San Francisco needs to radically rethink its transportation system to avoid gridlock
San Francisco — already overwhelmed with private automobiles — faces a grim future of gridlock unless there is a radical change in how we think about city streets, parking, and regional transportation.
The facts are clear. Every day there are 1.7 million private car trips to, from, or within the city, according to the city's transportation plan. Coupled with almost 10,000 vehicles registered per square mile, San Francisco today has one of the densest concentrations of cars on the planet, more than any peer city in the United States. In the business-as-usual scenario, the streets are forecast to absorb another half-million car trips. By 2040 there will be 2.2 million car trips on the exact same street grid we have today.
This is madness and it is dysfunctional for everyone. If you think Muni is unreliable now, it will be useless in 2040 as it stalls in the morass of 2.2 million car trips jammed onto city streets. Pedestrian injuries and deaths will rise with another 160 cars hitting pedestrians annually, simply due to oversaturation of automobiles. Cyclists might be able to weave around the stalled traffic, but it will be an ugly scene that fouls the air. Motorists will be stuck in their own gridlock, evermore impatient, distracted, honking, lurching through blocked intersections, sneaking through yellow lights, blocking crosswalks, double parking, and irritated with fellow drivers and everyone around. No one will be happy
This does not have to be. The city's transportation agency hopes to reduce car trips from 1.7 to 1.6 million by 2018, a modest goal but barely holding the line. Reducing existing car trips by 100,000 while also adding thousands upon thousands of housing units and jobs, most coming with more parking, will quickly undo this humble ambition. The city can do more and the data shows us that there are many opportunities.
Consider that 68 percent of car trips within San Francisco are less than three miles. That's 650,000 car trips per day that are generally pretty short — with a bicycle it's less than a half-hour ride on relatively even terrain. If the city were able to get half of those car trips to switch to bicycle trips, it would be well on its way to averting carmageddon.
A more ambitious goal, increasing cycling to 20 percent of all trips, is the official city policy adopted by the Board of Supervisors. That's 500,000-600,000 trips by bicycle every day, most of which can take place within that three-mile range, especially if cleverly arranged "wiggles" (level routes circumventing steeper hills) are laid out on the most logical corridors. But to carry that many cyclists, real space has to be allocated for them.
Out at San Francisco State University, where I teach a new Bicycle Geographies course that aims to increase cycling to the campus, there is tremendous opportunity to shift these kinds of short trips to bicycling. For students, faculty, and staff, bicycling is compatible with rapid transit, particularly for the "last mile" segments, such as between BART and SF State.
Bicycling is also a way to relieve local bus and light rail transit crowding — the 28 bus line on 19th Avenue, for example, is often jam packed and the city has only modest goals to improve that key line. Unlike transit or highways, bicycles do not require costly, long-term capital investment or operating funds and so can be deployed much more quickly.
It will be decades and cost hundreds of millions to improve the M-line, only now in the planning phase. We can lay down cycletracks much more quickly. Bicycling is also among the most equitable forms of urban transportation because it is affordable and accessible to almost everyone. This is obviously relevant to working-class students at SF State.
SF State has a memorandum of understanding with the city that obliges the university to reduce drive-alone automobile trips to campus, and the campus will not build any more car parking. With 4 percent of commute trips to SF State by bicycle (and only 2 percent among faculty) there is potential to increase the mode-share of bicycling as a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and auto trips.
The spatial proximity to Daly City and Balboa Park BART stations, as well as the Excelsior and Sunset, all under three miles from campus, means that the bicycle is well-suited to be a substitute for many short-range automobile trips and help the campus meet its goals. Yet what my students have found this semester is that it is all but impossible to bike safely to and from SF State, and the southwestern quadrant of San Francisco is largely left out of current bicycle planning in the city.
Taking multiple bicycle field trips over the past few months, we surveyed the opportunities for making safe routes to campus and envisioned what it would take to increase cycling to 20 percent of trips to and from SF State. Starting with the Balboa Park station, which is next to a deplorable tangle of freeway ramps, we ask what it would look like if fully-separated cycletracks were built on Geneva or Ocean avenues. These could connect City College and the Excelsior, and by way of a westward and southward jog, to a bicycle boulevard on Holloway Avenue, enabling a safe and convenient, 1.7-mile, 15-minute bike ride to SF State. Expanding the nascent Bay Area Bike Share to connect SF State and Balboa Park BART would create even more opportunity for cycling.
To the south of SF State, Daly City BART is a 1.4-mile, 10-minute bike ride that is daunting and poorly signed. It could be made safe and inviting with bicycle boulevards on streets parallel to traffic-clogged 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra. Borrowing from signature bicycle and pedestrian bridges in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, perhaps there is an opportunity to build a bridge across Brotherhood Way toward the BART station, leveling an otherwise steep climb that discourages cycling.
To the north of campus, describing the designated 20th Avenue bicycle route as "a bit of a challenge" is an understatement. Cyclists must thread a cluttered shopping mall parking lot and overbuilt wide streets, and then confront a median blockading the way across Sloat Boulevard. While the megaproject to improve the M-line could include a cycletrack on this stretch of 19th Avenue, we should not wait a generation to increase cycling between SF State and the Sunset. The 20th Avenue route can be made welcoming now, with a fully-separated cycletrack and fixes on the Sloat intersection.
SF State, probably one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, has highly motivated students seeking real solutions to the huge problems society faces. The students are coming of age under extreme pressure of economic inequity and ecological duress, but they also see ways out of the mess created by the wasteful car culture and its linkages to ecological and social problems. They want to act now, and unlike past generations, they are shunning driving and many of them desire to reside in livable cities that offer choices for how they get around.
