Street Fight

How whining motorists hijack smart, equitable transit planning


(Editor's Note: Welcome to our new monthly transportation column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (UMass Press, 2013). Onward!)

San Francisco is in a mobility stalemate that is becoming increasingly inequitable.

In this supposedly "transit-first" city, the political establishment can't bring itself to just say "no" to vocal minorities of over-entitled motorists. In the process, it is breaking decades-old promises to improve Muni, enhance bicycling, and make the city more walkable — creating dysfunction on the streets of San Francisco.

This dynamic is on vivid display in several planning initiatives now underway, including the SFMTA's Transit Effectiveness Project (for which public comments on the EIR are due Sept. 17) and the overly complicated efforts to establish Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard and cycletracks on Polk Street.

In each case, officials are dancing around the sensitivities of a handful of motorists and merchants — even to the point of ignoring actual data showing that San Franciscans just aren't as dependent on the automobile as some believe. For example, studies show 85 percent of people arrive to the Polk Street corridor without a car.

Not only does this disconnect leave San Franciscans stuck in traffic, it is making our city less equitable for car-free households (which make up 30 percent of the city), as well as bicyclists and transit passengers who own cars but use them sparingly.

On Van Ness Avenue, buses crawl along at 5.2 miles per hour, on average. Mixing with cars slows buses, causes bunching and irregular reliability for the 16,000 passengers boarding along this two-mile corridor, and the 38,000 who ride the 47 & 49 routes daily.

Half of the households on Van Ness between Market and Lombard are car-free, yet they have poor transit service and are saturated with other people's car traffic and pollution.

Franklin and Gough are car sewers and Van Ness is not much better, as the city historically prioritized moving cars over all else. Now the city plans to modernize the corridor by creating bus-only lanes in the middle of Van Ness, providing extensive pedestrian improvements and landscaping, and large, visible bus stops that dignify the transit experience.

Buses will be faster and more efficient, carrying 36 percent more people than each mixed traffic lane and cutting operating costs by 30 percent. Giving a lane to buses will also smooth traffic flow for cars and trucks, because buses would no longer be shifting in and out of mixed traffic in the third outside lane, a classic win-win solution.

But for the plan to work, it also comes with a tradeoff of limiting left turns from Van Ness (except at Broadway) and removing 105 parking spaces, causing a small minority of car activists to howl.

Yet these are the sorts of tradeoffs it takes to become a functional city. Will San Francisco prioritize the wishes of a few dozen drivers over tens of thousands of transit riders? That's the choice, along this and other key corridors.

On the 5-Fulton, it now takes 50 minutes to go from the Transbay Terminal to Ocean Beach, about the same time it takes to get from San Francisco to Pittsburgh/Bay Point on BART. During rush hour, the buses are often jam-packed, so the 20,000 daily passengers on that line receive less than dignified service.

Muni proposes to fix the 5-Fulton with a practical, modest approach to re-allocate street space. By reworking bus stops and removing some curbside parking, the 5-Fulton pilot proposal will improve reliability and make the bus 10 minutes faster, and add 20 to 30 percent more capacity to the route during rush hour.


Roads are traffic "sewers"?

Did it ever occur to you that your choice of words reveals your massive bias and prejudice, thereby condemning your article to ridicule instead of rational debate?

Oh, and bikes aren't "transit". They are the ultimate in private transportation. Even a car can be shared, car-pooled or used a cab or car service. Bikes cannot.

And we should always be respectful of "minorities" unless they are merchants or drivers, in which case they should be ignored?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 6:40 am

troll barrier

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into nonsensical, petty, mean spirited, irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 7:22 am

of bias that will be taught there.

Universities should teach students to think for themselves, and not be told what to think.

Posted by anon on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 8:32 am

Universities should challenge the status quo, teach problem solving, and help young people to become as unlike their parents as possible.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

mindless kneejerk rejection of the status quo isn't helpful.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

Is it better for universities to keep teaching mindless kneejerk acceptance of the status quo? That doesn't seem to be working out so well here in real life. BTW, speaking of mindless, Jason made some excellent arguments for his position and I don't see you offering anything to counter it except empty schoolyard taunts.

Posted by steven on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

CA is leading the world in innovation.

We can afford a few troublemakers, but not a lot of them. Luckily most voters understand the issue.

Universities should teach you HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

A city that isn't stuck in car traffic is a desperately needed innovation.

Look forward to hearing more good ideas in the Street Fight column.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:24 am

I live more or less in the geographic center of SF and I can drive to most places I need to go in 10-15 minutes. Parking is fine outside of the crowded NE of the city, and the only places I prefer not to drive to and in are ChinaTown and NorthBeach.

