SF Voters Reject Cars-First Prop L — Will City Hall Finally Take the Hint?

According to Folks for Polk, merchants took at least 10 of their “Yes on L” posters down “after the facts were made clear.” Photo: Folks for Polk

Proposition L was nixed by San Francisco voters yesterday. With nearly all of the votes counted, 62 percent rejected Sean Parker’s measure to keep SF in the 20th century by prioritizing free parking and encouraging driving.

Leaders at City Hall, and the agencies that shape SF’s streets, should read the writing on the wall: San Franciscans want to put the era of automobile-centric streets behind them, and it’s time to stop letting a vocal minority of curmudgeons hamper efforts to make streets safer and Muni more reliable.

“The voters gave a pretty resounding ‘yes,’ we do want these things built,” said Peter Lauterborn, who managed the “No on L” campaign. “I hope that the city leadership takes that to heart.”

“Hopefully, for projects that we’ve set out to do — Vision Zero, the [Transit Effectiveness Project] implementation, establishing the bike network — the SFMTA will be bolder than they have been in the past,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich.

Voters also overwhelmingly approved two transportation funding measures, Propositions A and B. That’s a sign that San Franciscans have a strong appetite for better transportation options, and that they’re willing to bank on city agencies like the SFMTA to deliver them.

The success of Prop A, a $500 million general obligation bond for transportation, was not surprising given the political boost it got from City Hall and specifically Mayor Ed Lee. Lee helped to raise over $1,100,000 for the Prop A campaign, despite no organized opposition.

Meanwhile, the more controversial Prop B garnered a surprising 61 percent of the vote, even though no campaign committee was organized nor was money raised to promote it. “The campaign was gathering an impressive list of endorsements,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who authored the measure.

“The voters showed that they really do care about smart transportation policy and investment,” said Wiener. “City Hall needs to match our own budget priorities with what the voters want.”

Prop B mandates an increase in the share of the general fund spent on transit, walking, and biking, and ties future increases to population growth. It will apply retroactively for the past ten years, increasing transportation spending by an estimated $22 million in the next budget.

Wiener introduced Prop B as a backup measure to restore transportation funding that was effectively cut when Mayor Lee dropped his support for a vehicle license fee that would have raised $1 billion over 15 years. If the VLF measure is passed in 2016, as Lee currently promises, it can override Prop B. Still, the measure drew attacks from Mayor Lee and advocates for other social services, such as affordable housing, because it would require trade-offs in the 2015 budget without bringing new revenue. Mayor Lee and some supervisors also feared Prop B could sink support for Prop A.

“That didn’t happen,” said Radulovich. Prop B’s success “means that transit funding is important to people, and that they think more money will result in more and better transit.”

As for criticisms about Prop B taking money from other social services, Radulovich said, “Transit is a social service. There seemed to be a false dichotomy.”

Prop L’s sound rejection reaffirms San Franciscans’ support for the Transit-First Policy, which was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1973. In 1999, voters expanded the policy to also give priority for pedestrians and bicyclists over private automobiles, in the same election in which they voted to create the SFMTA.

The intent behind the Transit-First Policy, as mandated by the City Charter, was to undo decades of urban planning and policy that promoted driving at the expense of public transit. 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.”

When it comes to implementing that mandate, SF’s transportation planning agencies and elected leadership seem to have gained traction in recent years. Still, too often transit-first takes a back seat to those who insist on preserving all car parking. Prop L’s rejection should be considered yet more concrete evidence that only a vocal minority is making such protests.

Prop L saw more voter support in outer neighborhoods that lack attractive options for transit, biking, and walking. That was evidenced in a map of election results posted on Twitter last night by Corey Cook, an associate professor of politics and at University of SF and director of the university’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.

A map of election results for Prop L by precinct. Image: Corey Cook/Twitter

The strongest support for Prop L came from precincts in Bayview, Visitacion Valley, Parkside, and the Outer Sunset and Richmond. Surprisingly, Prop L also saw a majority of support from the Tenderloin and Chinatown, the two neighborhoods with the city’s lowest rates of car ownership.

One factor could have been Prop L’s vague ballot language which only asked voters, “Shall it be City policy to change parking and transportation priorities?,” without actually listing what those priorities are, or could be. The question was not at all informative for anyone who had never heard of the measure.

Citywide, San Franciscans overwhelmingly rejected Prop L by nearly two to one. The rejection is even more significant given that Prop L’s backers — mainly major donors like billionaire Sean Parker — threw $115,700 at the campaign, dwarfing the $28,500 raised in opposition.

San Franciscans are clearly ready for true “transportation balance,” which means turning back the tide of car-dominated streets — not perpetuating it.

