“Street Fight”: The New Guide to SF’s Transportation Politics

On the Sunset District’s 19th Avenue, a street transformed into an urban highway environment in the mid-20th century, Muni buses jostle for room on a car-clogged six-lane roadway, where residents put their lives in the hands of long-distance car commuters every time they cross. And all but the exceptionally adventurous can forget about bicycling on the motorway.

SFSU students cross 19th Avenue. Photo: ##http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=49169##San Francisco Sentinel##

Those types of conditions are common throughout dense, car-dominated San Francisco, and they’re what Jason Henderson describes as a “mobility stalemate, whereby everyone using the street has an unpleasant experience, but any improvement to one mode of transport comes at the expense of others.”

That’s how Henderson explains it in his new book Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. Henderson is a geography professor at SF State University, which happens to sit on the southern end of 19th Avenue.

When it comes to getting around and allocating street space in San Francisco, there are three primary ideologies battling it out — and sometimes working together — to shape decisions, according to Henderson. It’s these three conceptions of mobility — progressive, neoliberal, and conservative — that jostle to determine “how the city should be configured, for whom and by whom,” said Henderson at a talk on his book at SFSU yesterday. And while San Francisco has a national reputation as a walkable, progressive bastion, outsiders may be surprised to find that influential political forces in the city can be just as car-centric as, say, those in the American South (where Henderson hails from).

Henderson’s framework can be very useful for understanding why, say, a group of merchants would fiercely oppose the removal of car parking on Polk Street even if studies show that 85 percent of people on Polk arrive without a car. It’s a reaction rooted in a conservative paradigm that views the automobile as essential to family life and commerce, and which assumes space for cars can’t be sacrificed for safety.

As Henderson put it, transportation is typically thought of as an issue that transcends ideology. Yet while the conventional divide between Democrats and Republicans may have little to do with merchants who fight tooth-and-nail to preserve parking even in SF’s most socially liberal neighborhoods, the use of street space is as political a topic as any.

San Francisco’s social values have become a bellwether for progressivism nationwide, but there remains a deep strain of car-centric ideology concerning streets and transportation in the city, said Henderson. “When it comes to mobility and the car, there is a very conservative discourse that essentializes the car.”

For decades, transportation planning in American cities prioritized the movement and storage of cars should above just about everything else. This way of thinking became so entrenched that car-centric engineering tools like Level of Service — a metric that treats the movement of motor traffic as pretty much the sole purpose of a street — were generally regarded as apolitical. As a result, it’s now normal for the vast majority of street space to be devoted to cars.

Henderson, borrowing a quote from the author of an oral history of car-centric transportation planning, described the conventional engineering mantra like this: “On the eighth day, there was LOS.”

“In transportation, engineers and planners do have normative visions of how the city should be configured and organized, and do have ideas and beliefs about who should be making those decisions,” said Henderson. “It is not unbiased.”

Conservative arguments about mobility surface in forums like public meetings and City Hall hearings on installing parking meters, said Henderson. “You hear things like, ‘If you have children, you have to have a car, there’s no other way,” he said. “Cars are a natural extension, a natural progression.”

“That’s a very conservative discourse, and it shuts down possibilities,” he added.

But a progressive ideology is starting to challenge the automobile-centric status quo in SF, calling on government to reverse policies in favor of calming traffic and reclaiming car space for walking, biking, transit, and public space — the primary goal being to reap benefits in public health, economics, environmentalism, and social equity.

Jason Henderson. Photo: ##http://news.sfsu.edu/professors-street-fight-takes-politics-transportation##SFSU##

“A progressive framework conceptualizes mobility as a systemic problem that requires deep social commitment and responsibility,” Henderson wrote in his book. “How we get there matters.”

The progressive vision was manifested in the city’s transit-first policy, adopted in 1973 and amended in 1999 to establish that street space should be allocated to walking, biking, and transit before cars. But 40 years later, implementation of that policy is still nascent.

The values of the third ideology, neoliberalism, align with those of progressives at certain times, said Henderson. The neoliberal agenda, he argues, is focused on the expansion of the free market and lifting barriers to development. So while they may support getting rid of LOS, freeways, and minimum parking requirements for new developments, they may also oppose parking maximums and high development impact fees that fund transportation improvements, and they often favor transit improvements that benefit downtown commuters and developers — i.e. the Central Subway — rather than transit that elderly, low-income residents rely on for other trips, he said.

