Mobility Challenges Are Degrading San Francisco

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I’ve come to terms with the loss of Dr. Video and The Daily Scoop, 18th Street stalwarts of yesteryear. But the way San Francisco has changed more recently reveals a shift in the City’s nature, who it’s made for and how it’s being experienced. 

I lived on Vermont Street my whole life. When I became a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara four years ago it was easy to adapt to flat neighborhoods, where I could bike without shifting gears; free parking; and residing two blocks from the beach. Experiencing life in a place where getting around is easy made visits home feel congested by comparison. 

But it wasn’t just the juxtaposition which created this feeling. The City has become increasingly crowded and dense. Formerly empty lots are now filled with modern architecture; there’s more road rage. The spaces where houseless folks had found shelter, such as on Division Street, are no longer as hospitable. I wonder how newcomers experience a municipality that used to be so diverse and surprising. 

The corporations which appear to run the City are eager to be seen. Salesforce imposed a giant phallus onto our precious skyline, trumping the iconic TransAmerica building. Chase Bank has given the Golden State Warriors a new home in our tiny town and is birthing its own microcosm around the Chase Center in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, another giant, called “Thrive City.” Mission Bay which, a few years ago was a non-neighborhood of empty lots and University of California, San Francisco buildings, has boomed into a pseudo-downtown, with all the traffic, tall buildings, and pedestrians, but none of the grime or nostalgia. Transportation networking companies (TNCs) have put San Francisco into the palms of anyone who can afford their rides hand.

San Francisco is small for a big city. Inside these 47 square miles neighborhoods fade into one another. If you blink walking in the Mission you’re in the Castro, then the Haight. Eventually, though you started ambling in Potrero Hill, you’ll find yourself passing the windmills in Golden Gate Park with blisters on your feet! Of course, a saunter across town is no casual afternoon stroll, but the ease of moving from one place to another has always been one of my favorite City characteristics. Every step here feels like home. It’s familiar, yet there’s always something new to discover. A town of infinite detail, it’s not a place which can be epitomized by a single park, bar, or brunch spot. 

There are many ways to traverse this little town, but as we accrue more transportation modes the City has become increasingly difficult to move through.  Additional miles of bike lanes have been created. Muni’s fleet has two types of hybrid buses, electric light rail cars, and Cable Cars. There’s vehicle-, bicycle-, scooter- and ridesharing. Yet San Francisco transit is stuck in a feedback loop: as traffic congestion intensifies, Muni runs slower, commuters choose alternative transport modes, often TNCs, more cars enter the City, traffic worsens. 

We’re in an age of extreme punctuality. Instead of waiting patiently in traffic, we look up a map on our phones to see exactly how long we’ll be stuck. We get nervous when the Muni stop countdown says the bus should’ve arrived two minutes ago. TNC apps reassure users by showing tiny graphics of nearby drivers. We like to have eyes on the situation before we even get into a car. San Franciscans in a hurry crave this sense of control.

Muni riders must be alert and responsible; carry exact change or a loaded Clipper card; arrive at the bus stop on time; know the best route. Often the rider will have to switch buses at an intermediary stop. Even at the final stop the rider may have to walk 15 minutes to their destination. This process means setting foot in all parts of the City, not just the desired areas. It means exiting a bubble and relating to the people around you.

While the City is growing public transit use is declining. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and California Department of Finance statistics indicate that San Francisco’s population rose from 872,876 residents in 2016 to 887,540 in 2018, with another roughly 13,000 people likely added this year, Muni ridership has moved inversely. Whereas between 2016 and 2018 population rose by about 15,000 people, the number of people taking Muni declined by roughly 20,000. In 2016, the head count was 755,380 monthly passengers; by 2018 it’d dropped to 735,880. 

Lyft, with its goal “to change our cities so that they are designed around people instead of cars,” entered the scene in 2012. It launched in San Francisco as a coordination service for ridesharing but became much more successful as a short-distance taxi company. Yet in the City Lyft’s presence works counter to its goal.  According to a recent study by Science Advances Magazine, TNCs in San Francisco increase congestion. Instead of replacing private cars they bring masses of new vehicles into the City; about 70 percent of TNCs come into San Francisco from elsewhere. 

The study found that driving speeds have decreased to below posted limits in many areas.  In a neighborhood with a 25 miles per hour (mph) limit average speeds are 23 mph, where in past years speeds in the same area were well into the 30s. While a lower pace is good for road safety, the increasingly sluggish traffic pace suggests that motorists are unable to travel as fast as they want because there are so many cars on the road.

Traffic slowdowns are also triggered when drivers are distracted or make unpredictable maneuvers. Lyft and Uber drivers seem to look at their phone GPS almost as much as they gaze at the roads and make unexpected stops to let their passengers out. They don’t possess the training and City knowledge that taxicab drivers have. And, unlike cab drivers, who are chauffeurs by trade, TNCs have a high turnover rate. 

It’s easy to ignore the world around us when all we do is plug an address into an app, roll up the window to the smells and sounds outside, and silently stare into a phone until the driver stops at our destination. Direct experience of the spaces around us is no longer necessary to live in a place. This way of getting around deprives us of the random interactions, litter, street art, and textures that used to make San Francisco special.