San Francisco Should Take Cues from New York and Just Try It!

TS.jpgThe vision for closing Broadway in Times Square, which will happen by May

Urban space advocates the world over use best practice examples from other cities to raise the bar on policy and praxis in their own cities.  For years in New York, Transportation Alternatives and the NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign invoked the phrase "Lessons from London," pointing to congestion pricing and the pedestrianization of Trafalgar Square, among other excellent projects, that demonstrated that city’s commitment to reconquering its streets for people over cars. They also pointed to Paris, Copenhagen and Bogotá for examples of brilliant bike share programs, four decades of urban design giving primacy to pedestrians and cyclists, and innovative use of street space and buses to move more riders on Transmilenio BRT than most cities move on their entire transit systems.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to getting a new DOT Commissioner: Mayor Bloomberg got the point.  The rest is Janette Sadik-Khan history.

I think San Francisco advocates should start using the phrase "News From New York" (Noticias de Nueva York translates nicely).  And not just because of the alliterative ring, but because the roar of the press cascade from that city has become deafening. 

Every other month, Mayor Bloomberg makes international headlines with a sweeping new policy that will transform his city for decades to come, from PlaNYC, to Congestion Pricing, BRT in the Bronx and on 34th Street in Manhattan (one of the busiest 3-miles in the Western Hemisphere) to car-free Summer Streets on Park Avenue (c’mon, who wouldn’t want to have a press conference with Lance and Jay-Z?), to over 100 miles of new bike lanes, to closing two lanes of Broadway for pocket parks, to reclaiming 40,000 square feet of street space in Madison Square for a new pedestrian plaza.

What do we get from Mayor Newsom?  50 bikes and 2 electric plug-in hybrids at City Hall.

Market_vision.jpgA nice study on Market Street from 2004. Expect another study soon. And probably another after that.

Or take car-free streets.  Two days ago the Board of Supervisors agreed to let the SFCTA study a
or car-lite Market Street.  Mind you, just another study, with no
policy directive and no implementation schedule, requested by the board with no leadership from Mayor Newsom.

Then, today we learn Mayor Bloomberg is going to close Broadway to cars for seven blocks in the heart of the busiest part
of Manhattan.  Forget press conferences full of what-ifs,
Mayor Bloomberg took bold action on a visionary plan that will further
stretch his lead among "green" mayors with aspirations for higher
office.  And all this in arguably one of the most politically intransigent cities in the country, where the status quo interests of FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) have a firm grip on policy.

Several Streetsblog commenters have suggested I’m being too critical of the mayor and that my writings are a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.  I just wish we had some more good to accuse of being imperfect. 

Time and again in the two months since we launched Streetsblog SF we’ve conducted interviews with planners, engineers, and agency personnel who have very good ideas and proposals for making our city more livable, for simplifying municipal functioning, for making our streets safer and more efficient, and for improving the quality of the public realm. 

Aside from the tired excuse of the the bicycle injunction, without fail planners point to a lack of vision and leadership from the top.

When Janette Sadik-Khan came to town in November for the Railvolution conference, at a lunch organized by the SFBC, she entertained the heads of the major agencies that control or influence our streets, including the Department of Public Works, Planning, the MTA, Parks and Rec, and the Department of Public Health.  When questioned how NYCDOT had implemented so much in such short order, how they had cleared environmental review, she explained that the DOT invested in a bunch of paint and glue and had started the initiatives on a trial basis.

We live in a city that has Transit First and Complete Streets policies, a highly educated public that understands the intricacies of arcane concepts like Level of Service, a remarkably progressive Board of Supervisors, and a professional advocacy class that has tremendous influence over city policy. Unfortunately, we don’t have leadership from the top.

What Sadik-Khan didn’t mention and what is fundamental to her success is not only the bold vision laid out in PlaNYC, but the political backing that Mayor Bloomberg provides.  If we want to see a similar transformation of our streets and a legacy that will last decades, Mayor Newsom needs to step up to the plate and deliver.

  • CBrinkman

    Agreed. If you just read our policies you wouldn’t recognize this City from them. What are we missing? It must be leadership. Whatever it is, it’s depressing. SF is being left behind.

  • AP

    I couldn’t agree with you more. We have the ideas. We know where we want to make improvements. Often, we even have the money. But what we don’t have is clarity, resolve, and political will from the top to make the streets of our city the truly world-class places they deserve to be.

  • Amen

  • Mayor Newsom famously has a wave of support that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. There are those in whose eyes he can do no wrong, but more and more people are realizing that he’s just not delivering on his promises.

    I don’t see any reason that anyone (especially a journalist) should give him the benefit of the doubt if he’s not going to use that support to get things done.