“When it comes to economics, and particularly transportation, there are very divergent ideas [between neoliberals and progressives] on what the role of government should be, who should decide, and how this should play out,” said Henderson. “Government’s role, in the neoliberal framework, is targeted investment where it will make profit.”

Neoliberals and progressives aligned in the push to remove the Central Freeway, said Henderson, since it opened up land for development. (Henderson, a Hayes Valley resident, has himself has been active in pushing to minimize the amount of new parking that comes with that development.) Today, Mayor Ed Lee’s office is championing the removal of the northern spur of Highway 280 for the same reason.

As another example of progressive values aligning, Henderson pointed to tech companies like Twitter that are moving downtown and whose employees are more likely to want to walk, bike, or take transit to work. Meanwhile, the increasing trend of private shuttle buses that take workers from SF to Silicon Valley (a.k.a. “Google buses”) may be better than if they were driving, but he said they may come with pitfalls for public transit. It is “creating a constituency that is pro-transit, but not pro-mingling with other people, and not pro-transit finance when you put things on the ballot.”

Ultimately, said Henderson, a significant increase in funding and street space dedicated to transit, walking, and bicycling is what’s necessary to make those transportation options that truly usable by the general population. And that means challenging the primacy of cars in favor of space for people. “You’ve got to make [Muni] reliable by taking away car space,” he said.

  • easy

    Added to my Amazon wish list!

  • M.

    It’s an amazing book, fully documenting an epic urban drama, cast with clashing titans and the full range human wacked-outness, unfolding over bloody decades.

    I’ve read it looking for The Solution and had to wonder: if I’d known about the long tragic history of SF street fights, would I still have picked one for my particular street? Yeah, I would.

  • Bruce Nourish

    Does Mr Henderson have any data (I.e. polling, voting records) that suggests users of Silicon Valley shuttles are less pro-transit-finance than any other group of demographically-similar people, or its he just assuming? And no, I’m not willing to buy his book to find out.

  • justin

    Maybe the quote is out of context, but I have a hard time believing the google shuttles are necessarily “creating a constituency that is pro-transit, but not pro-mingling with other people, and not pro-transit finance when you put things on the ballot.” (The book is sitting on my kitchen table, not yet read).

    Look no further than Caltrain for proof — you see the same people on the trains, mingling. They’re just the lucky few for whom Caltrain is actually a commute option, since it serves basically nobody in San Francisco, and stops far from many SV employers.

    To me, the shuttles are a testament to:

    1. silicon valley tech workers want to live someplace more exciting than silicon valley.
    2. they are not willing to drive
    3. the available public transportation is completely inadequate.

  • Anonymous

    I think Henderson could use a “necessarily” after the not. I think in pro-transit discussions people take it as a given that someone riding a corporate shuttle is going to support Muni or transit in general because they are not using a car to get to work, but that is not necessarily the case. They certainly aren’t as vested in improving public transit as daily riders because they don’t have to rely on it in the same way.

  • Not that 19th Avenue comes anything close to “working”, but what’s wrong with 20th Avenue as far as cyclists are concerned? The climb up to Quintara is no higher or steeper than on 19th, and it connects directly to Transverse Drive in GGP at the north end. The only tricky part is getting through Stern Grove and crossing over Sloat, but Sloat is a whole clusterf**k unto itself. In short, this time the people asking “why not just take Page Street instead of Oak” might actually have a point.

  • The biggest losers with respect to 19th Ave are pedestrians. And I mean big – as in multiple fatalities. No way would I ever try to cross that street with my toddler. Might as well be crossing 101, if he threw a fit in the middle of the road and didn’t want to keep crossing, we’d be dead ducks.

    Regardless, as a cyclist the problem comes if you want to actually visit something on 19th Ave, or heaven forbid if you *live* on 19th Ave. And if you live in that area chances are you would have to cross it.

  • Anonymous

    I think one of the points made in this summary was that transportation is as much an ideological issue as anything else. If someone is politically progressive, whatever their mode of transportation may be in practice (including a private shuttle), they are still likely to vote for improved public transit.

