How to fix public transit

With a higher gas tax and tolls on freeways (measures a recent San Francisco Planning and Urban Research analysis shows to be among the most cost-effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), we can make public transit work better
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OPINION As San Franciscans deal with the shock of ever-worsening budget cuts, it's time we look to fundamental structural changes in the way government does business. That's a scary thought because, as Naomi Klein warns, free market ideologues use shocks to accomplish a very damaging type of structural change that cuts public service, increases privatization, and strengthens class division. Those of us who support collective responsibility and a strong public sector had better work together to propose our own structural change.

In transportation, to reduce driving — which accounts for 47 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in this city — we must increase public transit ridership dramatically. Yet the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is cutting its budget by 16 percent. The solution is simple, but not easy: car transportation will have to cost more, in terms of money and time. Transit, walking, and bicycling will have to be easier, faster, and safer. We can use the funds from increases in driving costs to fund improvements to other forms of transportation.

The alternative is an abandonment of the great equalizer that is public transit — and a kind of privatization that provides the automobile as an option for the middle class but at the cost of miserable transportation for the 30 percent of San Francisco households who don't have cars.

For this to work, public transit must be not just a little bit better, it must be a great deal better. It must remain affordable for families and serve the whole city efficiently, at all hours of the day. Residents should need cars so rarely that transit costs, plus occasional car-sharing and car rentals, are cheaper alternatives than car ownership.

With a higher gas tax and tolls on freeways (measures a recent San Francisco Planning and Urban Research analysis shows to be among the most cost-effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), we can make public transit work better. SFMTA should implement its proposed rapid network on the routes that carry 80 percent of Muni's passengers, speeding up the vehicles by at least 20 percent. That will cost car drivers some time: mixed traffic lanes will have to be converted to bus lanes. Turns will have to be restricted and parking will have to be removed.

The city also must make bicycling safe and easy. Our bikeways need to be safe for 8-year olds, who need systems that forgive mistakes and allow for slow and easy riding, and seniors, who are not physically able to ride fast and cannot afford to make emergency stops that may cause a fall. That means we need effective 18 mph traffic-calmed zones and a system of car-free bike paths, including one down Market Street.

Transportation is a regional issue that San Francisco cannot solve on its own. We must do a better job of matching our regional development patterns to our needs to promote walking, bicycling, and transit.

To make all this work, we must stop sprawl immediately and concentrate growth in cities and existing suburbs. More density in cities means more people to support transit (through fares and a higher tax base) and more people to support local shops so that walking to your grocery store is an option for more people.

Dave Snyder is transportation policy director at SPUR.

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