The road to sustainability has lanes for more than just cars
But the political leadership and federal transportation spending priorities are behind the times. Of the $835 million in federal funds administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the nine Bay Area counties in 2006-07, 51.4 percent went to maintain and expand state highways. Only 2.5 percent went for expansion of public transit, and 2.4 percent for bike and pedestrian projects. Overall, Paine said, about 80 percent of all state and federal transportation funding goes to facilities for automobiles, leaving all modes of transportation to fight for the rest.
"Historically we favor the automobile at the expense of all those other modes," Radulovich said at a forum of experts assembled by the Guardian (a recording of the discussion is available at sfbg.com). "It's been given primacy, and I think everyone around this table is saying, in one way or another, that we need a more balanced approach. We need a more sustainable, sensible, and just way of allocating space on our roads."
Yet the Bay Area is now locking in those wasteful patterns of the past with plans for about $6 billion in highway expansions, which means the MTC will have to spend even more every year keeping those roads in shape. Highway maintenance is the biggest line item in the MTC budget, at $275 million.
"We can't pay for what we have now — to maintain it, repair it, seismically retrofit it — so why we're building more is kind of beyond me," Radulovich said. "We continue to invest in the wrong things."
The experts also question big-ticket transit items such as the Central Subway project, a 1.7-mile link from SoMa to Chinatown that will cost an estimated $1.4 billion to build and about $4 million per year to run.
"There are 300 small capital projects we need to see," Snyder said. "That's really the answer. The idea of a few big capital projects as the answer to our problems is our problem. What we really need are 100 new bike lanes. We need 500 new bus bulbs. We need 300 new buses. It's not the big sexy project, but 300 small projects."
The most cost-efficient, environmentally effective transportation projects, according to renowned urban design thinkers such as Jan Gehl from Denmark, are those that encourage walking or riding a bike.
"I think Jan Gehl put it best, which is to say a city that is sweet to pedestrians and sweet to bicyclists is going to be a sustainable city," Fraser said. "So I think focusing on those two particular modes of transportation meets the other goals of the financial viability because they're the cheapest ways to get people around — and the healthiest ways — which I submit is one of the other criteria for sustainable transportation.... And it helps with the social justice and social connections."
IT'S GOOD FOR YOU
In fact, transportation sustainability has far-reaching implications for communities such as San Francisco.
"I think of sustainability in two ways," Fraser said. "The first is sustainability for the environment. And since I have a background in health care, I think of a sustainable transportation system as one that's actually healthy for us. In the past at least 50 years, we've actually engineered any kind of active transportation — walking to work or to school, biking to school — out of our cities."
But it can be engineered back into the system with land use policies that encourage more density around transit corridors and economic policies that promote the creation of neighborhood-serving commercial development.
"If my day-to-day needs can be met by walking, I don't put pressure on the transportation system," Manish Champsee, a Mission District resident who heads the group Walk SF, told us.