  • About 8 years ago Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition teamed up to get the city to spend $200,000 to do a study on Market Street. It took the city a long time, but they actually did the study. It has concrete recommendations for the short, medium, and long term. I believe that the only recommendation that has actually been implemented is the bike lanes from 8th to Octavia.

    We don’t need another study. In fact, another study is a complete waste of money. We just need the leaders to implement the recommendations.

  • zig

    Newsom is not the only problem. I don’t know how much he could do even if he wanted (and I don’t think he cares)

    I am sure many will disagree with this but being the issue:

    San Francisco has a highly democratized planning process in a highly fractured regional environment and this means that our outcomes are mostly mediocre and almost always preserve the status quo.

    Strong mayor cities like Chicago and NYC and those large cities in other countries have less issues with the rights of the minority opinion because the cities are larger and the control is in fewer hands.

    Sound about right? I am convinced of this

  • Peter

    whatever money we’re spending on electrifying things and stuff needs to be put to bed. we can’t rescue Shai Agassi’s baby, no matter how much money we pump into it — car companies are failed — they’ve nowhere to go but down.

    i kinda dig that picture of Market Street. and the snarky tagline. 😀

    i say no buses in the right-hand lanes. then no SUVs (silly-uber-vehicles). then eventually no cars.

    [Side note — I wonder if it’s possible to timestamp blog entries without cluttering up the display too much? For instance, right now, when looking at a single blog entry page, the date is used as a header (e.g. “Thursday, February 26, 2009”), and again in the byline. Maybe one of them could be the time it was posted in ‘HH:MM am/pm’ format? Or switch the title/mouseover tag format so it’s in this human-readable format?]

  • San Francisco “enjoys” a strong mayor form of government.

    A very conservative business community is one reason why streetscape changes are difficult politically.

    There is a dysfunctional relationship between city staff and advocates in which city staff predicates the access advocates need to be relevant upon not pressing too hard for much of anything. Even when a grassroots base is present, the skill is not in place to organize it effectively to challenge staff via electeds. I see this across many departments.

    The City just gave the eastern neighborhoods over to developers to an extent that does violence to section 101.1 of the planning code, preserve neighborhood character, so when money talks things happen. The planning process is not democratic. There are constituencies which are deemed to count who are granted access and who are effective to the extent that they are politically connected. The rest are anonymous sims in Planning’s Sim CIty game.

    It is becoming clearer in watching Obama how much change an engaged executive can bring to problem solving.

    So we do Market Street after or before we approve all 57 bike lane segments? It appears to be a “shovel ready” project, has been for 5 years.


  • JK

    One thing to consider is that many of the most interesting things happening in NYC were not in PlaNYC. Since PlaNYC, the core of which was the highly controversial congestion pricing proposal, the city DOT has published a strategic vision which articulates an overall philosophy of promoting cycling and walking but does not attempt to list every planned improvement. Instead DOT has been opportunistic about trying new designs and street reclamations in places it knows it has strong public support. This has allowed the DOT to move from success to success and avoid getting bogged down in seeking approval for a huge plan or spending too much time fighting over contentious projects. In other words, the DOT has been very careful about spending its political capital in places it would get the most credit. This created a tremendous sense of momentum and opportunity.

  • Moser

    A big thing to consider in laying all the blame on Newsom is that a big city mayor necessarily has to spread him- or herself very thin. If Newsom’s transportation director isn’t coming to him with good proposals to make the city a better place and that can give him long-term wins, there is no way he is going to have the time or expertise to develop them himself. He can ask for or demand them, perhaps, but what works best is when someone below the mayoral level is developing the projects and coming to the mayor with the message “we can do this, and it will work.” At the same time, the mayor has to be willing to take the advice (and some risk) that empowers the people running the agencies to try things.

  • AP

    I would agree with Moser. Hidden in 2007s Prop A, the Muni initiative, was language that solidified MTA’s (DPT) sole authority over all roadway and street design. This could have been a good thing, streamlining the process. The problem is that MTA/DPT continues to be focused only on transportation efficiency for cars, trucks, (and sometimes buses), leaving the pedestrian and the cyclist (and good design) fighting for the scraps. Until we move away from this 1950s paradigm that streets are only for moving goods in as efficient a way as possible, we have no hope of ever getting the great public spaces that New York City is now enjoying. So to Moser’s point, the blame must lie not only on Newsom, but on his appointed MTA Chief, Nat Ford.

  • Marcos:

    You say, “A very conservative business community is one reason why streetscape changes are difficult politically.”

    …are you implying that NYC (Times Square, nonetheless) is less conservative than SF…?

  • Marc,

    New York City is the high temple of capitalism. But don’t confuse the economic conservatism that comes along with capitalism with the kind of provincial timidity and extroverted sense of entitlement and self interest, selfishness, as we see in our local business community of all sized businesses.

