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- September 27, 2011By Aaron Bialick
The Bay Area has a lot to gain from pricing its freeways. Two of the major benefits are money for transit and less highway congestion. High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are a miniature form of road pricing, offering solo drivers the option to buy their way into High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes and bypass the congested, more heavily-subsidized highway lanes.
In 2008, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) proposed a plan to expand the region’s network of HOT lanes to 800 miles by 2035. This week, the agency is expected to approve a new plan for submission to the California Transportation Commission (CTC), but it would be scaled back significantly to 570 miles and would fall short of achieving the benefits of road pricing on several levels:
- Much of the planned network will expand highway lanes rather than converting existing ones to use them more efficiently. SPUR’s analysis shows that this will increase vehicle travel demand and CO2 emissions.
- The plan won’t make any money for transit. Regional systems like Caltrain are in dire need of long-term funding solutions, but the cost of building the HOT Lane network, estimated between $1.6 and $6.8 billion, would negate nearly all of the revenue the MTC expects to bring in over the timeline of the plan.
- The plan won’t complete the express lane network for buses that use the highways. Some of the most congested routes, like 280 and 101 leading into the urban core of San Francisco, would be left without HOT lanes at all.
Some sustainable planning advocates like the folks at TransForm fear the MTC is rushing to submit a severely flawed proposal in time for the CTC’s deadline in October, after which final authority over HOT lanes is shifted from the CTC to the more challenging state legislature.
But the MTC is also developing its Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) over the next two years, which is likely to include recommendations more consistent with the region’s sustainable planning goals. Rather than submit a rushed proposal now and go through a more difficult modification process later, the agency should wait to develop a comprehensive plan that provides the Bay Area the kind of road pricing measures it needs to manage travel demand on its highways.Tags: regional planning
- September 14, 2011by Gretchen Hilyard
What are unaccepted streets and paper streets, and how can they help make San Francisco a greener place?
SPUR’s 2011 Piero N. Patri Fellow, Sarah Moos, spent this summer studying the city's unmaintained and underused rights-of-way. The resulting project, Unaccepted Streets: From Paper to Reality, proposes to transform some of the city's overlooked areas into a publicly accesible network that would link communities to open spaces such as the Blue Greenway, as well as to each other.
An “unaccepted street” is any public right-of-way not accepted by the city for maintenance. A “paper street” is an unimproved street that is demarcated on maps and legislated as a public right-of-way but that may not actually exist on the ground. Below are four examples: an uprow, or unimproved utility right-of-way; a pedestrian street, designated for pedestrian-only use; a private parking street, a street being used for parking and under private jurisdiction for maintenance; and Guerrero Park, a Pavement to Parks project.
With the aid of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Moos, a master's candidate in UC Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and City and Regional Planning program, surveyed 2,224 unaccepted streets and 323 paper streets in San Francisco. She filtered the data through spatial overlays to identify the areas within the city that provide the best opportunity for transforming these not-quite-real streets into useful public spaces.
After investigating the existing conditions of the streets in real life, Moos identified ten typologies of unaccepted streets. She then developed a toolkit of interventions such as stairs, benches and plantings that could be applied to transform these sites, improving their condition, accessibility and connection to a larger network of linked public rights-of-way.
Moos singled out nine areas of targeted study in San Francisco’s southeastern neighborhoods. She then met with neighborhood groups, city officials and others to determine which design interventions might work best for these sites.
Her research is the first step toward connecting these rights-of-way to improve neighborhood access to green space and connect southeastern San Francisco to a broader open-space network.
Stop by the Urban Center to pick up a hard copy of the final project map or download it below.
Download:Tags: community planning
- September 14, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
As someone who works on urban agricultural policy, I'm often asked, "Is city-grown food safe?" The question comes from aspiring urban gardeners and concerned eaters alike. And it seems to stem from both a fear of the known and a fear of the unknown.
First, the fear of the known: Common urban contaminants include lead, arsenic and other heavy metals leaked into soil from old paint, leaded gasoline, modern car exhaust and industrial land-use. These metals are responsible for a whole host of maladies. Heavy exposure to lead, for example, can harm the nervous system and result in other developmental disabilities, especially in children.
Here in San Francisco, a recent study of garden soils confirmed the presence of residual lead in many parts of the city. Similar studies have taken place or are in the works in Minnesota, Chicago and Indianapolis. They all show considerable evidence of lead in urban soil.
