Transportation Principles for San Francisco

A framework to guide our transit-first policies

SPUR Report

Transportation in San Francisco is unlike other western cities. We have inherited from the 19th century a compact street grid and the highest densities west of Chicago. Our city grew up around the pedestrian and the trolley; additions to the city must find ways to build on our tradition of walkability and transit-access.

On the other hand, the city is changing, and if our transportation system doesn't evolve to support these changes, our dynamic economy and our quality of life will be choked off by the lack of access. We are increasingly concerned that San Francisco's investment in its transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in jobs and residents. More people live and work here, but the transportation system is being taken for granted.

SPUR proposed that San Francisco adopt a "transit-first" policy as part of its 1973 report, "Building A New Muni." This policy, while never fully implemented, still provides the basic framework of 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, the city would have followed the path of so many other American cities, widening roads, narrowing sidewalks, demolishing downtown buildings and then filling the spaces with parking garages. We would have destroyed the very density and walkability that makes this city different from the rest of the country, that creates the high economic values of downtown, and that provides the quality of life we enjoy.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. In the 25 years since we first proposed a transit-first policy, transportation planners have learned a lot about how a well-run urban transportation system might work. We understand better how the automobile can be accommodated gracefully, providing mobility to destinations that are not well-served by transit, but not dominating the city. We understand the critical importance of the pedestrian as the backbone of urban accessibility and the need to nurture compact neighborhoods that make it easy to reach destinations on foot. We have seen the unintended consequences of under-pricing the automobile from a microeconomic perspective. And we have been able to learn from the approaches of great cities around the world, so that we can now borrow well-tested techniques ranging from high-speed rail to bicycle networks, car-sharing to traffic-calming.

SPUR has developed a framework of transportation principles, presented in this paper, that can help guide the expansion of San Francisco's transportation capacity in harmony with the inherited strengths of our city. We advocate an approach that would successfully blend the needs of pedestrians, transit users, bicyclists, auto drivers, and the movement of goods.


Nearly everyone in San Francisco claims to support the transit-first policy. We thought it would be useful to spell out what such a policy means. We understand the transit-first policy as a directive to promote mobility by not just collective public transit, but by all alternatives to single occupancy vehicles.

On the most fundamental level, transit-first means investing in exclusive rights-of-way for public transit whenever possible. Because transit must run on fixed routes and cannot re-route itself around obstacles, its right-of-way must be kept clear at all times. The more we can provide public transit with dedicated, unimpeded right-of-way, the more reliable and quick its service will be. Public street and sidewalk space is finite and valuable. We show our true priorities in the way we divvy it up. Too much of it has been turned over the automobile. If we want to get out of the trap of automobile dependency, making it possible for more people to not drive but still get around quickly and conveniently, we must give some right of way back to pedestrians, bicycles, and especially public transit.

Within the public agencies responsible for transportation planning, there is sometimes a systematic bias that blinds decision-makers to the effects of car improvements on the health of the rest of the transportation system. In particular, the obsession with "level of service"-for automobiles only, it goes without saying-leads decision-makers to expand auto capacity at the expense of transit and pedestrian capacity. That might work in the suburbs, but not in San Francisco. We should measure the efficiency of the transportation system in terms of the movement of people and goods, rather than the movement of vehicles. For example, in the environmental review process for new development, transportation analysis should not only pay attention to automobile congestion, but should be equally concerned with the effects of proposed development on other modes of travel.

Transit-first also has implications for the city's parking policies. Put simply, every parking space is an automobile trip generator. We cannot simultaneously expand parking and reduce congestion. At the same time, we need to be realistic about the fact that many people live in places that are not well-served by transit and that many trips, especially those made by clients and customers of businesses, are part of multiple destination trip chains that are appropriately made by car. The right parking solution will balance these different priorities in such a way that people who need to drive are able to find a parking space, while those who do not need to drive are strongly discouraged from doing so. SPUR believes that the addition of downtown and SOMA parking garages and surface parking lots needs to be carefully considered in light of their traffic generating characteristics. Smaller, neighborhood garages serving commercial centers can be appropriate if they are well-designed and not out of scale with the neighborhood. In downtown and SOMA, public parking facilities, short-term parking should be favored over long-term commuter parking, so that shoppers and other patrons of businesses can find a parking space.

Pedestrian Priority

Pedestrian accessibility and the richness of the pedestrian experience distinguishes a city from a suburb. All trips-including those made on public transit-begin and end with a pedestrian segment of the journey. And most importantly, when people can get to their destinations on foot, expensive systems to move people longer distances are not necessary. This strategy, sometimes called "access-by-proximity" can be seen all over San Francisco: when workers downtown walk to meetings or when residents walk to their corner store. Such are the natural efficiencies of city living. San Franciscans must recognize the preciousness of our pedestrian street life and ensure that other transportation investments do not harm it.

The first element of a pedestrian-supportive policy actually lies in the domain of land use: people can only walk if the desired destinations are within walking distance. Our land use policies should almost always direct development into the form of mixed-use, high-density clusters that make it easy to get to a variety of destinations on foot. (These neighborhood centers then become the logical nodes of a transit network: between neighborhoods by transit, within neighborhoods by foot.)

