Study Quantifies How Unbalanced SF’s Car-Centric Streets Are

SF’s streets are mostly devoted to cars, but a new report confirms that general taxpayers pick up most for the tab for drivers. Photo: Cesar Chavez Street by Aaron Bialick

Any doubts that most of San Francisco’s public space is consumed by private automobiles, whether moving or stored, could probably be put to rest with a quick glance at the city’s car-dominated streets. But a new study pulls together some eye-opening numbers about just how unbalanced SF’s priorities have been in allocating street space, prioritizing cars over people, and in charging drivers little relative to the costs they incur.

Here are some of the highlights from the San Francisco Modal Equity Study [PDF], published by the Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities Research and Policy Institute:

  • Parking lanes in San Francisco constitute 15 percent of the paved roadway area, equal to real estate valued between $8 and $35 billion.
  • Street parking in San Francisco totals 902 miles in length, six times longer than the 143 miles of bike lanes.
  • 75 percent of all bike lane miles were built since 2000.
  • Bicycling constitutes four percent of trips, but only 1.4 percent of roadway space is dedicated to bicycle lanes.
  • There are 36 lane miles of dedicated transit lanes, but 211 lanes miles of freeway lanes.
  • General tax revenues, not user fees, pay 75 percent of roadway maintenance costs in San Francisco.
  • The federal gas tax, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is at its lowest point since 1983, when the Reagan administration doubled it.

The parking count figures came from an SFMTA census report published in May, which showed that SF’s 275,450 on-street parking spaces are enough to parallel-park a line of cars 60 miles longer than California’s entire 840-mile coastline. Ninety percent of those spaces are free at all times. In total, SF has 441,950 publicly-accessible car parking spaces. Private parking spaces, like those in residential garages, haven’t been counted at all.

The report provides some perspective for those who say “restoring transportation balance” in SF means giving even greater priority to cars, enshrining free parking, and building even more parking garages. That backwards view has spawned Proposition L, which will go before voters in tomorrow’s election.

This new report has some useful stats to counter misconceptions commonly thrown around in discussions about streets. You’ve heard this before: Bicyclists don’t pay enough for the construction of bike lanes, right? In reality, most of the costs of our streets — bike lanes, parking lanes, traffic lanes, and all — are covered by the general public, and to a greater extent than in prior decades. Yet people who use the streets but don’t drive impose lower costs, which saves the public money.

Denmark estimated that every kilometer cycled in the city earns the public a net €.23, largely through savings in health care costs, according to Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize. Every kilometer driven, on the other hand, costs the country an estimated €.16. No similar study has been done in SF yet.

The SF Department of Public Health has, however, begun to quantify the costs of traffic violence. Pedestrian injuries in the city cost $15 million per year in medical treatment alone and comprise a quarter of all traumatic injuries, according to a 2011 DPH report. The average price of admitting an injured pedestrian to the hospital is nearly $80,000, and 76 percent of that is paid for with public funds. As the Modal Equity Study notes, SPUR estimated in 2005 that the externalized costs of crashes, in the form of health care costs and increased insurance premiums for other drivers, is $0.15 to $0.33 per mile driven.

Yet the funding measures being pursued in SF would only increase the share of the tab for city streets picked up by general taxpayers, whether they drive or not. Proposition A, the first of two proposed $500 million general obligation bonds being pushed by Mayor Ed Lee, would devote bond revenue that comes from property taxes to transportation.

A measure to increase the local vehicle license fee was originally supposed to be on tomorrow’s ballot, restoring it from 0.65 percent to 2 percent of a car’s value — the rate it was at for about 50 years before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed it. But Mayor Lee abandoned his support for even that modest measure. Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed Prop B as a backup measure to increase desperately-needed funding for transit, bike and pedestrian improvements, and pavement maintenance by allocating more general funds for those purposes.

There’s still more to be quantified in examining our motorized streets. The study recommends deeper analysis of the externalized costs of driving, the disparity between who uses and who pays for streets, and a neighborhood-level analysis of autos’ costs.

A few more externalized costs that could be quantified: Who pays for the network of traffic signals (over $400,000 apiece, according to an SF traffic engineer), which give motor vehicles carte blanche to accelerate quickly on our streets? When a crash occurs, who pays for the police, fire, and medical responders, and other city services, needed to clean up and investigate them?

  • Anonymous

    Oh, you sly dog, you. “840-mile coastline”.

