Transit or traffic

There's a real chance to fix Muni -- but a simplistic downtown campaign for more parking and less government is trying to derail it
Illustration by Danny Hellman

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.