San Francisco needs to radically rethink its transportation system to avoid gridlock
San Francisco — already overwhelmed with private automobiles — faces a grim future of gridlock unless there is a radical change in how we think about city streets, parking, and regional transportation.
The facts are clear. Every day there are 1.7 million private car trips to, from, or within the city, according to the city's transportation plan. Coupled with almost 10,000 vehicles registered per square mile, San Francisco today has one of the densest concentrations of cars on the planet, more than any peer city in the United States. In the business-as-usual scenario, the streets are forecast to absorb another half-million car trips. By 2040 there will be 2.2 million car trips on the exact same street grid we have today.
This is madness and it is dysfunctional for everyone. If you think Muni is unreliable now, it will be useless in 2040 as it stalls in the morass of 2.2 million car trips jammed onto city streets. Pedestrian injuries and deaths will rise with another 160 cars hitting pedestrians annually, simply due to oversaturation of automobiles. Cyclists might be able to weave around the stalled traffic, but it will be an ugly scene that fouls the air. Motorists will be stuck in their own gridlock, evermore impatient, distracted, honking, lurching through blocked intersections, sneaking through yellow lights, blocking crosswalks, double parking, and irritated with fellow drivers and everyone around. No one will be happy
This does not have to be. The city's transportation agency hopes to reduce car trips from 1.7 to 1.6 million by 2018, a modest goal but barely holding the line. Reducing existing car trips by 100,000 while also adding thousands upon thousands of housing units and jobs, most coming with more parking, will quickly undo this humble ambition. The city can do more and the data shows us that there are many opportunities.
Consider that 68 percent of car trips within San Francisco are less than three miles. That's 650,000 car trips per day that are generally pretty short — with a bicycle it's less than a half-hour ride on relatively even terrain. If the city were able to get half of those car trips to switch to bicycle trips, it would be well on its way to averting carmageddon.
A more ambitious goal, increasing cycling to 20 percent of all trips, is the official city policy adopted by the Board of Supervisors. That's 500,000-600,000 trips by bicycle every day, most of which can take place within that three-mile range, especially if cleverly arranged "wiggles" (level routes circumventing steeper hills) are laid out on the most logical corridors. But to carry that many cyclists, real space has to be allocated for them.
Out at San Francisco State University, where I teach a new Bicycle Geographies course that aims to increase cycling to the campus, there is tremendous opportunity to shift these kinds of short trips to bicycling. For students, faculty, and staff, bicycling is compatible with rapid transit, particularly for the "last mile" segments, such as between BART and SF State.
Bicycling is also a way to relieve local bus and light rail transit crowding — the 28 bus line on 19th Avenue, for example, is often jam packed and the city has only modest goals to improve that key line. Unlike transit or highways, bicycles do not require costly, long-term capital investment or operating funds and so can be deployed much more quickly.
It will be decades and cost hundreds of millions to improve the M-line, only now in the planning phase. We can lay down cycletracks much more quickly. Bicycling is also among the most equitable forms of urban transportation because it is affordable and accessible to almost everyone. This is obviously relevant to working-class students at SF State.