Transit or traffic

Pub date October 30, 2007

Click here for the Clean Slate: Our printout guide to the Nov. 6 election


San Francisco is at a crossroads. The streets are congested, Muni has slowed to a crawl, greenhouse gas emissions are at all-time highs, and the towers of new housing now being built threaten to make all of these transportation-related problems worse.

The problems are complicated and defy simply sloganeering — but they aren’t unsolvable. In fact, there’s remarkable consensus in San Francisco about what needs to be done. The people with advanced degrees in transportation and city planning, the mayor and almost all of the supervisors, the labor and environmental movements, the urban planning organizations, the radical left and the mainstream Democrats — everyone without an ideological aversion to government is on the same page here.

The city planners and transportation experts, who have the full support of the grass roots on this issue, are pushing a wide range of solutions: administrative and technical changes to make Muni more efficient, innovative congestion management programs, high-tech meters that use market principles to free up needed parking spaces, creative incentives to discourage solo car trips, capital projects from new bike and rapid-transit lanes to the Central Subway and high-speed rail, and many more ideas.

In fact, the coming year promises a plethora of fresh transportation initiatives. The long-awaited Transit Effectiveness Project recommendations come out in early 2008, followed by those from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study (an unprecedented, federally funded effort to reduce congestion here and in four other big cities), an end to the court injunction against new bicycle projects, and a November bond measure that would fund high-speed rail service between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But first, San Franciscans have to get past a few downtown developers and power brokers who have a simplistic, populist-sounding campaign that could totally undermine smart transportation planning.

On Nov. 6, San Franciscans will vote on propositions A and H, two competing transportation measures that could greatly help or hinder the quest for smart solutions to the current problems. Prop. A would give more money and authority to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency while demanding it improve Muni and meet climate change goals.

Prop. H, which was placed on the ballot by a few powerful Republicans, most notably Gap founder Don Fisher (who has contributed $180,000 to the Yes on H campaign), would invalidate current city policies to allow essentially unrestricted construction of new parking lots.

New parking turns into more cars, more cars create congestion, congestion slows down bus service, slow buses frustrate riders, who get back into their cars — and the cycle continues. It’s transit against traffic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

"If we are serious about doing something about global warming, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: people are going to have to drive less and take transit more" was how the issue was framed in a recent editorial cowritten by Sup. Sean Elsbernd, arguably the board’s most conservative member, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, who wrote Prop. A.

Peskin says Prop. H, which Prop. A would invalidate, is the most damaging and regressive initiative he’s seen in his political life. But the battle for hearts and minds won’t be easy, because the downtown forces are taking a viscerally popular approach and running against city hall.

The San Francisco Examiner endorsed Prop. H on Oct. 22, framing the conflict as between the common sense of "your friends and neighbors" and "a social-engineering philosophy driven by an anti-car and anti-business Board of Supervisors." If the Examiner editorialists were being honest, they probably also should have mentioned Mayor Gavin Newsom, who joins the board majority (and every local environmental and urban-planning group) in supporting Prop. A and opposing Prop. H.

The editorial excoriates "most city politicians and planners" for believing the numerous studies that conclude that people who have their own parking spots are more likely to drive and that more parking generally creates more traffic. The Planning Department, for example, estimates Prop. H "could lead to an increase over the next 20 years of up to approximately 8,200–19,000 additional commute cars (mostly at peak hours) over the baseline existing controls."

"Many, many actual residents disagree, believing that — no matter what the social engineers at City Hall tell you — adding more parking spaces would make The City a far more livable place," the Examiner wrote.

That’s why environmentalists and smart-growth advocates say Prop. H is so insidious. It was written to appeal, in a very simplistic way, to people’s real and understandable frustration over finding a parking spot. But the solution it proffers would make all forms of transportation — driving, walking, transit, and bicycling — remarkably less efficient, as even the Examiner has recognized.

You see, the Examiner was opposed to Prop. H just a couple of months ago, a position the paper recently reversed without really explaining why, except to justify it with reactionary rhetoric such as "Let the politicians know you’re tired of being told you’re a second-class citizen if you drive a car in San Francisco."

Examiner executive editor Jim Pimentel denies the flip-flop was a favor that the Republican billionaire who owns the Examiner, Phil Anschutz, paid to the Republican billionaire who is funding Prop. H, Fisher. "We reserve the right to change on positions," Pimentel told me.

Yet it’s worth considering what the Examiner originally wrote in an Aug. 2 editorial, where it acknowledged people’s desire for more parking but took into account what the measure would do to downtown San Francisco.

