Blog » community planning
- September 7, 2010BY ANIKA JESI
An Outdoor Living Room in Los Angeles [Image courtesy of ciclavia]
Improving an inner-city neighborhood without setting it up for gentrification could be as simple as placing a few wooden seats on the sidewalk. Or at least that's the premise of architect Steve Cancian's Outdoor Living Rooms, a project featured in SPUR's new show at the Urban Center, DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change (opening today! -- get your tickets here).
The project began as an exploration of the problem of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Cancian knew that many of these areas drastically needed improvement, but doing so often resulted in overdevelopment, and subsequent displacement of the current residents. The usual solutions for revitalizing these areas, such as lining the streets with trees, only made the neighborhoods more attractive to potential gentrifiers. Was it possible to improve these areas without the side effect of gentrification?
What constitutes neighborhood improvement for inner-city residents is often different than what constitutes improvement in wealthier areas. In Cancian's case, the residents of the neighborhoods he catered to wanted a livelier street and a better place to socialize. Cancian found that this street culture had the effect of preventing gentrification. Places like West Oakland, where ocean views and Victorian houses made it a prime target for gentrification, had not yet become gentrified because the vibrant street culture tended to repel developers who favored quieter streets. In preserving this street culture, Cancian hoped gentrification would be discouraged. "We want to celebrate what the neighborhood is," says Cancian in an interview with LA Weekly. "For anyone whose goal is to change the neighborhood into something that excludes the current residents, we hope that living rooms will actually be a deterrent to them moving in."
The solution, then, was simple. Create an outdoor living room by putting unembellished, inexpensive outdoor furniture on inner-city streets. This would facilitate community development and improve the area in a way the residents wanted, but also maintain an active street culture that prevents these vibrant areas from turning into homogenized middle-class neighborhoods."¨
"Living rooms" are straightforward enough that a community can agree on their look and location, they can be built almost immediately, and they are inexpensive enough for a low-income neighborhood to afford. "What has kept them expanding is communities without resources," Cancian said in a New York Times interview. "A simple pocket park takes a half-million dollars and two to three years to build, while a living room takes as little as a month and between $5,000 and $15,000."
And so far, the living rooms seem to be serving their purpose. Not only have they slowed gentrification and sparked street life, but they have also helped to make the areas around them cleaner and less crime ridden. Residents of low-income neighborhoods are embracing them, pleased with the positive changes they've seen. As one resident of South L.A. says about her local outdoor living room "There was nothing before, just a lot of trash right here. It makes it look a little bit decent."
- September 1, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
A prototype for a bike rack designed by David Baker + Partners [Photo Credit: David Baker]
Build pretzel-shaped steel tubes, bolt them to the sidewalk, and the cyclists will come. Or at least that seems to be the logic behind the newfound interest in bike rack design in cities throughout the country. I remember a time when parking your bike meant locking it to anything you might tie a dog to, but these days everyone seems to have an opinion on the right way to lock up your bike — and a lamp post or park bench just will not do.
San Francisco-based architect David Baker (whose elegant, pleasantly weathered bike rack prototype is featured in DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change -- opening next Tuesday!), provides an excellent primer on bike rack design and implementation. Who knew that round tubes were more susceptible to pipe cutters? Or that a standard U-rack can easily accommodate three bicycles? It would behoove city planning officials to consult this guide before potentially installing the wrong kinds of racks on their city streets.
But bike racks have become much more than just another place to park your bike. Following in the wake of widespread bike lane implementation in even the most car-centric of cities (like Indianapolis and Detroit), bike racks are an instantly recognizable symbol of a city government's commitment to promoting bicycle transportation. In recognition of the bike rack's symbolic potential, cities like New York and San Francisco have brought industrial designers and architects into the process, sponsoring bike rack design competitions. Even David Byrne has collaborated with the New York Department of Transportation to install his own whimsical designs — although he seems to be on such good terms with the DOT that his work managed to bypass the usual jury process.
American cities have a long way to go before we come close to approximating the volume and efficiency of bike storage in iconic cycling cities such as Amsterdam, but a standard curbside U-rack with a galvanized steel finish is a good place to start.