You should check out LA, Atlanta or Houston if you wanna see car-centric. Houston has a freeway that is 24 lanes wide at one point.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:40 am

Actually, San Francisco is the second most traffic-congested city in the country after Houston, according the US Dept. of Transportation. Downtown is gridlocked with cars everyday during rush hour (it's actually really fun to speed past them on the my bike. If fact, zippy, I almost always beat my car-driving friends when going from one destination to another, particularly when you factor in parking).
As for your point about Bay Area innovation, that's precisely what this column was about, innovation (BRT, cycletracks, creative ways to speed up and expand capacity on Muni) that a handful of regressive motorists stuck in the 20th Century are trying to block.
Hooray for innovation! I can't wait until we join London in doing congestion fees in our downtown core and use all that money to expand Muni's capacity.

Posted by steven on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:01 am

Bridge traffic - the routes to the bridge get backed up to north of Market. At other times, at least subjectively, it really isn't that bad. I don't drive at rush hour, admittedly, but I can get most places quickly and easily. When I moved to SF, I figured a car would be useless here but actually it is near essential even if you don't want to go off campiing etc. on the week-ends.

Sure, cycling can be quicker, but it's also much more dangerous and doesn't allow me to carry other people, heavy items etc. so it won't work for a lot of people.

You'll wait a long time for a congestion charge. Probably forever. I do not believe that anywhere in North America has seriously considered it.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:10 am

not bicycles.

The issue on the table is: Does street parking trump the needs of thousands of transit riders?

What say you?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:17 am

Street parking doesn't get in the way of transit unless buses are driving in the gutter.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:34 am

Very nice blog post. I absolutely appreciate this website.
Keep writing!

Posted by Schwangerschaft Brustvergrößerung on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

Copenhagen is flat. San Francisco is not. Once you figure that out, you will begin to see the limitations of bikes only.

Posted by Richmondman on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

that have their origin when horses were the main mode of transportation.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

Steven, removing cars is okay by me but that does not mean that the replacement is automatically good.

The danger on Polk Street, like in SOMA, is at the intersections not along the block faces. A car in the bike lane along a block face is an inconvenience, a cycle track runs the risk of forcing cyclists into the death zone at an intersection. Until the confluence of bike lanes and intersections is made intuitively safe to motorists, they will continue to post mortal danger and cycle tracks might end up doing more harm than good.

Buses can't ever provide a dignified transit experience, a functional rapid rail system is all that does that. BRT says "we're doing this on the cheap," rail says "we really care." Even when the investment is made in rail, surface transit is always slower. Third Street is in effect BRT on steroids, long distances between stops, grade separation between intersections, transit preferential signals, and it is still slow as molasses. That is why it is faster to get to 30 miles into the East Bay by BART, which runs on rails its own exclusive right of way, than anywhere on surface constrained MUNI.

Posted by marcos on Sep. 19, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

The point is to get people from Point A to Point B. When going to the inner Sunset from Civic Center, it matters little whether one takes the light rail or the 6 bus line, yet the difference in public costs to provide the transit ride is far less expensive by bus. For a ride that takes less than 30 minutes or even an hour to Ocean B each, it makes no fiscal sense to waste precious public resources on light rail vs. buses. They take up the same space on the street and the ride isn't much different between the two modes.

I'm sure there are a few bus snobs in the city who eschew buses in favor of light rail whenever possible, but why should a city listen to the whims of a few percent of the population when it means the city gets far less transit by focusing on much more costly options.

Cities and states are virtually broke and most taxpayers are not rushing to pass new taxes. As city and state employees retire and leave the workforce, yet their pension and healthcare costs stay on the books for decades to come, cities will be hard-pressed in future just to keep the same service and employment levels. Buses are more than adequate to get people from A to B, with dedicated bus lanes and traffic override signals available to help expedite the trips.

If a small percentage of city folk want fast and comfortable travel to go less than 7 miles in any direction, they probably belong out in the suburbs where they can get in a car and get to their destination

Posted by Guest on Sep. 19, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

I have to side somewhat with Marcos on this one.

I ride buses everywhere, every day, and they totally -suck- compared to rail transit.

They are routinely a mess and packed with people like sardines in a flatcan, some of which riders are quite smelly and often challenged with mental/emotional issues. I have nothing against such people and believe they have full right to ride transit like everyone else (whether they can pay or not) but this is simply a reality we face.

In addition, nearly all of the buses constantly jerk badly and jarringly when braking or accelerating.

In San Francisco it is flat out NO FUN to ride the bus.

