"Street Fight" examines the politics of mobility in San Francisco


Ideology plays a bigger role in shaping San Francisco than most people realize, as we've discussed in this space before. Nowhere is that more true than in the politics of land use and transportation, as my friend Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor, discusses in his insightful new book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.

He'll be discussing his work this Friday, April 19, from 7-9pm during a book launch party hosted by Green Arcade Bookstore across the street at the upstairs loft space of McRoskey Mattress, 1687 Market. Or if you miss that but want to join the discussion, you can catch Henderson's forum on May 15 at SFSU or what will surely be other local events on this pivotal topic.

Henderson chronicles the seminal events in San Francisco's history with “automobility” and related transportation issues, from the freeway revolts of the late '50s through 2000 to today's continuing political struggles over parking, bicycles, livability, gentrification, and the form, function, and financing of Muni.

Yet the lens that Henderson brings to understanding all of these issues and struggles is ideology, which he breaks down into three major categories: progressive, neoliberal, and conservative. Whether we realize it or not, we can all be fairly easily placed in one of those three categories when it comes to how we think about automobility, or the primacy of cars in modern life.

“A progressive framework conceptualizes mobility as a systemic problem that requires deep social commitment and responsibility. How we get there matters. It posits that there can be too much mobility, as exemplified by high levels of [Vehicle Miles Traveled] in the United States, and that excessive mobility results in both environmental degradation and major social inequality at a local, state, and global scale. The main problem, obviously, is that automobility is part of a wider, systemic moral and social problem of over-consumption and disproportionate materialism,” Henderson writes, sounding themes that I echoed in this week's cover story.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum are those with conservative views on mobility, who see driving as a basic right, which is the dominant mindset on the west side of supposedly liberal San Francisco. “Unlike progressives, conservatives do not think about responsibility as relating to broader systems such as the economic structure of society. Instead, they think in terms of direct causation and of each individual being responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. For example, poverty is a result of individual shortcomings caused by personal and moral characteristics, not of structural themes like socioeconomic forces beyond an individual's control. Getting to work on time and providing one's daily needs are not collective concerns but the responsibility of the individual,” he writes.

Of course, these conservatives still rely on government to build and maintain their transportation infrastructure, which they believe should be centered around cars. “Government should guarantee and accommodate automobility, not seek to discourage it or make it more expensive. Government-sponsored road building and other explicit policies that encourage motoring reflect an optimal use of government to stabilize conservative social relations centered on automobility,” Henderson write of the conservative mindset.

Between those two poles are the neoliberals, who have come to dominate City Hall, particularly in the last few years with the ascendancy of Mayor Ed Lee, Board President David Chiu, and Sup. Scott Wiener, who has taken the lead role on transportation issues. Neoliberals rely on market-based solutions to almost any problem, and they end up partnering with either conservatives or progressives in the politics of mobility depending on the issue.

“Neoliberals, consistent with the broader agenda of the privatization of space and market-based pricing of public access to space, envision a mobility system shaped by pricing and markets rather than by regulation and collective action. Unlike progressives, neoliberals feel the built environment must be allowed to develop with the efficacy of the market. Movement, paid for by the individual user, should be unrestrained. Yet such efficacy can include a commodification of nonmovement or slower movement or the package of quality-of-life goods surrounding the 'walkability' and 'livability' of the city, a package reserved for those who can afford to enter. To that end, neoliberal mobility includes the aggressive use of government to both enhance mobility and rein it in, but only inasmuch as government policy helps realize the goals of profit and facilitating economic growth and development,” Henderson writes.

It's fascinating to explore how these three distinct mindsets have shaped San Francisco in recent decades, and how they interact today to create the city that we'll be moving through in the future.


