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Planning for the Future of San Francisco’s Hub Neighborhood

Map of the HUB. Image: SF planning department.

Map of the HUB. Image: SF planning department.

About a hundred planners, developers, neighbors, and interested citizens crowded into a conference room at One South Van Ness yesterday evening for a presentation from the San Francisco Planning Department on their plans for the area immediately around the intersection of Market and Van Ness, also known as the Hub.

The Hub, of course, got its name back in the 1800s, when four trolley lines converged there. And, as John Rahaim, Planning Director for San Francisco, reminded everyone at the start of the meeting, it remains a major transit hub for bikes, Muni trains and buses, and BART.

“We felt it was time to take a fresh look at this portion of the plan,” he said to the group, noting the the Hub neighborhood is also part of the larger Market and Octavia Area Plan adopted in 2008.

So why is the planning department paying special attention to the Hub and, in effect, creating a plan within a plan? Rahaim said they hoped to move more quickly with this area that is such a focus of activity, with its many transit lines, including dedicated Bus Rapid Transit coming to Van Ness, and its proximity to the Opera House and Symphony.

“We felt this part of the plan needed another look to create new open spaces and improve sidewalks,” he explained.
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How to Get Vision Zero Working: a Talk with Walk SF’s Nicole Ferrara

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Supervisor London Breed and Nicole Ferrara address volunteers at a Walk to Work Day Event in Hayes in San Francisco, California - Photo: Walk SF/Jonathan Fong

Supervisor London Breed (red skirt) and Nicole Ferrara (red shoes) address volunteers at a Walk to Work Day Event in Hayes in San Francisco, California – Photo: Walk SF/Jonathan Fong

A little less than a week ago, Walk San Francisco held its fourth annual “Walk to Work Day” events. The idea is to get people more aware of the health benefits of walking. From Walk SF’s promotion:

Walking at least 15 minutes of your commute counts! Start your healthy walking habit and get rewarded at one of the Walk to Work Day “hubs” across the city. Stop by for a FREE Clipper Card, totes, coffee, or breakfast snack, and much more!

While there was reason to celebrate walking in San Francisco, this year’s event came shortly after a sobering piece in the San Francisco Chronicle listed a spate of road deaths in early 2016:

In addition to the six pedestrian deaths, three people in a car were killed in a Super Bowl Sunday crash on a city street, and a cable car operator hit by an allegedly drunken motorcyclist in June 2015 died of his injuries in January.

As the article made clear, people just keep getting hurt and killed despite San Francisco’s efforts to make its streets safer. The Chronicle cited safe-streets advocates as putting the blame on a system that prioritizes parking availability over safety; a critique Streetsblog has levied for some time:

Vision Zero, San Francisco’s ambitious program to eliminate traffic deaths, is off to a rough start this year — with six people in crosswalks struck and killed by cars and accusations that the Municipal Transportation Agency is protecting parking instead of pedestrians. [emphasis added]

After the story came out, Streetsblog sat down with Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF, and a leading activist for safer streets, to ask if she agreed with its conclusions and, if so, why she thinks Vision Zero isn’t having a more tangible effect.

Streetsblog: So you saw the Chronicle story. Is it right to conclude that the Vision Zero efforts, so far, have failed?

Ferrara: It’s been a little over two years since we started Vision Zero. There are a couple of things that point to certain treatments that are working–the SFMTA has started to evaluate and they are showing positive results in terms of yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk. That, plus speeding, are the top two causes of death and serious injury. However, I think we don’t have a ton of projects in the ground that are comprehensive yet.
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SFMTA Votes for a Surcharge on Cash Fares for a Faster Bus

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Want to pay cash? Get ready to pay more. Photo: SFMTA

Want to pay cash? Get ready to pay more. Photo: SFMTA

SFMTA’s proposed budget for 2017-2018 was passed yesterday by its board. Next stop, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Included in the budget, a 25 cent fare hike for cash fares. And this fare hike is really for the good of the riders–seriously.

A few decades ago, if you boarded one of London’s iconic double-decker buses, you didn’t line up and pay at the door. You entered front or back and a conductor, not the driver, came around and collected your fare while the bus was in motion. The result was the buses didn’t wait at each station while people lined up to pay. Over time, with cut backs and changes in bus design, the decision was made to have drivers also collect fares. Thus, London buses, like buses everywhere else, started to have interminable dwell times. It’s a ridiculous system that makes riding a bus a slow, plodding experience (well, slower than it needs to be).

Now, of course, computers, smart phones, and pre-paid cards (“Oyster” in London or “Clipper” here in the Bay Area) can replace the old conductors for fare collection and allow everyone to scramble onto the bus at once, which is already speeding up commutes, with the added bonus of centralizing fare collection and making transit more seamless, at least in theory. And Streetsblog has long supported the idea of an all-in-one transport card that will work on everything from buses to car-hailing.

