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What SF Needs to Catch Up to NYC’s Bicycling Success: Political Leadership

New York City's Prospect Park West parking-protected bike path. Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov

New York City has raised the bar in recent years for rolling out bicycle improvements and reclaiming public space from automobiles. While San Franciscans have come to expect major delays for bike projects as the norm in their city, New York, the only American city more dense than SF, has zoomed ahead by adding roughly 20 miles of protected bike lanes since 2007, with more on the way. After each new NYC bikeway is built, injuries to all users decline and bicycling increases along the corridor.

How can San Francisco emulate New York’s success? In short: San Francisco’s public officials need to exert bold leadership to hasten a painstakingly slow planning process intended not so much to achieve specific goals, but to avoid rocking the boat. That was the general sentiment at a recent forum where local bike advocates popped questions at Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, New York’s leading advocacy organization for bicycling, walking, and transit.

“New York’s success, tenaciousness, vision, and drive have been guiding the way for other American cities,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Executive Director Leah Shahum told an audience at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last Thursday, where she and White discussed the state of the bicycling movement in the two cities.

“We all know that we talk about Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Barcelona as being these wonderful bicycling cities, and many getting better and better, but [with] that European model, you really lose people,” said Shahum. ”To have a great American city guiding the way in being a great bicycling space, and really reclaiming space from the automobile and creating public space for people, frankly, is making our job a lot easier in San Francisco.”

NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has earned a reputation for pursuing groundbreaking projects like the two-way bikeway on Prospect Park West, which produced major benefits and, despite high-profile resistance from a small group of politically-connected NIMBYs, has been largely embraced by the public.

“We’ve been very lucky to have such great leadership that has managed, nevertheless, to involve communities and be very democratic while at the same time acting swiftly and decisively to implement safer streets,” said White. “I think one way to cut through the red tape, and maybe some of the needless process, is to appeal to safety, and say that every day that a street goes without pedestrian or bike infrastructure is putting people in danger.”

“There’s enough data now to show that it’s simply inhumane not to add bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure when there’s an opportunity,” he added.

One of the main barriers preventing San Francisco from experiencing the same “impressive explosion” of visible change, said Shahum, is that SF transportation officials and politicians like Mayor Ed Lee haven’t been as willing to commit to completing bike projects, and that New York planners don’t have “to go through as much process as we do in San Francisco.”

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SF Bike Share Will Be “For Anybody Who Wants to Make a Short Trip”

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The SFMTA has released a preliminary map of potential bike-share station locations (H/T Cyclelicious for inputting them into Google).

San Franciscans are burning with curiosity about the imminent arrival of bike share this summer. At a forum held by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association yesterday, participants wanted to know details like where the stations will be located and what color the bikes will be.

Officials working on the project say they can’t provide answers until the vendor is selected (expected by April), but Cyclelicious provides an early map of stations proposed by the SFMTA. Project manager Heath Maddox said that while the pilot’s 50 downtown stations won’t serve as wide an area as the world’s leading systems, the stations will be close enough together to achieve a similar “blanket-style” coverage within the service zone.

“The most important thing is to have a density of coverage that works,” Maddox told Streetsblog after the presentation [PDF] yesterday. “The regional system is really set up — and it makes sense — to be the first and last mile for regional transit, but the nature of what we’re doing in San Francisco is very different. It’ll be [for] anybody and everybody who wants to make a short trip via bicycle.”

Maddox said the station proposals are still very premature, and that the SFMTA will collect feedback on them through public hearings, an online map, and a possible town hall-style meeting.

As far as the potential for expansion after the pilot, planners couldn’t say much, but Maddox did present a citywide map of areas that are “ripe” for bike share, mainly featuring transit-accessible commercial corridors. Karen Schkolnick, the program manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said planners hope to use the information gathered from the regional 1,000-bike pilot to develop a ”seamless transition to the next system.”

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SPUR: How Will 1.7 Million More People Cross the Bay?

Crossing the Bay from SPUR on Vimeo.