    May I remind all readers that most San Francisco business are small businesses and most all small businesses pay no city taxes, just minor registration fees and property tax which gets funneled through Sacramento. Customers pay the sales tax and if a business were to close due to crimped profits, we’d simply take our business elsewhere in the City and pay sales tax there, which would be made whole taxwise. We don’t need to coddle to businesses which refuse to be good neighbors, refuse to pay their own way, and expect City policy to do nothing more than funnel customers into their front door for free. There is no free lunch.

    In NYC, business sees change as a opportunity to profit. In San Francisco, business sees change as a threat to profit and their comfort zone. Is that a sufficient contrast in reactionary conservative versus pragmatic or is there something in the water here that stifles imagination?

    Moser is correct that reducing the size of projects and plans to a more realistic scope. If we didn’t know already and learn nothing else from the bike plan debacle, it is don’t put all of your eggs in one fragile basket. Who cares about eggs and baskets when you know that you’re right because all of your friends keep on telling you that you’re right, eh?

    Our transportation planning methodology needs to set broad goals first, and then have an ongoing process that picks the most politically viable projects for implementation.

    So instead of a complete rewrite of the entire bike plan every 5 years and offering up a big vulnerable political and legal target, a bike plan would be a 3 year process that would involve only a handful of projects and would start anew each year. In year 1, you’d begin a public process to triage projects and preliminary study of those. Year two, complete the studies and enter the funding and construction queue, and in year three implement. This way, there would always be three bike plans in process and the pipeline would be kept full with a manageable number of projects based on a set of criteria underpinned by political viability.

    One could have a similar process for street closures. I’d bet that we could create a Mission Zocalo via street closures at 19th and Capp, for instance, near the park which would activate that part of the neighborhood in the less active zone between the BART stations. Such micro projects would be easier politically than shutting down all of Market and seems to be how Portland OR operates.


  • @Moser

    I agree that executives tend to be the focus of more blame than they are necessarily responsible for (but on the other hand they also get more credit when things go well).

    In Newsom’s case, however, he’s been Mayor for over 5 years and his list of accomplishments is turning out to be pretty short for a tenure of that length. If, as you speculate (and may be entirely possible) the blame lies in the administrators he’s chosen to work under him, I’d say he’s had plenty of time to replace them.

  • Jake

    Four letters: CEQA. All together now, repeat after me: “CEQA!!” We have it, New York doesn’t. NY State does have environmental review, but by all accounts it’s nothing like California’s. CEQA is great for stopping awful dumb-growth suburban projects, but it’s also a disaster for the sort of tinkering, experimental approach that New York takes because EVERYTHING has to be studied to death. If it’s not, then any project can be delayed ad infinitum by anyone with some money and knowledge of how to work the system. It just takes too long to get anything done, and then all momentum is lost. The Bike Plan injunction is only the most egregious example.

    We progressive types need to jettison our attachment to CEQA in its current form. Environmental review for whole categories of projects — bike improvements, affordable housing near rail transit — shouldn’t be expedited, or reformed, it just needs to be eliminated, period.

  • zig

    “The City just gave the eastern neighborhoods over to developers to an extent that does violence to section 101.1 of the planning code, preserve neighborhood character, so when money talks things happen”

    I completely disagree and think government adjudicating something like “neighborhood character” between different interests is silly, and see the eastern neighborhoods plan as having taken ridiculously too long with an outcome that is very mediocre and doesn’t allow for enough nearly enough development. So we disagree.

    And this is my point. The process itself of soliciting so much input carries very high costs. This is how things are done in SF for better and worse. In Chicago Mayor Daly sent out the backhoes in the middle of the night to start digging up the airstrip that became Millennium Park. That was the end of the fight and they have a pretty nice park now.

    You somehow seem to think that your “grassroots” stance is the people’s stance on this. Some of us are just busy at work.

    Another example is the Market Octavia plan. Can anyone really look at that and not conclude that the process with costs that are outweighing benefits?

  • zig

    Sorry that should read

    “Another example is the Market Octavia plan. Can anyone really look at that and not conclude that the process HAS costs that are outweighing benefits?”

  • Hey Zig,

    The voters of the City and County of San Francisco had different ideas about preserving neighborhood character, and in 1986 put them into the planning code as law, see below. Read the law as passed by the voters and tell me that any of the recent mega plans are consistent with the law.

    For better and for worse, the City’s bureaucracy works so slowly that a timely political response to changing circumstances is impossible, see Live Work lofts and Market/Octavia/Eastern Neighborhoods planning. Just as the upzoning was complete, the fiscal and monetary underpinnings of real estate collapsed, just as when the 2000 Board was sworn in, the bubble had popped and Live Work construction was at a standstill.

