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Posts from the "Transportation Policy" Category

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SFMTA Confident in Bike/Ped Funds, Says Changing Streets “the Hard Part”

SFMTA officials are growing more confident in obtaining the funding needed to implement the street safety infrastructure called for in the agency’s Bicycle Strategy and Pedestrian Strategy. But no matter how much funding the agency has, the SFMTA needs to address the lack of follow-through and political will to implement street redesigns, which often leaves projects delayed and watered down to preserve traffic lanes and car parking spaces.

Ed Reiskin. Photo: Michael Short, SF Chronicle

“It’s trying to get public acceptance of making that re-allocation,” agency chief Ed Reiskin told the SFMTA Board of Directors at a meeting yesterday on the agency’s Strategic Plan. ”It’s a pretty significant change we would need to be making in the public rights-of-way for transit and cycling and, to a lesser extent, to improve pedestrian safety — changes in the right-of-way that have been largely unchanged for the past 50, 60, 70 years. That, I think, is our biggest challenge.”

Cheryl Brinkman, vice chair of the SFMTA Board, said the agency and its board need to stand up to vocal groups who fight efforts to implement the city’s transit-first policy. “We need to be willing to step up and make those hard decisions, and understand that what we see as the needs for transportation in the city, may not jive with what we’re hearing loudly expressed in certain areas,” she said. ”We do need to step up say, ‘No, we need to re-allocate space, it has been mis-allocated for so long.’”

While no one at the hearing said Ed Lee’s name (many participants were appointed by him), it was hard to avoid thinking of the mayor’s failure to stand up for contentious street safety projects.

Reiskin told Streetsblog the SFMTA is “developing a new agency-wide approach to public outreach” as well as working with the City Controller’s Office to produce economic studies on the effects of street redesigns “to try to validate or disprove some of the concerns that are raised or the benefits that are estimated from these improvements.” The agency is also gathering research from other cities through the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the coalition of city DOTs currently led by Reiskin.

“We need to do a better job of articulating the transportation, safety, health, and economic benefits, not just based on theory, but based on empirical data from the city and elsewhere,” said Reiskin. “Some people are always gonna need to drive in San Francisco. The more people who are walking, on a bike, or on transit make space for those who really need to use a car for any given trip.”

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Don’t Widen 101: How SM County Could Move More People With Less Traffic

San Mateo County agencies are studying the “Planned HOV” scenario for Highway 101 — a road widening — even though the “Optimized HOT” scenario is much cheaper and more effective. Image: TransForm

San Mateo County is poised to spend more than a hundred million dollars on an expansion of Highway 101 while passing over more effective, less expensive options to improve people’s commutes.

Even as total traffic volumes have remained flat over the past decade on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is conducting a $2 million study of expanding the highway with new carpool lanes. But highway expansions of already very large highways are simply not effective.

“If we had unlimited amounts of money and no concerns about our impact on the environment, we could keep doing that,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. “But the last 50 years of experience suggests that paving our way of out congestion is not working.”

Highway 101, facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont during the evening rush hour. Photo: Andrew Boone

In a new report, “Innovation Required: Moving More People with Less Traffic,” TransForm calls on C/CAG to consider an alternative that they say would be cheaper, more effective at reducing traffic congestion, and would improve public transit. Instead of adding carpool lanes, TransForm is pushing for conversion of one existing highway lane in each direction into “optimized high occupancy toll lanes” (Optimized HOT), also called express lanes.

These lanes are free for carpoolers but also available to solo drivers for a fee, which is varied based on demand to ensure that they remain free-flowing. The report, which includes a traffic analysis of this option and two others, conducted by former C/CAG Transportation Programs and Planning Manager Joseph Kott, concludes that converting one existing lane in each direction to an express lane would move more people with less traffic at just one-tenth the cost of the agency’s current plans.

Building the more expensive, less efficient options would waste a lot of revenue from the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax, Measure A, that could fund an expansion of transportation choices for residents and workers. With an estimated $130 – $160 million in construction cost savings, as well as new toll revenue, converted express lanes could provide a windfall of funds to improve non-driving commute options in San Mateo County, such as Caltrain, SamTrans, and the county’s disjointed bicycle and pedestrian network.

Compared to C/CAG’s proposed carpool lanes, converting existing 101 lanes into express lanes would carry 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles, while costing less than one-tenth as much to build, according to TransForm. Although it seems un-intuitive that a Highway 101 with an additional standard travel lane would end up more congested than converting an existing lane to a carpool lane, it works because the variable fee charged to solo drivers ensures that as many solo drivers are always in the carpool lane as possible without congesting it. Because the new express lanes, or “variable-fee-for-solo-drivers-carpool-lanes”, would also provide a congestion-free lane for buses and carpoolers, the number of people using buses and carpooling would increase because they would be faster driving alone. This results in fewer total vehicles and thus less traffic congestion.

