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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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Misconceptions Fuel Non-Profit Opposition to Crucial Muni Funding Reform

The city's proposed reforms on transportation fees would end a non-profit exemption for major developments like hospitals and university campuses, but opposition is stirring from smaller organizations who seem to believe they'll be affected. Photo: THE Holy Hand Grenade!/Flickr

With any increase in the number of people living and working in San Francisco comes an added strain on the city’s streets and transit system. To account for that, San Francisco collects fees on new development — with an exception carved out for just about any non-profit organization. That means that even massive developments like hospitals, university campuses, or museums — which generate thousands of daily trips — may pay nothing to help the city’s transportation agencies accommodate them.

That would change under a city-led effort to reform the way San Francisco collects and distributes transportation revenue, but city officials say they’ve met with unexpected opposition from small non-profit organizations based on misconceptions about who would have to start paying fees. The fact is that most non-profits would not pay the one-time fee under the proposal.

The debate is expected to culminate at a Board of Supervisors hearing on December 4 on changes to the city’s Transit Impact Development Fee (TIDF). The board routinely approves TIDF updates, but this one is more significant because it would be used as a stepping stone toward the proposed Transportation Sustainability Fee (TSF). The TSF is expected to replace the TIDF in 2014 as part of the Transportation Sustainability Program (TSP), a broader effort to reform the way the city plans and funds transportation projects with a focus on improvements for transit, walking, and bicycling.

Championing the effort is Supervisor Scott Wiener, who says that the TIDF reform will provide crucial funding for Muni while leaving the vast majority of non-profits unaffected.

“City Hall rarely puts its money where its mouth is in terms of funding Muni, and we know that Muni has a $100 million annual operating structural deficit, and that leads to inadequate maintenance, not enough vehicles, and all of the other things that reduce Muni’s reliability,” Wiener told Streetsblog. “The updated TIDF, and ultimately the TSP, is going to be a critical stable source of funding. We have this broad non-profit exemption that was put into the original TIDF which is something of an anomaly because non-profits typically pay other impact fees, and I don’t think it makes any sense to exempt particularly larger non-profit projects like hospital projects and large private schools or university campuses from the fee.”

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East Palo Alto Begins Design Process for Bike/Pedestrian Overcrossing

This early rendering conveys the potential for a landing and park on the west side of East Palo Alto. Click to enlarge. Image: Alta Planning + Design

This is part two of our series on the proposed bike and pedestrian overcrossing in East Palo Alto. You can read part one here.

During the public outreach for the proposed bike and pedestrian overcrossing in East Palo Alto, residents made clear to city planners and consultants that their main concern is safety. For decades, west side residents have been forced to cope with freeway traffic and congested intersections when they walk or bike to the grocery store or school on the east side.

“There’s a lot of traffic that comes through the city, both north/south and east/west,” said Casey Hildreth of Alta Planning + Design, which was hired by the city to design the overcrossing. “An alignment that can connect the community and really avoid as much traffic as much as possible is first and foremost our top priority.”

The bridge, expected to facilitate between 180,000 and 230,000 new biking and walking trips annually, would connect east to west over Highway 101 south of University Avenue. On the east side the access point would be in the vicinity of Clark and East Bayshore roads, and on the west side the landing would be on Newell Road.

Before the city can really focus on the design, it has to agree on an alignment. That is complicated by the fact that East Palo Alto is in the midst of a water crisis, said Hildreth, and the area where the city wants to build the overcrossing has been identified as an ideal location for water wells and towers. How, for example, would the city integrate a 76-foot-wide water tower?

“We’re working with city engineering staff to understand the contraints and requirements for those types of facilities and seeing if on either side of our bridge we can accommodate that,” Hidreth explained.

The city has narrowed down the possible alignments to three that provide the most direct connections to schools and services, and will begin a community process in December to get feedback on which one works best. The city is also conducting a survey of schools and collecting feedback from parents.

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With Turnover at the Top of C/CAG, an Opportunity for Change in San Mateo

A bike rider braves the Willow Road highway overpass in Menlo Park. Photo: Bryan Goebel

San Mateo County has the third highest rate of driving mileage per capita in the Bay Area, behind Marin and Sonoma counties. Eighty-two percent of residents drive as their primary mode, due in part to a built environment that keeps people stuck in their cars. Low-income and transit-dependent populations who take the bus face dwindling service, while those who ride their bikes and walk face hostile street conditions, enduring dangerous highway overpasses to get to their jobs or school.

The county also faces a rising adult obesity epidemic and a population of people over 65 that is expected to double by the year 2050, according to the Indicators for a Sustainable San Mateo County report, issued in May. The report notes that automobiles are the primary source of pollution in San Mateo County, which contributes to a variety of health problems.

Bicycle, pedestrian and transit advocates interviewed for this story say the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is partly to blame, with its history of favoring the automobile over other modes in the way it disperses state and federal funding to cities for transportation projects. It’s been slow to embrace sustainable transportation and livable streets principles.

