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.
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.”