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SF Moves to Next Round in Competition for Federal “Smart City” Grant

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Self-driving cars are one of many technologies that may change transportation in the Bay Area. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Self-driving cars are one of many technologies that Bay Area leaders are preparing for in a submission to the Smart City Challenge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Over the weekend, San Francisco and six other finalists made it to the next round of the US Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge” grant competition.

It’s part of a USDOT program to get cities thinking about new technology. In a few months, USDOT will announce the winner of the ultimate prize: $50 million for implementation of the best idea for using technology to improve transportation. The award includes a $40 million grant from the government and $10 million more from Vulcan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s philanthropy.

“We received applications from 78 cities that fully embraced the Challenge,” wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a blog post. Originally, the USDOT was going to work with five cities, but the Secretary wrote that they invited two more to join. “Each of these finalists will receive $100,000 to build out their vision, including submitting budgets and expanding their proposals.”

Of course, this was a perfect opportunity for SFMTA’s new “Office of Innovation,” led by Timothy Papandreou, Chief Innovation Officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “That’s why the office of innovation was created.” San Francisco’s proposal aims to get in front of the next phase of the sharing economy, he said. “We learned our lesson from the last couple of years.” The rapid rise of Uber and Lyft taught city transportation agencies just how quickly things are changing.

He added that San Francisco’s entry will have them partnering with tech, communications, and transportation companies to start planning for integration of ride-hailing with existing transit assets. “We want to make it mature so ride-hailing is folded into transit as a step towards shifting behaviors from personal cars, and to get access to everyone,” he said. That means that, as shown in the USDOT video below, in the future someone who buys a Muni or Caltrain ticket will be able to get off the train and find a ride-share–perhaps one day an automated car–waiting right there.

Despite a recent small setback, self-driving cars seem tantalizingly close to ready for the road. And what will that mean for the future of transportation? Will it mean more cars? Probably not. But will these new automated cars draw people away from transit, and consume more energy in the end? That will depend. Rather than wait until the technology is in widespread use before formulating policies, as transportation agencies ended up doing with Uber and Lyft, San Francisco is hoping to shape the use of new tech to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled and CO2 emissions.

Papandreou also envisions a day when automated vehicles respond to demand, so a five-person or fifty-person vehicle will show up depending how many people want to travel and where. By making ride-hailing more dominant, there will be less need for parking and parking structures for private automobiles, which sit around doing nothing most of the time. That will free up more room for more important uses, such as housing, he explained.
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SF Planning Commission Officially Prioritizes Humans over Cars

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Adopting the new environmental criteria should make it easier to dedicate lanes for transit vehicles. Image: SFMTA.

Adopting the new environmental criteria should make it easier to dedicate lanes for transit vehicles. Image: SFMTA.

Late last week, the San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously adopted a resolution to replace “Level of Service” (LOS) with “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT). That’s bureaucratese for measuring a project’s overall effect on moving people, instead of just counting automobiles. As explained in a previous post, environmental law has long forced transportation planners to grade projects by how they impact traffic flow. “This will streamline California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review for projects that are designed to encourage public transit, promote pedestrian safety and help reduce the need for traveling long distances by car,” said John Rahaim, Director of San Francisco Planning, in an official release. “We are pleased to be the first city in California to adopt these new guidelines.”

LOS often jammed up projects such as bike and transit lanes, which–arguably–reduce the number of cars that flow through a given area by taking lane space, but increase the number of people who can get from A to B. In short, the new rules, in the process of being adopted at the state level, make it so something as benign as a bike lane doesn’t trigger an expensive and time consuming environmental review.

“This is exciting news for public transit in San Francisco. VMT is not only a better metric for assessing overall environmental impact of our streets, but it also clears the way to waste less time and money implementing great Transit First projects,” said Reed Martin, a member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. “Van Ness BRT took an extra six years and almost $8 million just to study traffic impacts based on the car-biased LOS metric.

