Transit or traffic - Page 3

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

But the sobering situation the workshop laid out certainly supports the assessment that drawing more cars downtown "is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

City planners and consultants from PBS&J offered some statistics from their initial studies:

San Francisco has the second-most congested downtown in the country, according to traffic analysts and surveys of locals and tourists, about 90 percent of whom say the congestion is unacceptably bad compared to that of other cities.

Traffic congestion cost the San Francisco economy $2.3 billion in 2005 through slowed commerce, commuter delays, wasted fuel, and environmental impacts.

The length of car trips is roughly doubled by traffic congestion — and getting longer every year — exacerbating the fact that 47 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions come from private cars. Census data also show that more San Franciscans get to work by driving alone in their cars than by any other mode.

Traffic has also steadily slowed Muni, which often shares space with cars, to an average of 8 mph, making it the slowest transit service in the country. Buses now take about twice as long as cars to make the same trip, which discourages their use.

"We want to figure out ways to get people in a more efficient mode of transportation," Zabe Bent, a senior planner with the TA, told the crowd. She added, "We want to make sure congestion is not hindering our growth."

The group is now studying the problem and plans to reveal its preliminary results next spring and recommendations by summer 2008. Among the many tools being contemplated are fees for driving downtown or into other congested parts of the city (similar to programs in London, Rome, and Stockholm, Sweden) and high-tech tools for managing parking (such as the determination of variable rates based on real-time demand, more efficient direction to available spots, and easy ways to feed the meter remotely).

"As a way to manage the scarce resource of parking, we would use pricing as a tool," said Tilly Chang, also a senior planner with the TA, noting that high prices can encourage more turnover at times when demand is high.

Yet there was a visceral backlash at the workshop to such scientifically based plans, which conservatives deride as social engineering. "I don't understand why we need to spend so much money creating a bureaucracy," one scowling attendee around retirement age said. There were some murmurs of support in the crowd.

Rob Black, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is the most significant entity to oppose Prop. A and support Prop. H, was quietly watching the proceedings. I asked what he and the chamber thought of the study and its goals.

"We have mixed feelings, and we don't know what's going to happen," Black, who ran unsuccessfully against Sup. Chris Daly last year, told me. "The devil is in the details."

But others don't even want to wait for the details. Alex Belenson, an advertising consultant and Richmond District resident who primarily uses his car to get around town, chastised the planners for overcomplicating what he sees as a "simple" problem.

Vocally and in a four-page memo he handed out, Belenson blamed congestion on the lack of parking spaces, the city's transit-first policy, and the failure to build more freeways in the city. Strangely, he supports his point with facts that include "Total commuters into, out of, and within San Francisco have only increased by 206,000 since 1960 — more than 145,000 on public transit."

Some might see those figures, derived from census data, as supporting the need for creative congestion management solutions and the expansion of transit and other alternative transportation options.