We can switch from cars to bikes, now. Or we can leave our kids a climate-change disaster
It's going to take longer, sometimes, to get from here to there. Acres of urban space are going to have to change form. Grocery shopping will be different. Streets may have to be torn up and redirected. The rules for the development of as many as 100,000 new housing units in San Francisco will have to be rewritten.
That's the only way this city — and cities across the country — can meet the climate-change goals that just about everyone agrees are necessary.
Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University, lays out that case in a new book. He argues, persuasively, that the era of easy "automobility" — a time when people could just assume the ease and convenience of owning and using a private car as a primary means of transportation — has come to an end.
Henderson isn't suggesting that all private vehicles go away; there are places where cars and trucks will remain the only way to move people and supplies around. But in the urban and suburban areas where most Americans live, the automobile as the default option simply has to end.
"In 10 years, there will be less automobility," he told me in a recent interview. "It's a simple limit to resources."
And the sooner San Francisco starts preparing for that, the better off the city and its residents are going to be.
Henderson's book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, focuses largely on the Bay Area. But as he points out, the lessons apply all over. The numbers are daunting: Cities, Henderson reports, "use 75 percent of the world's energy and produce 78 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions." He adds: "Transportation is the fastest growing sector of energy use and [greenhouse gas] emissions, and this fact is in great measure owing to the expansion of automobility."
And the United States is the biggest culprit. This nation has 4 percent of the world's population — and 21 percent of the world's cars.
To turn around the devastating impacts of climate change, "America will need not only to provide leadership, but also to decrease its appetite for excessive, on demand, high-speed automobility."
And buying a lot of Priuses, or even electric cars, isn't going to do the job. "Americans must undertake a considerable restructuring of how they organize cities, and that must include the rethinking of mobility and the allocation of street space."
The Bay Area is about to enter into a long-term planning cycle that, according to groups like the Association of Bay Area Governments, will involve increased urban density. ABAG, according to its most recent projections, would like to see some 90,000 new housing units in San Francisco.
That's got plenty of problems — particularly the likelihood of the displacement of existing residents. Henderson agrees that more density is going to be needed in the Bay Area — but he's surprisingly bullish on the much-denigrated suburb.
"It's actually quick and easy to retrofit suburbia," he told me.
And like so much of what he discusses in his book, the primary solution is the old, venerable, human-powered contraption known as the bicycle.
"Existing communities like Walnut Creek are eminently bikeable," Henderson told me. He suggests expanding development in three-mile circles around BART stations — after getting rid of all the parking. "We could easily get 20 to 30 percent of the trips by bike," he noted.
In fact, he argues, it's easier to put bicycle lanes and paths in the suburbs than in San Francisco. The streets tend to be wider, there's more room in general — and it's fairly simple to provide barriers from cars that make biking safe for everyone.