Bike storage in Amsterdam [Photo Credit: flickr user julia.simard]
Criteria for bike rack installation in San Francisco [Image courtesy of SFMTA]
- August 31, 2010BY JORDAN SALINGER
[Image courtesy of Streetsblog]
San Francisco has a problem with its roads. Since 1988, the average pavement condition of roads in San Francisco has declined 20%. No longer considered an essential city service to be paid for out of the City's General Fund, city officials are looking for new ways to pay for street repavement projects. They are also prioritizing street repairs based on how fundamental each road is to the overall system.
With the current average PCI (pavement condition index) of San Francisco roads registering at 63 out of 100, we are in a troubling situation. Our roads are no longer considered "Good" (roads with scores of 70 and above). Instead they are dangerously close to "At risk" (roads at 57 and below).
According to a report prepared by San Francisco's capital planning program, "San Francisco's street network as a whole is slightly below the threshold for preventive maintenance. Engineers typically identify a PCI of 64 as a tipping point at which the pavement deterioration rate begins to steeply increase and more expensive treatments are needed for repair." The report also claims the cost of repair of any San Francisco street will be four times more over the course of 70 years of use, if the proper preventive maintenance does not occur. If new funding sources are not identified, our roads stand to decline at the rate of roughly a point per year.
To get a complete analysis of San Francisco's roads, and how we can best address this problem click here.
Known for their work in the intersection of design and data, Stamen and SimpleGeo have joined forces in taking an interactive look at this issue. They take the PCI statistics, readily available on DataSF, and overlay them on a map of San Francisco. We look forward to seeing a lot less red in the future.
Roads with PCI of 0-49 shown in red, 40-69 in yellow [Image courtesy of San Francisco Department of Public Works]
- August 25, 2010BY TIMOTHEA TWAY
While living in the suburbs often appears less expensive than living in the city, this is often not the case when factoring in transportation costs. The Center for Neighborhood Technology just released an expanded version of their housing and transportation index which provides a comprehensive view of neighborhood affordability. Unlike other affordability indices, the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index takes into account transportation costs associated with neighborhood design and location. Their website allows users to explore neighborhood-level data about housing and transportation prices which include information on auto ownership, transit use, and housing density that can help Americans make more informed decisions about where they want to live.
[Map generated on H + T website comparing affordability in the Bay Area]
The H + T Affordability Index is a product of a collaboration with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Center for Transit Oriented Development and was developed as a project for the Brookings Institution's Urban Markets Initiative. In the works since 2006, the Affordability Index recently expanded its analysis to cover 330 metropolitan areas in the United States, which accounts for more than 80% of the population in the United States and covers more than 161,000 neighborhoods.
SPUR understands the role that effective and affordable transportation options play in affordability and quality of life. Check out SPUR's article on Transit-Oriented Development in the Bay Area as well as our transportation page for more information on how SPUR is working to encourage better transportation options in the Bay Area visit.
- August 20, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
Hayes Valley Farm extends to the very edge of a more traditional urban scene [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
Spend a few hours walking through any sector of the city and you will inevitably stumble upon a small patch of toiled earth, usually surrounded by chain-link fencing and accompanied by the all too familiar odor of manure. Urban farms have surfaced throughout the country in recent years -- in both major and not-so-major urban areas -- and San Francisco has been no exception. We now have a proposed legislation to loosen zoning restrictions on urban agriculture -- a measure that would profoundly affect small scale farms' capacity to do business.
The reasons for practicing urban farming are copious: a closer connection to food sources, reclamation of vacant land in blighted areas, education about healthy eating habits, a source of employment in hard economic times.
But for many city dwellers, urban agriculture remains a somewhat vague practice carried out by highly motivated individuals who have somehow found time to till, sow, weed and harvest small slivers of earth that have escaped the traditional urbanizing forces of cement and asphalt. For most of us, urban farms still don't play much of a role in defining the way we experience our cities and questions concerning the feasibility and longevity of urban farming still remain:
- What are the actual urban farming scenarios taking shape throughout the city and how did they come to be there?
- How do urban farms confront the task of growing food in areas that were never intended to support agriculture?