The problem is some people take the expression “cash is king” a little too literally and are reluctant to move on, especially seniors who aren’t always comfortable in the digital world. So they keep lining up to pay at the fare box. And we keep waiting for them to unroll bills and push them into the little machine. That’s why the SFMTA board wants to give people an incentive to get them over their Luddite tendencies; the aforementioned 25 cent surcharge for  paying a fare with cash.
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Albuquerque Plans Center-Running Busway

Albuquerque's ART bus rapid transit seeks to change the way people get around. Image: City of Albuquerque

Albuquerque’s ART bus rapid transit project will put a center-running busway on the city’s main street. Image: City of Albuquerque

Recently, Albuquerque has gotten a good look at the insanity that can grip people when confronted by the idea of reallocating street space from cars to transit. The city is planning to add center-running bus lanes along Central Avenue — its main street — and for months public meetings about the project featured people standing on chairs and shouting, actual fights, and the occasional police escort out of the building.

But this week, cooler heads prevailed. The Albuquerque City Council voted 7-2 to accept $70 million in federal money and get started on the project, called ART, which is backed by the city’s Republican mayor. Now, after a long and tense drama, it looks like ART is a go.

Dan Majewski helped found YES ART NOW, a grassroots group that supported the project. He is elated. Majewski said council members had a well-reasoned debate and weren’t swayed by opponents who said bus lanes would ruin their neighborhood.

“I think it’s an absolute game changer,” Majewski said. “I think that’s part of why there’s been so much vitriol around the project.”

“It’s really symbolic of the culture shift,” he added. “What we witnessed [Monday] night was historic: the city voting to prioritize something other than automobiles. We’ve never seen a situation where people are consciously voting to take away lanes for cars and give them to transit.”

With the ART, the stars seem to be aligning for Albuquerque to become more than “a collection of … nondescript subdivisions connected by monotonous commercial strips,” as one local writer put it.

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Mission Street Transit Lanes: What About the Bikes?

Right lane transitways on Mission leave no place for cyclists. Image: SFMTA

Right lane transitways on Mission leave no place for cyclists. Image: SFMTA

Earlier this week, the SFMTA sent out a release with a progress report on the “Red Lane” paint (actually, a thermoplastic adhesive) they are applying, clearly marking lanes for Muni Streetcars and buses (and taxis):

Early signs indicate success. Preliminary data shows transit-only lane violations dropping by more than 50 percent on some segments of 3rd Street. On Geary and O’Farrell streets, the red lanes have reduced Muni travel times by 4 percent despite traffic congestion increasing on the same segments by 15-18 percent.

But what about bikes?

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SF Mayor’s Veto of Increased Transportation Sustainability Fee Stands

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 Left to right: Thea Selby of the Transit Riders Union, Peter Cohen, Council of Community Housing Organizations, Margaret McCarthy, SFBC, Supervisor John Avalos, Peter Straus, Transit Riders Union, and Calvin Welch, Human Services Network at a presser pushing to override Mayor Lee's veto. Image: Jeremy Pollock.

Left to right: Thea Selby of the Transit Riders Union, Peter Cohen, Council of Community Housing Organizations, Margaret McCarthy, SFBC, Supervisor John Avalos, Peter Straus, Transit Riders Union, and Calvin Welch, Human Services Network at a presser pushing to override Mayor Lee’s veto. Image: Jeremy Pollock.

Supervisor John Avalos, backed by safe streets and transit advocates, and Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim, made a push today to override Mayor Lee’s veto of a proposed increase in the Transportation Sustainability Fee (TSF) on large commercial developments. But the override only got six votes rather than the eight required.

The proposal would have increased the one-time fee on large commercial projects by $2 from $19.04 to $21.04 per square foot (and that only applies on the portion above 100,000 square feet, if the project is large enough to qualify). It also requires commercial projects in the pipeline that have not received Planning Commission approval to pay half of the difference between the new TSF and the previous fee.

The TSF was a huge step forward, requiring developers to pay a fee for for impacts on transportation infrastructure brought about by the workers and residents they bring to the city. The proposed increase, meanwhile, would have generated an estimated $2.4 million a year along with $30 million in one-time revenue for the SFMTA.

“Mayor Lee’s veto of the TSF ordinance preserves a backroom deal with developers and forces tax payers, Muni riders, and workers to subsidize the increased transportation impacts of big developments,” said Supervisor John Avalos. “The SFMTA will be forced to make up for the gap in revenue through increased fares and fines or further defer much-needed maintenance and capital projects.”
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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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