Book Discussion: Street Fight

Part of my plan for this blog is to do book discussions about the books I read, and the first book will be Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco by Jason Henderson.

Henderson discusses the debates (fights) over urban transportation through three ideologies behind San Francisco’s mobility politics. Although he rightly admits most people will fit into multiple categories depending on the issue, they are still useful for understanding the debates over transportation in San Francisco. They are:

  • Progressives – Want the government to work for the public good, especially emphasizing the need for environmental sustainability and social equity. Example: favoring policies to insure cheap and extensive public transportation for the less well off to ensure greater job accessibility
  • Neo-Liberals – Desire market-based economic policies (often promoting competition) to provide for the greatest efficiency in transportation, in theory leading to greater economic growth. Example: premium lanes on freeways that people can pay to use to go around traffic jams
  • Conservatives – Interested in emphasizing personal responsibility to oneself and the family as well as stability, even with government assistance. Example: promote car-related travel (e.g. more parking spaces) for families to avoid city problems, like unsafe streets and dysfunctional transportation

Much of the early part of the book is about transportation in San Francisco post-World War II, especially focusing on how San Francisco was one of the first cities to decidedly reject freeways. Although some freeways were built early on in poorer areas that did not have political clout, other areas were able to successfully prevent freeways from being built across the city. Unusually, the different factions were able to join together, since the conservatives wanted intact neighborhoods and the progressives wanted to move away from the car. However, tragically in my opinion, unfortunately the defeat of the freeway did not go with an expansion of BART, the rapid suburban transit system, or by building subways to the western part of the city, unlike with Washington D.C. In effect, conservative San Franciscans who lived in the more suburban western part of the city worked against building freeways through their neighborhoods, and were concerned that a higher density transit could bring high density development.

After reading the book, I was struck by how influential the neo-liberal transportation agenda has become. The young urban class, including many of my Stanford friends, has been particularly important to many of the changes seen in the city today, such as:

Livable Neighborhoods

Probably the biggest change in San Francisco over the last 10-15 years has been gentrification and the creation of livable neighborhoods, especially in neighborhoods like the Mission. This change has been drastic and very visible. Although the Mission still has many homeless people living near the BART stations and in other areas, the number has clearly decreased since my childhood. Under Henderson’s classifications, gentrification clearly fits into a more neo-liberal mindset, as conservatives would be avoiding ‘unsafe’ and blighted areas, and progressives do not appreciate the social inequity of wealthier residents forcing out poorer ones.

As Henderson discusses, a big piece of the neo-liberal transportation agenda is to create livable neighborhoods, where restaurants and shops are all in easy walking distance (although, as he notes, it also includes making sure there is parking nearby, but preferably hidden.) There has been a profusion of different initiatives to make the street a more welcoming space for pedestrians and visitors from parklets to city street celebrations, a weekend day where the street is ‘reclaimed’ exclusively for pedestrian and bicycle use.

A Disdain of MUNI

MUNI, the SF public transportation provider, from personal experience, has had trouble connecting with many of the young urbanites. Many young techies live in San Francisco and commute to their work, but only through private buses provided by the big companies like Google, or if they work in the city, they will just use BART or bike. This is because of an overwhelming rejection of MUNI’s (and Caltrain’s) quality, standard of service, and speed. In many areas of San Francisco, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods (like the Mission), MUNI is primarily used by the less fortunate, which is perceived by many as dangerous and unsafe. Beyond this, MUNI is incredibly slow in many places, making it inefficient as a method of transportation. In fact, I have discovered a main reason for the popularity of the Mission District is the easy access to BART, which means the new wealthier residents can avoid MUNI completely.

Separately, there is much disdain for the labor union of MUNI bus drivers as they are seen as inept and overpaid. Growing up, this did not seem to be as much of a debate, but with increasing strains, financial and otherwise, on the system, MUNI drivers have been turned into a visible scapegoat for the problems as a whole. Indeed, many drivers do not help this perception, as I have seen drivers temporarily get off the bus to go to a corner store to buy food/drinks while in the middle of their route! As a result, neo-liberals are often advocating non-MUNI (often private) alternatives that will be more cost-efficient and avoid the use of ‘lazy’ unionized bus drivers.

Bike Lanes

Probably one of the biggest changes I noticed after coming back from my time abroad is the incredible expansion in the number of bike lanes and bicyclists across the city. Biking is used by many of the young urbanites as a viable means to get to work. As a result, the city has been working hard to provide better ways to bike around the city.

Henderson discusses the SF Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), and how its audience has expanded and changed over time in part due to the young techie influx. Although bicycle transportation and the SFBC were originally very progressive causes when started in the 1980s and 90s, the neo-liberal transportation activists were brought on board when they realized the benefits that comprehensive biking provides. As a result, according to Henderson, a large number of neo-liberals have been joining the SFBC and hence moderated the advocacy group’s tone.  With a newer, larger, and more connected group of advocates, bike infrastructure  has been growing (although not as quickly as they want!)


In conclusion, it has been interesting to see how the neo-liberal agenda has been dominating the transportation agenda. However, as someone who always uses MUNI, I hope MUNI can be made into more of a priority for the neo-liberal agenda. With more and more young urbanites not using MUNI and seeing it as beyond repair, it is incredibly important to make MUNI more accessible and welcoming to everyone, so all can advocate now and in the future for its improvement.