Nickels and dimes… or transit for our times?

STREET FIGHT Much has been written about the so-called “Google buses” and San Francisco’s latest round of gentrification. It’s a horrible mess and the city’s trifling $1 charge per bus stop will do little to address the broader structural problem that these buses lay bare.

Ordinary people cannot ride them, nor do the people who clean and cook for the tech world. Like tour buses, they are clunky and inappropriate for many neighborhood streets. While they do substitute for some car trips, an ad hoc private transit system does not reflect the kind of thoughtful regional planning needed to truly reduce car use in the Bay Area.

But the controversy over the private commuter buses does show that there is great potential for a public regional express bus system. Consider that in 1980, 9 percent of commuters in San Francisco left the city every day to go to work. In 2010, outbound commuters approached 25 percent. Owing to regional political fragmentation, Muni cannot provide intercounty service and thus is not the travel mode of choice for many of these commuters. And although Caltrain and BART offer some regional service, the sprawling locations of suburban firms often make regional rail impractical or at the very least time-consuming owing to unavoidable multiple transfers to local buses.

So in noteworthy ways, the rise of private transit is an immediate reaction to poor regional transit connections. Yet rather than sidestepping failed regional planning by encouraging an inequitable, two-tiered, private system, we need to expand and regionalize the existing public bus systems. San Francisco’s mayor and Board of Supervisors have seats at the table of regional planning and ought to use the controversy over private buses as an opportunity to kickstart the implementation of a regional public bus system accessible to all.

For example, something like AC Transit’s Transbay routes should be extended through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, perhaps operated by BART or Caltrain as part of the next iteration of Plan Bay Area. This network would use reallocated express lanes on 101 and I-280 and use transit priority lanes on arterials like 19th Avenue in San Francisco and El Camino Real in San Mateo. Regional property assessments on the corporations and developers, in part already possible within the existing BART district (one should be created for Caltrain), could be used to fund such a system. Congestion charging on 101 and I-280 should also be deployed and those funds used for electrifying Caltrain and developing the parallel and complementary regional bus system.

Of course there will be opposition to a regional public bus system as there already is to progressive regional planning. Transit-connected, walkable communities in the South Bay, for example, have been made all but illegal by decades of conservative middle and upper class, anti-density, anti-tax homeowners in suburban localities. As recently as last year, this Tea Party-style conservative politics dampened Plan Bay Area, resulting in a weak regional housing plan with an underfunded and lackluster transit vision. This conservative approach stifles our collective sense of what is possible and the fear-mongering has rendered regional planners virtually impotent. Yet it can and must be overcome.

Some progressives may find it convenient (and in some cases justifiable) to target tech workers right now, but they could also direct energy into shaping the next round of Plan Bay Area. Remember that Plan Bay Area is a living document, a work in progress. The current version of the plan, weak on transit funding, has been subdued by a loud, irrational mob of Tea Party cranks bent on sabotaging anything that hints of progressive ideas. Plan Bay Area is also stifled by a regional business class that wants to keep the status quo and that is comfortable with the neoliberal model of private transit.

So while a smattering of dedicated and hard-working progressive transit activists showed up and attempted to shape Plan Bay Area last year, in the coming years the plan needs a broader progressive movement — including transit, housing, social justice, and environmental activists — to demand a more visionary regional transportation plan that connects all of the Bay Area. I am hopeful that this would not only steer regional planning in a progressive direction, but many of the tech workers who are now on the private buses would gladly join in the cause.

 

THE POLITICS OF SUNDAY PARKING

Speaking of hopeful, last month the SFMTA reported that Sunday metering, implemented last January, is a resounding success. Switching-on the meters doubled parking availability on Sundays, which is invariably what small businesses, most of which are open on Sunday, want to see.

Sunday meters increased the number of cars using city-owned garages and decreased the time cars circled in search of parking from an average of four minutes to two — de-cluttering streets in commercial districts. While this might seem like a boon to drivers, it also means less pollution, safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, less delay for Muni, and a much needed enhancement of revenue for operating public transit.

So it is mystifying that such success would be ignored by Mayor Ed Lee, who instead has proposed to discontinue Sunday metering. This is doubly confusing because, based on existing travel behavior to many commercial districts, 25 percent of people arrived by driving, while 31 percent took transit and 25 percent walked. So what the mayor is effectively saying to the pedestrian and transit-using majority is you matter little. What does matter is the few whining motorists who called him to complain about being “nickel and dimed.”

The mayor talks a good game when saying he is truly concerned about pedestrian and cyclist safety, and insisting that he wants to fix Muni. But gutting a reliable source of operating funds and pandering to car drivers who will dangerously circle for parking is inconsistent.

Lee says money isn’t an issue because his proposed General Obligation bond (which must be approved by voters) will patch the lost revenue from Sunday metering. But the GO bond will incur further debt and only fund existing capital needs, while parking meters provide a debt-free steady revenue stream for Muni. It’s also slightly misleading because the bond would not cover Muni operations, while revenue from Sunday metering does pay for operations.

The mayor’s pandering also put the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has been working out parking management and Muni finance, on the spot. Ultimately, it has to vote to preserve or scrap Sunday metering in the coming months. Now the directors have to decide if they support transit-first or the mayor’s pandering.

Unfortunately, when it comes to parking policy, the way that the Board of Supervisors has behaved lately suggests it will either jump on the mayor’s bandwagon and pander to motorists or cower in silence as good public policy is trashed. Not a good situation at City Hall, where transit riders seem to be routinely thrown under the bus by the political establishment.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.