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Posts from the "Transit Advocacy" Category

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Standing Up to the Naysayers: Tales of Livable Streets Leadership From NYC

Re-shaping city streets almost always runs up against some level of opposition — it’s part and parcel of physically changing what people often see as their territory. Whether residents get to have safer streets, however, often comes down to the elected leaders who stand up to the naysayers.

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

In San Francisco lately, we’ve seen a lot of smart transportation projects get watered down or stopped without a supervisor or mayor willing to take a stand. In the absence of political leadership, city officials and agencies too often cave to the loudest complainers, who fight tooth and nail to preserve every parking space and traffic lane, dismissing the empirical lessons from other redesigns that worked out fine when all was said and done.

It’s not unusual for elected officials to be risk averse, but mustering the political courage to support safe streets and effective transit can and does pay off. Just look to the political leadership in New York City, where Streetsblog has covered several major stories involving City Council members (the equivalent of SF’s supervisors) who faced down the fearmongering and shepherded plazas and protected bike lanes to fruition.

These leaders suffered no ill effects as a result of their boldness. They were “easily re-elected” last year, said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s NYC-based editor-in-chief. If anything, Fried says these politicians gained more support — not less — “because they had won over this very engaged constituency of livable streets supporters.”

In the battle over NYC’s Prospect Park West redesign, a group of very well-connected neighbors filed a lawsuit against the city for converting a traffic lane on the street into a two-way protected bikeway. City Council Member Brad Lander defended the project, which is now held up as one of NYC’s flagship street transformations.

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TransForm to Host Third Transportation Choices Summit in Sacramento

TransFormLogoTransForm, an organization that advocates for sustainable transportation, smart growth, and affordable housing throughout California, will host its third annual summit next week to discuss the state’s transportation priorities. The Transportation Choices Summit will take place in Sacramento on Tuesday, April 22, and feature speakers from advocacy organizations including the Greenlining Institute, Move LA, and Safe Routes to Schools, as well as state legislators and representatives from state agencies.

The summit’s agenda includes panel discussions on opportunities and challenges in 2014, including cap-and-trade funds and Caltrans reform. Senator Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), the keynote speaker, will discuss the connection between climate change and equity issues. De Leon authored S.B. 535, passed in 2012, which requires that at least 10 percent of funds earmarked for greenhouse gas reduction go directly to disadvantaged communities, and that 25 percent of them be spent in a way that benefits those communities.

Other highlights from the conference include a breakout session on increasing funding for walking and bicycling, led by Jeanie Ward-Waller, the California Advocacy Organizer for the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership. Another session will feature Kate White, Deputy Secretary of Environmental Policy and Housing Coordination at the California State Transportation Agency, who will talk about Caltrans reform with TransForm Executive Director Stuart Cohen. You can see the other speakers listed on the agenda [PDF].

Two related events will bookend the summit: On Monday, the day before the summit, Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates Executive Director Jim Brown will lead summit attendees on two local bike tours. One will showcase the innovative bicycle master plan in West Sacramento. The other will focus on issues around new infill housing in the city.

On Wednesday, after the summit, Transportation Choices Advocacy Day will bring advocates and volunteers to the offices of legislators to talk about biking, walking, transit, and affordable, accessible housing near transit. This event is free and all are invited, but pre-registration is required.

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Supes Avalos, Wiener Clash on Equitable Spending Strategies for Muni

Supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener are sparring over how new revenue for transit should be spent to benefit the Muni riders who need it most.

With tax measures proposed for the 2014 ballot that could significantly increase transportation funds, Avalos introduced a charter amendment yesterday that would “require the city to prioritize investments to address existing disparities in service to low-income and transit dependent areas,” according to a statement from his office.

The Transit Equity Charter Amendment “provides a framework for how the city rebuilds transportation transit infrastructure and rebuilds transit service,” Avalos said at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, explaining that it would also set stricter equity performance metrics and increase oversight by the SF County Transportation Authority Board, which is comprised of the supervisors. “It will help ensure that our investments are also targeted to address service deficiencies in our low-income and transit-dependent neighborhoods,” he said.

If approved, the amendment — also sponsored by Supervisors David Campos, Jane Kim, Norman Yee, and Eric Mar — would be placed on the November 2014 ballot alongside tax measures to increase funding for transportation upgrades, as recommended by Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation 2030 Task Force, a 48-member group that has met throughout the year to develop the recommendations.

