’t anti-car, and they say the automobile will continue to play a role in San Francisco’s transportation system. But the idea of sustainability means beefing up all the other, more efficient transportation options, so it becomes faster, cheaper, and easier to walk, bike, take transit, or rideshare (probably in that order of importance, based on the resources they consume). As Fraser said of residents choosing to drive cars, “We should make it so it’s their last choice.” *