Blog: August, 2011
BART of the Future
Forget what your mother told you about "it's what’s on the inside that counts.” In the case of BART trains, it’s all about what’s on the outside.
BART’s new fleet of cars is on track to begin service in 2016. This month, BART provided a first look at the concepts for the new train cars, holding a series of forums for the public to weigh in on the design of the interiors of the future.
The most important change in the new fleet, however, is one made to the exteriors: the addition of 50 percent more doors for boarding and off-loading.
In our recent video “Crossing the Bay,” SPUR recommended adding more doors to BART trains as a crucial step to reduce loading delays and make for faster and smoother commutes.
BART currently carries more than 750,000 riders between San Francisco and the East Bay each week. That number is projected to increase as the Bay Area population grows by another 1.7 million people over the next 25 years. It is essential that we continue to use smart design to accommodate more people on transit.
Finally, while the exterior is the most important factor to system efficiency, the interior is important for user comfort, so BART passengers will be glad to note that all design concepts include new seat cushions that are, shall we say, less absorbent.
Food Desert No More: New Grocery Store Opens in the Bayview
In many neighborhoods in San Francisco, the opening of a new grocery store is notable. But in the Bayview, a new Fresh & Easy store that opened on August 24 filled a full-scale grocery store gap that had persisted for more than 15 years. “It’s all about health, about neighborhood vitality, about jobs, and about fulfilling old promises,” explained Mayor Ed Lee at the opening. “That is what this store represents.”
The store opening, planned since late 2007, marked the success of a partnership between Fresh & Easy and a number of city agencies and advisory groups. In 2007, the Southeast Food Access Working Group, which is supported by the Department of Public Health, released a survey showing widespread support for more grocery options in the Bayview. Responding to this desire, staff at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) reached out to many established grocery chains in San Francisco, including Safeway, Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Trader Joe’s and others, seeking a company that would open a store in the neighborhood. All of them declined to set up shop, except for Fresh & Easy.
With a lot of recent focus on incentivizing the creation of grocery stores in food deserts through programs such as the federal Healthy Food and Financing Initiative and the California Endowment’s FreshWorks Fund, it’s worth noting that the City of San Francisco did not provide any direct subsidies or loans to Fresh & Easy. Instead, MOEWD helped make the project a reality by assisting the developer in changing its building plan to make space for the grocery store while still adhering to code; helped spearhead a change to the city’s restrictions on alcohol sales in full-scale grocery stores so that the store could offer some alcoholic beverages; and facilitated the availability of federal New Market Tax Credits for Fresh & Easy’s participation in the development of the project. And, as the project moved forward, the Bayview Hunters Point Project Area Committee, which advises the city’s Redevelopment Agency, also provided feedback. This concerted effort by multiple city agencies and groups helped seal the deal for Fresh & Easy.
The store isn’t without controversy. Labor groups are critical of Fresh & Easy’s stance on unions, some neighborhood activists oppose the store’s sale of alcohol, and others argue that the development as a whole should include more affordable housing. Protesters with picket signs joined those who came to the opening to shop for groceries.
But neighbors’ enthusiasm was even more apparent. When Fresh & Easy CEO Tim Mason touted the store’s policy of not stocking food with transfats, “ingredients you can’t pronounce”, and focusing on fresh options – some in the crowd began applauding.
After the speeches, the doors opened to the public. And, for the first time in many years, Bayview residents could walk the aisles of a full-scale grocery store in their neighborhood.
Election 2011: How Did SF’s Pension Problem Get This Bad?
With two different pension-reform measures on the upcoming ballot, it’s no secret that pension reform will have a significant impact on the November election. But how did the city get to the point of having a problem of this magnitude? Clearly the recession has played a big part, but what about the many negotiated increases in benefits over the course of the last decade?
While there has been much discussion here at SPUR about the magnitude of the pension crisis in San Francisco, scant attention has been paid to the many decisions that brought the city to the brink. In a recent article, the Examiner’s Josh Sabatini finally cast a light on the elephant in the room: “Among the factors leading to skyrocketing costs is a political culture that routinely rewards public employee unions with little thought about the future.”
These increases have taken many forms, but with little consideration of the financial implications down the road. Sabatini discussed some of the trends in pension benefits over the last decade, including how former Mayor Gavin Newsom struck a 24 percent, four-year pay increase with the Police Officers Association, as well as the firefighters and nurses unions.
