Sustaining a Livable City in the New Millennium

Parking, transit and other issues to resolve in making a livable city

Urbanist Article March 1, 2000


I would like to begin with some background on why San Francisco is like it is. But first I must share my bias of what livability means. For me, livability means a region and a city where families and individuals of all descriptions from all backgrounds and groups can afford to live and have the opportunity to work in jobs which support them adequately; it means a region and city with flexible transportation choices that work for everyone; it means a safe and walkable city, which encourages human interactions among the widest and most diverse populace; and a city that is healthy, beautiful and stimulating, where the public realm nurtures the human spirit. And I appreciate that others of you might have somewhat different definitions of livability.

Today in San Francisco we are in the midst of a technological revolution, spawned by the new high tech industries, that, due to the speed of change, is challenging our perceptions of livability. Of course, technological change has always brought with it socioeconomic problems to solve. The industrial revolution led to the erosion of the family structure, and our forebearers developed institutional and physical responses to that challenge. Today, it is up to us to again preserve the best and reinvent the rest.

In 1847, the population of San Francisco was a hardy 500 souls, though Jasper O'Farrell had already surveyed the gridiron plan that was to become the matrix which the Gold Rush settlers filled out almost overnight. The first local transit service was a horse-drawn stagecoach connecting the Mission and Yerba Buena, the predecessor of today's 14-Mission bus line. By 1860, the private Market Street Railway Company laid track and operated steam engines on regular schedules. However, as the grid extended, it traversed the hills, rendering their tops inaccessible by either horsecars or steam engines on steel rail. But as we know, human beings are by nature inventive. In 1873, Andrew Hallidie developed a successful steam-powered cable traction system, soon to criss-cross the city and open up new areas to development. By 1900, we boasted a population of 350,000 people, 1000 transit vehicles, and 275 miles of track.

This pattern of development following installation of transportation infrastructure was repreated time and time again, as the Presidio and Ferries Railroad opened up the marina District, as the 1917 Twin Peaks Tunnel provided access to develop the southwestern portions of the city, and to the 1928 Sunset Tunnel led to development of that district. From 1915 to 1945, Market Street had four tracks full of streetcars, and sidewalks full of people. By 1920, this city of one-half million had 330,000,000 annual transit boardings. This is about 50% more boardings than today's Muni, with today's city population of 800,000. San Francisco was as busy an urban area as any, and transit – lots of transit, was at its heart.

The post World-War II era was a disastrous one for American cities and American transit, as both urban and inter-urban rail systems were abandoned nationwide, and auto-oriented suburbs robbed cities of their populations, their jobs, and their economic vitality, leaving the poor and minorities in the cities as the white and middle class fled to the suburbs. Here in San Francisco we fared much better than other cities, keeping our vibrant downtown, many livable neighborhoods, and five rail lines and two cable car lines. The 1962 vote to construct BART, the first new American rail system in 40 years, served to reinforce downtown as a workplace for the new service economy, and federal programs for transit support helped stabilize Muni in the 1960s.

In a way, we had no choice. San Francisco is the densest American city outside of Manhattan. With our compact downtown, limited area, hilly topography, and strong legacy of transit service, our whole development pattern depends on effective transit. Streets are narrow, much of the city was built before the automobile, and we are all pedestrians at some point during the day. But it is not just that we do not have the choice. While by virtue of population numbers, it may be true that more people in North America prefer the suburban pattern of auto-dominated sprawl, that pattern has led to an abandonment of downtowns, and cultural alienation of its citizens. It should be no surprise that road rage results, or that over 50% of most American cities is devoted to asphalt for the automobile not people. While we value the freedom to live in city or town or suburb, we must be sure our land use and transportation planning provides a real choice to people.

San Francisco has thrived economically, socially, and culturally by following a different path than most other places in America. In its landmark 1973 report, SPUR proposed the "transit-first" policy adopted the following year as city policy. Transit-first has gotten more than its share of knocks by people who have never read it and are fond of equating it with transit-only, which it assuredly is not. The city charter says that the purpose of transit-first is to ensure the quality of life and economic health in San Francisco and therefore our primary objective must be the safe and efficient movement of people and goods (not single occupancy vehicles); that travel by public transit, by foot and by bicycle must be an attractive alternative to the private automobile; and basically, that new transportation investments should be made towards this end.