  • Anonymous

    Most (not all) tech employees are going to be loosely neoliberal, pro-privitization, maximization, efficiency etc. That’s also who forked over a lot of cash to get Ed Lee elected (looking at you Twitter and Ron Conway, among others). I think Henderson’s actually saying that your ideology around transportation IS going to be reflected in your transit choices. The private shuttle is a newer choice for SF and it doesn’t necessarily reflect one that is going to be progressive or even transit friendly (the quotation above thinks it’s the opposite although I wouldn’t go that far).

  • Anonymous

    I work in tech, and while I would say there is a higher percentage of neo-liberals than there are in the general population, I don’t think it makes up the majority. I don’t have any data to back that up though, just personal experience.

    The reality is for that particular need, privatization makes sense. Everyone would be pretty angry if the City of San Francisco created a bus service to take employees straight to Google in Mountain view. It’s not a fair use of taxpayer money.

    I don’t think the mode you use is a good indicator of your politics. I think it’s just a matter of every individual making a decision based on a cost-benefit analysis. I ride a bike to work because it’s faster and more reliable than public transit, and parking at my home and work is too expensive or hard to find. It doesn’t mean that I would not vote to spend money to improve public transit.

  • Anonymous

    By saying that you see transportation as individuals making a cost-benefit analysis IS a neoliberal viewpoint. Transportation is structural. The private shuttles are not privatization of a public system or service because there are no public systems right now that can replicate what they do. I’m not against the shuttles per say, but I don’t think workers taking luxury buses (oxymoron?) to work 30-50 miles outside of SF is going to inherently make them appreciate improved public transit that doesn’t necessarily benefit them, at least not directly. I think that may be what the author is saying? I’m not sure, but that’s certainly what I think.

    Your oversimplifying my argument, I’m not strictly saying that how people get to work determines how people vote. What I’m suggesting is that mode choice beyond commuting, especially your options but not necessarily what you take, ends up shaping ideology, if anything because it so heavily reflects culture and class. I think ideology is also more than how someone votes and mode choice in general has a huge affect on how one interacts with and perceives the world. That’s one critique of private vehicles and shuttles, how closed off people inside are from interaction outside of the vehicle. I think it would be interesting to find out how private shuttle riders get around when they’re not on shuttles, but I also think that this argument has been hashed out a lot on this blog. This book isn’t about just shuttles and I am looking forward to reading it.

  • Anonymous

    You make some very good points, and I don’t discount any of them. I just want to clarify that transportation is both structural and personal. The structure determines both the cost and the benefit of a certain mode.
    In San Francisco, the bicycle mode has benefit of being cheap and some people enjoy it. It has the cost of danger of personal injury (lack of bicycle facilities), physical difficulty in direct proportion to the distance of your residence from the urban center (or wherever you work).
    The public transit mode has the monetary cost of a MUNI or MUNI/BART pass. Travel times can vary drastically. It has the benefit of being cheaper than owning a car, taking you far distances, and being available where you live and work (if that’s the case).

    The costs and benefits are directly determined by structure. How often MUNI runs; how likely it is your bus will get you where you need to be in time; what bike facilities are available on your route; etc. But the person still makes a cost-benefit analysis when choosing a mode. The role of the any institution that wants to encourage one mode over the other (like city government) is to create the conditions where the benefit for that mode outweighs the costs for a greater number of users. I would not consider this the neo-liberal viewpoint.

  • Anonymous

    I guess my point is that not everyone is applying market logic (cost/benefit) to each situation or that it’s at least more complicated than than, even if it’s what your or I do. For example, people often hold on to cars for years for emotional reasons and once they get rid of them they realize they should have done it years and thousands of $ ago. I don’t think we always know why we do what we do 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Stay strong!

  • Anonymous

    I’m with Murph. No street should focus on one mode of transportation to the detriment of others. Even if the next street over is a walkable paradise, somebody will have to walk down or cross 19th– and it shouldn’t be deadly

  • M.

    Ta for that, SF. Not easy for sure and sometimes I go looking for the back door but that’s just not an option. I cannot let the selfish bullies win. Right at the times when I want to flee, someone great pops up. Like today, got an Fb message – an angel who is paying $50/day to boost our page cuz they care about Complete Streets. If it didn’t get so awful, it wouldn’t get so great either. Forward on Polk!
    Here’s what I said today: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/12966648/Mayor's%20Budget%20Town%20Hall%2018_5%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

  • How did I miss this? Just requested it from the SFPL but it looks like it’s popular, so we’ll see when it arrives!

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