The 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles figures are based on the same assumptions used by C/CAG for other traffic analyses but include factors ignored in C/CAG’s June 2012 carpool lane feasibility study, such as demand variable with pricing and mode shift from solo driving to transit. Kott, the former C/CAG planner, said transportation agencies also usually neglect to account for factors such as growing demand for public and private transit, walking, bicycling, and the potential for Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to provide financial incentives for non-driving commutes, since these are all relatively recent trends.

“We’re still stuck in this mode of saying that all we can do is provide for private motor vehicle travel on our highways and that’s all we can forecast,” said Kott. “We can do multi-modal forecasts too, but we have to have the right assumptions.”

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How Will SF Fund the Sustainable Transport System a Growing City Needs?

Within a few decades, San Francisco’s streets will be even more clogged with cars, more dangerous for walking and biking, and Muni will burst at the seams as more people try to get around. That’s the future city officials warned about at a hearing yesterday, painting a grim picture of traffic-choked streets if nothing is done to change the status quo of paltry funding for walking, biking, and transit.

“The growth is coming to San Francisco, the people who are here aren’t leaving, and more jobs are coming,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. “I think we got away for a few decades with not making investments in our transportation system” and other infrastructure, he said, “but we’re beyond a point where we can get away with it anymore.”

As we’ve reported, the city’s transportation and street infrastructure has $3.1 billion in unfunded maintenance needs over the next ten years, $2.2 billion of which is to bring Muni up to a “state of good repair.” Looking at all of the transit systems in the Bay Area, the budget gap is $18 billion over the next 25 years, and that’s just maintenance — adding the capacity to transport a larger population will cost more.

Those numbers don’t include funding to implement the SF Pedestrian Strategy, the Bicycle Strategy, the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, traffic signal upgrades, and other street redesigns, each of which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Reiskin. None of the measures currently in the works to increase transportation funding would come close to meeting the projected needs.

Over the next 25 years, San Francisco is projected to add 92,410 housing units and 191,000 jobs, said Planning Director John Rahaim. Those figures come from Plan Bay Area, a strategy to focus regional population growth near transit and job centers that was approved last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and is set to be updated every five years.

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SPUR on What the BART Strike Means for the Regional Transit Agenda

Cross-posted from the SPUR blog. Gabriel Metcalf and Ratna Amin are SPUR’s executive director and transportation policy director, respectively.

For a group like SPUR — one that works to promote transit, walking and biking as primary forms of mobility — there’s no question that a transit strike is a major setback. It instills in people the sense, consciously or unconsciously, that they cannot count on transit being there when they need it. People who don’t have the flexibility in their jobs to work from home, or who need to get their kids to school, are getting the message that they can’t rely on transit for daily trips.

All of this is deeply unfortunate.

What does it mean for our broader transportation agenda when something like this happens?

The Numbers

Fully 63.5 percent of the 400,000 daily trips on BART are to or from the San Francisco downtown area, and 50.1 percent of all BART trips go through the Transbay Tube, according to data from BART’s monthly ridership reports. On weekday mornings it carries about 21,000 people per hour to the west side of the bay. By comparison, the Bay Bridge carries about 24,000 people per hour in the same direction. Both systems are currently very congested for much of the morning and afternoon peak hours (though not all the cars on the bridge are full), according to a Bay Bridge congestion study.

Although only about 5 percent of the region’s workers use BART during the morning peak, taking that 5 percent off the road brings tremendous benefits to our roadways and other travelers. With BART’s closure, we see how moving that small number of people off transit and onto roads causes “chaos” through much of the region. Many of the highway corridors that BART serves are operating near capacity at peak hours already — which is part of why BART keeps breaking ridership records. When highways are operating near capacity, it takes very few added cars for congestion to become gridlock.

Our region is projected to grow from 7.2 million people today to 9.3 million people in 2040 — that’s 2.1 million new people who will need to get around the bay. Auto demand on highway links like the Bay Bridge already exceeds capacity. Assuming we are not going to add more road capacity on these corridors, we actually need transit to carry significantly more people each year than it did the year before.

The BART strike focuses us on the need for a reliable public transit system. And it contains some important lessons for our broader transit agenda.

Lesson No. 1: The Need for Redundancy

Losing BART to a strike is somewhat like losing BART to an earthquake. And it just so happens that SPUR has conducted an in-depth study on how to provide resilience in our transportation system in the event that we lose segments of our network to an earthquake.

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Advocates: Next SFCTA Chief Needs to Collaborate for a Sustainable Future

Some time this month, a new executive director is expected to be chosen to head the SF County Transportation Authority, filling the shoes of José Luis Moscovich, who resigned from the position late last year citing health reasons. In selecting a new leader, sustainable transportation advocates say, the Board of Supervisors should seek a candidate who can improve the agency’s collaboration with other city and regional planning agencies.