So if we are going to get rich people to get out of their cars and ride we need to do far more to make that ride pleasurable. (As AC Transit does so easily.)

As to rail vs bus it is likely that BRT will be more pleasant than the traditional bus ride, so I'm a supporter of BRT (and then rail when we can afford it).

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 19, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Eric, in San Francisco with its five disparate grids, surface transit of any modality is a prisoner to those grids. There is a finite bound on the speed improvements that can be achieved under such constraints. That bound is below what is required to elicit mode shift from autos.

Subways can move more people faster and if there is additional load, not to worry, the agency can just tack on another car to a train to handle more people for a very small incremental operating cost. Compare this to the added labor cost of running another bus.

The problem that we're trying to solve here is as much a technical problem as it is a problem in perceptions. The other problem is that "we" will be able to afford rail, with the current corrupt regimes in power, long after "we" are dead. The MTA and TA have nothing up their sleeve but minor incremental improvements to the existing system.

There is nothing to point to where we can say, yeah, motorists are going to take a hit now, but look what you'll get in 5, 10 years...

Posted by marcos on Sep. 20, 2013 @ 5:03 am

SF buses are a disaster and riding them isn't just slow - it's also uncomfortable, dirty, unreliable, unpleasant and sometimes dangerous. Nothing will really change that and it is essentially a way of moving the poor around town. apart from the 1 and the 30, the affluent do not use buses and will not.

Light rail is better because, even if not faster, it is more civililized. Too much congestion under Market though which is why I am happy to see the Central Subway making the system 2-dimensional.

But BART is the only system that works right. Nobody who lives near 24th and Mission would take the 14 bus over BART, and the BART is actually 25 cents cheaper.

Transit needs to be underground and fast. Perhaps once the BARt workers get slapped down in the current contract dispute, we can look at seriously expanding it, say along Van Ness and Geary.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 20, 2013 @ 7:36 am

It's too bad you're off base and wrong here. You may have your opinion, but you cannot generalize about the people who ride MUNI. Besides it's not like the buses are jarring because they're falling apart, it's because your favorite motorist, pedestrian, or traffic light just cut off, walked in front of, or the signal just simply changed. Sadly you discount and dismiss any ideas to actually fix the problems you abhor and therefore will never see the actual improvements. OR you'll water down the improvements such that they are ineffective and keep the status quo.

The reason BART works is that it is fully separated from TRAFFIC. TADA. It also costs XYZ more than running a bus on the street. But we dont fund transit like that, and you probably dont ride the buses. So I dont know what else to say.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 22, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

that either you didn't attend university or you missed the part about thinking for yourself.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

massive bias and using juvenile slurs to try and skew a debate. Not a great start.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

Wrong. This is an opinion column.

Ideas about how to get San Francisco out of this traffic jam and how to develop a modern, transit-first city is an innovation long overdue.

San Francisco will never be a city that competes with world leaders until it can solve this problem.

Sounds like the Professor has some good ideas not only about what is needed, but what is holding back progress.

Welcome Professor Henderson!

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:19 am

Maybe his students do not call him out on his bias, but he sure as hell won't get away with this kind of skew in the real world.

To get influence, you have to build consensus, and you achieve that by seeing different points of view and taking account of other viewpoints as well. Henderson hasn't made a good start by spewing such obvious prejudice.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:33 am

He touched a nerve by daring to point out that car-huggers are the main road block to a modern, world-class transit system in San Francisco.

The truth often hurts.

That is also why newspapers have opinion columnists - to state what nobody else has the courage say out loud.

This guy literally wrote the book SF transit politics.
You should read it.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:13 am

And until there are more sandal-wearing, whale-loving tree-huggers than there are car-driving, hard-working people with responsibilities, the fringe group Henderson's of the world will continue to rant ineffectively.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:23 am

Ha. Another Limbaugh University graduate.

What a joke.


Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:40 am

You couldn't stand a real right-winger.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:52 am

A true believer with a created world view complains that another person is a dupe.

Posted by Matlock on Sep. 13, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

Did Bay Area Bike Share totally slip your mind when you "enlightened" Jason about how bikes cannot be shared? Quite an oversight, hmm? Bike sharing, in EVERY CITY it has been implemented, has been wildly successful. Despite San Francisco's modest attempt at a "pilot" project for BABS, it WILL inevitably expand, and it WILL become an integral part of our transportation network in the coming decades.