Politics is the art of compromize.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

Politics is simply the mechanism for resolving our differing ideologies and determining what we want to "get done" and how. We each have an ideology, whether we want to admit it or not. Tell me what you want to "get done" and I can probably tell you which of these three categories you fit into -- and I can probably also predict how you feel about a whole variety of issues. Humans really aren't as complex as we sometimes like to believe, and trolls are even less complex.

Posted by steven on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

Self awareness is the SF progressives greatest asset.

Posted by Matlock on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

You have it all figured out, don't you? LOL.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

Hey Steven, here's a bit of public comment from the TA's 25 year transportation plan by Peggy da Silva, a pedestrian activist. Is she, progressive, neoliberal, and conservative?

"Exclude race/ethnicity from the definition of CoC [community of concern]? Why would any ethnic group be ‘of concern’ here?”

"Explain the reason behind the designation, ensure that it is not “an assumption that any person with other than European ancestry is somehow disadvantaged.”

TA Staff responds liberally, progressively:

"Race/Ethnicity: The MTC methodology looks at all racial/ethnic minorities, not just particular groups, and uses very high concentrations (70% or more) as a proxy for isolation/marginalization based on racial/ethnic factors, given the role race/ethnicity has played in U.S. history. The races/ethnicities themselves are not “of concern” – it is very high concentrations of minority races/ethnicities that signals potential concerns about access to the regional economy and transportation system. "

That is at: http://www.sfcta.org/sites/default/files/content/Planning/SFTP2/SFTPCAC1...

I await reading the book. But it is already clear that these lines have been blurred, intentionally, politically as a means of cooptation of potential points of resistance to the dominant corporate growth regime.

Of course that 25 year plan has given up on trying to pretend that the TA and MTA are going to identify the resources to maintain the existing system in good repair, it will deteriorate, not to mention make the GHG reduction investment upon which the "transit oriented" upzoning of the east side is predicated. Thus, the developers have tricked the enviros into supporting upzoning under liberal and progressive enviro theories and then abandoned any intention to pay for the costs of those theories. That is a train wreck in progress right now, where neoliberals are laughing all of the way to the bank and San Franciscans will be left holding the bag.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 18, 2013 @ 7:26 am

Politics is the noise generated between management and people (or groups) interested in the doings of management.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 1:25 am

Politics is the noise generated between management and people (or groups) interested in the doings of management.

Posted by miley on Nov. 12, 2013 @ 9:53 am

Thanks for this!!!

Posted by http://royalessays.co.uk/ on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

≈ Note how the grouping with the name "conservative" champions the most financially-irresponsible approach to land use and transportation. It goes way beyond just accepting (indeed demanding) that the big bad government builds and maintains roads, provides free parking everywhere, allows speeding, and keeps the gas prices down; it also entails denial, and lots of it.

Most people really have no idea how much it really costs to prop up car use, since its funding is a mind-boggling array of hidden subsidy. Yet spend %0.46 of a city's transportation budget on green paint for bike lanes, and they're showing up at public meetings to screech about the Agenda 21 conspiracy. Even the nation's leading astroturf anti-tax party, the ones always screaming about "socialism" with teabags on their foreheads, have taken the time to embrace road lobby denialists Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox to tell them elaborate lies about the price of these things.

And, of course, there's the little matter of the nation being bankrupted by oil wars.

Posted by Jym Dyer on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 8:05 am

Jym, road subsidies are less than transit subsidies if considered across the vastness of the region. > 2m people live in the inner ring suburbs in an arc from Marin to Sonoma to Solano to Contra Cost to Alameda to Santa Clara and San Mateo.

The cost to build out and operate rapid, reliable regional transit that is required for people to give up their cars is probably an order of magnitude more than the cost of road subsidy.

Transition strategies require that you pay for both the old and new systems until the new system replaces the old system. The half assed proposals for surface treatments like BRT and such supported by the enviro nonprofits won't achieve speed and reliability gains to appeal to commuters.

