The SFMTA Board of Directors yesterday approved a plan to restore a one-way arterial section of Hayes Street to a calmer two-way street that would help favor walking, bicycling and transit on the commercial corridor. However, despite the extensive planning process and community support for the project, the discussion wasn’t without contention.
“There is no answer, as far as I can tell, that’s fully satisfactory as to where the cars will go,” said Director Malcom Heinicke, the only member who opposed the proposal.
In response, Director Cheryl Brinkman recalled a poignant statement from Noah Budnick, the deputy director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives: “Traffic isn’t like the weather – you can do something about it.”
It’s a reminder that the dominance of car traffic in our cities, in reality, isn’t necessary. Rather, it is generated by building streets and freeways that favor moving motor traffic at the expense of neighborhood livability and other transport modes. When those conditions change, so does behavior.
“It’s been my experience through most other projects that have been somewhat controversial that once we put things in place, and things start to work out, people adjust to the changes,” said Director Bruce Oka.
Time after time, it has been shown that reducing the impact of motorways reduces the amount of car traffic invited to use those streets. When conditions change, it is generally found that people respond by traveling by different modes, different routes, and during different times.
“I think our current utility relocation project on Stockton Street is a perfect example,” said Brinkman. “When it was first closed to automobiles, Post Street was a mess the first week. But as time went on, and cars realized they couldn’t go down Stockton Street and they had to turn left on Post, it’s dissipated.”
In the city’s most famous example, the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, doomsday warnings of paralyzing traffic jams failed to come to fruition. More recently, replacing a piece of the Central Freeway with the much less domineering Octavia Boulevard was found to reduce car volumes by 40 to 50 percent.
“I think there are a lot of neighborhoods that, when this works out, will realize that we don’t have to have streets that sit 24/7 to handle 50 minutes of traffic twice a day,” said Brinkman. “We can’t continue to add and facilitate automobiles on our streets. We’ve got to continue to re-engineer our streets to make them pleasant and work for everyone.”
“I know that most of us, me included, don’t like change at first,” said Oka. “But once the change is there, unless it directly adversely affects a major part of our constituents or our city, I think we have to maintain a safe environment for our pedestrians and for people who use our streets who don’t have cars.”
“We are, in fact, a transit-first city. Let’s act like we are.”