I think Jason is spot on. There is an increasingly loud and organized effort (despite their status as a small group) to accommodate the car in parts of San Francisco that is is-- quite objectively-- NOT PRACTICAL to accommodate so many parking spaces. Yes, he is biased, but people need to stop politicizing this issue and look at it from the practical perspective. All numbers point to TRANSIT, WALKING, AND BIKING as the most effective way to move people across EVERY CITY in the US. Successful cities for transportation? Portland, New York, Chicago. Unsuccessful cities for transportation? Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston. See any similarities, smarty? The latter three cities chose the car as their only mode of transportation, attempting to squeeze every large private vehicle into their city. The result? These cities are plagued by gridlock and continue to suffer for their transportation choices.

San Francisco is at a junction of development in which the SFMTA needs to realize that these motorists are acting out of self-interest, and not the greater good of the city that is growing at a monthly rate. What happens when the expected 80,000 people arrive in the next 20 years, and all we plan for is cars. Think traffic's bad now? Think you have trouble getting a space now? Just wait till then. You'll see your own ignorance.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:01 am

most voters is going to find himself out of a job. Your affection for marginal forms of transit is touching but it just isn't going to work for most people most of the time.

It's also very SF-centric but transport is a BayArea-wide issue. The real city is 100 miles across with 5 million people and you cannot walk and ride bikes on that scale.

Even in SF, driving and parking is fine outside of the NE. You need to listen to everyone here and not just the "usual suspect" transit activists that make all the noise.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:14 am

And there is no saying it will be successful.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:26 am

I'm working as a rebalancer at BABS.

Trust me we're having a hard time keeping up with demand.

It is quite popular with the public I interact with every workday.

Posted by pete moss on Sep. 13, 2013 @ 4:42 am

It's been under-used so far, compared with projections.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 13, 2013 @ 6:52 am


You're citing the Chron?!


I'll say this: it's not being used exactly the way the central planners envisioned.

But then the public has a way of subverting central planning.

You need to spend more time out of your cage.

Posted by pete moss on Sep. 13, 2013 @ 7:49 am

looks like a nail.

The answer these people have for any and every transport problem that Sf has is "remove a car lane" and/or "remove parking". They never think that people will fear a policy that endlessly takes from one group of people and gives to another.

We just spent billions building a new Bay Bridge. The Bay Area is nearly one hundred miles across. Walking, biking and bussing is only a marginal way of traversing distances and then only short ones.

We live in California and not some 1,000 year old medieval European city with narrow, cobbled streets.

Enough with the war on cars already. It's no more likely to work than the war on drugs.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 9:16 am

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into nonsensical, petty, mean spirited, irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 9:28 am

Notice how Troll Barrier is inserted when people don't agree with his position - K

Posted by Guest on Nov. 02, 2013 @ 10:54 am

is fearsome and cannot be refuted. When my posts instill fear like that, I know I have won the debate.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 02, 2013 @ 11:23 am

tend to crowd out and shout out ordinary people at public meetings. Indeed, most ordinary people do not attend these meetings. Go to a few and you see the same old "usual suspect" activists every time.

Normal people do not have time to devote hours to these meetings, many of which are held during the working week.

That's why I do not trust these advocates and activists. They are on a crusade but most people do not share their agenda.

Posted by anon on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 9:39 am

• Exactly backwards. It's the opposite side that relies on shouting and insane Agenda 21 conspiracy theories in public meetings.

Or maybe, just maybe, the All-Powerful Bike Lobby has managed to suppress all the videos on YouTube that make them look bad.

Posted by Jym Dyer on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

It's always the same crowd there, yelling and baying, hoping to push their minority agenda through.

Most ordinary people do not show up because they are too busy and then find their parking has been stolen.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

Car owners don't own a parking space.

You should pay good money to rent it from the city.

Streets are owned by every city resident and must be shared.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

where to live based partly on the availability of street parking nearby and then take it away from them to placate some commuters who do not live there but are merely passing thru.

That's why residents are getting so sick and angry about this "just take out the parking" solution to everything.

Posted by anon on Sep. 11, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

The thousands of San Franciscans who depend on a slow and dysfunctional public transit to get to school, work, etc... should not have to put up with clogged streets just because someone thinks they "own" a parking space.

Did you miss kindergarten?

Learn to share.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:11 am

buy that home, take that job, and deal with that commute based on how thigns were.

If your commute takes an hour then you probably bought your house cheap. If my house has easy street parking, I probably had to overpay for my house. Now you want to devalue my home and make yours worth more.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:23 am

You should buy one with a garage.

It is not the public's duty to provide you with a subsidized spot to store your private property.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:33 am

stability and continuity.

And there is no subsidy because I pay property tax, vehicle tax and all manner of other local taxes.

PS: I do have a garage but we have two cars.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:44 am

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