But what we have found this semester is that the campus is extremely isolated, difficult to access by bicycle, and walled-off by car sewers. Older, uninviting bicycle lanes are fragmented, disjointed, and seem to be an afterthought. With imagination, ingenuity, and political will, this can be remedied with bicycle improvements that cost far less than adding more car lanes and parking to the campus or surrounding area. And this would go much further at improving quality of life for neighbors who now have to put up with campus-generated traffic. Keeping the status quo, which means even more car trips but within the same space, is a dead end.
Speaking of dead ends, San Francisco seems to specialize in dead-end train projects. The Central Subway, which is experiencing cost overruns and possible mismanagement, is one of these dead ends. There is no current option to have trains exiting to Geary or onto Columbus and possibly running on Lombard into the Marina, and that is a shame. Having the subway exit to the surface is probably the only way to make this project worthwhile.
There's another dead end train project at the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco. Yet unlike the Central Subway quagmire, I am impressed with the scale and possibilities for the Transbay Terminal project and there is opportunity to fix this dead end. Going back to the city's business-as-usual traffic forecast, in 2040 car trips into the city from the Bay Bridge would increase 18 percent, and by 21 percent from San Mateo County. Aside from scratching my head wondering where exactly all of these cars are supposed to go, we simply need to stop this onslaught before the city becomes too dumb to move.
BART cannot solve it alone, as it will probably approach half a million riders per day by 2016, placing many downtown stations at or near capacity. BART also does not run all the way down the peninsula. Sometimes there are back-of-the envelope proposals to build a second BART tunnel under the bay, but this idea should be weighed against another idea. Rather than build a second BART tunnel to Oakland, how about a joint Amtrak California/Caltrain tunnel under the bay, and creating a true Grand Central Station of the West at Transbay? Let's punch through the dead end currently planned for the east end of the Transbay Terminal "train box" and truly connect Northern California by rail.
This does not need to be high-speed rail, but rather the conventional, off-the-shelf electric rail already planned for Caltrain, of the variety that operates in the Northeastern US and much of Europe — efficient, high capacity trains that can travel 100-120 mile per hour comfortably and safely. In conjunction with a new transbay rail tunnel, the Capitol Corridor should be electrified and right of way captured from the freight railroads. One could take an electrified "baby bullet" from San Jose, through San Francisco, and continue to the East Bay and Sacramento. As Caltrain is electrified to the south, let's also electrify the Altamonte Commuter Express trains, bring them across a rebuilt Dumbarton Bridge, and run high-frequency rail service into the new Transbay Terminal.
Understanding that this will take time to build, in the short term the Bay Bridge should be reconfigured to have bus-only lanes (and a bicycle lane on the bottom deck of the west span) and a greatly expanded AC Transit service that can relieve the looming BART crowding to the East Bay.
How to pay for these transbay dreams? A transbay rail project could get funding from Amtrak and other federal sources, requiring our congressional delegation to work for it. The state gasoline tax or eventual carbon taxes, and revenue from tolling Bay Area freeways, should be in the mix. The 101 and 280 should be tolled as well as the Caldecott Tunnel and I-80 in the East Bay, with revenue directed at electric rail in the long term and regional buses short term. And while people are talking about reforming Proposition 13 to end the artificially low property taxes on commercial land, let's remember that transit — whether Muni, BART, or Caltrain — brings massive value to commercial property owners. They should be realistically expecting to pay in. In short, there are possibilities and ways to do this.
Here's one small additional idea for raising seed money: In the wake of the Google bus controversy, the SFCTA, SFMTA, SF Planning Department, and City Attorney's Office should assemble a crack team of California Environmental Quality Act experts and send them (on Caltrain and bike share!) down to comment on every large-scale suburban office project proposed in Silicon Valley. For example, Mountain View, where Google has its campus, is effectively displacing part of its transportation and housing responsibility to San Francisco.
As part of the CEQA mitigation for these suburban office projects, San Francisco ought to be demanding that Google/ Mountain View contribute to paying for the Transbay Terminal and electrifying Caltrain (a separate fund would be directed to affordable housing as mitigation for displacement). This is a similar line of reasoning to the May 1 lawsuit against the Google bus pilot, but it draws in those responsible for the poor planning in suburban sprawl. Regardless, the city ought to take a look at a CEQA mitigation angle for addressing the impacts these suburban decisions are having on the city.
One last point about transit finance: I sure hope Mayor Ed Lee, his political advisors, and all those religious ministers who complained about paying for metered parking on Sundays (see "Politics over policy," April 22) have a plan to advocate for the November ballot proposals to help finance Muni.
They sold out sustainable transit advocates, their biggest ally on the November ballot initiatives, and have offered no rational explanation for their strategy, just an emotional hunch that somehow some people can't cope with Sunday metering, and that making it free again will convince them to support increased public transit funding.
I imagine there is a well-thought-out campaign strategy, whereby every Sunday between now and November, the mayor is visiting all the churches in the city, and cajoling the ministers to use their pulpits to enthusiastically preach the merits of increasing the vehicle license fee (as well as approving a related general obligation bond).
After all, the VLF is a progressive tax — the more expensive your car, the more you pay. The older and cheaper your car, the less you pay. And bringing in $73 million annually would contribute to making God's green earth cleaner, and help transport God's children safely to work and on their errands. Praise the Lord and free parking on Sunday! Amen.
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a geography professor at SF State and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.