Professor's "Street Fight" takes on the politics of transportation

Are the freeways, bike lanes and parking lots of San Francisco shaped as much by ideology as geography? SF State's Jason Henderson thinks so, and he says the city isn't alone in mixing politics and mobility.

In his new book "Street Fight," Henderson, associate professor of geography, takes a unique look at San Francisco's debates over transportation, drawing on ten years' of research encompassing everything from historical archives to heated city planning meetings.

Photo of Associate Professor of Geography Jason Henderson.

Associate Professor of Geography Jason Henderson.

As is the case for many national debates, Henderson says transportation policy in San Francisco is a three-way battle between progressives, neoliberals and conservatives. Mobility is a surprisingly emotional and ideological issue, and these three groups don’t always support transportation policies in expected ways.

San Francisco is a city where neoliberals might join a cycling coalition, but demand more parking spaces for a downtown condo. A city where progressives who embrace social justice causes take private buses to avoid the hassles of Muni, undercutting support for equitable mass transit. And a city with the highest percentage of mass transit commuters outside of New York City, but with some vocal conservatives who see automobiles as a “natural right” and freeways as an essential way to secede from urban life.

Henderson said many cities, from Atlanta to Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, must contend with this trio of clashing cultures when it comes to transportation. But San Francisco also has a history of being one of the least car-oriented and most transit and bicycle-friendly cities in the nation, and "Street Fight" highlights the city's unique transportation challenges and successes.

One of those chief challenges is mass transit, particularly surface transit such as buses, which Henderson admits is a “less sexy” issue for advocates than cycling. But “we can’t have a livable, sustainable city if we don’t fix the trunk line bus system,” he said. “Cities with admirable transit systems, like Zurich, Vienna, Copenhagen and Vancouver, provide ample bus (and streetcar) space, and we neglect that.”

But the city’s strained bus system moves at about the same speeds as transit moved in the 1920s, and people are unhappy with overcrowded routes. “People want to love transit, they want to support it, they want to think it’s important in their lives, but they just get ground down.”

Some of the problems could be alleviated with changes like new curb “bulb-outs” and alterations to traffic signals that favor buses. But instead, Henderson writes, people are turning to private options like the Google buses that carry employees out to Mountain View.

“By creating this private transit system,” he said, “you’re creating a constituency that may not be supportive of raising taxes to improve the public transit.”

The book also highlights some startling statistics on parking, which gobbles up urban space and can create a host of environmental problems, from harmful storm runoff to heat island effects. The typical off-street parking space in North America ranges from 300-350 square feet, larger than most offices and bedrooms, Henderson notes.

San Francisco’s famed North Beach neighborhood, he writes (referring to a planning department study), “simply could not be built today because parking policies require each housing unit and business to have parking. If North Beach were built today, up to one-third of the neighborhood’s space would have to be devoted to parking.”

San Francisco’s ability to improve public transit and reduce its car travel is controlled in part by its competition for scarce resources with eight surrounding counties, state laws such as Proposition 13 and a federal government that has devoted few resources to urban transit.

One way that San Franciscans can support smart urban growth and mobility is to adopt a code of “progressive motoring conduct,” Henderson said, that considers “not getting rid of a car, but thinking about how you use it.”

“As a society, so many people expect instant gratification, they expect to be able to cross town in 15 minutes, and they’re angered by anything less,” he said.

But the width of car lanes corresponds to the speed limit, “and the faster we go, the more transit space we have to consume.”

“If we’re going to think about a livable city, and address climate change, and address resource wars, we have to slow down.”

Henderson will speak about "Street Fight" at a May 15 forum at SF State, and at a book release party hosted by Green Arcade Book Store on April 19.

-- University Communications