- To what extent can urban agriculture integrate itself into the urban landscape and way of life in the long-term?
- Is urban farming about more than just feeding people? What else is it about?
"Farming the City," a new blog series, will address these questions by highlighting the urban farms taking root in and around San Francisco, the people who run them and the particularities that define their role in the urban landscape.
This week we'll look at Alemany Farm, one of San Francisco's pioneering urban agriculture projects.
Alemany Farm occupies four and a half acres of land in southeastern San Francisco. Wedged between the Southern Freeway and the Alemany public housing development, the farm and its immediate surroundings reflect much that has gone wrong -- and the potential to do right -- in San Francisco's planning.
One of the City's early forays into urban agriculture, Alemany first came into use as a farm in 1994, when the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) received permission from the Recreation and Park Department to convert the site from a dumping ground to a community farm for residents of the Alemany and Potrero Housing Developments. Although SLUG eventually disbanded, the farm's commitment to community involvement persists. Today, a core group of 15-20 volunteers (with the occasional weekend influx of corporate community service groups) cultivates the land while maintaining a close relationship with the adjacent Alemany Housing Development, whose residents are eligible to receive a free CSA (community supported agriculture) share from the farm's harvest and have open access to the grounds at all times.
On a recent tour of the site led by dedicated volunteer Kom Siksamat, the farm boasted vegetable patches, a native plant garden, fruit trees, a bee colony, a frog pond, and an evolving terrace farm. Siksamat has led the effort to cultivate the steep slope comprising about one quarter of the farm's total land area, but the challenges of applying the ancient practice of terrace farming to the urban farm micro-scale have become apparent. (The Inca may have mastered terrace agriculture by constructing miles of irrigation channels in the Central Andes, but most urban farms can't count on the unflagging labor of thousands of devoted subjects to carry out such undertakings.) For now, much hand watering and heavy lifting is required. Siksamat hopes that a "hillside full of food" will one day become a mainstay at Alemany.
In many ways, Alemany perfectly embodies the non-profit model of urban farming: greening a slice of underutilized urban space, creating opportunities for the community to enjoy and learn from it, and thereby providing a new lens through which we might question our relationship to the surrounding urban environment. The existence of this thriving patch of land in the midst of such classic crimes of urban planning (the freeway cutting through the city, the alienated public housing project) implies that although we may not be able to completely dismantle such misguided urban mega-projects, we can at least ameliorate their negative impact through smaller scale interventions. Alemany Farm gives us a reason to visit this neglected part of the city, providing a rare opportunity to consider not just what went wrong there, but also marvel at everything that seems to be going right.
The Southern Freeway looms in the distance
A volunteer amidst an abundance of greenery
The terraced hillside
[Photo Credit: All photos by Fabiana Meacham]
On Saturday, August 28, SPUR's Young Urbanists will host Urban farming 101 at Alemany Farm at 11:30 a.m. Participants will have the opportunity to practice skills learned in the workshop from 1-3 p.m
Urban farms play a central role in SPUR's upcoming exhibition, DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds for Social Change, opening September 7.
- August 18, 2010- posted by Colleen McHugh
Sprawl, conformity, car culture, ennui, decay. These are a few of the themes Arcade Fire tackles in its third album, The Suburbs, released last week. At times nostalgic and at times cautionary, The Suburbs may be most notable (certainly in the realm of SPUR's blog) as an example of city planning commentary in pop culture.
As an NPR review put it, "the members of Arcade Fire have always been fascinated by the subtle ways geography informs our lives." Their newest album weaves a sense of suburban space and place throughout its 16 tracks. Band front man Win Butler sings of how "First they built the road, then they built the town. / That's why we're still driving round and round." Much of the inspiration for the album comes from Butler's youth spent in the suburbs of Houston in the 1980s. And as with Arcade Fire's other notable excursions into the memories of childhood on its first album Funeral, the tone is often wistful. Butler and wife RÃ©gine Chassagne sing longingly for the "wasted hours" of adolescence spent staring out the window of a car, riding bikes in the night to the nearest park, and waiting in parking lots under freeway overpasses. There are also more melancholic references to the impact of growing up in the built environment of suburbia — "all we see are kids in buses longing to be free."
