In transit-first San Francisco, cars still rule the road 

click to enlarge Transit advocates say San Francisco residents support a transit-first theory, but balk when faced with losing parking spaces or traffic lanes. - EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Examiner file photo
  • Transit advocates say San Francisco residents support a transit-first theory, but balk when faced with losing parking spaces or traffic lanes.

In San Francisco, a place proud of its unabashedly liberal leanings and progressive environmental ideals, one would think that making good on The City’s long-enshrined transit-first policy would be a piece of cake.

Not really.

Established in 1973, The City’s official policy was created to ensure that every new transportation initiative had the end goal of moving people out of automobiles and into more-sustainable options such as public transit, biking and walking.

While more San Franciscans are using alternative forms of transportation now, nearly 39 percent of city residents said in 2009 — the most recent year of available data — they drive alone to work, more than any other mode of travel.

And even though San Franciscans pride themselves on being aware of the ills of carbon emissions, recent initiatives to encourage mode shifts out of automobiles — such as extending parking meter hours and implementing congestion pricing for cars — have been met with shrieks of outrage and derision.

“Most people like the transit-first policy in theory,” said Ed Reiskin, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni. “But when it comes to losing their own parking space or a traffic lane that they use a lot, they become less of a fan.”

The goal of The City’s transit-first policy was to make Muni a convenient alternative to automobiles. But that hasn’t happened. Muni posted a 73 percent on-time performance rate for the 2011 fiscal year, the agency’s lowest mark since 2008 and well below the voter-mandated goal of 85 percent.

“People would ride Muni if it was safe, clean and reliable,” said Robert Boden, spokesman for the advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders Union. “Until that happens, San Francisco will remain a car-first city.”

Reiskin said the SFMTA is intent on speeding up Muni service, first by working on expanding the number of transit-only lanes in The City. Other plans include bus rapid transit lines on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue that are set to be implemented over the next decade. City politics still slow down or halt the changes needed to make transit a more attractive option, said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a transit-advocacy organization.

“If we want to make transit better, there are going to have to be tradeoffs that might be a little painful at first,” said Radulovich. “That includes taking away parking spaces or traffic lanes for private automobiles. We just haven’t had the political will to support those plans yet.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

Ways to go

Between 2000 and 2009, The City made some, but not much, progress in getting people out of their cars. A comparison of how residents travel each day to work:

2000 2009
Drive alone 40.5% 38.9%
Carpool 10.8% 7.4%
Public transit 31.1% 31.8%
Taxi, motorcycle, other 1.6% 1.8%
Bike 2.1% 3.0%
Walk 9.4% 10.3%
Work at home 4.6% 6.8%

Source: SFMTA 2010 Transportation Fact Sheet

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Will Reisman

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