SPUR has produced a new video that asks: How will 1.7 million more people cross the Bay? From the SPUR blog:

In the last century, visionary planners made major investments linking San Francisco and the East Bay. When the 20th century dawned, the only way to get from San Francisco to Oakland was by ferry. We built the Bay Bridge during the Great Depression and the BART tunnel in the early 1970s. It’s been nearly 40 years since then, and the Bay Area has grown by 2.7 million people. Yet we’ve added no new capacity. Even the new Bay Bridge, currently under construction, won’t help: It will be much more resilient to earthquakes, yet no bigger than the bridge it replaces.

SPUR’s first recommendation is to get more people on buses by building what would be a relatively cheap short-term solution: a contra-flow westbound bus lane on the Bay Bridge that would accommodate up to 10,000 new passengers an hour. Its second recommendation calls for incremental improvements to BART, including a better train control system along with trains that have more doors. The third is a long-term recommendation that would require big capital dollars: constructing a second transbay tube to boost BART’s capacity, and potentially accommodate high-speed rail.

The video is SPUR’s first entry into animation and video making. It’s a product of the organization’s 2009 project and report, “The Future of Downtown,” which focused on reducing job sprawl and strategies to expand job growth in San Francisco’s transit-rich downtown. It argued that downtown SF, namely SoMa, has “by far the greatest near-term potential to accommodate regional employment growth with a low carbon footprint.”

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SPUR: Let’s Not Miss the Boat on What America’s Cup Could Do For SF

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The extension of the historic F-line streetcar to Fort Mason would serve the anticipated spectator venues from Crissy Field to Aquatic Park. Image: Rick Laubscher

Editor’s note: The following is being republished from SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. Visit their blog at SPUR.org.

When it comes to global sporting events, almost as intense as the competition between star athletes is the competition between cities to play host.

That’s because hosting a major international sporting event presents a unique opportunity for a city to redefine its development goals, stimulate investment and boost tourism.

Just last month it was decided that San Francisco would host the 34th America’s Cup. There is no doubt that the San Francisco Bay will provide a breathtaking venue for yacht racing, and no doubt that there will be an infusion of spending in the city tied to the event.

But the real opportunity comes from leveraging the America’s Cup to make some major long-term investments in our city.

SPUR calls for the City to come together to make some important public realm improvements before the race happens; and to make sure we get high-quality private development that will stand the test of time.

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Commentary: Why This Working Family is Supporting Muni Reform

Phto:

Photo: foonus

Editor’s note: On Friday, we presented an op-ed opposing Prop G. Today, Gillian Gillett, a transit advocate who is the chair of SPUR’s Transportation Committee, explains why she’s voting for Prop G.

Living in San Francisco provides families with many unique opportunities for learning, entertainment, and other benefits of a diverse, urban environment. However, families also face some unique challenges, as San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any American city, and parents like me with children in San Francisco’s public school system face additional challenges day to day. That’s why a well run Muni is absolutely critical for both working families, and for San Francisco as a whole – without it, San Francisco doesn’t function. That’s why my working family is supporting Muni reform.

Let’s look at some of the challenges kids in public school face right now.

The San Francisco Unified School District is considering cutting 57 percent of its transportation budget. That means 900 more kids won’t have a way to get to school, and at least 950 won’t be able to attend after school programs, which we know are vital for working families. 
 
This is especially troubling considering the fact that in many neighborhoods, kids outnumber [pdf] the available desks at school facilities. For example, in my neighborhood, the Mission, there are 2000 elementary school students, but only 1100 spaces in the elementary schools, and 40 percent of households do not own a car. 
 
Thus, when people suggest that parents of public school kids don’t send their kids to local schools because they “don’t like them,” they do not understand how the public school system sometimes works. This is also why a functioning Muni is absolutely critical for these families to succeed at work and at school.

In a time of economic crisis, we have to spend every dollar as effectively as possible to get the most benefit, and Muni is no exception. For the last several years, Muni has been making significant cuts to service. Even with the minor restoration of service, many families, particularly those who depend on Muni, are having a harder time juggling school, after school activities and work, when they have to wait longer and longer for a bus that may never arrive, or find themselves stranded when a connecting bus is late, or cannot get on a bus because it is overcrowded. If the current Muni trend of cutting service and charging more for it continues, people will choose cars over a slow, expensive transit system or decide to move out of San Francisco. I’d love to think everyone would switch to bicycles, but that’s not an option everyone can enjoy.