But The Suburbs is not so much an extended story about suburbia in the "˜80s as it is about returning to those cookie-cutter communities today. Images of suburban decay ring throughout the album, as "all of the walls that they built in the "˜70s finally fall." The few redeeming qualities of growing up in the suburbs seem to be gone. As Butler sings in the song "City With No Children," all that remains is "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." Perhaps the most anthemic song on an album that on the whole is less filled with those big communal choruses for which Arcade Fire is known, comes near the very end with "Sprawl II (Mountains beyond mountains)." Sounding like ABBA or Blondie's "Heart of Glass," RÃ©gine Chassagne chants the chorus: "Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there's no end in sight / I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights."
Certainly, Arcade Fire is not the first band to sing a cautionary tale about suburban life. Rush condemned the stifling conformity of suburbia in the "˜80s with "Subdivisions," Modest Mouse has oft breached the subject on albums like The Lonesome Crowded West and Building Nothing Out of Something, and the Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise" is supposedly about a hypothetical future in which millionaires in mass move out of their suburban McMansions that then become colonized by bohemian artists. And these are just a few examples. It almost seems a rite of passage in rock music to vilify mainstream suburban culture. Arcade Fire's melancholic nostalgia probably goes easier on suburbia than most.
Nor is Arcade Fire the first notable band to breach urban planning issues and sing critically about our built environments. David Byrne, former front man of the Talking Heads, is a known bike enthusiast and advocate for more livable cities, having recently designed bike rack sculptures around New York City and written Bicycle Diaries about his observations biking in cities throughout the world. (You can also catch David Byrne's "Arboretum" series of drawings on exhibit at Electric Works through August 21st.) Perhaps my favorite Talking Heads song about urban space is "Nothing But Flowers" — a satirical inversion of Joni Mitchell's famous "Big Yellow Taxis." Rather than paving paradise to put up a parking lot, David Byrne sings in horror as our built environment — parking lots, factories, Pizza Huts, discount stores, and highways — gives way to "nothing but flowers."
Pop culture has a way of providing insight into our changing desires about the spaces in which we live. In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger uses the example of television shows to portray society's shifting opinion on urbanism versus suburbanism. He suggests that while TV sitcoms in the baby boomer era (The Brady Bunch, The Dick Van Dyke Show) are set in idyllic suburbia, shows beginning in the 1990's take place in cities (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City).
A recent Slate article from Tom Vanderbilt would suggest that Hollywood itself drives popular opinion associated with car (and car-less) culture. In the article, Vanderbilt gives example after example of movies in which characters without cars are portrayed as "losers." An exception (and a possible sign of progress) is last year's 500 Days of Summer — a movie that romanticizes car-less life spent strolling the streets of downtown LA and admiring the prewar architecture. In a memorable scene on a bench in Angel's Knoll Park, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character Tom "Manhattanizes" the view in front of him, using the arm of Zooey Deschanel's character Summer to draw an image of handsome old buildings in the place of existing parking lots. Though the film conveniently ignores downtown's post-1950's iconic architecture, it remains an example of shifting ideals in pop culture. Even beer commercials are starting to highlight other modes of transportation, as Matthew Roth from Streetsblog noted last week in an article about a new Miller High Life commercial in which a blue-collar worker rides his bike through a snowstorm with a six-pack in the front basket.
Arcade Fire's The Suburbs isn't as much about suburbanism versus urbanism, or cars versus bicycles, as it is a question of "What now?" The album's vision of suburbia may not exactly be an ideal place to live — not in the 1980's and certainly not upon returning to it today. But the narrator of the album does return, nostalgic for his wasted hours of youth and fearful of what may remain for his children. If suburbia is no longer necessarily the dream, what is to be made of those communities we built in the 70s?
Arcade Fire's The Suburbs can be listened to in its entirety on the NPR website. But true to its theme, it probably sounds best through car speakers while driving on an empty highway.
- August 13, 2010BY JON ROGERS
[Photo Credit: flickr user Troy Holden]
In 2011, America's estimated 78.2 million baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age, officially ushering in the "silver tsunami" - a term used to describe the impending onslaught of retirees into a society that is currently ill-prepared to handle the needs of an aging population.
