Transportation is the linchpin of sustainability. Fix the transportation system, and almost every other aspect of the city's ecological health improves: public health, conservation of resources, climate change, economics, and maintaining our culture and sense of community.
The region's unsustainable transportation system is the biggest cause of global warming (more than half the Bay Area's greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles) and one of the biggest recipients of taxpayer money. And right now, most of those public funds from the state and federal governments are going to expand and maintain freeway systems, a priority that exacerbates our problems and delays the inevitable day of reckoning.
It's going to have to change — and we can do it the easy way or the hard way.
"We'll get to a more sustainable transportation system. The question is, are we going to be smart enough to make quality of life for people high within that sustainable transportation system?" said Dave Snyder, who revived the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and founded Transportation for a Livable City (now known as Livable City) before becoming transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "People will drive less, but will they have dignified alternatives? That's the question."
That notion — that transportation sustainability is inevitable, but that it'll be painful if we don't start now in a deliberate way — was shared by all 10 transportation experts recently interviewed by the Guardian. And most agreed that needed reform involves shifting resources away from the automobile infrastructure, which is already crowding out more sustainable options and will gobble up an even bigger piece of the pie in the future if we continue to expand it.
"Yeah, it'll be more sustainable, but will it be just? Will it be healthful? Will it be effective? Those are the questions," said Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. "You can't argue against geology. The planet is running out of oil. We're going to have a more sustainable transportation system in the future. That's a given. The question is, is it going to meet our other needs? Is it going to be what we need it to be?"
And the answer to all those questions is going to be no — as long as politicians choose to fund wasteful projects such as a fourth bore in the Caldecott Tunnel and transferring $4 billion from transit agencies to close California budget deficits accruing since 2000.
"Our leaders need to be putting our money where our collective mouth is and stop raiding these funds," Carli Paine, transportation program director for Transportation and Land Use Coalition, told us. "I'm hopeful, but I think we all need to do more."
TRANSIT AND BIKES
There is reason to be hopeful. With increased awareness of global warming and high gasoline prices, public transit ridership has increased significantly in the Bay Area. And one study indicates that the number of people bicycling in San Francisco has quadrupled in the last few years.
"Look at what's happening on the streets of San Francisco: you have biking practically doubling every year without any new bike infrastructure. I think the demand is out there. The question is, when is the political leadership going to catch up to demand?" Jean Fraser, who sits on the SPUR and SFBC boards and until recently ran the San Francisco Health Plan under Mayor Gavin Newsom, told us.