San Francisco's Prop. L: Are motorists being put at the back of the bus?

Oct 29, 2014

San Francisco paints itself as a green city, a city of walkers and bicyclists, a transportation friendly city. But some say San Francisco has taken its pro-pedestrian stance too far.

A group called the Restore Transportation Balance Coalition wants to take back the roads. That’s the goal of Proposition L, a declaration of policy to make the city’s parking meters, garages and traffic laws more car-friendly. But at what cost?

San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood recently debuted a glam pedestrian-friendly makeover. The main drag of Castro Street now has palm trees, rainbow crosswalks and wider sidewalks.

But there were some trade-offs for this fresh new look. On-street parking was monopolized by the construction, and now the much narrower street makes it harder for Muni and delivery trucks to get through.

On the other hand, there’s more walking space for pedestrians, and that might even boost commerce by encouraging foot traffic into businesses. Still, for awhile it was a little bit of a problem.

Dalia Khoury works at Castro Coffee Company, which her parents have owned for decades.

“Because they shut down the street we lost a lot of our morning customers who would come in and park real quick, grab a cup of coffee and head out,” Khoury says.

She says things are better now. In fact, it’s better than she expected.

“When I asked when they first started they said we're losing six spots total on the whole street,” Khoury says.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA, is the umbrella agency for anything transit-related in San Francisco. Proponents of Prop L say that since its inception, SFMTA has slighted motorists.

“In the last five years the city has removed over 4,000 parking spots, over 300 of those parking spots were formerly reserved for disabled people and they've not been replaced,” according to Jason Clark, who co-authored the proposition.

He says the recent trend in city planning puts San Francisco motorists at the back of the bus.

“When the first meter was installed about 65 years ago it was always free on Sunday, it was always free on holidays. When you park on Labor Day or you park on Martin Luther King day you should be safe in knowing you're not going to be charged or get a gigantic parking ticket,” he says. “I mean, it's a holiday, everyone deserves a little bit of a break.”

This return to simpler, cheaper, times is a point of consensus for more than 17,000 San Franciscans who signed the petition to put Prop L on the ballot. Although the measure was Clark’s idea, he doesn’t own a car.

Clark is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans of San Francisco. The initiative has not received any City Hall endorsements but has gained support from notable groups like the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, and firefighter and police officer unions. It’s also got some techie billionaire clout. Napster co-founder Sean Parker is the campaign’s biggest contributor.

The measure proposes several declarations: No charging meter fees on Sundays and holidays, or outside 9am and 6pm; No installing new meters without neighborhood consent; No increasing parking garage, meter or ticket fees for at least five years; Mandatory representation of motorists on the SFMTA board; Goals to achieve safer, smoother flowing streets; And equal enforcement of traffic laws.

“For example, when there's a stop sign it's required by law that everyone stop at the stop sign. A lot of people don't,” Clark says. The same thing should occur for someone who decides to jaywalk across a busy street. Certain segments of the transportation community here are not being held to the same standards as motorists and in order to have a balanced approach you need to treat everyone equally.”

Dan Chatman is an associate professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on land use and transportation planning in San Francisco. He says motorists and pedestrians aren’t equal. For one thing, the city doesn’t have a problem with pedestrians killing drivers.

“I think we need to in general acknowledge that the driver of a car, the car itself, is not equal to a pedestrian,” Chatman says. “Motorized modes are the reason why we need traffic lights in the first place.”

Chatman says that smoother-flowing streets don’t mean safer streets. If you do things to increase the flow of traffic it will likely decrease pedestrian and cyclist safety. As for the cost of parking? Chatman directed a three-year observational study relating to parking prices in San Francisco. He found that in many areas parking is already underpriced, and he says that underpriced parking means more people driving around looking for parking spaces, creating more gridlock. But, Chatman says, even more vital are the financial benefits to collecting meter fees seven days a week.

“From an equity perspective I'd disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that you should make Sunday parking free,” he says.

That’s because Saturday and Sunday are the biggest travel days in the Bay Area, so they generate the most meter revenue, which should be put toward improving the overall transportation system. Chatman says the idea that less road space equals more traffic only makes sense on the surface.

“They have a good argument that if you take away road space why wouldn't you expect there to be more gridlock, more congestion,” he says.
“But as you take away roadspace you also probably shift people over from vehicles to other modes, and the reason for that is as it becomes more difficult to drive, other modes become more attractive.”

And that is part of the point of city policy, to get people out of their cars. Going carless should be encouraged, according to Amandeep Jawa. He’s the president of the San Francisco League of Conservation Voters. He’s the proud owner of the city’s only private parklet, a public space that’s been converted into a mini park. In Jawa’s case, the’s transformed his driveway on Valencia Street into a green space.

“Prop L is one of those pieces of legislation or ideas that seems simple and is kind of a no-brainer for some people. It doesn't sound like it's anything important or big but it is,” Jawa says. “Prop L basically begins the process of shifting our transportation policy away from lots of different modes of transportation and towards just one mode. Driving.”

Jawa is worried about the environmental impacts of a more car-friendly city. Around 30 percent of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions come from private automobiles.

“I don't want to demonize, people have to drive, there's various things people have to do to make things work, that's not what this is about. This is about how do we keep all of our transportation options balanced in ways that work for people, for the environment, and for just getting our jobs done every day,” he says.

But Jason Clark says what the city is doing isn’t working.

“If you live in San Francisco ask yourself, has traffic gotten worse within last 10 years? Have my buses? Has ontime wait for Muni increased? Has my bus service improved? Do I feel safer navigating the streets of SF?” he asks.

“The answers almost universally to those questions are no, so obviously what's going on right now is not contributing to the solution, it's part of the problem so we need to change things,” Clark says.

And that’s something both sides can agree on. San Francisco hasn’t found an effective solution to the increasing number of cars, and people, on the streets. So it is fitting that the solution itself is at a bottleneck