And the fixation on marquee projects like Healthy Saturdays or three crosstown bikeways is not going to make a dent in the structural barriers to day-to-day abandonment of autos and mode shift to bikes. That will require getting the cops to enforce the law against miscreant autos to make streets safe, the re-engineering of dangerous auto-oriented conditions to reduce danger by design, and the ability to bring several orders of magnitude more bikes on transit to get back home to the west side.

There are several points of mismatch here, most of which are orders of magnitude different than what is needed to achieve stated policy goals. Until those barriers are confronted and lowered, the activation energy required to get this reaction over the hump is not forthcoming.

See Also: the Bay Bridge, only with another couple of decimal places.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 8:28 am

Bike guy Henderson and bike guy Jones are dressing up their risky hobby in pseudo-intellectual piffle. Ride on, dudes! Bicycles will never be a serious transportation "mode" in San Francisco, yet City Hall and the MTA are trying to redesign city streets on behalf of cyclists, who, by the city's own numbers, take only 3.5% of all daily trips on city streets.

The city's bike people---represented by the Bicycle Coalition---are the most unpopular special interest group in the city. They seem to understand that in City Hall, which is why they tried to rush the Bicycle Plan through the process before anyone knew what they were doing. No wonder they now want CEQA "reform"!

People have to drive both for personal and professional reasons, and they choose to drive because it's almost always faster and more convenient than public transportation or riding a bike. All our goods are delivered by trucks to our markets. More than 35,000 commuters drive into SF every weekday. Millions of tourists drive into the city every year either in their own cars or in rented cars; tourism is the city's largest industry.

Bikes are nothing but a PC fantasy that, oddly, has the dim bulbs in City Hall in its grip---especially the Planning Dept. because bikes are part of the "smart growth" theory holding that the city can have unlimited development along major transit corridors. All false and all bad for the city.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

Yes, Rob, tourism is big in San Francisco, and the tourists seem to really like bikes. You should really get out more. On any given day, there are hundreds of them riding around the city or over the Golden Gate Bridge, with new bike rental companies forming all the time just to keep up with the demand. And of those millions of tourists you mention, I'd say a healthy percentage of them take BART or shuttles from SFO and never use private automobiles while they're here. So if you're using tourism to support your antiquated notions of transportation, I don't see much support for your argument. Plus, there's the basic fact that our roads simply can't accomodate all the expected new residents and visitors driving cars. It's a mathematical impossibility because we simply don't have the space. Whether you like it or not, bikes and public transit will continue to become more important to mobility in San Francisco. Honestly, you should read Jason's book, you just might learn something.

Posted by steven on Apr. 25, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

Public transportation is very necessary for the mass transit. Bus transportation is one of the very popular and useful mode of public transportation. It is widely used by the people for their daily transit to offices and other work places. Bus services to Airport are very useful and popular in every big cities, where these services are available.

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Posted by music theory textbooks on Feb. 10, 2014 @ 5:47 am

Thanks for sharing the schedule.

Posted by ts converter on Apr. 18, 2014 @ 9:31 am

It's all about the city's pace and style of development.
Our politicians are doing everything that's hated in corporations.
Their goal is not stability but maximum growth and profit for developers and taxes for politicians. They are using the "new urbanism" myth created by a bunch architects for profit. It's elements start with transit first, followed by dense urban construction infilling on the most profitable city land and taking public rights-of way.
Of course this results in overcrowded uncomfortable cities strained beyond their existing and possible infrastructure. But if you let it get started you can make even more profit fixing it and raise taxes and bonds for infrastructure to support it's dense development. You use your propaganda machine (streetsblog, SPUR, Bicycle Coalition, WalkSF, SFMTA, etc.) to sell the plan and the "fixes" with euphemisms like Sustainable, Livable Streets, Walkable, Street Calming, Streetscaping, Green Space, Connecting Neighborhoods, Parklets, Safe Streets, and Affordable Housing.

At least Marin is fighting this crap. See citizenmarin.org

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 11:21 am