Avalos, who represents the SFCTA Board on the task force — also known as T2030 — has criticized its lack of representatives of low-income communities. It has reps from a broad range of city agencies, regional transportation agencies, and transportation advocates like SPUR, the SF Bicycle Coalition, and Walk SF, as well as labor groups. It also includes two for-profit tech companies — Google and Genentech.

Representing the Board of Supervisors on the task force along with Supervisor David Chiu is Wiener, who said the Avalos amendment will “undermine Muni service, make the system less reliable, and do nothing to achieve what we need most: to shore up the system and expand its capacity to meet the needs of our growing population.”

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At 40 Years, San Francisco’s Transit-First Policy Still Struggles for Traction

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Four decades after San Francisco's transit-first policy was adopted, Geary Boulevard remains designed to give priority to auto drivers over people walking, cycling, and riding Muni's busiest bus line. Photo: jivedanson/Flickr

The first private automobile users on early 20th-century American streets were generally accorded no special privileges on the public right-of-way. “The center of the road was reserved for streetcars, and the new automobiles had to move out of the way,” as Renee Montagne describes it in the 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride, which chronicles the decline of American public transit over the 20th century.

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a transit-first policy on March 19, 1973 — 40 years ago this week — a return to the early 1900s streetscape may not have been what they had in mind, but the city’s intent to undo decades of urban planning and governance geared towards promoting driving at the expense of public transit was clear. A key provision of the policy reads, “Decisions regarding the use of limited public street and sidewalk space shall encourage the use of public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, and shall strive to reduce traffic and improve public health and safety.” (The policy was amended to include pedestrians and bicyclists in 1999.)

Yet today, the vast majority of San Francisco’s street space remains devoted to moving and storing private automobiles, making the public right-of-way hostile to walking and bicycling. Muni remains underfunded, with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic a daily part of riding transit.

“When there’s excess road space that cars don’t need, it’s given over to bikes, peds, and transit,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, “but where there’s a real shortage of road space, in the most congested parts of the city, the car is still the priority.”

“It seems like the transit-first policy is just a recommendation,” said Jason Henderson, a geography professor at SF State University and author of the upcoming book Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. “There’s no requirement for the city’s decision-makers to actually follow it.”

Since Ed Reiskin became director of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency in July of 2011, he’s helped develop a new strategic plan for the agency that sets a five-year goal of reducing driving to 50 percent of all trips, down from the current estimate of 62 percent — a number that hasn’t changed significantly since the 70s.

“We haven’t really moved the needle that much,” said Reiskin. “In the big scheme of things, a lot of people are still relying on their own single-occupant automobile to get around the city.”

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Muni: All-Door Boarding Continues to Increase Bus Speeds, Fare Payment

Image: SFMTA

Seven months since Muni changed its policy to allow all-door boarding on all of its vehicles, the agency is reporting continued improvements in service and a drop in fare evasion.

On average, all-door boarding has saved buses up to four seconds of “dwell time” per stop, according to the SFMTA [PDF]. While that amount may sound small, the time savings add up on routes with dozens of stops. The improvement has been most pronounced on local lines, the report says.

Fare evasion, meanwhile, is down by 24 percent, according to the agency. When comparing the seven months of all-door boarding with the same months the previous year, the SFMTA says the fare evasion rate is down from 4.6 percent to 3.5 percent. The SFMTA also added 11 fare inspectors to increase enforcement with the launch of all-door boarding, bringing the total up to 53, since the new policy relies on random fare inspections rather than enforcement by Muni bus operators.

Mario Tanev, who led the all-door boarding advocacy campaign for the SF Transit Riders Union, applauded the SFMTA for implementing the policy change. “SFTRU has been a staunch advocate for all-door boarding and this report shows that when Muni puts its trust in riders, riders will return the favor,” he said. “Dwell times have gone down, and so has fare evasion.”

Tanev also noted, based on anecdotal evidence, that the change may have helped alleviate overcrowding, since riders boarding through the back door are more likely to fill up previously under-utilized space in the back, leaving more room for passengers in the front.

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POWER: Mobility for Low-Income San Franciscans Means Putting Transit First

The "stress and indignities of over-crowding." Boarding the 8x-Bayshore Express, Flickr user Confetti writes: "An older man is knocked down or falls in a scuffle to board an already over-crowded bus."