    Transit Oriented Development based on vestigal regional transit is nothing more than lipstick on the pig of greater heights, shades and winds and developer profits, at least as long as the financing music is playing and there are chairs, none of which is the case right now!



    (a) The Master Plan shall be an integrated, internally consistent and compatible statement of policies for San Francisco. To fulfill this requirement, after extensive public participation and hearings, the City Planning Commission shall in one action amend the Master Plan by January 1, 1988.

    (b) The following Priority Policies are hereby established. They shall be included in the preamble to the Master Plan and shall be the basis upon which inconsistencies in the Master Plan are resolved:

    (1) That existing neighborhood-serving retail uses be preserved and enhanced and future opportunities for resident employment in and ownership of such businesses enhanced;

    (2) That existing housing and neighborhood character be conserved and protected in order to preserve the cultural and economic diversity of our neighborhoods;

    (3) That the City’s supply of affordable housing be preserved and enhanced;

    (4) That commuter traffic not impede Muni transit service or overburden our streets or neighborhood parking;

    (5) That a diverse economic base be maintained by protecting our industrial and service sectors from displacement due to commercial office development, and that future opportunities for resident employment and ownership in these sectors be enhanced;

    (6) That the City achieve the greatest possible preparedness to protect against injury and loss of life in an earthquake;

    (7) That landmarks and historic buildings be preserved; and,

    (8) That our parks and open space and their access to sunlight and vistas be protected from development.

    (c) The City may not adopt any zoning ordinance or development agreement authorized pursuant to Government Code Section 65865 after November 4, 1986, unless prior to that adoption it has specifically found that the ordinance or development agreement is consistent with the Priority Policies established above.
    (d) The City may not adopt any zoning ordinance or development agreement authorized pursuant to Government Code Section 65865 after January 1, 1988, unless prior to that adoption it has specifically found that the ordinance or development agreement is consistent with the City’s Master Plan.
    (e) Prior to issuing a permit for any project or adopting any legislation which requires an initial study under the California Environmental Quality Act, and prior to issuing a permit for any demolition, conversion or change of use, and prior to taking any action which requires a finding of consistency with the Master Plan, the City shall find that the proposed project or legislation is consistent with the Priority Policies established above. For any such permit issued or legislation adopted after January 1, 1988 the City shall also find that the project is consistent with the City’s Master Plan.
    (Added by Proposition M, 11/4/86)

  • As far as Market/Octavia goes, the southern side of Market Street has been zoned for 85′ and Planning has decided that it will seek the creation of a “street wall” to continue Market Street’s visual context. At all four corners of Market and Van Ness/South Van Ness, Planning pulled the notion of 40 story (400′) towers out of their nether regions with up to a hair under .75:1 parking if memory serves, this .25 mi from US-101 freeway,

    When it is dry and folks would hang out on the street, the wind generally comes at us from the the upper left quadrant of the compass. So if you happen to like the notion of livable streets, then you’ll LOVE hanging out on Market Street between Octavia and 10th in the shade after build out, with the cold wind coming off of Hayes Hill creating a whirlwind of bikeability and walkability, evoking the pleasant urban contributions of Fox Plaza and the SOMA Grand. The sun will never shine there again, the only plants that will grow will be stunted by shade and wind, inefficient at capturing carbon.

    The Federal Government was offered the parcel at 10th/Market FOR FREE but declined to put a federal building there because it was afraid that it would be exposed legally to seniors and disabled folks getting blown over on their way to the social security office. Livable, walkable dense community my ass, this will be just like 3rd and King, an auto-oriented garage-entered bedroom community. But it will be District Six’s rather than Five’s political problem.

    Of course, there are no street amenities promised for Market/Van Ness, no, the bulk of “community benefits” accrue to the compass points corresponding to the north and west of the intersection, which would be the recently bleached Hayes Valley. As Planning rezoned the Market/Van Ness intersection, there was no consideration–zero–given to treatments for the epicenter intersection of San Francisco’s grand boulevards.

    Instead, there are like almost 2000 parking spaces put within 500′ of 70% of surface MUNI lines that carry the bulk of the system’s passengers.

    But, hey, parking ratios were sliced, so why complain? Why oh, why do our advocates hike up their skirts for the first pimp to call them pretty and go down like a $3 whore?

    Did I mention that Eastern Neigborhoods delays two handfuls of MUNI lines? What the TEP giveth, Planning taketh away.

    Is there any justification in the Planning literature that says that a plan needs to be passed after its been worked on for a certain amount of time? Whenever anyone says “we’ve been doing this for X years, let’s just get it done,” I reach for my political revolver, because that means that they’re trying to paint lipstick on a pig, whether it is MO/EN or the SFBC’s cockamamie notion that we should approve all 57 bike network segments immediately rather than strategically triage a realistic workload for the MTA based on community values.



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