The transportation system can either promote that sense of community or it can detract from it. Champsee said San Francisco needs more traffic-calming measures, citing the 32 pedestrian deaths in San Francisco last year. Almost a third as many people are killed in car accidents as die from homicides in San Francisco — but murder gets more resources and attention.
"There's a real sense in the neighborhoods that the roadways and streetscapes are not part of the neighborhood, they're not even what links one neighborhood to another. They're sort of this other system that cuts through neighborhoods," said Gillian Gillette of the group CC Puede, which promotes safety improvements on Cesar Chavez Street.
Radulovich notes that streets are social spaces and that decisions about how to use public spaces are critical to achieving sustainability.
"A sustainable transportation system is one that allows you to connect to other people," he said. "Cities have always thrived on connections between humans, and I think some of the transportation choices we've made, with reliance on the automobile, have begun to sever a lot of human connections. So you've got to think about whether it's socially sustainable. Also economically sustainable, or fiscally sustainable, because we just can't pay for what we have."
So then what do we do? The first step will take place next year when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize federal transportation spending and policies, presenting an opportunity that only comes once every four years. Transportation advocates from around the country are already gearing up for the fight.
"We've built out the freeways. They're connecting the cities — they're pretty much done. So what do we need to do to make streets more vibrant and have more space for people and not just automobiles?" asked Jeff Wood, program associate for the nonprofit group Reconnecting America and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.
Then, once communities such as San Francisco have more money and more flexibility on how to spend it, they can get to work on the other sustainability needs. "The key component is having all the transportation systems fully linked," Paine said. That means coordinating the Bay Area's 26 transit agencies; expanding on the new TransLink system to make buying tickets cheaper and easier; funding missing links such as connecting Caltrain from its terminus at King and Fourth streets to the new Transbay Terminal; and timing transfers so passengers aren't wasting time waiting for connections.
And the one big-ticket transportation project supported by all the experts we consulted is high-speed rail, which goes before voters Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A. Not only is the project essential for facilitating trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it takes riders to the very core of the cities without their having to use roadways.
Paine also notes that the bond measure provides $995 million for regional rail improvements, with much of that going to the Bay Area. And that's just the beginning of the resources that could be made available simply by flipping our transportation priorities and recognizing that the system needs to better accommodate all modes of getting around.
At the roundtable, I asked the group how much a reduction in automobile traffic we need to see in San Francisco 20 years from now to become sustainable — with safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians, free-flowing public transit, and vibrant public spaces. Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, an organizer with SEIU Local 1021 and the Transit Not Traffic Coalition, said "half." Nobody disagreed.