The anger of the protesters who blocked a Google bus in the mission on Monday was very real and understandable. San Francisco residents, who live in a desirable city with limited housing, face a crisis of skyrocketing rents and evictions. Meanwhile, Muni drivers are increasingly being blocked by private shuttles that the peninsula’s technicians, blamed for increasing rents, seem to be wiping away.
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Much has been written about the unrest caused by the SF housing crisis in recent years. But as we wrote in February, pointing fingers at tech shuttles doesn’t help solve the problem – if anything, it’s a distraction from effective solutions.
The real culprits are the decades-long failure of SF and other Bay Area cities to develop efficient transportation systems, and the kind of walkable neighborhoods that are increasingly in demand, yet scarce, in the region. And deeper than that is the cultural aversion to change and the political establishment that cares about it and avoids tough but necessary decisions.
Don’t get me wrong – the fact that private shuttles use ammo stops illegally without paying anything for them is unfair and unsustainable, as the demonstrators rightly exclaimed on Monday. However, these specific problems can be solved by making more space available for public and private transport. The majority of this is currently intended for the free, subsidized storage of passenger cars. The SFMTA’s plans to convert parking spaces into shuttle stops and establish a private shuttle charging system are a step in the right direction.
But what really hurts Muni’s performance is all of the private car traffic blocking the buses and the unnecessary frequency of stops. Imagine if the demonstrators had used so much energy and media skills to demand that the City Hall implement the Transit Effectiveness Project as quickly as possible.
The fact is, the Bay Area cannot have the dynamic technology-based economy and affordable housing for middle-class and low-income people that Mayor Ed Lee is seeking without building significant amounts of walkable development.
One factor we pointed out on Streetsblog is that residential development in SF and other cities is being affected by minimum parking requirements, which means housing for people needs to be equipped with a certain amount of housing for cars. This increases the cost of building, owning and renting these apartments and limits the space required for homes or businesses. And, as research has repeatedly shown, residents are more likely to own a car and drive when living space is bundled with a parking lot, making the transit system less effective.
Unfortunately, the positions of regulators David Campos and Malia Cohen on the recent housing projects from the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan counteract the goal of affordability. Campos and Cohen have fought projects on the grounds that they lacked parking space, leading to developers adding rooms or subtracting apartments. Park-free living is a growing trend in other American cities.
The Plan Bay Area is a start for smarter housing. It shows how cities can cope with population growth near transportation hubs such as Caltrain and BART stations, thereby minimizing the need to drive and keeping housing and transportation costs low.
As David Edmondson of Vibrant Bay Area wrote in November, increased transitory development helped contain the tide of rising rents and evictions in Washington, DC:
Rising rents drove the new development forward, which has halted the increase in most areas and slowed it down in particularly high-demand parts of the city. Almost all of the growth was also due to the area’s Metrorail subway system, so increasing population does not mean increasing traffic.
And what is important to keeping the urban character alive is much of this growth outside of the urban core, often in new urban centers in suburban shopping malls. For San Francisco, that included tens of thousands of new residential units along the East Bay and Caltrain BART lines, as well as the virtual elimination of the urban mall.
That’s not to say that DC was immune to repression. The once burned-out corridor on H Street NE and Hispanic Columbia Heights developed quickly. Afro-American Petworth and Brookland are also being put under pressure by well-heeled tenants.
But the thousands of units in the suburbs and downtown have given these areas time to prepare. Affordable housing, inclusion zones and various direct legislative measures to keep people in their homes can be tried, improved and applied to neighborhoods that are not yet overwhelmed. Areas of no pressure armed with these protections are wondering when their day will come.
In the short term, there is only so much that residents can do to tackle the evictions and insane rents crisis, and that’s frustrating. I’m experiencing it myself – my fiancée and I are lucky enough not to be evicted, but we feel trapped in our little studio. A scapegoat for private transport that fills the gaps in public transport – perhaps the most visible symbol of change – is simple but counterproductive.
The bottom line is that San Francisco has to make the tough policy choices to prioritize people and transit, not cars. Cities up and down the Peninsula and East Bay must drop the 20th century suburban model and work to create humane, passable neighborhoods that more of us desperately want to live in.