The paper wrote, "Closer examination reveals this well-intentioned parking measure as a veritable minefield of unintended consequences. It could actually take away parking, harm business, reduce new housing and drive out neighborhood retail. By now, Californians should be wary of unexpected mischief unleashed from propositions that legislate by direct referendum. Like all propositions, Parking For Neighborhoods was entirely written by its backers. As such, it was never vetted by public feedback or legislative debate. If the initiative organizers had faced harder questioning, they might have recognized that merely adding parking to a fast-growing downtown is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

The San Francisco Transportation Authority’s Oct. 17 public workshop, which launched the San Francisco Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study, had nothing to do with Props. A and H — at least not directly. But the sobering situation the workshop laid out certainly supports the assessment that drawing more cars downtown "is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

City planners and consultants from PBS&J offered some statistics from their initial studies:

San Francisco has the second-most congested downtown in the country, according to traffic analysts and surveys of locals and tourists, about 90 percent of whom say the congestion is unacceptably bad compared to that of other cities.

Traffic congestion cost the San Francisco economy $2.3 billion in 2005 through slowed commerce, commuter delays, wasted fuel, and environmental impacts.

The length of car trips is roughly doubled by traffic congestion — and getting longer every year — exacerbating the fact that 47 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from private cars. Census data also show that more San Franciscans get to work by driving alone in their cars than by any other mode.

Traffic has also steadily slowed Muni, which often shares space with cars, to an average of 8 mph, making it the slowest transit service in the country. Buses now take about twice as long as cars to make the same trip, which discourages their use.

"We want to figure out ways to get people in a more efficient mode of transportation," Zabe Bent, a senior planner with the TA, told the crowd. She added, "We want to make sure congestion is not hindering our growth."

The group is now studying the problem and plans to reveal its preliminary results next spring and recommendations by summer 2008. Among the many tools being contemplated are fees for driving downtown or into other congested parts of the city (similar to programs in London, Rome, and Stockholm, Sweden) and high-tech tools for managing parking (such as the determination of variable rates based on real-time demand, more efficient direction to available spots, and easy ways to feed the meter remotely).

"As a way to manage the scarce resource of parking, we would use pricing as a tool," said Tilly Chang, also a senior planner with the TA, noting that high prices can encourage more turnover at times when demand is high.

Yet there was a visceral backlash at the workshop to such scientifically based plans, which conservatives deride as social engineering. "I don’t understand why we need to spend so much money creating a bureaucracy," one scowling attendee around retirement age said. There were some murmurs of support in the crowd.

Rob Black, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is the most significant entity to oppose Prop. A and support Prop. H, was quietly watching the proceedings. I asked what he and the chamber thought of the study and its goals.

"We have mixed feelings, and we don’t know what’s going to happen," Black, who ran unsuccessfully against Sup. Chris Daly last year, told me. "The devil is in the details."

But others don’t even want to wait for the details. Alex Belenson, an advertising consultant and Richmond District resident who primarily uses his car to get around town, chastised the planners for overcomplicating what he sees as a "simple" problem.

Vocally and in a four-page memo he handed out, Belenson blamed congestion on the lack of parking spaces, the city’s transit-first policy, and the failure to build more freeways in the city. Strangely, he supports his point with facts that include "Total commuters into, out of, and within San Francisco have only increased by 206,000 since 1960 — more than 145,000 on public transit."

Some might see those figures, derived from census data, as supporting the need for creative congestion management solutions and the expansion of transit and other alternative transportation options. But Belenson simply sees the need for 60,000 new parking spaces.

As he told the gathering, "If someone wants to build a parking lot and the market will support it, they should be able to."

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is generally allied with the downtown business community on most issues, but not Props. A and H, which SPUR says could be unmitigated disasters for San Francisco.

"SPUR is a pro-growth organization, and we want a healthy economy. And we think the only way to be pro-business and pro-growth in San Francisco is to be transit reliant instead of car reliant," SPUR executive director Gabriel Metcalf told me in an interview in his downtown office.

He agreed with Belenson that the free market will provide lots of new parking if it’s allowed to do so, particularly because the regulatory restrictions on parking have artificially inflated its value. "But the negative externalities are very large," Metcalf said, employing the language of market economics.

In other words, the costs of all of that new parking won’t be borne just by the developers and the drivers but by all of the people affected by climate change, air pollution, congested commerce, oil wars, slow public transit, and the myriad other hidden by-products of the car culture that we are just now starting to understand fully.

Yet Metcalf doesn’t focus on that broad critique as much as on the simple reality that SPUR knows all too well: downtown San Francisco was designed for transit, not cars, to be the primary mode of transportation.

"Downtown San Francisco is one of the great planning success stories in America," Metcalf said. "But trips to downtown San Francisco can’t use mostly single-occupant vehicles. We could never have had this level of employment or real estate values if we had relied on car-oriented modes for downtown."

Metcalf and other local urban planners tell stories of how San Francisco long ago broke with the country’s dominant post–World War II development patterns, starting with citizen revolts against freeway plans in the 1950s and picking up stream with the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s, the arrival of BART downtown in 1973, the official declaration of a transit-first policy in the ’80s, and the votes to dismantle the Central and Embarcadero freeways.

"We really led the way for how a modern dynamic city can grow in a way that is sustainable. And that decision has served us well for 30 years," Metcalf said.