  • djconnel

    Thanks, Aaaron, for the fantastic article. San Francisco elections are determined by turn-out as much or more than by proportional opinion, so please, please people I encourage you to vote today if you do nothing else than fill out “No” for the absurdly twisted proposition L. This thing needs to not simply go down, but go down hard, the harder the better. Every vote counts. This is the best chance we’ll ever have to make a statement supporting Transit First.

  • teo5

    Good article. There are also many external costs not mentioned here, including pollution issues (both local respiratory health problems and global climate change problems), or the knock-on socioeconomic effects of subsidizing cars (perpetuating inequality, exclusion, etc.)

  • theqin

    I guess one question I have is if how much money does converting a driving lane into a bike lane save per year, if the cost of building two equivalent lanes are amortized over their lifetime. Obviously even though bikes weigh nothing, the road surface still will eventually crack due to weather and temperature reasons.

  • Ryan K

    I’m not sure what the relevance of the “highlights” is to how driver’s supposedly don’t pay their fair share.

    I don’t think the “bike lane length” versus “car lane length” means much since you are talking about dedicated bike lanes versus shared car lanes. Bikes can and do use car lanes (sometimes even when a bike lane is available). Same goes for percentages of space that is a bike lane. Number of commutes versus amount of square footage isn’t as simple a math problem as you are presenting it to be.

    Saying 75% of bike lanes have been built since 2000 – what’s your point? That people relied on the auto more than they do now? Everyone knows this.

    Dedicated transit lanes are a new thing, and on the rise. Highways are getting torn down more than they are being built anew. Not exactly thrilling evidence stating that policy vastly favors the motorist.

    Roadway maintenance is a part of Transportation spending. It is more useful to look at overall transit spending is it not? Take a look at all of the ways we get from A to B and how it’s paid for, instead of one part of transit spending, which questionably gets attributed wholly to drivers. Check out the California DOT link below, page 10. Specifically the source of funding are: State Base Excise Tax (motorists), State Price-base Excise Tax (motorists), Federal Fuel Tax (motorists), State Truck Weight Fees (motorists), State Diesel Sales Tax, 1/4% General Sales Tax (everyone), Local Sales Tax Measures (everyone), Tolls (motorists), and Proposition 1B (everyone).

    Take a good look at that char our state government put out (not a study run by an advocacy group, which is totally questionable source material). You’ll see that funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, if you trace with your finger, comes from… you guessed it! Gas Tax!

    We all depend on roads, for our goods, for our buses, for our first responders, and our economy! It only makes sense that we all pay into this.

    And the most important reason to stop making war on the motorist: without the motorist footing the bill, someone is going to pay. Who do you supposed that will be?

  • murphstahoe

    You spent your whole post indicating that it’s OK that the motorist isn’t footing the bill, and then concluded with a paragraph that says the motorist is footing the bill.

    You may be just trolling, but here is a simple contradiction.
    You say -“Funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements comes from … you guessed it! Gas Tax”

    San Francisco is pushing Prop A, which provides ped/safety improvments.

    Prop A will issue bonds to do so which will not be repaid with… you guessed it! Gas Tax.

  • HuckieCA

    When the country is running $17.9T in debt and counting, I think that it’s fair to say that pretty much everything is being subsidized, in one way or another, and none of us are paying the true costs for at least some of the benefits that we currently enjoy. That being said, the original poster has a point. It’s not just the oft discussed gas tax that goes to fund roads and transportation related services, and many of the comparisons made in the report, while certainly being one way to look at things, come up rather short in the unbiased department.

  • HuckieCA

    I doubt that converting a driving lane to a biking lane would really make a huge difference in roadway repair costs over the long term. Trucks, weather, unstable sub-base, drainage, and utilities constantly digging up the streets to repair things would have much more of an effect long term. The numbers that I’ve seen put it at 1 truck equalling 9600 cars. Furthermore, when they go to replace the roadway, even if the bike lane is not bad, they would replace it anyways or you would get a joint that would wear unevenly, and the bike lanes require more frequent repainting.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    Ryan, you exhibit the typical American victim mentality: “the war on the motorist”. Wars are things that kill people; cars kill people. So you’ve got it entirely backwards.

    The whole point of this study is that motorists DON’T pay their fair share, or even close to it; when externalities (such as pollution) are counted, motorists can be seen as the most subsidized, coddled, and yet oddly enough, whiny group in history. I will be using your post as examples to others of this silly and selfish behavior.

