san francisco

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!)

Conclusion

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.

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Geary BRT Town Hall

Last night I attended a Town Hall Meeting about implementing a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system down Geary, full of outspoken citizens eager to have their voices heard. As one of the first town halls I attended, I was a bit taken aback by the general lack of civility some attendees displayed, but I guess it gives everyone a chance to express their feelings.

However, I’ll save thoughts about town halls and citizen engagement for a future entry, as I want to focus on some of the issues and the debates brought on by transit improvement, and my thoughts about what should be prioritized. For quick background, the planned bus-only lanes down Geary will help what is often called ‘the most used bus line west of the Mississippi’, which averages over 50,000 boardings a day. Although the exact layout has not yet been decided, the city is aiming to finish the lanes by 2018.

As with any massive public works project, there are a couple of groups who are unhappy with the project, and which I broadly categorize as follows:

Geary Merchants

Probably the biggest opponents of the Geary BRT project are the merchants, or more precisely, the merchants association. They have two main worries: loss of business during the time the BRT is constructed, and loss of parking that could discourage potential customers.

Community Conservatives

This group is particularly worried about what the extra development along the Geary corridor could bring, including a potential loss of parking. They tend to be fairly happy with the status quo and are unsure about the potential negative impact of the BRT.

Transit Advocates

Not that this group is completely opposed to the project, but many are worried about the project being effective enough. In particular, the SF Muni Transit Riders Union is actively pushing for a light-rail to be added by 2032 (the current funding requires that this project be ‘rail-ready’ even if few expect or want the massive extra funding needed for rail.) Also, many people have other ideas about implementation, including one who was aggressively pushing skip-stop.

My Thoughts

Overall, I am quite glad that the project will be moving forward.  However vocal many of the opponents were at the town hall, I had the sense there was a large silent majority very happy to see their travel times being drastically reduced. Many of the current problems, overcrowded and bunched (and hence unreliable)  buses will be significantly alleviated with: dedicated lanes, traffic lights set to buses, and low floor buses for easier boarding (especially with wheelchairs.)

One of the biggest problems I saw at the town hall was the general mistrust people had with the government. In general, few people seemed to understand the purpose of the government’s intentions and hence misconstrued them. To me, it seemed that many people half assumed the government had not put much time into seriously thinking and evaluating the project. For example, the head of the merchants association was surprised by data collected by the government that showed only about 25% of people went shopping on Geary via automobile even though surveyed merchants  assumed around 75% of customers arrived by car. His extensive experience with the merchants did not match the government surveys, and was legitimately surprised by the government using what he believed was flawed data. Hence, when the data was displayed, he immediately questioned the validity of the survey, and the governments conclusions based data.

Although I don’t claim to be an expert, I am very much looking forward to the BRT system providing a faster more reliable connection from the Richmond district to downtown.

Last thoughts: although I have seen BRT in many countries, one particularly striking application is in Jakarta with the TransJakarta buses. Jakarta is notorious for its horrendous traffic jams and the city planners wanted to figure out a way to encourage middle-class Jakartans out of their cars. Since they did not have the funds for a metro system, they created a completely separate network of bus only lanes across the city. I was immensely impressed with the speed and efficiency after riding it. However, it still has not been that successful at getting middle- and upper-class Jakartans out of their cars. Indeed, even though the system is new, the buses are in terrible shape (on one bus the doors could not close) and heavily utilized by mostly lower-class riders. The challenges in Jakarta are a warning – BRT is of course intended to expand cross-class ridership of the buses to get car-owning citizens to forgo their cars, but can only effectively achieve this if the buses are comfortable and maintained such that all citizens are happy to utilize the system.

Addition: for more information (with a definite anti-merchant association standpoint), you can see this.