Most boomers currently live in suburbs, having ridden the wave of suburban flight in the 1950's and 60s. As boomers begin to retire, many people will likely reevaluate where they live, with the understanding that needs will evolve as the years tick away. As boomers retire and age, where will they live?
There are two main theories about what this demographic shift will mean for our built environment, in general, and where people will choose to live, specifically. On the one hand, some planners, demographers, and urban thinkers believe many people will move to cities as part of a larger "back to the city" movement as seniors looking for smaller, more manageable homes with easy access to basic necessities. These new urban residents would join millions of seniors who already live in cities.
Another school of thought is that seniors will remain in suburbs as they age. Surveys show that most (about 90%) older adults wish to age-in-place, an approach to aging in which elders remain in their homes or communities as long as possible during the aging process. Aging-in-place is a popular option for seniors because it allows them to maintain social and physical connections that are vital to health and happiness. Seeing as how so many people already live in suburbs, it is likely, given people's preferences for aging in place, that most people will remain in the suburbs.
Regardless of where seniors will choose to live - in the suburbs or in cities - communities across the county will need to adapt to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing segment of the population. Adaptation is necessary in order to meet the physical, economic, and social demands of older people. Meeting these needs requires rethinking how we approach many facets of our built environment: from transportation and mobility to social support service provision to affordability. Additionally, creating aging friendly communities requires both minor changes (i.e. increasing crosswalk signals to accommodate slower pedestrians) and major, fundamental interventions (i.e. changing land use policies to allow for denser, walkable neighborhoods not dependent upon the automobile). Although cities have some advantages over suburbs such as high-quality transit systems and walkable street grids, neither cities nor suburbs are fully prepared for the needs and demands of an aging population.
But preparing our communities for the elderly should not be seen as an onerous task or a sacrifice. In reality, planning for older adults is just good planning - something that people of all ages stand to benefit from. Take for example, the issue of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), often called "granny flats". This type of housing would allow homeowners to add a rental unit (usually in the basement, behind a house, or above a garage). This unit would provide added income to supplement older adults on fixed incomes. Additionally, granny flats would provide relatively inexpensive places to live for lower-income residents. The only problem is that ADUs are illegal in most places - cities and suburbs alike. Permitting ADUs is just one example of numerous changes that both cities and suburbs could implement to enhance quality of life residents of all ages.
Surely, the task of retrofitting suburbs and cities is a tall order. However, it is one that must be dealt with - we have the practical and moral charge to make sure we're ready . With the silver tsunami coming, communities across the country must act immediately.
- August 7, 2010BY GABRIEL METCALF
The California High Speed Rail Authority met yesterday in San Francisco. The agenda was packed with many interesting things including a new station area development policy. But the real controversy was about the section between San Jose and San Francisco. I joined hundreds of people during public comment to weigh in on this one small segment.
Over the past few years, a group of high speed rail opponents has been gathering strength in some of the Peninsula communities such as Atherton and Menlo Park, arguing that the train will impact their views, be too noisy, and otherwise ruin their quality of life.
There is certainly a lot of design work to do as the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain explore the peninsula segment and figure out how to make "joint operations" work.
But what some of the residents of the Peninsula seem to be asking for is an impossibly expensive project or no project at all. There cannot be a 60-mile subway up and down the Peninsula.
The Bay Area Council penned a strong letter pointing out the flaws with the "build it right or don't build it at all" approach. If "building it right" means addressing every local impact of the project to the satisfaction of every local resident, there will not be enough money in the world to build this project.
TransForm pointed out at the hearing that the issues with the Peninsula communities stem from the fact that the High Speed Rail Authority made the fundamentally correct decision in 2004 to choose an alignment that re-uses existing track where possible and goes through existing cities. (This was in contrast to a cheaper alternative that went through agricultural lands and skirted many existing cities, relying instead on "greenfield" stations.) Having made the big decision the right way, the Authority now faces the political and design problem of actually bringing the train through all of these already-developed communities. Even though the Peninsula creates design challenges it is absolutely critical that the project goes all the way to San Francisco, where the highest ridership stations in the entire state will be located.