“Voters in San Francisco, whether or not they drive, understand that it’s in everyone’s interest to have strong alternatives to driving a car,” said Wiener. “If you’re a driver, your best friends are the 40 people on a Muni bus or in a bike lane, rather than 40 people in cars, blocking you from getting through an intersection.”

Radulovich noted that the Republican Party’s national victories in yesterday’s election may not bode well for federal transit funding“We’re not going to see a lot of leadership from Washington on sustainable transportation, so places like San Francisco are going to have to lead,” he said.

  • murphstahoe

    Look, there is no way to get from Park Merced to the Golden Gate Park on transit reasonably. Ignore the fact that Park Merced is across the street from Lake Merced.

    The craziest thing about car culture in a world of congestion is that it’s opened up the possibility of getting to far flung places that are probably no more interesting that the places nearby, at the cost of hours of time, of money, and sanity.

    I’m not dismissing taking a trip to Yosemite, but I really find it odd the false economies of my neighbors in Healdsburg who make Costco runs to the southern edge of Santa Rosa, paying $15 in gas and 2 hours of their time to save maybe $20 on their groceries, much of which gets spoiled because they save money by buying in quantities they can’t cosume before it goes bad. How will I get to Costco indeed.

  • murphstahoe

    The map has been misinterpreted as “these neighborhoods supported L” which is a falsehood and should be made clear.

  • Gezellig

    As someone who lived in Ingleside for a couple of years I agree. Sure, there will always be some use cases (such as, say, a less-abled person living on a big hill not directly served by a Muni bus line) where driving really makes a lot more sense. I’m not talking about that.

    Truth be told, car-centric infrastructure promotes a lot of laughably pointless driving. Once, while walking home from the 24 Hour Fitness on Ocean Ave–only about a half mile away–my neighbor stopped me and in amazement asked, “you WALK to the gym? Don’t you know the 24 here has parking?! I can give you a ride next time!”

    I hadn’t noticed before that exchange but then observed in subsequent weeks how my (very fully abled) neighbor would drive the same half-mile every day to…the gym of all places. Where he’d spend 30 minutes often doing only very light cardio, then drive home :p

    Countless of these ridiculous trips happen every day by people who do it just because the infrastructure encourages it, not because it particularly makes much sense.

    Meanwhile, the “best” bike improvements in the area are still just “buffers” (by nothing but paint…so, not actually buffered) and even sharrows on a Freeway In All But Name:


    Not 8-to-80

  • Alex

    Thanks for saying that. I agree with your other ideas and as a first step a group of citizens (myself included) in the Portola are working to secure funding for a study to address the Alemany Maze by reconnecting the neighborhoods around it with pedestrian & bike paths. I’ve also been thinking that the 101 right of way that rips through the city could be reimagined as a connector rather than a separator by adding walking paths/bike lanes along the side (fully seperated of course) and perhaps BRT lanes. It would link Vis Valley, Candlestick,Bayview, Portola, Silver Terrace, Bernal. Mission & Potrero directly with SOMA and Downtown by using speedy bus service and a flat and direct bike route/walking path, always seems like a waste that the flat and direct cut through by 101 was only used for cars.

  • Alex

    Completely agree, as an architect myself I know first hand the pitfalls of planning by committee.

  • Even though the supporters of prop L raised more money than the opponents ($115K vs. $28K), it was still chump change. Realtor groups raised $1.2 million to fight prop G, and big soda raised a whopping $7.7 million to fight prop E.

    I expect that a multi-million dollar campaign supporting prop L might have swung it the other way.

    Too bad for prop L supporters, there are no rich corporations with a stake in seeing free parking provided to entitled drivers at taxpayers’ expense. Ha ha.

  • @SF Guest – There was in fact no major decline in business, no deep wounds whatsoever. Agnos suggested the Central Subway as a sop to a group of Chinatown merchants (not to be confused with Chinatown itself), but they rejected it. Willie Brown would later respin this as a “promise” to “Chinatown.”

  • ryachow

    Are these the same people that get on buses and commute 30-35 miles down 101 to work in Menlo Park & Mtn.View ? How Ironic?

  • Gezellig

    Thanks for the updates and dates! With work it can be difficult to make it to things on weekdays during work hours but I’ll definitely keep on checking in and see what I can make it to.

    And yes, Bobby G’s the best 😀

  • Gezellig

    Just emailed that address–thanks!

  • Rob

    What is ironic? Perhaps it is problematic that companies are basing themselves down in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View. This is changing. Give it 10 years and folks will be based in SF and everyone can take the BART to work.

  • murphstahoe

    You mean those people in Walnut Creek taking BART 30-35 miles to work down that train line?

    To base those folks in SF we’d need to build a lot more office space – which can be at the expense of building more housing. And then we’d be left with empty office space in Mountain View.