This policy, while never fully implemented, still provides the basic framework on how to grow: we need to increase mobility by investing in the capacity of our transit system. Were it not for the transit-first policy, this city would have followed the path of so many other American cities, widening streets, narrowing sidewalks, demolishing downtown buildings and then filling the spaces with parking garages. We would have destroyed the very neighborhoods and walkability that makes this city different from the rest of the country, that creates the high economic values of downtown, that provides the quality of life we enjoy, and is attracting the creative and vibrant "dot-comers" to San Francisco from the suburbs of Silicon Valley to the south.

The digital revolution is about accessibility, a new accessibility to information and collaboration that is unprecedented in the history of the world. But while we enjoy this electronic accessibility, I do not believe it will ever replace face-to-face contact and the physical transportation network that necessitates. Just the fact that the creators and purveyors of this new electronic world seek to work and live in proximity to each other in San Francisco is an indication of this.

Almost every day we open the newspaper, see on TV, or read the Commuter Chronicles on the web to hear of some new transportation problem facing us. And as we know, transportation is not just moving people and goods from place to place, it embodies a whole family of considerations, including what the places are like on both ends, what the qualitative characteristics of the trip are, what it costs and how long it takes. And in fact in a city, streets are not just places of movement, but they are part of the public realm, doing double duty as places to move through and as places of social interaction among people. In the popular media, however, this is reduced to a few soundbites: congestion, parking, and inmigration of jobs and workers.

What is happening in San Francisco cannot be so simply reduced to a sound bite, nor is it all that unique to San Francisco. Cities across the country, both those destroyed or nearly destroyed in the post-war years, and those like San Francisco which have thrived, are being redefined not so much by high rise corporate offices in their downtowns but by former warehouse and industrial districts which are being resurrected for new living and working patterns. While few central cities will recover as the sole centers of their regions (and indeed, San Jose's population has long been higher than San Francisco's), I believe they will reemerge with niche roles of the traditional urban functions as centers of education, the arts, culture, health care, eating, specialized business, and cross-cultural interactions. The new knowledge based industries are sustained by these very concentrations of interactions, which proliferate in the city. And San Francisco may just be the model of the new 21st century city.

Although the high tech economies began in the suburbs and exurbs, such as Silicon Valley, high tech industries are becoming redefined as knowledge based industries, adding a cultural knowledge factor to the high technology activity. And as such, they are gravitating toward cities and away from suburbs.

These 21st century cities, like our cities today, will not be populated by the majority of middle class families, who I believe will continue to reside in the suburbs as long as housing economics and quality of education continue to dominate. They will instead be populated by what have been called the "new urbanites". The new urbanites are both the young childless, highly educated workers at professional and service jobs including the "dot-coms" and also the immigrants from abroad coming to the global cities. Regional access will continue to be a critical consideration to move suburban dwellers to jobs in the city, and vice versa, as well as commuters from suburb to suburb.

New "dot-com" and other knowledge based workers are attracted by those characteristics which only urban areas have, and which San Francisco has in spades – real neighborhoods, walkability, architectural character, mixed use, diversity of lifestyles, high levels of personal interaction, anonymity, and multiple cultural venues. And as the "Y" generation, children of the baby-boomers, mature, they will surpass the "generation Xers" in numbers, assuring a growing supply of new urbanites.

Cities will continue to attract immigrants for all the reasons cities have always been attractive to the newcomer: zones of cultural familiarity with other immigrants and access to jobs for which they are qualified. This new urban pattern must be nourished by public policy in order to continue to thrive, and certainly, attempts to freeze San Francisco in some romanticized blue collar past will inevitably fail. And yet we must be concerned about gentrification to the exclusion of everyone else. San Francisco must not become the residence of just an affluent and childless population, but also must continue to be the incubator of whole classes of the less privileged, minorities and immigrant populations.


With this as background, what are some of the specific transportation problems we must address today and their possible solutions? The root of today's transportation problem lies in decades of disinvestment in transit, a de facto policy of transit-last, not transit-first. This is exacerbated today by the fact that we are "suffering" from an unusually healthy economy. The end of the federal deficit has boosted capital formation; the end of the cold war and deregulation have boosted competition, international trade and a world-wide economy, and capital spending is fueling the economy. Our strategic location as a gateway to Asia, our great universities, our diverse population, and our openness to new ideas and organizational flexibility have made this ground zero in the creative revolution. Such problems to have!