Tom Radulovich, a longtime BART board member who serves as director of the nonprofit group Livable City, said San Franciscans now must choose whether they want to plan for growth like Copenhagen, Denmark, Paris, and Portland, Ore., or go with auto-dependent models, like Houston, Atlanta, and San Jose.

"Do we want transit or traffic? That’s really the choice. We have made progress as a city over the last 30 years, particularly with regard to how downtown develops," Radulovich said. "Can downtown and the neighborhoods coexist? Yes, but we need to grow jobs in ways that don’t increase traffic."

City officials acknowledge that some new parking may be needed.

"There may be places where it’s OK to add parking in San Francisco, but we have to be smart about it. We have to make sure it’s in places where it doesn’t create a breakdown in the system. We have to make sure it’s priced correctly, and we have to make sure it doesn’t destroy Muni’s ability to operate," Metcalf said. "The problem with Prop. H is it essentially decontrols parking everywhere. It prevents a smart approach to parking."

Yet the difficulty right now is in conveying such complexities against the "bureaucracy bad" argument against Prop. A and the "parking good" argument for Prop. H.

"We are trying to make complex arguments, and our opponents are making simple arguments, which makes it hard for us to win in a sound-bite culture," Radulovich said.

"Prop. H preys on people’s experience of trying to find a parking space," Metcalf said. "The problem is cities are complex, and this measure completely misunderstands what it takes to be a successful city."

When MTA director Nathaniel Ford arrived in San Francisco from Atlanta two years ago, he said, "it was clear as soon as I walked in the door that there was an underinvestment in the public transit system."

Prop. A would help that by directing more city funds to the MTA, starting with about $26 million per year. "I don’t want to say the situation is dire, but it’s certainly not going to get better without some infusion of cash to get us over the hump," Ford told the Guardian recently from his office above the intersection of Market and Van Ness.

The proposed extra money would barely get this long-underfunded agency up to modern standards, such as the use of a computer routing system. "We actually have circuit boards with a guy in a room with a soldering iron keeping it all together," Ford said with an incredulous smile.

The other thing that struck Ford when he arrived was the cumbersomeness of the MTA’s bureaucracy, from stifling union work rules to Byzantine processes for seemingly simple actions like accepting a grant, which requires action by the Board of Supervisors.

"Coming from an independent authority, I realized there were a lot more steps and procedures to getting anything done [at the MTA]," he said. "Some of the things in Prop. A relax those steps and procedures."

If it passes, Ford would be able to set work rules to maximize the efficiency of his employees, update the outdated transit infrastructure, set fees and fines to encourage the right mix of transportation modes, and issue bonds for new capital projects when the system reaches its limits. These are all things the urban planners say have to happen. "It should be easy to provide great urban transit," Metcalf said. "We’re not Tracy. We’re not Fremont. We’re San Francisco, and we should be able to do this."

Unfortunately, there are political barriers to such a reasonable approach to improving public transit. And the biggest hurdles for those who want better transit are getting Prop. A approved and defeating Prop. H.

"It’s clear to people who have worked on environmental issues that this is a monumental election," said Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and an MTA board member. "San Francisco will choose one road or the other in terms of how our transportation system affects the environment. It will really be transit or traffic."

Shahum said the combination of denying the MTA the ability to improve transit and giving out huge new parking entitlements "will start a downward spiral for our transit system that nobody benefits from."

"We are already the slowest-operating system in the country," Ford said, later adding, "More cars on the streets of San Francisco will definitely have a negative impact on Muni."

But even those who believe in putting transit first know cars will still be a big part of the transportation mix.

"All of it needs to be properly managed. There are people who need to drive cars for legitimate reasons," Ford said. "If you do need to drive, you need to know there are costs to that driving. There is congestion. There are quality impacts, climate change, and it hurts transit."

"There are parking needs out there, and the city is starting to think of it in a more responsive way. We don’t need this to create more parking," Shahum said. "If folks can hold out and beat down this initiative, I do think we’re headed in the right direction."

Yet the Yes on A–No on H campaign is worried. Early polling showed a close race on Prop. A and a solid lead for Prop. H.

Fisher and the groups that are pushing Prop. H — the Council of District Merchants, the SF Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Republican Party — chose what they knew would be a low-turnout election and are hoping that drivers’ desires for more parking will beat out more complicated arguments.

"The vast majority of San Franciscans call themselves environmentalists, and they want a better transit system," Shahum said, noting that such positions should cause them to support Prop. A and reject Prop. H. "But they’re at risk of being tricked by a Republican billionaire’s initiative with an attractive name…. Even folks that are well educated and paying attention could be tricked by this."

For Metcalf and the folks at SPUR, who helped write Prop. A, this election wasn’t supposed to be an epic battle between smart growth and car culture.

"For us, in a way, Prop. A is the more important measure," Metcalf said. "We want to focus on making Muni better instead of fighting about parking. We didn’t plan it this way, but the way it worked out, San Francisco is at a fork in the road. We can reinforce our transit-oriented urbanity or we can create a mainly car-dependent city that will look more like the rest of America."