Advocates for San Francisco’s low-income communities have issued a new report calling for policy changes intended to improve Muni service, increase mobility for transit-dependent San Franciscans, reduce pollution from driving, and improve the city’s economy.

Next Stop: Justice” was released last month by People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), a group that made headlines over the past year with its Free Muni for Youth campaign. The report highlights the disproportionate impact of poor transit service on San Franciscans who have few transportation options, calling for shifting policy and funding priorities from the automobile to public transit, more bus-only lanes, keeping Muni fares low, and scaling back fare enforcement.

Jaron Browne, POWER’s communications director, said the report is intended to increase the visibility of Muni’s role in improving equity, the environment, and economic opportunity in San Francisco.

“Public transit is already so pivotal, and will be increasingly pivotal for the way that the city functions as a whole, for the future of the planet, and for the way that our families in our communities can access all the resources and opportunities that our city has at hand,” he said.

The report includes “key strategies that we think would help facilitate having a robust transit system that’s well-financed and serves the needs of all San Franciscans, including working class bus riders and the transit-dependent,” added Browne.

Based on data on Muni’s reliability in low-income neighborhoods, POWER’s report states that “the on-time performance on each of these lines in Southeast San Francisco is significantly worse than the system average” of less than 60 percent.

While POWER doesn’t necessarily assert that Muni distributes transit service and improvements inequitably throughout the city, the group says system-wide problems like unreliable, infrequent service and overcrowding have a greater effect on low-income residents. “In transit-dependent, low-income communities, where folks don’t have other means to get around, the impact is more severe,” said Browne. “There are long commutes of more than an hour to get out of Bayview, even if it’s a distance that would only take 10 minutes to drive,” leading some families to pool their money and buy a car.

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Supervisor Wiener Calls Hearings to Assess the Cost of Muni Delays

Muni riders, apparently leaving a broken-down N-Judah train, walk out of the Sunset Tunnel. Photo: ChazWags/Flickr

Just how bad is Muni? And is it getting any better? Supervisor Scott Wiener has called for monthly reports from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and the City Controller’s Office to tally up the true cost of transit delays and track progress on Muni’s reliability.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Dennis Hearne Photography

The regular reports to the Land Use and Economic Development Committee would help inform the public and keep Muni’s chronic problems in the spotlight as a funding priority, said Wiener. ”It’s important for us as policymakers to see it and hear from our constituents so we can build political support to actually fix this system,” he said at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We’ve had some budget debates relating to Muni in the past year, Muni has never won those debates, and we’ve seen money leave Muni or not come into Muni in the first place, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Wiener requested status reports on reducing Muni’s $420 million backlog in deferred maintenance for vehicles and infrastructure, and fixing up out-of-service Muni trains and buses. He also wants a monthly count of missed runs and “subway meltdowns,” as well as a study of the “economic productivity loss as people are stuck on Muni, late for work, miss appointments, don’t get to school, and don’t get to carry on their life because they’re waiting in a station, streaming up on to the street walking downtown.”

“Riders see this deficiency every day, with missed runs, with breakdowns, with systemic meltdowns where the entire subway fails for a significant period of time, and with all sorts of problems that seem to be occurring with more and more regularity,” said Wiener.

Ben Kaufman, spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said the organization “is encouraged by Supervisor Wiener’s proposal and appreciative of his attention to Muni’s system-wide issues that continue to plague its ridership.”

But beyond fixing up its existing infrastructure, said Kaufman, the city also needs to keep its eye on upgrading its transit routes with solutions like those proposed in the Transit Effectiveness Project, and to “implement them expeditiously.”

“It is incumbent upon our city to focus on the solutions to these problems rather than just the problems themselves,” he said. “We have a good idea of how to create an efficient and reliable transit system, as evidenced by the best practices of cities around the country and world. Transit improvements such as traffic signal prioritization and physically separated bus-only lanes will go a long way toward making bus and train performance more predictable for the agency — as we mitigate external factors such as traffic congestion and red lights — and thus more efficient and reliable for Muni passengers.”

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On the Ballot: A Key to Alameda County’s Sustainable Transportation Future

Alameda County could usher in a new era of progressive transportation projects if voters pass a proposed half-cent sales tax increase known as Measure B1 on November 6.