Which brings us to the subject of regional accessibility and the fact that the region's transportation problems are also San Francisco's. Because housing demand so greatly exceeds housing supply in San Francisco, people are being forced to live farther and farther from work, in locations and at densities that will never be able to be served by transit. Thus the overarching problem for San Francisco is that we are bringing in too many commuters by single occupancy automobile and not enough by transit.

This relates to the important structural problem of how we make regional funding decisions. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's 20-year Regional Transportation Plan needs to become a tool for real regional planning, not just making good on decades-old promises to political jurisdictions. MTC needs to evaluate the trade-offs among different possible futures so the region can actually choose. This is especially important today because, after decades of disinvestment, we appear to be entering a new era of investment in transportation. Residents of the region need and deserve vastly improved transit and transportation choices. And San Francisco needs to have effective and aggressive representation at MTC so that there is a balanced expenditure plan.

This would say, for instance, that we should not fund a study of the recently resurrected southern bay crossing, but rather should study all the alternatives starting with congestion pricing, operational coordination and possible mergers of systems, a greatly expanded ferry system, greatly expanded regional bus system, to name a few, and the costs, benefits, land use and environmental implications of each.

San Francisco must stand by its long-time policy of not increasing auto capacity on highways and freeways entering our city – where will all these cars go once they get here? Instead we must make it easier for people to get into the city on transit and look for more efficient use of our existing transportation facilities through tools such as congestion pricing and technological advancements.


In our dense city of San Francisco, transit-first would suggest that we invest in exclusive rights of way for public transit wherever possible. Because most transit must run on fixed routes and cannot easily reroute itself around obstacles, its right-of-way must be kept clear. The more we can provide public transit with dedicated, unimpeded right-of-way, the more reliable and quick its service will be, and the more people will choose transit as an alternative to the single passenger automobile, particularly for the commute trip. Toward this end, we as a city have adopted the Four Corridors Plan, of which the Third Street light rail project is the first portion to be implemented. Unfortunately, it will not have exclusive right-of-way for its entire length. Funding to begin the very important next segment, the Central Subway, must be found soon if the Third Street project is to meet its potential of both increasing transit use in that corridor. This project will connect the densely developed downtown with redeveloping areas to the south, and hopefully will help the southeastern portion of the city develop as a denser, transit-oriented neighborhood.

And because these fixed rail systems, and especially subways, are very expensive, creative interim steps are needed. For instance, a CALTRANS windshield survey of cars parked under the Bay Bridge approaches indicated that 80% of them were registered in San Francisco, the majority from the Sunset and Richmond districts. While the Geary subway might be a long time in the future, an exclusive busway in the median of Geary Boulevard could be an interim way of getting residents from the western parts of the city to downtown on transit faster than by car, at an affordable capital cost.


We hear cries of horror about South of Market development and transportation. The economic activity that is happening South of Market is largely what was supposed to happen. South of Market was never intended to be empty warehouses and parking lots for north of Market. The Downtown Plan saw SOMA as a reservoir for growth, for extension of downtown south to Folsom Street. Relative to transportation, two things are different than in previous periods of

San Francisco's growth:

• first, unlike during the initial expansions of the city into new areas in the west, we have not put in the transportation infrastructure prior to residential and job and land development. Muni has only recently developed a SOMA Concept Plan, which has not been funded or put into effect;

• second, a great deal of commuter parking is being provided in this new development south of Market, the opposite to how we developed our valuable, dense, walkable downtown where we have access by proximity, a complete network of transit, parking for short term shoppers and visitors, and a minimum of long-term commuter parking.

Other factors such as the large street grid and the wide one-way streets also affect making SOMA pedestrian and transit friendly.


Fortunately, during the last several years, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has produced three excellent reports, what are called "Strategic Analysis Reports", brief but comprehensive summaries of transportation-related issues, covering SOMA . They are entitled "China Basin Ballpark Transportation Issues" (4/96), "Multimedia Gulch" (3/99) and "Traffic Impacts in SOMA"(8/99). Taken individually and together, these reports give an accurate analysis of what is happening and what can be expected to happen, and point towards the public policy initiatives we should take.