This will go a long way towards “speeding up critically needed street projects to achieve Vision Zero, increasing our public resources by decreasing the time and staff needed for environmental review processes, and ensuring California’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prioritize biking, walking, and transit as sustainable modes of transportation are met,” said Margaret McCarthy Interim Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
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Are Outdated Regulations Holding Back Safety Changes on Market?

Family, friends and advocates attend a memorial for Thu Phan. Photo: JikaiahStevens.

Family, friends, and advocates attend a memorial for Thu Phan. Photo: JikaiahStevens.

Today, advocates for livable streets attended the memorial service for Thu Phan, a woman killed in a crosswalk on Market Street on February 5. Yesterday Streetsblog urged SFMTA to stop compromising on safety improvements, a theme echoed at the event.

“In the first two months of 2016, five people have already died in traffic crashes – and over half of those were killed on or near our most dangerous streets,” said Walk SF executive director, Nicole Ferrara. “While the recent changes to Market Street are important first steps in making San Francisco’s streets safer, they do not go far enough, especially to protect people who are most at risk, including seniors and people with disabilities. Thu Phan’s tragic death could have been prevented, if stronger safety measures were in place.”

The tragedy highlighted something else that’s painfully obvious: Market Street will always be a dangerous place as long as there are automobiles on it. Between the streetcars, bicycles, buses, pedestrians and—above all else—automobiles, it’s not so much that there’s a particular intersection that’s problematic. The entire street, as currently configured, is a conflict generator.
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Guest Editorial: Make Muni Faster with Clipper Discount

Clipper discounts can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Clipper discounts can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Muni will carry 700,000 trips today, making it the most heavily traveled transit system in the Bay Area. But as you read this, many buses and trains are at a standstill. They’re stopped as people fumble with dollar bills and coins, needlessly creating delays that our transit system can’t afford.

In San Francisco, it’s not unusual to wait 30 minutes for a bus or train. Muni averages just eight miles per hour and its vehicles show up late half the time. Our city spends $1 billion a year on Muni; for that we get America’s slowest and least reliable transit system.

There are many ideas to accelerate Muni but one stands out as cheap and easy: offer discounts for paying fares electronically.
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Muni Taraval Meeting Met with Grimaces Groans and Grumbles

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Supervisor Tang greeted the Crowd. Sean Kennedy, Muni Forward Program Manager, standing to her right, gave the main presentation.

Supervisor Katy Tang greets the crowd. Sean Kennedy, Muni Forward Program Manager, standing behind and to her right, gave the main presentation.

Over a hundred people braved the wind and rain yesterday evening to attend the latest public outreach meeting about SFMTA’s planned “Muni Forward” improvements to the L-Taraval streetcar line. The meeting was held at Dianne Feinstein Elementary school, about two blocks south of Taraval.

District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang kicked off the meeting. “I am here to listen,” she stressed, talking about the importance of public comment in formulating transit improvements. The main presentation was given by Sean Kennedy, SFMTA Muni Forward Program Manager. He talked about how SFMTA, as part of the Vision Zero goals, had identified Taraval as a street where safety improvements are needed. “22 people have been hit in the past five years getting off trains,” he said. “And 46 total,” making it part of the city’s “High Injury Network.”

To reduce these collisions, the agency is looking at installing more concrete platforms in some places and improving markings and law enforcement in others. Kennedy explained that a common problem is too many motorists do not understand that it is illegal to pass a stopped train when it is loading and unloading passengers. “Around a third of motorists ignore state law, putting passengers in danger,” he said.
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Streetsblog Talks with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener, who has served District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 2011, was re-elected this week as chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The Authority was created in 1989 and it works closely with the Municipal Transportation Agency, funding and shepherding long-term projects such as the Van Ness and Geary bus improvements and the Central Subway. Wiener has long been a leader in transportation issues—probably because, unlike some elected officials, he actually rides the trains and buses.

