San Francisco’s Transit First policy turned forty last week. Unfortunately, to someone from a city like London (which actually puts public transport first), it looks like all mouth and no trousers.
Some articles I read over the weekend illustrate this nicely. Streetsblog SF has a look at the state of play:
today, the vast majority of San Francisco’s street space remains devoted to moving and storing private automobiles, making the public right-of-way hostile to walking and bicycling. Muni remains underfunded, with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic a daily part of riding transit.
Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, “but where there’s a real shortage of road space, in the most congested parts of the city, the car is still the priority.”
Admittedly, as a SPUR report in 1999 explains, it could have been worse:
Were it not for the transit-first policy, the city would have followed the path of so many other American cities, widening roads, narrowing sidewalks, demolishing downtown buildings and then filling the spaces with parking garages. We would have destroyed the very density and walkability that makes this city different from the rest of the country, that creates the high economic values of downtown, and that provides the quality of life we enjoy.
Unfortunately, the knowledge that resisting the car makes for a better city doesn’t seem to have stopped people from campaigning for their cars, as a report also at Streetblog, covering a meeting about removing parking spaces on Polk Street, notes.
Kowalski’s claims went unchallenged, and no one mentioned the evidence that merchants tend to wildly overestimate, like the survey on Columbus Avenue which found that just 14 percent of people arrived by car, and those people tended to spend less than people who arrived by other means.
One speaker was even cheered when he claimed that the project was part of the United Nation’s Agenda 21. Yes, when it comes to local planning decisions, San Francisco can be just as paranoid and provincial as rural Virginia.
Where are we today five months after the official approval of the project? The Fell Street section has been re-striped but not buffered against traffic, and there is absolutely zero progress on Oak Street. Still today, hundreds of people literally risk their lives every time they ride the three-block stretch of Oak so that a few dozen people can have a place to put their idle private automobile while they aren’t using it. This is “Transit-First.”
The basic idea behind Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is to redesign the street to separate buses from private automobile traffic so that the public transportation moves more quickly and is, therefore, a more viable option. Anybody who has ridden the notoriously slow-moving 38-Geary or the 47 or 49 lines on Van Ness knows how critical these projects are. Both were supposed to be implemented by 2012, but the current launch dates for the Van Ness and Geary improvements are 2016 and 2020, respectively.
Even the recently completed transit lanes on Church Street between 16th and Dolores are “prioritized for transit and taxis”, rather than being exclusively for their use. I realise that it’s probably not the first place to justify it, but surely the wide multiple lanes of Geary, slower now than in 1911 and busy despite losing its streetcar, is a perfect candidate? How can such a project take seven years?
All in all, it’s hard to disagree with Fitzgibbons conclusion.
When we declared ourselves a “Transit-First” city in 1973, we still had a sense of our responsibility to pave the way for the rest of the country and basked in the accompanying prestige that came along with it. Forty years later, we’ve lost our edge — we no longer lead the country in anything but distance between our stated values and our actions and a misguided commitment to paralyzing hyper-democracy.