Perhaps the most important single conclusion of these studies is that the constraint to mobility in SOMA is not the lack of parking, but the capacity of the Bay Bridge/Highway 101 and the off/on ramps and the surface street capacity. Freeway congestion causes evening peak back-ups on city streets affecting autos and transit. As more demands are placed on the Bay Bridge and the freeways, afternoon peak back-ups onto south of Market streets will be worsened, affecting drivers with both San Francisco destinations and regional destinations. This will affect operations not only of private automobiles, but also of surface buses. And it will affect not only south of Market businesses, but also downtown businesses, which are dependent on access to and from the Bay Bridge/101.

This point may seem deceptively simple, but it clearly is not obvious to many. In the calls to "do something about congestion" and "fix the parking problem," many apparently do not understand that we cannot simultaneously expand parking and reduce congestion. Put simply, every parking space is a traffic generator.


And what we are talking about is of course the land use and transportation connection. Our historic San Francisco land use patterns support transit and walkability, meaning that most (but not all) people who live here and work here do not need to travel by car for most work trips. This allows those who do need a car during the day to use their automobile, and the remainder of us transported by public transit, by bicycle, and by our feet. As citizens involved in the public planning process, our job is to assure that new development fits into this historic pattern: we need to plan for mixed land uses and high concentrations of activity to enhance the access by proximity that has been so successful in our compact livable city. We must scrutinize our planning regulations and their implementation to assure that we build in ways that fit in with San Francisco's traditional orientation to foot and trolley rather than trying to remake the city in the image of "anywhere USA".

Today, in its very partial state of development, we should not be surprised that workers in SOMA feel they need their cars – in most places in SOMA we do not yet have the density and mix of uses to sustain a pedestrian culture. Unlike in downtown, the typical SOMA worker cannot walk out his or her front door, go next door for a meeting, meet colleagues on the sidewalk, and walk to any of 20 different and excellent restaurants for lunch. Whether our prototypical SOMA worker will be able to do so in 5 or 10 or 15 years depends in large part on the land use decisions we make today.

According to a recent EIR on a major SOMA multimedia project, there are 30 large projects currently proposed in the 24 block area from Main Street to Third Street and from Market to Highway 101. This same area has 8600 public off-street parking spaces today; that is, spaces not reserved for any particular business, that you or I can drive into and park. The EIR further states that at the peak period (early afternoon), there is a parking occupancy of 81%, meaning that there are, at a minimum, over 1600 vacant parking spaces available at peak period today.

After the 30 projects are constructed, the EIR concludes there will be a net deficit of 1100 spaces. What this means is that all of these 30 projects are being designed to provide significant amounts of commuter parking with them – after adding tens of thousands of workers, there will only be a net change in 1600 plus 1100 or 2700 parking spaces. Thus the Transportation Authority's SOMA Strategic Analysis Report recommends that only a limited number--2,000 to 3,000--of new parking spaces be added to keep things even with today. It goes on to recommend that these parking spaces be added south of the Bay Bridge/Highway 101 in order not to further block access from downtown to the Bay Bridge on and off ramps.

This pattern of development then is a far cry from our successful downtown development pattern, where most of the high rise office buildings, many housing 2,000 to 3,000 workers, have essentially no parking. What we are creating in SOMA instead is a district that will feature curb cuts crossing sidewalks at every building, long lines of traffic entering and exiting the garages at rush hour, and more traffic trying to get onto the already "at capacity" Bay Bridge and Highway 101.

Instead, we should be directing new development into high density nodes surrounding major transit hubs like the Transbay Terminal. New uses which will generate significant trip demands should be located nearby major transit centers and new and expanded transit must be provided as the city grows into areas not well served by transit.


Parking needs to be provided, but as the Transportation Authority has demonstrated, it needs to be farther from downtown, south of the Bay Bridge/101; at the East Bay BART stations, and in locations to pick off the single occupant auto commuter from the south. Near-in parking needs to be reserved for the short-term parker, as our downtown garages were designed to do. Long term monthly discounts, added to some downtown Parking Authority garages in the early '90s recession (because the garages were so underutilized and were losing so much money), needs to be eliminated and the garages returned to the purposes for which they were built. This provision of massive amounts of commuter parking near-in will both work against a high density pedestrian-friendly neighborhood and also cause further congestion on the regional arteries serving San Francisco as well as on city streets.