Here’s what he wrote in a post about his reappointment as chair of SFCTA:

    “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues just reelected me as Chairman of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. I will continue to work very hard to improve transportation options as our city and region grow. We have so many needs – increased frequency and reliability of service, more subway lines, a complete revamping of BART and Caltrain, a second transbay tube, and high speed rail to downtown San Francisco. We have huge challenges, and with aggressive and innovative work, we will meet them.”

Streetsblog talked with Wiener about cycling, his goals for improving Muni, and general mobility in San Francisco. But first, late last December Supervisor Wiener pulled out his phone to check an appointment and got robbed. The thieves took his phone and then demanded money. Wiener got his phone back and managed to maneuver them in front of an ATM camera. Streetsblog started by asking him about that encounter and what it says about personal safety in San Francisco.

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Streetsblog: So you got the thieves on a security camera?

Scott Wiener: It was either an incredibly smart move or an incredibly stupid move, but I got my phone back and the people are in custody. I was walking down 16th Street at Valencia and I had briefly taken my phone out to look at my calendar to see where I was going. A woman who was with two guys snatched the phone out of my hand and I was able to get it back from her by paying. So I got them to an ATM machine so that they would be on video; two of the three are now in custody.

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San Francisco MTA Backpedals on Powell Safety Improvements

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is already rolling back safety improvements on Powell. Photo: Roger Rudick

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is pulling back safety improvements. Photo: Roger Rudick

The SFMTA Board passed a partial rollback this afternoon of the “Powell Street Safety & Improvement Pilot,” an 18-month test project to evaluate banning private vehicles on the particularly busy stretch of Powell Street between Ellis and Geary.

The change, based on staff recommendations, took a plan that reserved the street for “Muni, paratransit, taxis and commercial vehicles only” and changed it to also allow private vehicles “picking up or dropping off passengers at the loading zone in front of 230 Powell Street.” Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk San Francisco, said it will be impossible to enforce that private cars are only loading at that location and not driving through. “You can’t have a cop there all the time. It undoes what the pilot did and is pretty disappointing.” The decision was part of SFMTA’s “consent calendar,” meaning it was passed without discussion or a vote.

It was only last December that the city started the pilot. Given that Powell–between the cable cars, delivery trucks, taxis and private automobiles–was a virtual parking lot, safe-street advocates have long argued that the street should be transformed into a transit and pedestrian promenade. Powell doesn’t even connect to Market Street, since the southernmost block was turned into a plaza in 1973. As a result, drivers end up doing u-turns, further jamming up the street. It’s also a concern for maintaining San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, which aren’t able to handle stop-and-go traffic, because it wears out and frays the cables.

Either way, it should be self-evident that there’s no room for private cars on this stretch of street, just from looking at photographs from past issues of this publication and others. And SFMTA is trying to reduce the number of cars through incremental changes. For example, in 2011, all parking was removed from Powell south of Geary. But not everyone is keen on getting cars off of this stretch of Powell.

“Several Powell Street property owners came forward and asked that we also include the northbound side of the street [accessible to private vehicles] as a condition of their support for the project legislation,” explained Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA. “Staff agreed to this change, and the Board directed staff to return in January with the requested modification, as long as staff was confident that the ‘less restriction’ regulation would still achieve the pilot goals.”

“Our role in this process was to convene stakeholders that would be impacted by the change,” wrote
Union Square Business Improvement District (BID) Executive Director Karin Flood. “In the case of Powell Street we had to balance the need to accommodate the large number of pedestrians walking up Powell with the loading and unloading needs of the individual hotels and merchants.”

Safe street advocates, meanwhile, were frustrated. “It’s pretty disappointing to see this street opened up to private vehicles again without a complete evaluation of the pilot program,” said Ferrara. “This will impact pedestrian safety.”

“This is a really old system,” explained a cable car conductor on Powell who asked Streetsblog to withhold his name. He motioned to a cable car he just helped push across Ellis. “It’s much better, much safer with the street closed [to private cars].”

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Terrifying BART Shooting Shakes Bay Area

Photo: Matthew Roth

Photo: Matthew Roth

I was waiting for an inbound BART train Saturday evening at eight in Rockridge when there was an announcement: “severe disruptions due to police activity at West Oakland.”