Though we know it's present, we don't know the best way to gauge the risk of this lead-contaminated soil. The San Francisco Department of Public Health recently issued guidelines warning that any garden soil containing lead at more than 80 parts per million poses a risk to children.Young kids have an unfortunate habit of ingesting and inhaling all sorts of things, so oral or nasal exposure to lead-contaminated soil is a very real potential danger to their health. But the guidance included a side note underscoring just how confused regulatory agencies are about this exposure risk:
Which leads to the fear of the unknown: Neither the EPA nor the San Francisco Department of Public Health can provide clear guidelines regarding the danger of eating food grown in soil with elevated levels of lead. Scientists aren't sure about the uptake of toxins in plants, or how much they can transmit to our stomachs. And there's just as much confusion about the risk of other known toxins besides lead: As the EPA's Brownfield program recently noted, even when we analyze identified pollutants with understood health impacts, we end up with more questions than answers. With so many questions, many people react emotionally to this general fear of the unknown. The thought process goes something like this: "Food grows in dirt. Dirt is dirty. So city dirt must be really dirty."
But should we be more concerned about city-grown food than rural-grown food? I don't think so. First of all, the same highways full of car exhaust that run through our cities also run through our rural areas. And while rural areas don't have the polluting legacy of urban manufacturing industries, they have industrial toxins of their own. Pesticides — including previously-approved-but-now-banned varieties — are prime examples. Another area of concern is biosolids: We routinely take treated sewage from cities and apply it on agricultural fields throughout the country, bringing with it many of the chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, that we flush down our toilets, sinks and other city drains. How much that affects the food we eat is not clear.
Considering all those factors, perhaps we shouldn't assume that rural soil is always safer: Within both urban and rural areas there are some sites that are clean and some that are heavily polluted. Baltimore is considering requiring urban farmers to test their soil; should rural farmers be required to do likewise? Or perhaps the fear of soil toxins in our food supply is greater than the actual risk. Certainly the risk to children who eat soil is different than the risk their parents face from eating vegetables grown in that same soil. What tests should we use to gauge those dangers?
Though I don't have the answers to these questions, I'm heartened when someone asks me about the safety of city-grown food because it shows the true promise of urban agriculture. That promise lies not in the potential to feed ourselves wholly from within our cities, but rather in using the small amount that is grown nearby to connect us with our larger food system. We need to ask more questions of our food supply, both urban and rural. We also need to call on our government agencies, universities and others to help us answer these questions. In the meantime, I'll continue eating food grown in the city.
- September 8, 2011By Jennifer Warburg
On Tuesday, Congress returned to Washington with only 11 days to pass essential legislation: the reauthorization of all major national transit and highway projects and the gas tax that funds them. Stalemate or delay will cost billions of dollars and millions of jobs, shutting down highway and transit construction projects nationwide and putting hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work in the midst of an unstable, jobless recovery.
Passage of regular infrastructure spending packages used to be routine in Washington, but in today’s fractious Congress, all bets are off. Already this summer we’ve witnessed costly Congressional standoffs over the raising of the debt ceiling and the funding of the FAA — other spending measures that used to attract bipartisan support.
In less contentious times, a federal surface transportation bill is passed roughly every six years. This regular package uses our current gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon to generate the billions of dollars necessary to maintain our interstate highway network, many transit systems around the country, bicycling and pedestrian facilities, and freight-rail operations.
Even in periods of divided government, infrastructure investment has typically provided an area of consensus. Investment in reliable roads and transit provides immediate construction jobs and lays the foundation necessary for long-term economic growth.
Yet in today’s hyper-partisan environment, the two parties have failed to agree upon a new bill, allowing nearly two years to pass since the last package expired. During this time the nation’s infrastructure has relied on a series of tensely negotiated extensions that provide no new direction or funds for the improvements desperately needed to the country’s decaying bridges, highways and transit networks.
The mounting shortfall in government spending is undermining the economy more and more. The most recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers states that “glaring deficiencies in America’s surface transportation systems drained households and businesses of nearly $130 billion last year, including about $97 billion of increased costs to operate and repair vehicles and $32 billion of increased travel time because of congestion and delays.”
Investment is sorely needed, but the latest temporary measure authorizing spending on federal infrastructure is about to expire, and the divided Congress is likely to spend the next two weeks bickering over another mere extension.
In fact, what is desperately needed is not another extension, but a new long-term bill — one that raises the gas tax.
In most of the developed world, users pay a duty on gasoline at the pump. The revenue goes directly into investment in the country’s transportation infrastructure. Since 1932, maintenance of the United State’s transportation infrastructure has been largely funded through this kind of user fee. Every president Since Herbert Hoover has raised the federal gas tax to keep apace with the country’s transportation needs. Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. raised it the most of any. But since 1993 the fee has been stalled at 18.4 cents, a mere 5 percent of the $3.62 that the average American paysfor a gallon of gas and about a tenth of what the average European pays.
