What is Wrong With San Francisco’s Transportation System?
San Francisco has a goal that by 2030, 80% of trips are taken by low-carbon modes such as walking, biking, and transit.
San Francisco Climate Action Plan, 2021
The problem with San Francisco’s transportation system is mass transit, walking, and biking is inadequate. Unlike cities like New York, the automobile is still indispensable form of transportation in San Francisco. Taxis are few and far between. This problem has caused companies like Uber and Lyft to propose ride sharing solutions. Why is transportation such a difficult problem in San Francisco?
San Francisco was founded on 42 hills; Telegraph, Nob, Potrero, Bernal, Twin Peaks, to mention a few. To confound the problem, much of the lowland in San Francisco is built on land fill. A Manhattan style subway system cannot be built in either location. The hills are bedrock, and the lowlands are landfill. As a result, mass transit needs to be built at street level. Many transit routes are slow and unreliable. Street cars in San Francisco must stop at each light and pick up passengers at every street corner. Biking is quicker, but dangerous, and difficult in hilly parts of the city. Walking is dangerous and is out of the question in many areas as the city is too large to transverse on foot. Market street, San Francisco’s “main street” is over a mile long.
San Francisco, unlike Los Angeles, was designed before automobiles around pedestrian-centered neighborhoods. But unlike the cities of Europe, San Francisco has always had a boom-bust economy. The city was designed for single working men. The first growth was in the 1850s due to the California gold rush and the city was built for “forty niners”. The Central Pacific Railroad drew thousands of working men from China. Tech workers, ‘tech bros’, came to the city first in the dot.com boom, then in recent years in the tech boom of the 2010’s. When families did come to the city, they stayed for a time before relocating to the greater Bay Area. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 forced many working-class families to leave the city permanently. White middle-class families have abandoned the city due to the realities of urban life; congestion, crime, vandalism, drug use, homelessness, and city decay. Life in San Francisco is hard and competition for services fierce.
In the 1960s automobiles were prioritized over other modes of transportation. Streets like Market had both street cars and automobile traffic. San Francisco has moved to a ‘transit first’ policy. San Francisco’s planning department has created the goal of making 80% of all trips in the city taken by low-carbon modes such as walking, biking, and transit. They have done this through a variety of measures that decentralize automobile transportation. This includes transit only lanes, bike only lanes, car free roads, and ‘slow streets’. They have eliminated parking and created 42 miles of protected bike lanes by 2019. They have eliminated parking to create over 1,200 ‘parklets’ eliminating thousands of parking spaces. They have eliminated cars from streets such as Market Street, and have only allowed transit, walking and biking. They have instituted “slow streets” to create more than 20 corridors where automobile traffic is slowed prioritizing walking and biking. Removing parking requirements for new housing units and revising density codes prioritizing density over transportation means more people and fewer parking spaces.
The problem with eliminating parking and decentralizing automobiles, is it creates social inequities. Young, single, people are prioritized, while children and families are deprioritized. This creates infrastructure for ‘Yuppies’ and ‘Tech Bros’, but pushes out working-class families. In Manhattan, urban density, subways, and corner stores make it possible for families to live in the city. In San Francisco, many of the older building have no onsite laundry, are not close to a local grocery store, and not dense enough to support mass transit. Amenities are not equally distributed through the city creating vast swaths of urban deserts. How does a working-class family do laundry, or buy a week’s worth of groceries? Middle-class ‘soccer-moms’ driving SUVs are strongly condemned. How does a family take a child to the hospital in case of accident or injury? Walking and biking are not options for supporting a family’s needs. Mass transit can work in dense areas of the city, but not for many areas. Working class families need cars. Imagine the plumber who has a truck for work. Imagine the house cleaner, the Uber driver, or landscaper. These working-class people have been pushed out of the city to the Eastbay and other far flung Bay Areas. Demographic analysis based on race show how these forces push out people of color from the city and create social inequity. In San Francisco, there has been a 45% decline in Blacks from 1990 to 2018. Decentralizing automobiles decentralizes the working-class and creates racial inequality.
The prioritization of the urban professional over the family creates inequitable outcomes as lower and working-class households are forced into long commutes from the periphery of the Bay Area. Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google have located their offices in office parks in Silicon Valley to alleviate the congestion of San Francisco. This creates more cars, more buses, and more need for transportation. San Francisco has pushed its transportation problem off on the entire Bay Area. The result is that San Francisco has become one of the most unlivable cities in the United States.
The elimination of cars has stopped middle class suburbanites from using Market Street, San Francisco’s main street. Retail traffic, what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” is destroyed. Retail stores could not survive. The Civic Center has boarded up stores, homeless and hopeless people living on the street. Bikes, pedestrians, streetcars, and busses, as well as Muni are not enough to invigorate the street. The empty street feels like a postapocalyptic world lifeless and decomposing. Block after block of boarded up store fronts, crime, drug use, and human excrement are everywhere.
What is the answer to San Francisco’s transportation problem? Planners need to design cities where amenities, work, housing, play, and retail are superimposed on each other to create multifunctional blocks. This creates walkable zones where all amenities are not more than a quarter of a mile apart. This is accomplished by eliminating residential and commercial zoning in cities. It is accomplished by creating city plans where amenities are mapped and analyzed. Allowing housing projects only in places where amenities exist or building amenities at the same time and location as residential housing. Every building should be ‘mixed use’. We need to eliminate the functional separations in cities and design for multi-use. Everything a person needs should be within walking distance. We need to stop building mass transit to encourage workers from the suburbs to commute to the city. We should encourage work from home, or work from where you live in the city.
Self-driving cars looks to be the next step in urban transportation. Smart cars will enable people to call for transportation anywhere in the city. These cars will come to their location and deliver the person to the exact destination. This will, in theory, eliminate the need for mass transit. By deprioritizing cars, cities are setting up an infrastructure problem that will minimize self-driving cars. Self-driving cars will need more roads, faster routes, and more short-term parking while waiting for passengers. It will mean cars will circle the block waiting for passengers, and this will cause more traffic, not less. Self-driving cars will theoretically be a great advance in urban life as people will not need to buy and maintain cars. Yet cities like San Francisco are making it difficult to implement this most useful technology.
The solution to transportation is not to prioritize mass transit. This solution is as bad as designing cities for car transportation. Automobiles should not be decentralized until better and more equitable options can be designed. Middle-class families should not be forced out of the city simply because they need a car for their daily needs. Rather the solution is to redesign the city, so transportation is not needed. The solution is superimposing work, play, retail, and residential in multifunctional walkable blocks. The solution is to create active streets that accommodate a mix of uses. Until this is accomplished, car transportation should not be abolished.