But this was just one of the recent agreements that should cause concern in the current debate. The real issue is that pay increases have continued in the midst of this crisis, compounding problems with pension and other obligations. And the reality is that voters must also take some responsibility. In addition to turning a blind eye to fiscally irresponsible collective bargaining agreements, they have also approved a number of incremental changes at the ballot that have gradually — and sometimes radically — increased retirement benefits.
Once again, voters will have their say this fall. With two competing proposals for pension reform on the ballot for this November, and a slightly better understanding of the potential implications, voters have an opportunity to move things in the right direction. The city’s proposal (Proposition C) is estimated to save as much as $1.29 billion over ten years by increasing employee contributions and requiring contributions to the retiree health account. Jeff Adachi’s proposal (Proposition D) is projected to save as much as $1.62 billion by increasing employee contributions and reducing benefits for future employees.
While each proposal promises significant savings, this has to be the opening salvo in the debate: The total projected cost of pensions over the next ten years? Four to five times the savings offered by either proposal. That’s $6.57 billion.
High-Speed Rail's Plan B Is A-Okay
More than ten years ago, we did our first major report on high-speed rail in California, advocating for an alignment that went through existing town centers rather than bypassing them for cheaper land. The point was to use rail as a tool for organizing the state’s growth, reinforcing center-oriented development instead of sprawl.
For the most part, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has done the right thing on this basic question of the train alignment. But as we move from idea to implementation, things get messier. It’s difficult and expensive to thread a major infrastructure project like this through existing, long-established communities.
So it is no surprise that here in the Bay Area we’ve run into a lot of trouble with how to get high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco. Residents along the Peninsula were understandably concerned about noise impacts and eminent domain being used to take property for the right of way. Last spring the High-Speed Rail Authority actually voted to stop work on this segment until the Bay Area could sort out what it wanted to do.
In April of this year, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian and State Assemblyman Rich Gordon put out a letter stating their terms for how to do high speed rail the “right way.” Essentially, their argument boils down to two points:
1. Keep the project within the existing right of way, fitting in as many tracks as possible.
2. Don’t put the tracks on an elevated structure unless that’s what the community prefers.
Recently, I met with Senator Simitian to talk about the project, and my sense was that these constraints were, for the most part, fine. In fact, given that they could help bring down the cost of the project, accepting these constraints potentially makes the project more likely to happen.
Caltrain has now confirmed my intuition with the preliminary results of its capacity analysis, which studied a "blended system" for Caltrain and high-speed rail along the Peninsula. The initial results show that we can accommodate six Caltrain trains and four high-speed rail trains each hour by using a combination of two tracks in some places and four tracks in others. (And if we can manage to design the system to have level boarding, the throughput capacity will be even greater.)
Plan A for Caltrain and high-speed rail was to have a fully grade separated four-track system. This is the ideal from a transit design point of view. But we are now in the realm of Plan B: a system that is less costly and more politically acceptable. When we leave the realm of dreaming on paper and actually have to fund and build transportation projects, we almost always have to make these kinds of compromises. SPUR’s view is that this solution is going to provide enormous benefits to the region and is the direction we should all focus on.
There may be communities that are willing to embrace more radical design changes. (See, for example, an alternative vision developed by architects and students in Palo Alto for undergrounding train tracks as a way to knit the community back together.) Other communities will want to keep the disruption to a minimum. Fortunately for all of us, high-speed rail is going to work just fine with a combination of many approaches.
SPUR Announces November Ballot Positions
The ballot for the upcoming November 2011 election has finally been set. After five measures dropped off, we’ve ended up with the shortest ballot in a mayoral election in at least 50 years.
The remaining measures address some important financial topics in a difficult economy, when voters may not be in the mood to talk about money. Pension reform, bonds to pay for schools and roads, and even a sales tax increase — all on the same ballot. Times are still tough for local government, and that the city is taking on some difficult issues in spite of the state of the economy. For example, there is wide agreement that the city’s pension system requires attention; unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities totaling $4.3 billion need a payment plan; the school district needs bond funding to complete its 10-year capital renovation program; and the city’s roads desperately require investment.
To a certain extent, many of these measures rely on something much more basic: trust that voters will see the wisdom of investing in their city in spite of high rates of unemployment, continuing volatility in the stock market and severe financial challenges at the state and federal levels.
After hearing an in-depth report from our Ballot Analysis Committee, SPUR’s board of directors voted to take the following positions regarding the eight propositions on the San Francisco ballot this November:
Proposition A: 2011 SFUSD General Obligation Bond ($531 million)
General Obligation bond measure of $531 million to finance repairs, renovations and new construction of San Francisco Unified School District structures.