I tried to put this project into some larger context in my remarks. California is already the most populous state in the nation (by far). It will grow from 38 million people today to 50 million people by 2030. The real reason we need high speed rail is to provide an armature or framework for organizing this massive growth. Where the interstate highway system was the infrastructure that enabled the suburbanization of America, high speed rail can enable a re-centering of growth. It is the necessary supporting infrastructure for walkable communities in California.
The real question we are facing is whether we are still capable as a society of actually getting something like this built. In the age of CEQA, in the age when we seem to believe that more public process is always better, in the age when we seem to believe that nothing should happen unless there is consensus, can we actually create a transformative infrastructure? As America tries to learn how to compete with "single vision" nations that do not share our democratic values, the question of how we learn how to actually get things done under our political system looms larger and larger as a central problem to overcome.
With every infrastructure project that SPUR supports we face the dilemma of how to be supportive against the tide of opponents while still working constructively to improve projects and make them as good as they can be. We could not be happier with the "big moves" that the High Speed Rail Authority has made thus far. They have picked the right alignment, one that will reinforce center-oriented growth. Now the task is to get the small moves right to find that elusive balance between more expensive designs that address community concerns and the need to keep the project affordable enough to actually build it.
This is the most important project in California. It is a naÃ¯ve and impossible wish to "get it right" if right means the ideal design in every community. We need to get it "right-enough" to attract lots of riders away from the automobile and enable a new pattern of growth in the state.
- July 28, 2010BY EMILY EHLERS
As California lays the high-speed rail groundwork, SPUR continues its series on international precedents. While France built high-speed rail two decades after Japan and within a different state apparatus, the system had remarkably similar results: growth and concentration. France teaches us that a state investment in high-speed rail (HSR) can have major impacts on places that are isolated and suffering from lagging economic performance. The examples of Lille, an old industrial and mining center in northern France, and Nantes, south of Paris, are often cited as success stories.
Euralille [Photo Credit: flickr user savourama]
Lille is an important crossroads in the European HSR network with service to London, Paris and Brussels. Once a quickly depopulating and gritty industrial city, Lille has diversified into knowledge-intensive, service-producing activities. Euralille, the new retail, business and conference center designed by Dutch powerhouse architect, Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is illustrative of the makeover. Euralille straddles Lille's two main railway stations. A standalone city, it houses productive facilities as well as affordable housing. In 1994, Architectural Review dubbed Euralille the "Instant City."
Equally unrecognizable change has befallen Nantes. An industrial port city in the 19th century, in the past 30 years Nantes has developed into a major service sector hug. In 2004, Time magazine named Nantes "the most livable city in all of Europe." The TGV, France's high speed rail network, came to Nantes concurrently in 1981.
The success of the TGV cannot be separated from France's institutional and planning framework. The determination and capacity of a strong French state was instrumental. The nation owns and provides operational subsidies to SNCF, the HSR operator.
[Photo Credit: flickr user Julka2009]
However, this is not to say that localities have no role in high speed rail. In recent years, local government has played a more important role in France. Vis-Ã -vis joint development agreements and direct development subsidies, French localities have exerted pressure to densify around TGV stations. Cities also set the purchase price of land and assemble properties to facilitate development. Lille approached station area development with public private partnerships in mind. Part of the key to Nantes' and Lille's success is the not insignificant recent investment in transit feeder networks that connect high speed rail with outlying areas. Not including Paris, there are 20 light rail systems in France, most built after HSR. Of these 20 systems, 18 are in cities with HSR service. At least in France, the concentration of travel demand thanks to high speed rail and the urban location of most stations have generated a consequent demand for feeder transit, with the usual array of environmental and land use benefits.
All told, the public sector bet that HSR investment would be sufficient to catalyze urban growth and induce private investments. They were right.
- HSR in France is largely a product of the government's building, operating, maintaining the network.
- Local planning and development incentives can play a huge role in sparking station area development.
- HSR can transform decaying cities into the most livable in Europe.
- HSR ridership increases with robust feeder transit.