My train arrived a few minutes later. We held in downtown Oakland for maybe 15 minutes. Then we rolled through West Oakland without stopping and accelerated to full speed into San Francisco. It wasn’t until I got home and my phone rang that I realized what had happened was actually serious: my friends in Rockridge wanted to make sure I was okay, because they saw on the news that somebody was shot to death, presumably on the train right in front of mine.

Predictably, the shooting was the lead story in the media, ratcheting up the fear. “The reason public transport violence is problematic is that users cannot avoid the risk, so each event is more frightening to a larger number of persons than crime in the street,” said Franklin Zimring, Director of Criminal Justice Studies at Berkeley. Even though “exposure to violent crime is lower than it would be in a lot of neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.”

The last incident on public transportation of this level of violence was the shooting of Tommy Clayton, 19, last April, on a Muni T-line train in the Bayview District. That said, there are between 90 and 70 homicides a year in Oakland and about 50 in San Francisco. It’s inevitable that some will happen on transit.

“The problem is you can always stay out of neighborhoods that have bad reputations, but if you’re dependent on public transport, you can’t stay away from it,” said Zimring. “Furthermore, I can control where a car goes, so my feeling is going to be somewhat less vulnerable.”

That’s perception. But whether from crime or crashes, the Freakonomics blog lays out the relative safety of transit over driving with data from the US Department of Transportation. Bottom line, if people get so terrified by a well-publicized shooting or rare train collision that they decide to drive instead, they increase their risk of getting killed.

And the fact is random violence on transit—and the Oakland shooting doesn’t look random—is pretty rare, explained Officer Carlos Manfredi, a spokesman for SFPD. For most riders, there are a few tips to keep in mind; a way to regain some of that sense of control. For example, when it’s not crowded, try to ride near the driver. “The driver has a radio and can call for help right away,” he said. Manfredi also recommends standing away from the doors, since thieves are looking to make a quick getaway. “And look up, away from that smart phone screen, whenever the bus or train comes to a complete stop.”

Others take the police to task. “There are many ways to make Muni safer, and one is to have consistent police presence,” said SF Supervisor Scott Weiner. “Like police walking beats on our streets, ensuring a police presence on buses and light-rail vehicles must be a priority.”

Manfredi said they do patrol the system, but that it’s a resource issue. “The average officer will respond to 15 to 35 calls in a 10-hour shift,” he said, adding “An officer is required to ride twice per shift.”

There are accusations that cops shirk this requirement. But Manfredi says cops do patrol Muni plus they commute on transit just like anyone else. Even off duty, “They will typically intervene if they see a crime in progress,” he said.

None of this mitigates the revulsion from last Saturday night. One man is dead. Others had a traumatic experience that will haunt them for years. A killer remains at large. More disturbing, perhaps, is that crime remains such a huge problem in Oakland. But let’s hope fear won’t drive anyone from transit and into private cars, where more people die, generally without the headlines.

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Transit Volunteers Gear Up to Make Muni Better in 2016

logoAmazingly, it was only 2010 when a bunch of regular Muni riders, fed up with unreliable, dirty, and overcrowded trains and buses, got together to form the San Francisco Transit Riders Union (SFTRU). But it now has an impressive list of accomplishments and is striving for more, according to Andy Bosselman, a spokesman and volunteer.

Streetsblog caught up with Bosselman at a coffee shop on Sansome off Market Street. The middle-aged founder of a skin care company is typical of advocates working with the group—years ago he took a side interest in urban planning and was blown away by the simple accomplishments he saw in cities such as Portland, Montreal, and Paris. “Montreal created protected bike lanes with the kind of cheap concrete barriers you see at the end of parking spots,” he said, wondering why such simple improvements are so hard to come by in San Francisco.

The group is chaired by Thea Selby, Principal of Next Steps Marketing. She is Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the City College of San Francisco and a member of the California High Speed Rail Board. Peter Straus, who heads up SFTRU’s transportation task force, is called the “Head Transit Ninja” by Bosselman. But its overall board and membership is as diverse as Muni’s riders.