    By the way, I don’t think anybody is arguing with you that “It only makes sense that we all pay into this.[for roads]”. Merely, that this study makes an attempt to quantify that, and to show that the way in which its done, and the allocation of space and other resources, prioritizes automobile travel. That is illogical because it is the least resource-efficient mode.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    I have read, although I haven’t proved it (!) that roadway wear per vehicle is approximately proportional to the fourth power of the vehicle weight. If this is true, a truck weighing 10 times as much as a car does some 10,000 times as much damage. Similarly, a car weighing 20 times as much as a bike does 160,000 times as much damage. I suspect that you could have vast numbers of bicycles using typical modern paving before significant wear-and-tear occurred. Weather indeed probably has a major effect, especially on a bike path where no motor vehicles intrude. This is obviously not true in an urban bike lane where motor vehicles constantly intrude.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    You are certainly right that (most) things are subsidized. About the only transport system which receives insignificant subsidy is the freight railway system.

    That being said, it’s obvious that all levels of government heavily subsidize the motorist, on a per-person basis, far more than they do other modes of transport. And it’s the least environmental and efficient mode, so that makes no sense.

    The gas tax is actually not the most major contributor to motorist funding; it is the one that the media heavily focus on due to its being the one source that’s fair. The Federal subsidies really account for only a part of the total. Free parking alone is vast as this study points out. Really, does the taxpaying public pay to story ANY OTHER item I own, other than my car? Why is that? Why is that counted as some sort of “right”? Really, free parking just isn’t a right, and it should be eliminated.

  • Gezellig

    Of course not all bike lanes are created equal, and that is definitely true in terms of maintenance.

    The asphalt and paint on these bike lanes:

    will wear out faster than the asphalt and paint on these bike lanes:

    In fact, in some cases protected cycletracks can even be cheaper to build and maintain because the materials don’t need to support the wayward traffic of heavy motorized vehicles as they do on conventional bike lanes. I know this was one of the rationales behind the cycletrack vs. another conventional bike lane on Cully Blvd in Portland, for example:

  • The 4th power per weight on the axle measure is the standard approximation used by the AASHTO. There are a lot of variables involved, such as the specific composites used, depth of the paving, etc., but standards tend towards this approximation.

  • The “pretty much everything is being subsidized” angle isn’t useful. Every time mention is made of transit, bikes, or pedestrians, someone squawks about gas tax and subsidy, so it behooves us to take a closer look instead of hand-waving some unspecified amount of subsidy.

    Anyone with a grasp of high school physics should be unsurprised that cars demand more resources to operate and would thus cost more, though most people don’t quite get how much more, specifically because the subsidy propping it up is so well-hidden. So there is a tendency to dismiss accountings of the costs and call them biased.

    Cars on roads are the most heavily-subsidized ground transportation mode ever devised, and this is certainly not the first study to demonstrate that. It is, however, the most recent and local one.

  • Ryan K

    Bad traffic systems kill people, and the SFTMA is making ours worse. I don’t appreciate your ad hominem attacks calling me/drivers selfish, silly, and whiny. That doesn’t make you right in any of your arguments. In fact, it just makes you look like a jerk.

    Sure, the resource efficiency of driving is called into question, because it requires the second most investment of resources of the city to make it happen (public transit being #1). Resource efficiency and zero pollution still don’t necessarily mean that biking and walking are the way to go for everyone. There are always cost benefit decisions that go into every time a transportation mode is needed and someone has to decide on what to use. I don’t see anyone arguing that if you order something from Amazon that it should be delivered by a jogger or a bike courier. Those would be most efficient, wouldn’t they? The same logic can naturally be extended to personal transit decisions. I make a decision to drive or ride my motorcycle because riding my motorcycle costs me $1 in fuel per day and results in about 40 minutes of total commute. Taking the bus costs $4.50 per day and results in about 120 minutes of total commute. It doesn’t take a math degree to figure this out.

    Coupled with the fact that less than 4% of the commuters are riding bicycles, it makes zero sense that they should be dictating policy in the way that they are.

  • Ryan K

    I never said that the motorist wasn’t footing the bill. Where did you see that? It was a long post that I wrote some time ago – I don’t see what you’re seeing. Just read my post again – I don’t see any contradiction.


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