SPUR position: YES
Proposition B: 2011 Road Repaving and Street Safety Bond
$248 million bond to rebuild deteriorating city streets.
SPUR position: YES
Proposition C: City Retirement and Healthcare Benefits
Charter Amendment that would increase employee pension contributions, increase retirement ages, require employee contributions to the Retiree Health Care Trust Fund and change the composition of the Health Services System Board.
SPUR position: YES
Proposition D: Retirement Benefits for City Employees
Charter Amendment that would reform the funding of city employee pension and retiree healthcare through increased pension contributions, increased retirement ages and limiting the annual pension for new employees.
SPUR position: NO
Proposition E: Allowing Amendments to and Repeal of Initiatives
Ordinance that would allow voter-adopted initiative ordinances and declarations of policy originating with the mayor or Board of Supervisors to be amended or repealed by the Board of Supervisors, with certain conditions.
SPUR position: YES
Proposition F: Modifying Registration and Disclosure Requirements for Campaign Consultants
Modifies current San Francisco campaign consultant regulations to require consultants to submit campaign consultant filings monthly instead of quarterly, and complete a training course. Exempts some consultants from filing if they receive less than $5,000 per year in consulting fees, and increases other fees.
SPUR position: YES
Proposition G: 0.5 percent Sales Tax Increase to Fund Public Safety, Services to Children and Seniors
Ordinance that would temporarily increase the sales tax rate in San Francisco from its current rate of 8.5 percent to 9 percent, but would be repealed for five years if the state restores recently expired sales taxes. The revenue is intended to fund public safety and social programs in the face of reductions in state funding.
SPUR position: NO
Proposition H: Student Assignment System
Advisory measure declaring policy that every family in every San Francisco neighborhood should have the opportunity to send their children to a quality school in their neighborhood, and the system for assigning children to schools should give the highest priority to the proximity of a child’s home to the school.
SPUR position: NO POSITION
Stay tuned for our in-depth analysis of these measures at spur.org/voterguide as Election Day approaches.
Don't want to miss our ballot analysis? Join SPUR today to receive the Voter Guide issue of the Urbanist >>
How Will 1.7 Million More People Cross the SF Bay?
The San Francisco Bay Area is expected to grow by 1.7 million people in the next 25 years. If you’ve ever muscled your way onto an overcrowded BART train or idled at the toll plaza waiting to cross the Bay Bridge, you may wonder how we’re going to get all these additional people back and forth across the bay.
Meanwhile, gas is just under $4 per gallon today. What happens when it hits $6 or $8 per gallon? Will we have enough transit capacity to manage everyone who can no longer afford to drive?
In the last century, visionary planners made major investments linking San Francisco and the East Bay. When the 20th century dawned, the only way to get from San Francisco to Oakland was by ferry. We built the Bay Bridge during the Great Depression and the BART tunnel in the early 1970s. It’s been nearly 40 years since then, and the Bay Area has grown by 2.7 million people. Yet we’ve added no new capacity. Even the new Bay Bridge, currently under construction, won’t help: It will be much more resilient to earthquakes, yet no bigger than the bridge it replaces.
What will our generation’s contribution be?
And how will these 1.7 million additional people travel across the bay?
For our region to thrive as it grows, travel must move away from personal automobiles and shift to higher capacity public transit options. SPUR has developed an animated film to illustrate a few simple things we can do today, as well as one big idea for the future:
Egon Terplan, Musical Composer/ Script Editor
Jordan Salinger, Producer
Denisa Trenkle, Graphic Designer/ Script Writer
Bjorn Rostad, Animator
Micah Hilt, Project Manager
Jonathan Rogers, Researcher
Sarah Dennis Phillips, Narrator
Noah Christman, Audio Assistant
Anthony Bruzzone, Content Consultant
Hackathon! Coders and Civil Servants Unite to Fix SF
A grown man napping on his laptop case. Daily visits from SF mayoral candidates. Keynote addresses from the Wigg Party, MIT's SENSEable Cities Lab, the Rebar Group, and the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Cold pizza after midnight. More than a hundred adults sitting around tables on the 5th floor of a Mid-Market office building on a Friday night. This is what ground zero of the open government movement looks like.