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Muni Charter Measure Supporters Take to the Streets to Collect Signatures

IMG_1793.jpgSupervisor Sean Elsbernd canvasses near West Portal station this morning. Photo: Michael Rhodes

People catching Muni near West Portal station this morning were greeted by an unusual sight: Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, and a team of volunteers were out canvassing the avenue to gather signatures for a ballot measure that would change the way the city sets Muni operator salaries.

Elsbernd, who first introduced the measure late last year only to see it receive an icy reception in a Board of Supervisors committee, said getting it on the ballot through a signature campaign was a daunting task, but so far people are receptive.

"If they give you that two seconds to talk to you about it, they'll sign it," he said. "It's just whether or not they'll give you that two seconds."

After twenty minutes of standing out on West Portal Avenue, Elsbernd said he'd collected about 15 signatures. To get on the November ballot, 70,000 of San Francisco's half-a-million registered voters must sign a petition in support of putting the measure on the ballot.

"We've got a lot of signatures we've got to collect in the next few months," Elsbernd acknowledged.

The measure would remove language from the City Charter that currently sets Muni operator salaries and benefits at the average of the two highest-paying large transit agencies in the country, instead of through a collective bargaining process. The measure's supporters argue that the charter provision has been too costly for Muni and has given management less flexibility to negotiate better work rules.

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MTA Board May Finally Get Creative on Funding, But Obstacles Remain

IMG_5750_1.jpgMTA Executive Director Nat Ford and Board members Jerry Lee, James McCray, and Chairman Tom Nolan.

Could the bleakest budget in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's history force its directors to finally get creative in funding Muni?

The answer, judging from Tuesday's MTA Board meeting, is yes. Fresh off approving a 10 percent cut to Muni service to balance this year's budget, MTA directors appeared eager to close the agency's massive budget gap in the upcoming two years without cutting more service or raising fares.

MTA staff presented $75 million in solutions that the agency could enact without going to the ballot box, but more than a third of that would come from charging for transfers and cutting even more service -- ideas quickly shot down by the board.

The remaining solutions, including a plan to extend parking meter enforcement hours, add up to about $40 million annually. That's far less than the $56.4 million shortfall the agency is projected to face next year, or the $45 million shortfall projected for the year after that.

But for the first time in the MTA's ten-year history, the board seems serious about going to the ballot box to stave off further service cuts. Transit supporters say it's a noteworthy shift.

"It is a really good sign to see the MTA trying to get ahead of things now and come up with a long-term revenue strategy so they're not facing a crisis every single year," said Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), an urban planning think tank.

Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City and a member of the BART Board, also called it a welcome development. "This would be the MTA Board for the first time not being totally passive about creating new revenue and actually being proactive," he said. "It's late, but it's progress."

The directors will have to maintain their resolve during what is certain to be an uphill battle. MTA staff presented five potential ballot measures to the board on Tuesday, and the directors themselves suggested two more. Each of the seven faces formidable hurdles.

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Are More Service Cuts the Last Straw For a Public Fed Up With Muni?

tax_the_rich.jpgPhoto: blarfiejandro

Widespread outrage at the MTA Board, so visibly on display at today's meeting on Muni service cuts and fare increases, appears to be driving a growing surge of organizing that transit supporters hope might finally create a sustained movement with the potential to pressure the MTA into developing long-term fixes for Muni.

Most members of the public testifying at the meeting today were livid about the MTA's approach to the budget, illustrated by loud outbursts from speakers and thunderous applause by the more than 200 people who filled the overflow South Light Court at City Hall.

Long-time Muni organizers and transit wonks were hopeful the momentum that helped turn out so many people would continue beyond today.

"I'm thrilled. I think it's word of mouth, it's gotten around," said Sue Vaughan, a member of the MTA Citizens' Advisory Council and an organizer with Transit Not Traffic. "It's got a life of its own and it's gaining momentum."