Our political leaders’ failure to raise the tax for the last two decades means the Highway Trust Fund faces what the Washington Post calls “a near term insolvency crisis”— just as most of America’s midcentury infrastructure has started to need upgrading. Experts from Gregory Mankiw of the Wall Street Journalto Dan Akerson, the CEO of General Motorshave insisted a gas tax is necessary to maintain safe and functional roads, bridges and transit — and to reduce the economic losses caused by the inadequacy of the country’s transportation network.
Our current gas tax is much too low to support a first-world level of infrastructure. And we will be lucky to see it merely extended this fall. Raising the gas tax is a political non-starter in a Congress cowed by the specter of the Tea Party.
What the United States really, desperately needs is not another temporary extension, arrived at after extended and wasteful posturing. We need real investment in our roads and transit. That means passing a comprehensive new surface transportation bill and raising the gas tax to a level that can support first-world transportation infrastructure for our first-world (last time we checked, anyway) country.
- September 8, 2011By Corey Marshall, SPUR Good Government Director
Walking or biking through the trails of Golden Gate Park, it can be easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. Budget battles and controversies over park concessions are a foreign concept when meandering past the botanical gardens, running in Kezar Stadium or picking up your children at an afterschool program. Honestly? Parks in San Francisco look pretty good.
While much of life within our parks remains serene, the politics of parks funding is unfortunately anything but. Public funding has been dramatically reduced in recent years; labor costs are skyrocketing while staffing is in decline; and earned revenue is increasing as a percentage of the department’s budget — in spite of coordinated opposition. And these trends are not unique to San Francisco: Parks departments across the region, state and country are also cutting costs and reducing services to maintain access to open space.
In our latest report, Seeking Green, SPUR has taken a hard look at the many factors that make funding San Francisco’s parks so difficult: diminishing public funds, political forces that prevent raising new revenues, intense community pressure to provide services and, more recently, a recession of historic proportions. How can the Recreation and Parks Department navigate these competing pressures to maintain services and care for our parks so they can stand the test of time?
Our task force found 11 ways to solve San Francisco’s parks funding crisis, from stabilizing public financing to strengthening philanthropy to expanding opportunities to earn revenue within the parks.Tags: good government
- September 1, 2011Gretchen Hilyard
San Francisco’s Market Street has a long and fascinating history: from its ambitious beginnings as an over-scaled boulevard, laid out by Jasper O’Farrell in 1847, to its heyday as the city’s vibrant theater district in the early twentieth century. Market Street rose to prominence after the 1906 Earthquake, survived a series of urban planning experiments in the mid-twentieth century, and absorbed the important yet disruptive insertion of BART beneath its surface in 1972. Today, Market Street displays the varied, accumulated layers of intervention. How can we remedy the vacant storefronts, improve pedestrain and traffic circulation, and reduce crime and other issues that prevent Market Street from being a true civic spine?
Several city agencies, including the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Public Works, the Planning Department, the Transportation Authority and the SFMTA, along with residents, merchants and community groups, are trying to answer these questions with the Better Market Street project. The project seeks to revitalize Market Street from Octavia Boulevard to the Embarcadero by reestablishing the street as a premier cultural, civic and economic center of San Francisco and the Bay Area. As the city undertakes this important project, we must ask: What imprint will we make on Market Street’s future?
Reclaim Market Street! – SPUR’s newest exhibition— seeks to inspire a new vision for Market Street, learning from the past and drawing upon examples of successful urban design and street design trials. The exhibition will draw from Market Street’s history, citing ephemeral events that have shaped the spirit of the street and created the rich heritage it will draw from in the future. Provocative national and international examples such as Paris’ Plages, Bogota’s Cyclovia, and New York’s Times Square pedestrian plaza will be illustrated with films, images, and descriptions connecting San Francisco to efforts around the world advocating for more livable streets.
The exhibition, on display at SPUR from September 6, 2011 until January 6, 2012, will be accompanied by a series of interactive events, which will encourage participation and discussion about Market Street’s future. These include the staging of three interventions for the street, plaza and sidewalk, as well as walking tours and film screenings.
Join us on Tuesday, September 6 at 6pm for the opening party at the SPUR Urban Center Gallery. The party will feature talks by the Studio for Urban Projects, SPUR and UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture Margaret Crawford and refreshments.
- August 31, 2011By Jennifer Warburg
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.Tags: transportation
- August 30, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
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.
- August 26, 2011By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
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.Tags: good government
- August 22, 2011by Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director
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.