From July 22 through 24, the Gray AreaFoundation for the Arts hosted Urban Innovation Weekend 2: Sustainability, Energy and Transportation, the second "hackathon" in its Summer of Smart series, sponsored by SPUR and other local organizations. The hackathons are an open casting call for ideas on how technology and digital information can help government work better. Respondents ranged in age from their 20s to mid 50s, with specialities in everything from architecture to speech software. Think Wikipedia, only the authors are in the same room and are working on an entry for a concept that doesn’t yet exist. And they have 48 hours to develop a prototype. The first event focused on Community Development and Public Art, and the last, on August 19 through 21, will focus on Public Health and Nutrition.
Your correspondent arrived Friday evening as teams were forming. I made a beeline for Emily, a Muni employee who shared an idea that caught my fancy: using NextMuni data to improve Muni's internal communication and response time to line management issues. Our team also included Judy, an architect; Eden, a "code monkey"; Zach, a programmer/geographer; and Winnie, an urban planning grad student. On Saturday afternoon, we picked up Matt, an undergrad, urbanist and Bevan Dufty volunteer.
Our session had its particular rhythms: surges of information from our Muni insider, rounds of discussion to make sense of said information, revisions of initial ideas, repeat. We hit a wall at about 11:45 on Friday night when we realized we were trying to design a product for Muni employees about whose duties and difficulties we knew relatively little.
The following morning we took a fact-finding field trip to the Embarcadero Muni station, where we struck paydirt. Deneisha, a line supervisor, spent 20 minutes answering questions and discussing some of the recurring inefficiencies she encounters in her work.
We came away with a photograph and a cohesive vision. Where Muni currently relies on a single frequency radio, telephones and handwritten reports to communicate and log line-management issues, we envisioned a kind of Google doc: what if the detailed map visible to employees in the Office of Central Control and Line Management was interactive? What if anyone within the Muni intranet could a) open a trouble ticket by clicking on the real-time location of a light rail or bus vehicle, and b) close out a trouble ticket if the problem was within their power to resolve? What if the software could automatically generate trouble tickets if buses bunched too close together, or if station dwell time exceeded a certain limit? Such software could obviate the need for repeating the same message to multiple parties via time consuming voice-based communication.
On Saturday and Sunday, we created screenshots of a hypothetical user interface. On Sunday afternoon, our efforts were deemed worthy of a three-way tie for first place (check out the other Urban Innovation projects, too). Perhaps more importantly, on Wednesday July 27, Emily presented the idea to her supervisors at Muni. Who knows what will come next?
Regardless of whether any projects are adopted, the Summer of Smart achieves a kind of success by recognizing the ability of motivated citizens to address problems they encounter everyday. Who better to address those challenges than the community of people who face them?
The Lessons of Carmageddon: Could L.A. Embrace Carlessness?
It came and it went, but Los Angeles as we know it did not come to a terrible end. Carmageddon — the 52-hour, 10-mile shutdown of the 405 freeway last month —passed quietly into history, becoming one of L.A.’s lightest traffic days ever. Angelenos stayed off the freeways; bicyclists challenged a Jetblue flight to a race — and won; people used trains and buses to get around or just stayed in their own neighborhoods. The predicted gridlock simply didn't happen.
Most Southland residents are no doubt thankful nothing apocalyptic happened and ready to forget about it, possibly writing the whole thing off as hype. But could the lack of a nightmare scenario from a major freeway closure signal Angelenos' willingness to reclaim their city from the automobile? We asked ourselves what it might look like if L.A. adopted some of the solutions that SPUR regularly advocates for the Bay Area. Could this be the start of a new movement — or at least a test run for handling a future crisis?
Carmageddon as a movement
San Franciscans have embraced Sunday Streets, the series of planned closures that open city streets to biking, walking and other uses. Could this work down south? Even seemingly car-obsessed L.A. has a long history of reclaiming the street as public space. In the 1960s UCLA students stormed the 405 in protest of USC being named to the Rose Bowl. More recently the streets of downtown L.A. became the site of CicLaVia, a Sunday Streets-like closure of several miles of roads for bike and pedestrian use.
While the 405 would hardly be the most appropriate space for biking or alternative uses, Angelenos' ability to painlessly adjust to not using their cars for one weekend shows that carlessness can perhaps work in L.A. Events like CicLaVia and downtown L.A.’s monthly Art Walk show that there is indeed demand to get more types of use out of the city's streets.