The SFCTA plays a key role in determining whether the city moves towards a future that’s more livable, or continues the car-dependent status quo. The agency manages San Francisco’s transportation finances, including revenue from the Prop K local transportation sales tax, and it oversees long-range transportation plans and major projects like the bus rapid transit lines on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard. The SFCTA would also administer any potential congestion pricing scheme.

You may have seen this logo on the side of Muni buses and signs for projects funded through the SFCTA.

“It’s really critical that the TA director can get the city agencies to cost-effectively change people’s travel behavior, and encourage walking, cycling, and transit with new development so we don’t go backwards in terms of pedestrian safety, congestion, and pollution,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City.

Radulovich says a lack of coordination between agencies like the SFCTA, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, the Planning Department, and the Department of Public Works often stymies the city’s progress on livability and transit improvements. He pointed out, for example, that when re-paving streets, DPW often doesn’t implement pedestrian safety improvements that are called for in the city’s street design standards, meaning money doled out by the SFCTA for street rehabs goes wasted.

“They’re rebuilding dangerous, ugly, deadly traffic sewer streets as traffic sewers,” said Radulovich. “As we’re spending these hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild streets, to see them rebuilt better, safer, and re-balancing the modes towards walking, cycling, and transit is really important. The TA could be doing a better job of coordination, funding, and making sure that standards are understood and adhered to.”

Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the SFCTA Board, said the need for the next leader to collaborate better is “a really good point.”

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“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: 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.”

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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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Survey: SF’s Top Transpo Priorities Are Fixing Muni, Safer Walking and Biking

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San Francisco’s scarce transportation funds should be used to make streets safer for walking and biking, and to make existing Muni service more reliable before expanding it, according to city residents who were asked to choose how to prioritize public spending.

The findings come from the “Budget Czar” game, an online budgeting simulator recently used by the SF County Transportation Authority to survey the public about how to spend discretionary funds in the agency’s 25-year San Francisco Transportation Plan.

Of the $64 billion in transportation funding the SFCTA expects to spend over the next 25 years, just $3.14 billion — 5 percent — is not already committed to maintaining the existing state of street and transit infrastructure, or to transportation projects already in the works.

When the more than 800 “Budget Czar” participants were asked how they would spend that slice of the pie, they heavily favored improving the core of the existing Muni system rather than expanding it. Of the six spending categories that participants were asked to weigh in on, the top three where they want to see an “aggressive” increase in funding were bicycling (45 percent), walking and traffic calming (40 percent), and “Muni enhancement” (35 percent), according to an SFCTA presentation [PDF] last week.

“It’s great to see that the transportation priorities of the San Franciscans who played the budget game resonate so well with Livable City’s,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City.

“San Franciscans understand that investments in active transportation — walking and cycling — are cost-effective and sustainable, and deliver a range of benefits — improved health, neighborhood vitality, less traffic and pollution, a more equitable city, a safer city for children and seniors, and greater enjoyment,” he said.

Respondents also heavily favored improvements to existing transit service over more costly capital projects. The SFCTA laid out a list of 33 proposed transportation projects, including everything from new Bus Rapid Transit projects to new BART stations to removing the Central Freeway. According to an SFCTA report [PDF], the top-ranking projects were the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, the Muni Transit Performance Initiative (a set of fixes for “key bottlenecks” like a Muni Metro turnaround at Embarcadero Station), the Better Market Street Project, and Geary BRT.

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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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Supes Cave to Opposition, Shoot Down Muni Funding Reform — for Now

Letting down their transit-riding constituents once again, the Board of Supervisors rejected a measure to increase Muni funding by ending a fee exemption for large non-profit developers, following an intense opposition campaign that sowed misconceptions about which organizations would have to pay the fee. The policy change, proposed as part of a regular update to the Transit Impact Development Fee, was opposed by all supervisors except Scott Wiener and Carmen Chu.

By ending the exemption from the TIDF currently enjoyed by large non-profit developments, including massive projects like hospitals and university campuses that generate thousands of daily trips, the proposal would raise more than $125 million in transit funding over the next 20 years. Now that funding is in doubt, and it’s not at all clear that the Board of Supervisors will have the will to enact it when the proposal comes up again next year as part of the Transportation Sustainability Project, a broader effort by the city to reform the way it funds and plans transportation improvements.

“We can no longer continue on with the status quo of exempting these large institutions that put such a strain on the system,” Joél Ramos, a member of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, told the Board of Supervisors. “Without some way to have them pay their fair share, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to accommodate the growth in our city, and accommodate more folks on transit.”

“We have $420 million in deferred vehicle maintenance,” said Wiener, who championed the measure. “Muni riders see this every day: packed trains, broken doors, buses that don’t arrive… this is Muni right now — chronically under-funded, with decades of under-investments in maintenance and infrastructure, and we’re paying the price in a very big way.”

The proposal would have applied the one-time fee to the small subset of non-profits that propose real estate developments over 25,000 feet which increase a site’s square footage. “To put that in context, the Office Max on Harrison Street is approximately 25,000 square feet,” said Wiener.

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