One focus of SFTRU is the Van Ness BRT, which will run two miles from Mission Street to Lombard. As Bosselman explained, the project will reserve a lane for buses to increase speed, reliability, and capacity. It also requires removing some older trees that are “at the end of their lives and diseased.” Local residents, not familiar with the project, objected to removing the trees. SFTRU helped get the message out that new trees will be planted, resulting in a net gain. And it pushed to assure the BRT plan uses center lanes, instead of slower, curbside lanes.

In June of 2015, the group launched its 22-day Muni Challenge, which pressed politicians to use Muni themselves and document their rides with photographs and Twitter posts. Each day of the challenge represented one of the 22 years since the voters passed 1993’s Proposition AA, which required city officials to ride Muni several times a week, something most have not done.

“If you’re going to be making decisions about transit, you really need to know what it’s actually like. Not what it’s like in theory, but what it’s actually like,” said Christof Spieler of the Houston Metro’s board of directors in an Atlantic article called “Why the People in Charge of Transit Systems Should Be Required to Actually Ride Transit.”

It seems obvious: if our leaders ride transit, they see its faults, and are in a better position to correct them. And, not surprisingly, the politicians who ride transit the most are most active in improving Muni. And those who don’t, well, aren’t.

Bosselman hopes that by continuing to pressure politicians to ride, they’ll see and hopefully fix more of Muni’s faults, such as “three N-Judahs in a row, outbound,” he explained. “Why can’t they switch those trains to different lines so they’re not bunching?”

So what’s next for SFTRU’s volunteer transit ninjas?

“We’re trying to figure out what to focus on in 2016,” he said. “Will we do something similar to the Muni challenge? Or are we going to choose a different campaign?” One thing’s for sure, they want to improve fundraising and reach out to a broader coalition, he explained.

And they want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on where Muni can improve? Comment below. Or if you’re a transit geek, volunteer, said Bosselman. Even if you’re not a transit geek and just want to see Muni get faster and be more reliable, “we want you too.”

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“Just Transit” Contest Winner to Straighten Out Caltrain Station Mess

Back in October, the Schmidt Family Foundation announced its “Just Transit SF Challenge,” a contest to come up with good transit improvement ideas that can be implemented quickly. The three winners were announced this month.

Bike lanes as currently configured at Caltrain. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The current street situation at Caltrain. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The $125,000 first prize went to RideScout and TransForm, which are partnering to improve transit using financial incentives. In many cities, off-peak transit tickets are discounted to encourage people to ride trains and buses when they are less crowded. This project exploits modern technology to take things further, offering discounts for people to ride when loads are light or even encouraging them to use a less direct route if it will reduce crowding.

The grant will pay for the fare discounts the first year, during which the grantees will study to what extent financial incentives can work, using smart phone technology, to change travel patterns. After that, they’ll have to get SFMTA and BART to buy in. That may mean charging more at peak times and on heavily-crowded routes to offset the expense. Either way, it should bring in more revenue by making sure trains and buses have fewer empty seats on off-peak routes. In this sense, the project is trying to apply the kind of math airlines use to make sure planes don’t fly with empty seats.

Another winner addresses a problem that’s all too tangible to anyone who has ever used Caltrain’s King Street Station.

“Curbing the Caltrain Cluster,” which won a $50,000 award, is a joint project from Livable City and Lyft. How will it work? Suppose you get off your Caltrain and need a Lyft. The way things work now, you end up wandering past Muni buses, bikes, cars, and through the taxi queue trying to find your ride. “Curbing the Caltrain Cluster” proposes numbered stalls, so that when you call your Lyft, Uber, or whatever service, it also tells you to go to stall number 9, for example.

So when a Lyft driver heads over to Caltrain and looks at his app, “It will say your rider will proceed to ‘X’ location,” explained Scott Reinstein, development and communications director for Livable City. The plan is also to separate cars, buses, and bikes as much as possible.

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