Measure B1 would generate a projected $7.8 billion over the next 30 years for projects selected using a “complete streets” approach aimed at improving the county’s streets, trails, and transit infrastructure to accommodate all modes of transportation. The measure would double the county’s existing half-cent transportation sales tax, with 48 percent of the revenue devoted to improving transit, 8 percent to bicycle and pedestrian projects, and 39 percent to roads and highways. If approved, it would represent an unprecedented commitment to non-motorized transportation.

“It’s sometimes incredible to believe that Alameda County is taking a national leadership role, but they are,” said Dave Campbell, program director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. “And we’re proud of them, and working closely with them to get this passed on November 6.”

County officials say they were motivated to put together the plan, in part, by the state’s requirement to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving those goals would require a major shift from driving to walking, biking, and transit in Alameda County.

The projects included in Measure B1′s funding plan could provide a dense network of trails, bicycle boulevards and bike lanes, as well as pedestrian safety improvements throughout Alameda County, helping to realize the vision laid out in its soon-to-be approved Bicycle and Pedestrian Plans. Off-street bicycle and pedestrian trails — including the Bay Trail, the Iron Horse Trail, and the East Bay Greenway — would connect BART stations in the eastern and southern parts of the county. Although 39 percent of the funds would be devoted to car-oriented infrastructure like roads and highways, some of those funds would also go toward creating bicycle and pedestrian highway crossings, bringing the potential total of bike/ped funding up to about 11 percent.

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Muni Switchbacks Stink, But What’s the Real Root of the Problem?

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The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report [PDF] today blasting Muni’s regular practice of dumping riders and turning vehicles around early.

Known as a “switchback,” the practice is used by Muni management as way to alleviate delays when buses and trains are bunched together by redirecting a vehicle to another point in the system where it’s more needed. The practice was scrutinized by the Board of Supervisors last spring, and SFMTA Transit Director John Haley says the agency has made progress in reducing them and warning riders of them in advance. Members of the SF Transit Riders Union say focusing on switchbacks distracts from the root of Muni’s problems, like getting stuck in traffic and poorly-maintained vehicles, which make the measure necessary in the first place.

The Grand Jury said Muni officials’ use of the practice “shows a callous disregard for the welfare of riders,” claiming that few other major transit systems practice it regularly except in cases of breakdowns and emergencies.

At a press conference called by the SFMTA today, officials presented a document (summary [PDF], detailed [PDF]) responding to the Grand Jury’s claims, saying that the report ignores evidence and defending the use of switchbacks when necessary to alleviate problems.

“They don’t suggest an alternative,” said Haley, adding that Muni intends to propose scheduled switchbacks on some lines within the next six months, similar to regular practices on many other systems, including BART. Still, he said he doesn’t think unscheduled switchbacks “will ever be at zero.”

“If you look at the unevenness of where the demand is,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, “and people getting on and off the buses, it just doesn’t make sense to run every bus to the end of every line on every run.”

Ben Kaufman of the SF Transit Riders Union said switchbacks are just one symptom of Muni’s greater structural problems, and that a holistic approach is needed to improve the system. “The only way to minimize the amount of switchbacks is through a network of lines that don’t have to deal with external factors, like traffic congestion, getting stopped at stop signs and red lights,” he said. “That’s what we should be focusing on, not condemning the MTA for making switchbacks.”

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MTC Votes to Reject Funding for Free Muni for Low-Income Youth

In a 7-8 vote, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission today rejected $4 million in funding for the free Muni for low-income youth pilot program.

After the vote, proponents chanted “shame on you” to the commission, according to the SF Chronicle.

“We were definitely very disappointed, especially with the kind of resources the MTC has and the other allocations they’ve been able to make without this level of struggle,” said Jaron Browne, an organizer for POWER, which is leading the Free Muni for Youth campaign. “But there’s no way we’re stopping at this point.”

Although Browne said “we hold everybody who voted against this accountable,” the deciding vote seemed to come down to Commissioner Steve Kinsey of Marin County, who voted against the proposal despite previously indicating his support to organizers. Browne said Kinsey may have been confused about what the proposal entailed, though he didn’t speak publicly at the meeting.

Update: Read more coverage from the SF Chronicle and SF Examiner.