In the coming weeks, we'll look at "HSR" in the United States and United Kingdom drawing conclusions about what it all means in the California context.
SPUR's policy paper on high-speed rail is due out this fall.
- July 27, 2010BY ED PARILLON
Geary Boulevard runs almost the entire width of San Francisco, from Market to the ocean. The name of the street hides a lot of history — John White Geary was the first mayor of San Francisco post-statehood, and he would go on to govern Kansas during its "Bloody Kansas" period in the buildup to the Civil War. But that's a matter for another post though — this post is about forgotten transportation.
Today, the traffic on Geary reflects San Francisco's dual nature. On the one hand, this is a town that depends heavily on transit, and the 38-Geary is one of the busiest bus lines in the country (the busiest in the western half of the country by some estimates). On the other, the street's design, especially through the Western Addition, clearly prioritizes heavy private auto traffic, as evidenced by the two underpasses (below Fillmore and Masonica). Below is an east-facing picture from the Webster Street pedestrian bridge in Japantown:
[Photo Credit: flickr user flowertai]
Before the 1950s, though, Geary was home to a number of Muni streetcar lines, also with heavy ridership. Like a number of other lines throughout San Francisco, these fell victim to Muni's move to buses through the middle of the last century. So today there's no sign that Geary was home to some of the city's earliest Muni streetcar lines: the A-Geary ran from downtown to Golden Gate Park (at 10th Avenue), and the B-Geary ran to the ocean, terminating at Playland at the Beach, the former amusement park on Ocean Beach. The density found in even the western reaches of the Richmond today is thanks in part to these streetcars and the mobility they offered. Coming just six years after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, they helped to hurry along the westward reconstruction of the city in the 1910s and 20s.
[Photo Credit: flickr user telstar]
Unfortunately for railfans, the city decided to switch over to cheaper bus transportation during the 1950s. Some streetcars like the H-Potrero serving Potrero Hill were canceled due to low ridership, but ultimately the city replaced almost all its rail, even on heavily trafficked Geary. The only lines that survived this switch were those with special rights-of-way, leaving us with the five Muni Metro lines we have today. Meanwhile, Geary was "upgraded" to accommodate the automobile, with additional lanes, underpasses on Fillmore and Masonic, and freeway-style exit ramps. As with elevated rail teardowns in New York, San Franciscans were promised a restored and improved form of rail transportation. During the 1960s, the plan was to construct a Geary branch of the BART regional system:
[Photo Credit: flickr user Eric Fischer]
These plans fell through when Marin County elected not to join BART. But plans to bring rail to Geary persisted, with proposals for a Muni Metro subway down Geary and streetcars down California and Balboa Streets appearing in planning documents as late as 1974.
[Photo Credit: flickr user Eric Fischer]
Unfortunately, failure to find funding and pass ballot measures doomed these proposals, and Geary (despite being a relatively dense corridor) was left with local and express bus service that -- though robust -- is limited in its capacity.
On the bright side, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards transit in the Bay Area, among the plans getting a lot of attention is a proposal to build bus rapid transit along the Geary corridor. While this would not have the speed or capacity of a subway, it would still represent an improvement for getting to the northwestern reaches of the city. The plans currently call for a 2015-16 completion, but they're meeting some local resistance. In an additional ironic twist, the overpasses that made the street more like a freeway are also conspiring to make the BRT plans more complicated. According to Kamala Kelkar for the The Examiner:
Three options exist for dealing with [intersections with overpasses], which include Fillmore Street and Masonic Avenue: have the pedestrians cross three lanes of speedy traffic at a crosswalk underneath the bridges, have them exit on either end of tunnels and walk to their transfers and shopping, or have the buses stay aboveground, which could sacrifice up to 300 parking spots between Van Ness and 33rd avenues, according to documents from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the local agency in charge of the BRT.
Hopefully the city can see its way past these roadblocks and bring more transit to Geary — and maybe even a rail line in the medium-term. (Even the idea for a BART line underneath Geary resurfaced in a 2006 Regional Rail Plan alternatives analysis.) But in the meantime, the focus should be on bringing speedier transit, namely bus rapid transit. SPUR's take on the Geary BRT project is available here.