In a city like San Francisco, everyone is a pedestrian at some point, and the pedestrian is everywhere. We need to take an approach to street design that seeks to gracefully harmonize other modes of transportation with the pedestrian, rather than creating exclusive pedestrian, transit, or auto streets. The "auto-free" zones of European old cities probably do not make sense in San Francisco. We do not have sufficient centers of day-and-night activity that would keep such car-free spaces well-peopled. Auto-free zones could, in fact, backfire by creating vacuums so devoid of people that they feel unsafe and therefore actually discourage pedestrians. We should avoid permanent, 24-hour bans on the automobile from any street unless the street is surrounded by such high-intensity land uses that generate activity at different times of day. Instead, our model should be to strive for streets that welcome the automobile and the pedestrian together. This is the approach of traffic-calming, which seeks to accommodate the automobile, but to slow down its speed and make it fit in gracefully with the other users of the street.

By the same token, San Francisco should strongly discourage street design that is exclusively car-oriented such as narrow sidewalks, short cross-walk signals, and high traffic speeds.

Bicycle Integration

Bicycle travel is becoming an increasingly popular way of getting around the city. SPUR believes that San Francisco transportation policy should seek to encourage this trend. Bicycles are non-polluting; they take up less road space per passenger and significantly less parking space. They can also enhance connections between modes of travel.

Encouraging the bicycle is not rocket science: it requires bike lanes. Where people can ride with dignity and safety, side-by-side, on networks of bike paths that are designed to minimize hill-climbing, we can expect many more San Franciscans will be able to utilize this classic urban mode of transportation. Those who claim that bicycles "cause congestion" are being very short-sighted. By making it easier for people to get out of their cars for intra-city trips, bicycles are in fact relieving congestion.

Bicycle parking is less controversial because it does not require a share of the city's scarce right-of-way. It should certainly be provided throughout the city.

SPUR would also like to raise a note of caution: care needs to be taken to integrate bicycle facilities into the street grid without hurting public transit routes.

The Land Use/Transportation Connection

The pattern of land uses determines what transportation techniques will be practical. San Francisco is fortunate in this regard. Our density supports transit and walkability, meaning that most people who live here do not need to travel by car for most trips. Our only job, with regards to land use, is to make sure 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 we enjoy by living in a compact city. Planning regulations should require developers to build in a way that fits in with San Francisco's traditional orientation to foot and trolley, rather than remaking the city in the image of "anyplace" USA.

As the city grows, we want to direct most new development into high-density nodes surrounding major transit hubs. Projects that will generate significant trip demands should be located in places that will make it easy to get to and from by transit. Where that is not possible, new transit must be established in concert with new development.

Finally, the city needs to rethink its parking requirements. As currently written, they fail to distinguish between the needs of different residents and between different parts of town. We are preventing the market from determining how much parking people really want by forcing all residential development to provide a full parking space for each unit. This drives up the cost of housing significantly. In neighborhoods which are well-served by transit and which have local retail services with walking distance, we should remove or reduce the minimum parking requirement.

Regional Accessibility

The region's problems with transportation are also San Francisco's. People are being forced to live farther from work and are therefore commuting long distances by car. Congestion is ubiquitous and the percentage of trips made by transit is declining. Yet there are things we can do to reverse this situation.

The most important, structural problem lies within the process of making regional funding decisions. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's 20-year Regional Transportation Plan needs to become a tool for planning-for evaluating trade-offs between different possible futures. Instead of just dispersing funds based on decisions made long ago, it should actually develop meaningful alternative scenarios which the region can choose between.

Several opportunities exist for significantly improving the region's transit network. We should integrate an expanded water-based transportation system with other forms of public transit. We should take advantage of efficiencies to be gained by improving the connections between different modes of travel. The Bay Area can also move towards an integrated regional transit service that provides coordination of fares, distribution of information, and seamless transfers between modes. San Francisco should stand by its long-time policy of not increasing auto capacity on highways and freeways entering our city. (Where will all those cars go once they get here?) Instead, we should make it easier for people to get into the city on transit and we should look at making more efficient use of existing transportation facilities through tools such as congestion pricing and technological advancements.

Finally, the region should promote alternative vehicle technology through the development of environmentally sound vehicles and vessels.

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 near the true costs of maintaining the automobile network. SPUR believes that in principle, pricing should be designed to reflect the necessary priority of non-automotive modes of travel. Specifically, we should:

• Fund transportation projects based on performance measures or criteria which consistently increase the share of non-automobile trips, improve air quality, and reduce average vehicles miles traveled per capita.

• Ensure adequate funding for maintenance of the existing transportation system before spending money on expansion through major capital investments.

• Reduce subsidies to the private automobile through the increase in user-based fees such as tolls, gasoline taxes, parking fees, and parking cash-outs.

• Maximize funding flexibility at the regional level so that local jurisdictions are able to program funds where they are most needed.

• Reward smart land use planning decisions by making greater regional transportation investments in communities that take real steps to discourage urban sprawl and reinforce city centers.

SPUR hereby goes on record as supporting the preceding transportation principles as the only way to grow into an environmentally and economically sustainable, twenty-first century American city. The last 35 years of urban growth in San Francisco and around the world have clearly shown that cities cannot build their way out of the traffic and parking dilemma based on ever more accommodations of the single passenger automobile. Every day city departments and agencies such as the Planning Department, the Redevelopment Agency, the Department of Parking and Traffic, the Department of Public Works, Muni and others make decisions that in the aggregate either enhance the pedestrian and transit orientation of San Francisco or tilt towards remaking the city in the image of the car-accessible suburb. These decisions need to be made with a full awareness of their impacts using principles such as those articulated in this paper to guide us. SPUR logo


SPUR Transportation Committee