    Those commutes are not ideal but can be mitigated by mass transit of whatever form. Or by simply reversing the course Marisa Meyer has decided upon and really encourage telecommuting.

  • Dave Moore

    It’s can be totally consistent to have been both against Prop L and against specific road changes. Attacking anyone who challenges a change with “because L” is in no way justified. Prop L was bad in pretty much all ways. Non-binding, poorly conceived, bad math, misrepresenting facts. I voted against it for those reasons but especially because of its awful parking arguments, which have been pretty much disproved everywhere.

    But, that doesn’t mean I support every single road change that benefits cyclists. I do support some, but there are plenty that are also poorly conceived with bad math and misrepresent facts. Each should be evaluated on those and other elements.

  • Sprague

    It seems to me that Tuesday’s election results also show how misaligned Mayor Lee and his MTA Board were in their repeal of San Francisco’s successful Sunday parking meter program. As streetsblog has repeatedly pointed out, the actions of Mayor Lee (and the majority of his MTA Board) undermined Muni and emboldened an irrational and vitriolic fringe of the electorate.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Looking at the map only one section out of a dozen or so, depending on your definition, of the outer richmond and outer sunset voted for Prop L. The terra cotta color does top out at 50.7% but I would still count that as a no vote since that range starts at 42%. The vast majority of the city voted no, maybe contrasting colors would be more useful for the map and changing the second highest category to 42-49.9% or something.

  • Gezellig

    And conversely to house those people on the peninsula and south bay would require those communities to densify and build appropriate infrastructure, which, by and large, they’ve refused to do for decades. Despite the writing being on the wall to anyone paying attention for at least 50+ years:

    (My San-Jose-dwelling grandparents and Palo-Alto-dwelling great-grandparents were always proud to point out in later years that they fully supported this in the 50s. Apparently they were in the minority)

    Mountain View, for example, still mostly sees itself as a 1950s-style suburban community, despite Google basically begging MV to let them build some apartments:


    If Google can’t get MV to build anything other than single-family homes, no one can.

    This problem was not caused by today’s twentysomething entry-level professionals baffled by how hard it is to find an apartment. It was (and continues to be) caused by their parents/grandparents and their peers whose majority has for decades perpetuated a paradigm of selfish, provincial NIMBYism and outright head-in-sand denial throughout Bay Area communities:

    This has been a problem since at least the 50s


  • SF Guest

    Wikipedia supports my position. C-Town was enraged at Agnos who defied the will of the voters to repair SR 480. C-Town including the Broadway strip were infamous for having major gridlock before the earthquake.

    Wouldn’t you be enraged if the SFMTA doesn’t improve the Muni after passing Props A & B?

    “Prior to the earthquake, the Embarcadero Freeway carried approximately 70,000 vehicles daily in the vicinity of the Ferry Building. Another 40,000 vehicles/day used associated ramps at Main and Beale Streets.

    Merchants in Chinatown had suffered a dramatic decline in business in the months immediately following the earthquake and feared that if the freeway was not reopened they would not recover.”

  • Gezellig
  • murphstahoe

    wait, I thought the Sunday meter repeal led to Prop A passing?

  • murphstahoe

    This is why Chinatown is pretty much a ghost town to this day.

  • Easy

    It can also be totally NIMBY to be against Prop L and against specific road changes. I’ve seen the type at pretty much every hearing. They are “avid bikers” or have “lots of friends who ride” but the free car parking right in front of their house or business is critical for them, and couldn’t the city please put the bike lane somewhere else?

  • Bruce

    Several precincts in the northern part of Chinatown (probably a majority of the neighborhood overall) are shaded dark brown. I guess some other parts of the neighborhood balanced it out.

  • @SF Guest – The “dramatic decline in business” claim is footnoted with a San Francisco Chronicle story from November 16, 1989, not even a month after the earthquake. The Bay Bridge hadn’t even been repaired, yet. Definitely a case of [citation needed].

    It is clear that Chinatown merchants (again not “C-Town” per se) were concerned that business would suffer, but that did not actually materialize.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    Dave: That doesn’t sound unreasonable. Prop L covered general policy but did have specific measures as well. You can oppose those perfectly reasonably (as did I), but when it comes to specific actions, it makes sense to judge each one on its merits rather than blindly bowing to policy… although policy issues should be the default guiding principle.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    Funny that. I would have off-hand thought that these corporations, while maybe not so directly concerned with SF, might regard SF as a leading battleground. If they can defeat alternative transportation movements in SF, they can defeat them anywhere. Perhaps this is an indication that the corps don’t actually expect this battle elsewhere, regard SF as an outlier (“let the hippies have their bikes” kind of thing) and that they aren’t worried that SF will lead a charge for revising transportation priorities.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    You say: “there is no way to get from Park Merced to the Golden Gate Park on transit reasonably” – what about the 28 bus?


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