What if these ideas were institutionalized into a movement, closing large sections of streets to cars on a regular basis, simultaneously allowing the public access to its streets and its neighborhoods while promoting awareness of carlessness in L.A.?
Carmageddon as a test
What if the 405 was rendered inoperable or greatly impaired for a longer period of time than just a weekend? This could be a result of a natural disaster or because, as many have suggested, the traffic problem in the Sepulveda Pass (which connects downtown to the San Fernando Valley) hits critical mass. Life in LA would have to continue — but how?
Leading up to and during Carmageddon, many Angelenos chose to work from home or commute outside of rush hours. That idea could be expanded with the creation of co-working sites in the San Fernando Valley, which would reduce demand on the Sepulveda Pass. The city could also creat incentives for employers and employees to operate outside of normal commuting hours, distributing the usage of the freeway more evenly.
These options, while helpful, would not fix the problem entirely. There is already heavy off-peak congestion, and some people already commute outside of rush hour. A more long-term solution might look similar to an idea SPUR has advocated for the Bay Bridge: dedicated lanes for public transit. Los Angeles could dedicate one lane of the 405 in either direction for bus rapid transit (BRT), extending the San Fernando Valley Orange line down the 405 corridor. In addition to expanding the capacity of the already strained freeway, this BRT line could connect to many of the city’s most heavily used streets.
L.A. weathered Carmageddon well, but instead of taking this short-term victory for granted Angelenos might see it as a first step in thinking about long-term traffic solutions. Simply widening a freeway to add carpool lanes doesn’t address the root causes of traffic. Carmageddon is proof that L.A. can survive without over-reliance on cars. It is also a testament to the fragility of an over-relied-upon, mostly single-mode system. While we recognize that L.A. is very different from the Bay Area, we hope our southern neighbors will look to a more long-range set of solutions for an obviously congested and overused road system.
Market Street Poster Series Celebrates Cycling Culture
A glimpse into biking through San Francisco debuts this week on Market Street. As part of its Public Arts program, the San Francisco Arts Commission will display its second installment of the popular Market Street poster series, which puts art in select bus shelters. With the aim of providing workers, residents and visitors easy access to contemporary art, this year’s series captures the city of San Francisco from atop a bicycle.
Designed by the San Francisco-based artist Ian Huebert, The Golden Spoke features six scenes from across the city that invite the public to experience the everyday joys and difficulties of riding a bike through this small but hilly city. Biking is Huebert's primary mode of transportation, and the posters convey the reality of dealing with all the city's obstacles, from fog to rain to the most infamous of hills. The posters could not be better suited to their location. Market Street has become a dominant bike thoroughfare for commuters, and the growth of bikers in San Francisco is undeniable. In its 2010 Bicycle Count Report, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) reported a 58 percent increase in observed bicyclists since 2006 and a 3 percent increase over 2009 figures.
As a dedicated bicyclist known for carrying anything, including art exhibits, on his bike, Huebert wanted to convey the experience of stumbling upon places as one rides through the city. Rather than use the typical iconic images of San Francisco, Huebert’s collection touches on the more hidden and everyday views of the city. As someone who admittedly would find living in this city difficult if he had to drive everyday, Huebert’s images truly reflect the biker’s perspective and speak to what someone who lives here sees and experiences everyday.
The Golden Spoke will be on display through October 21 in bus shelters along Market Street between 8th Street and the Embarcadero.
Mayor Ed Lee Helps Unveil SF's First Parkmobiles
The Yerba Buena neighborhood already features museums, parks, an arts center and a convention center (as well as SPUR world headquarters), but starting this week there's something new to see: six new mobile parks, called “parkmobiles.” The first of their kind, the parkmobiles will be a shared resource in the community. Unlike the city's parklets, which are usually paid for by one business and stay in one location, the parkmobiles will rotate among many locations throughout the district. The project was sponsored by the Yerba Buena Community Benefits District (YBCBD), a consortium of local businesses and organizations (of which SPUR is a member), and completed with in-kind donations of materials and labor. Mayor Ed Lee helped unveil the first parkmobiles Tuesday, August 2, at the opening of SPUR’s new exhibition, Street Life | Yerba Buena : A Community Design Initiative:
The exhibition showcases the Yerba Buena Street Life Plan, which is designed to promote walking, biking, socializing and environmental sustainability in the Yerba Buena neighborhood. Led by YBCBD and designed by CMG Landscape Architecture, the project was developed in close consultation with community residents, businesses and organizations. The exhibition will be on display at SPUR through August 24.