“You look around Highway 101 and you’ll see huge new projects in place for additional expansion,” said Gladwyn d’Souza, a pedestrian advocate and Belmont planning commissioner. Read more…


A Critical Change in Leadership Faces San Mateo County’s Planning Agency

Advocates say C/CAG has historically funded automobile infrastructure to the detriment of the environment and the health of San Mateo County residents. Photo: San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

As San Mateo County’s congestion management agency, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG), is supposed to be responsible for reducing auto congestion. It also controls the purse strings on transportation projects, doling out millions of dollars in state and federal grants to the region’s 20 cities, whose appointed representatives make up the agency’s governing board.

“It started primarily as a transportation planning agency and to a large extent it still is,” said Joseph Kott, a former transportation planning manager at C/CAG who is now a consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University.

The man at the helm of the agency for the last 17 years, Richard Napier – an engineer who is a former Sunnyvale mayor — is now retiring. As executive director, he gained a reputation as a skilled politician whose biggest accomplishment was building consensus among his member cities’ parochial interests.

“Richard has been a combination of a traditionalist and a cautious innovator. A traditionalist in the sense that he’s convinced that the automobile is and will remain dominant in our society,” said Kott.

Some of those innovations include programs Napier is proud to talk about: a transit-oriented development incentive fund and a “green streets and parking lot” program. The agency also oversees the county’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), which makes recommendations on funding.

“He’s a super administrator and really made C/CAG what it is today,” said Sue Lembert, a former San Mateo mayor who sat on the C/CAG Board for four years and writes a weekly column for the San Mateo Daily News. “It wasn’t just a job for him.”

While no one doubts he was dedicated to his work and successful in attracting money, more than a dozen bicycle and pedestrian advocates interviewed by Streetsblog — some of whom would not go on the record — said Napier’s auto-oriented thinking on transportation would be a welcome departure.

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Coalition of California Advocates Headed to Sacramento to Save Transit

Members of a broad coalition hailing from throughout California are headed to Sacramento next week to push policymakers to save transit funding and enact sustainable transportation planning reforms.

The Oakland-based transit advocacy group TransForm has amassed about 150 advocates to descend on the capitol for its two-day Transportation Choices Summit, the first known event of its kind, where they will meet with state representatives and urge them to prioritize walking, bicycling, and transit.

TransForm State Policy Director Graham Brownstein said the action came out of the organization’s Invest in Transit campaign, launched last year to address the “very, very serious crisis” facing transit systems in California. The state has made dramatic funding cuts totaling more than $4 billion over the last decade, and TransForm recognized the immediate need for “creative policy reforms that will stabilize, and then grow transit funding in California,” said Brownstein.

The cornerstone of the campaign is a push to ensure that a major portion of the revenue from California’s nascent cap-and-trade program will be dedicated to transit operations and affordable housing projects located near transit.

The cap-and-trade revenue could go a long way toward restoring the damage done to transit funding under the Schwarzenegger administration. By selling emissions permits, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration anticipates the cap-and-trade program will generate $1 billion in the 2012-2013 budget and $10 billion annually by 2020, according to TransForm [PDF].

Brownstein said transit agencies need all the help they can get to avert a much deeper statewide crisis.

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Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit

[Editor’s note: This article is re-published with permission from the transit-themed March issue of The Urbanist, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s (SPUR) monthly member magazine. The article, written by SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan, is based on a discussion paper developed by the SPUR Transportation Policy Board. Read the full paper at]

Improving transit by changing financing, fares, speeds, metrics, territory and maps.

Every day, Bay Area residents and visitors take more than 1.4 million trips on one of 27 different public transit operators. But for more than a decade, the costs to operate these transit systems have been increasing far faster than any improvements in the service. Unless we make changes now, the system will not be sustainable in the future.

Regionwide, transit carries one in ten people to work. It costs more than $2.2 billion to run these 27 transit systems each year. More than $700 million comes from fares and $1.5 billion is a direct subsidy from a hodgepodge of sources (sales taxes, federal funds, state gas tax revenues). By looking out to 2035, these systems will face a combined $17 billion capital deficit and an $8 billion operating deficit.

In recent years, the costs of running these transit systems have increased far faster than inflation, even as ridership on some bus systems has declined. About 14,000 people work full time for the region’s public transit systems. Wages and fringe benefits account for more than three-quarters of the operating and maintenance costs of transit, and the cost of fringe benefits in particular is rising fast. At the same time, budget shortfalls, unpredictable revenues and service cuts are degrading the quality of public transportation. Transit systems face competition from an underpriced alternative — driving — and often operate in low-density and auto-oriented environments that are not conducive to growing ridership.

Unless there is some change to costs and revenues, with corresponding improvements in service, the viability of transit in the Bay Area is at risk. Recognizing this looming crisis, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional agency that funds transportation, launched the Transit Sustainability Project (TSP).

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