This gets us to transportation financing and pricing. Some of our pricing and funding systems are out of whack. Transit systems are starved while drivers are not asked to pay anything like the real cost of maintaining our automobile network. Thus we fund projects which are in conflict with our priority on transportation choices and non-automotive modes of travel. Specifically, transportation projects should be funded based on performance measures or criteria which consistently increase choice, increase the share of non-automotive trips, promote social equity for those who cannot afford to own automobiles, improve air quality, and reduce average vehicle miles traveled per capita. Funding should be ensured for adequate maintenance of the existing transportation system before spending the enormous amounts needed for far-flung exurban extensions of fixed rail systems which have a very high per passenger cost and serve to fuel suburban sprawl. Subsidies of the private single passenger automobile need to be reduced through increases in user-based fees such as tolls, gasoline taxes, parking fees and parking cash-outs. Federal funding sources need to be made more flexible so that local jurisdictions can program funds where they are most needed. And finally, smart growth land use planning decisions need to be rewarded by making transportation investments in places that take real steps to discourage suburban sprawl and reinforce city centers.


Pedestrian safety has become a very serious issue throughout the city and in downtown and SOMA in particular. In the 1997-1998 time period, there were 2,200 auto-pedestrian collisions-3 per day! And in 1996, there were 21 pedestrian deaths-a figure that shockingly grew almost 50% to 30 deaths in 1998. Relatively high speed one-way streets, particularly in SOMA, play a significant role in the pedestrian/auto conflicts. Solutions are needed that deal with public education to change attitudes, with enforcement, and with street design and geometry.


Social equity is of course connected to our transportation funding priorities. To the extent we continue to fund transportation improvements focused on bringing middle class, suburban and largely white workers to jobs requiring long commutes by automobile, we are continuing to condemn inner city, disadvantaged and largely non-white citizens to lives of poverty. In this era of devolution and Welfare to Work, we need to scrutinize the social impacts of our transportation decisions and provide an equality of access to jobs and prosperity for all segments of society.


There are other creative ways to address the congestion/parking dilemma that are socially responsible to boot. The Planning Department is now engaged in land use and transportation planning for three transit-oriented neighborhood plans. Car sharing, sometimes described as time-share on wheels, provides affordable automobiles to occasional users without the personal capital investment and without having to provide a long-term parking space on each end of every trip. And implementation of a comprehensive, integrated bicycle plan will further help relieve congestion on the road, in Muni vehicles, and in the parking garage. Traffic calming solutions, which seek to make the public right-of-way welcoming to automobile and pedestrian together, increasing pedestrian safety, needs to be instituted in San Francisco. Other creative transit modes, such as the shared routed taxi, so popular in other countries, and an expanded ferry network, have clear potential in San Francisco. Implementation of transit preferential streets, the NextBus Global Position technology, and electrification of lines are just a few other measures we need. In short, a city as complex and dense as San Francisco must have a balanced mix of all manner of transportation facilities and services.


As a society, we will be spending billions of dollars on transportation in the next two decades. We can spend it on piece-meal and possibly conflicting improvements, or we can spend it to maintain and enhance the livability. This includes:

• transportation options that are cost effective, efficient, and convenient safe, livable and economically diverse neighborhoods, protected from unwanted traffic intrusion

• a strong, safe, and attractive downtown

• a community that nourishes the creative new knowledge-based industries, providing jobs for

• a wide range of educational levels and income levels, and

• a mix of housing units affordable at many levels of family income, that ensures cultural, class and ethnic diversity in the city, and shortens commute distances.

To go back to our Italian would-be motorist, Paolo Brezzi, February 7th's paper reported that the previous Sunday was the first auto-free day in 150 Italian cities, "allowing strollers, skaters, cyclists, and horse riders reclaim the cobblestones....Disbelieving at first, Italians poured into city centers to inhale, taste and savor an unprecedented silence and stillness: life without the internal combustion engine. Herds of pedestrians explored fountains, monuments and avenues that usually resemble a race track, now bereft of honking and screeching. 'A success!'" was the analysis. So like Mr. Brezzi, I call on our federal and state partners to work closely with the informed citizenry of San Francisco to refocus our transportation and land use planning to develop a coordinated process and package of strategic transportation improvements to meet these ends, and to all of us to commit to work together in cooperation to make San Francisco even more livable for our children after us.Spur logo


About the Authors: 

Jim Chappell is president of SPUR.

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member