Guest Commentary: Mayor Breed Needs to Make a Real Effort to Reduce Car Emissions

By side-stepping reductions in car use, San Francisco falls short on climate change

San Francisco during the fires. Photo by Peter Ensrud, Ensrud Photography
San Francisco during the fires. Photo by Peter Ensrud, Ensrud Photography

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After reading the heart-wrenching stories from the Camp Fire and dealing with weeks of hazardous air quality in the Bay Area, I was shaken by the new reality of climate change. The release of the federal climate change report this past Friday added anger to my feelings of dread.

But the problem isn’t just the climate change denier in the White House. It’s also San Francisco’s own Mayor London Breed.

In September, the mayor welcomed leaders from around the world to San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. She released a brief climate plan with four commitments: Zero Waste, decarbonized buildings, 100 percent renewable energy, and green bonds.

What about emissions from cars?

All of the policies she talked about were previously announced by the city. Her calls for San Francisco to “go further” rang hollow since she did not commit to net-zero emissions for San Francisco by 2050. Our former mayor, Mark Farrell, committed to zero emissions this past April.

In fact, Mayor Breed has walked back San Francisco’s climate commitments.

Last year, SFMTA released a 74-page Transportation Sector Climate Action Strategy, which called for strong political leadership to help implement 24 specific recommendations. The plan covers a range of action areas, including transit, land use, complete streets, congestion pricing, and emerging technologies. If even a minority of these recommendations were implemented, San Francisco would see significant declines in its transportation emissions. Mayor Breed has not implemented a single recommendation from the report.

Mayor Breed did not commit to zero emissions because it would require a significant reduction in car use.

Because of the city’s overdependence on cars, transportation is San Francisco’s largest source of greenhouse gases–at least 46 percent, according to SFMTA’s report. Transportation emissions have grown by two percent since 2012, while emissions from buildings dropped twenty percent between 2012 and 2016, and 45 percent since 1990. Furthermore, the estimates of transportation emissions don’t even include the impact of Uber and Lyft, which comprise fifteen percent of intra-San Francisco vehicle trips.

The Mayor has mentioned converting all Muni buses to zero-emissions by 2035. But Muni buses only contribute two percent of transportation emissions, and this commitment was already made by our previous mayor, Mark Farrell.

The mayor expedited infill housing, called for more reliable transit, and sped up four Vision Zero streetscape projects. However, she has no position on congestion pricing and calls for further studies even though SFCTA has been studying the question for a decade. She has never mentioned a citywide protected bicycle network. She’s done little to unblock the roll-outs of emerging technologies such as bike and scooter shares. She has no plan to effectively price parking or limit new parking construction. She’s ignored Better Market Street, a project that is crucial to increasing transit and bicycle ridership.

Could some of this come from her personal preference for driving?

San Franciscans extol our city’s progressive values. But if even our city is not serious about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the biggest single emitter, cars, what hope is there for our country to ever fight climate change?

Mayor Breed needs to show bold leadership to cost-effectively cut San Francisco’s emissions. The city can survive, and flourish, with more bikes, more scooters, better transit, and fewer cars.

Kyle Grochmal is a San Francisco street and bicycle safety advocate who is active with People Protected Bike Lanes. He works full-time at a technology company and frequently posts on Twitter @KCGrock.

  • LazyReader

    Why not encourage scooters which take actual cars off the road. The fact is that San Francisco’s planning puts people into cars. Collectivist transit schemes are doomed to fail, wealthy silicon valley people are too stuck up to ride a bus, BART is falling apart even though the city is taxing the bajeezus to pay for it’s repair and the city thinks scooters are a public nuisance and safety hazard;;;;;yet bums pissing and defecating on the street apparently isn’t. Bikes are for people who still have the cartilage in their knees to pedal all day.

    Sad, buses were really beautiful machine until the 1960’s when they all ended up looking like bricks with wheels

  • Chairman Meow

    The worst auto emissions in the city come from the Golden Gate Transit buses. These 50-seat monsters motor around town 98-100% empty while spewing the most noxious clouds of diesel fumes detectable the length of a city block downwind and doing nothing to reduce surface street congestion. There is no demand for this service capacity and the bureaucracy should downsize the fleet to smaller, cleaner shuttles.

  • City Resident

    Thank you for this commentary, which is spot on. In the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco, we seem to pride ourselves on our progressive ways, our education, and our environmental awareness. Yet when it comes to our travel and commute choices, that awareness seems to evaporate and convenience trumps rational choices. How many more days with dangerously elevated AQI numbers and smoky skies will it take for us to change our ways? How many more Spare the Air records must be broken before a course correction is made? We, as individuals, have the knowledge, awareness, and ability to help slow the trashing of our planet. But to be truly effective, we need our city’s leadership to intervene in ways that curtail our simultaneous lust to drive and inadvertent willingness to pollute.

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  • One of my big pet peeves – because it shows exactly where SFMTA priorities lie – is the agency policy of promoting car use while by not metering or enforcing parking on Sundays, while punishing Muni riders with full fares for somewhat-reduced service.

    It was Mayor Ed Lee’s push to give drivers a break from being nickel and dimed but gave no consideration to Muni riders

    If the City wants to reduce car emissions, it seems one logical step to stop encouraging car with discounted/free parking at the expense of Muni.

  • crazyvag

    I really hate the lack of meters on Sunday. Makes finding parking such a pain. I’d like to see meters expanded by a block every few years.

  • Yep, and it also had a hit on businesses and the City revenue from sales taxes (not just the direct meter revenue) because customers like you can’t find a space when there’s no turnover, and cut back on your errends.

    That leads to a lot of drivers circling around for parking, adding to traffic and GHG emissions.

  • City Resident

    Roughly 7,500 passengers travel to/from SF via Golden Gate Transit on an average weekday. If these bus riders ditched the bus and drove in instead, street congestion would clearly increase. As to empty buses, you may not be aware that Golden Gate Transit eliminates commute runs if ridership falls below an average of 20 passengers/trip.