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who roamed the overflow room and spoke with a number of people who gave public testimony, was awed by the turnout. "I'm incredibly impressed about the volume of people that have come out. They're well organized, and their passion is right on and felt by many of us."

"As far as I'm concerned, you've got a mini-movement that's not going to fade away."

An abundance of different groups were represented at the meeting, including advocates for improved transit, affordable housing, people with disabilities, youth, seniors, and more, as well as plenty of unaffiliated Muni riders who were deeply concerned about the MTA's proposals for balancing its budget.

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SPUR Director: Muni Drivers Deserve Good Pay, But Work Rules Must Change

3836058223_c98984c86e.jpgFlickr photo: tehf0x
With Muni riders looking for somewhere to direct their frustration at potential service cuts and fare increases, and with the Mayor eager to frame the MTA's budget deficit as a choice between labor concessions and fare hikes, it's easy to view a proposed charter amendment that would change how Muni driver salaries are set as a shot at transit operators.

But SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, who's drafting the amendment along with Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, said the point isn't to scapegoat drivers, but to fix some of Muni's most persistent service problems, like the high rate of absenteeism that leads to frequent missed runs.

Operators, said Metcalf, have a hard job and deserve to be fairly compensated. For many drivers, the job is a hard-earned but solid path to the middle class. But by setting transit operator salaries automatically at the second-highest rate in the country, MTA management has removed any incentive for operators to allow revisions to work rules that hobble Muni performance, said Metcalf. A November ballot measure would revise the City Charter so salaries and benefits are set entirely through collective bargaining.

"We want to write a squeaky-clean good-government charter provision that does not go after any specific work rules, but rather sets up conditions for fair collective bargaining," Metcalf said. "It puts a lot of sunshine around it. Voters get to understand what is being negotiated. The hope is that, over time, labor and management can work out a better way to run Muni."

Metcalf insisted that the measure is not intended to be punitive against drivers. "Being a driver is a really hard job," he said. "In the end, what we've got to get to is a culture where people are happy to go to work and people feel taken care of and work hard and they get paid well for working hard."

"It is basically the same system virtually every other union and city government has," he added. "There is no way anyone in good faith can say that is anti-labor."

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Can Anything Be Done to Fix Muni?

In San Francisco it's almost as cliche to kvetch about Muni as it is to misquote Mark Twain about chilly summers, but what can possibly be done to fix a transit system that seems to have so many problems and almost no solutions that everyone can agree upon?

The city's sitting mayor and several former mayors have vowed change for the better, but in just the last year the city has seen fare increases, service cuts, and layoffs of maintenance and cleaning personnel that make riding Muni less attractive, less reliable, and more expensive. What gains may have been made in the past decade since restructuring Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) are arguably slipping away amid budget cuts, which are forcing cutbacks that the agency and the riding public will feel for years.

Getting concessions from Transport Workers Union (TWU) 250 will stave off the worst of the budget shortfall for the next six months, but large deficits loom, with an expected gap of more than $100 million over the next two years. While members of the Board of Supervisors toy with the idea of changing appointment criteria for the MTA Board of Directors and some advocates are working in Sacramento to stop the governor's raids on transit funds, many people are trying to figure out a local solution that might have traction.

"It is an extraordinary crisis. Ideally it would be great to see everyone come together," said Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, a transit advocacy organization. "We all want a functioning transit agency in town."

As the MTA holds a series of town hall meetings that have elicited the expected anger of riders who are already feeling the burden of cuts and hikes and who can read the writing on the wall, another group is organizing what it expects to be a large Muni Summit in early March. The summit is being coordinated by members of San Francisco Tomorrow, whose long-time Muni champion and critic Norm Rolfe passed away recently, members of Savemuni.com, who have long opposed building the Central Subway, and members of the MTA's Citizens Advisory Council (CAC).

"There’s definitely anger," said Gerald Cauthen, a civil engineer and former employee of Muni who helped found Savemuni.com. Cauthen has attended numerous MTA Board meetings and the two recent town hall meetings, where he said some of the testimony is hopeful, despite the frustration riders feel. "Many people don’t know what’s wrong with Muni, what it will take to make Muni better, but a lot of people are throwing out ideas."

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