Motorists fight back

Ballot measure seeks to prioritize cars and undermine SF's "transit-first" policy


Believing that they're somehow discriminated against on the streets of San Francisco, a new political coalition of motorists, conservatives, and neighborhood NIMBYs last week [Mon/7] turned in nearly twice the signatures they need to qualify the "Restore Transportation Balance in San Francisco" initiative for the November ballot.

It's a direct attack on the city's voter-approved "transit-first" policies, which prioritize alternatives to the car, and efforts to reduce automobile-related pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It would prevent expanded parking meter enforcement unless requested by a neighborhood petition, freeze parking and permit rates for five years, require representation of motorists on the SFMTA board and create a Motorists Citizens Advisory Committee within the agency, set aside SFMTA funds for more parking lot construction, and call for stronger enforcement of traffic laws against cyclists.

"I think it's been building for a long, long, long time, but the real catalyst was the Sunday and holiday parking meters," political consultant David Looman — the 74-year-old Bernal Heights resident who is one of three official proponents of the measure — said of the motorist anger that led to the campaign. "That's the straw that broke the camel's back."

Yet he also said the meetings that led to the measure began in March, after Mayor Ed Lee had already called for a repeal on charging for parking meters on Sundays. The SFMTA voted to repeal Sunday meters in April, a month before the measure was certified to begin gathering signatures — an effort paid for by tech titan Sean Parker (founder of Napster and a top investor in Facebook) and the city's Republican Party, which kicked in $49,000 and $10,000 respectively.

But Looman fears the repeal of Sunday meters could be temporary and that a small minority of road users are dictating transportation policy in a way that unfairly discriminates against motorists.

"The bike lobby is running transportation policy in San Francisco," Looman said, even though motorists "are the overwhelming majority and we make this society run." He said the city needs to do more to facilitate driving "so the economy can continue to function, so people can continue to shop."

But given that drivers already dominate the space on public roadways, often enjoying free parking on the public streets for their private automobiles, transportation activists say it's hard to see motorists as some kind of mistreated population.

"Anyone looking at how street space is allocated in our city or at the fact that a mere 1 percent of transportation funding is focused on biking improvements knows that we have a long way to go toward creating real balance on our streets," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum told us. "City leaders are making up for decades of lost time by rightfully investing in safe, affordable and healthy transportation options."

"The idea that anyone who walks or cycles or takes public transit in San Francisco would agree that these are privileged modes of transportation is rather absurd," Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART board, told the Guardian.

He said this coalition is "co-opting the notion of balance to defend their privilege. They're saying the city should continue to privilege drivers."

But with a growing population using a system of roadways that is essentially finite, even such neoliberal groups as SPUR and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce have long promoted the idea that continued over reliance on automobiles would create a dysfunctional transportation system.

"This balance measure would be a terrible step backward for San Francisco, and it misunderstands what makes cities work," SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf told the Guardian.