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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Battle of the Curb

Draw your swords in the feisty skirmish for street space
People who don't live in San Francisco probably won't care about this (and many who do probably won't either), but it goes to show how something apparently as trifling as parking policies on just a handful of blocks can be, in the end, rather significant in terms of land use, health and quality of life. So here goes, my letter to the SFMTA.
 
Dear Folks at the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority:

I have lived on the northern edge of Noe Valley for 18 years. My husband and I have raised three children here. Next to Noe Valley and the Castro, the Mission is the neighborhood I frequent most as a destination (shops! restaurants! classes!), and it’s the neighborhood I pass through most often on my way to other destinations. In addition, having had a daughter take nearly daily dance classes at ODC for seven years, I am well acquainted with the area near the new proposed park on 17th Street. I’m also very interested in parking management policies at the SFMTA in general as it directly impacts the quality of life in San Francisco, and, by either encouraging or discouraging car use, the health and safety of all San Franciscans, including my own family’s.

In the United States motorized vehicles are a greater public health threat than guns and cigarettes combined. Every year in the US more people die from car collisions than gun violence; every year more people die from a car-induced sedentary lifestyle (via obesity, diabetes and heart disease) and poisoning from car exhaust (via asthma and lung cancer) than from cigarettes. When people don’t rely on cars for trips under 3 miles, it is easy for them to get the necessary 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day that they need for basic health. People who rely on cars for all trips get almost no exercise and have terrible health as a result. Even the moderate amounts of walking associated with taking public transit have proven to increase the health of those who do it.


Are these the only killers?
But while cigarette smoking is subjected to ever more draconian regulation, cars are not only tolerated but encouraged at the expense of the taxpayer through subsidized parking, subsidized roads, subsidized gasoline, and, when they crash, subsidized emergency personnel and clean up crew time. In addition car drivers don’t pay for the external environmental damage their vehicles’ pollution inflicts, the health damage their exhaust inflicts, or the climate damage caused by their CO2 emissions.  With the exception of helicopters and tanks, private cars are the least energy-efficient mode of transport and the least space-efficient. Very often car drivers drive uninsured (14% in California) or drive with such low levels of insurance ($15,000) that they can’t pay for the medical costs of the bicyclists or pedestrians they hit. Even in a highly dense city like San Francisco where space is scarce and getting scarcer, we’ve made car driving the cheapest, fastest, safest, pleasantest, most direct, least effort, most convenient way to get places. Is it any wonder people choose to drive? As our city grows in population, is it any wonder there is so much conflict and friction around car storage and driving?


Until four years ago I used to drive almost everywhere I went in San Francisco. Now my husband and I bike almost everywhere, and our children bike or take public transit. Because we are a generally health family, this means that, based on San Francisco mortality statistics, being hit by a truck, bus or car is the way any member of my family is most likely to die over the next ten years. Particularly my children. Long term the air pollution caused by vehicle exhaust may also do us in. From a health perspective alone, you can see why it is in my best interests to reduce the traffic on San Francisco streets as much as possible.


More of the plan
In the region under discussion, the streets I used to drive heavily on were 20th St, South Van Ness, 14th, 15th, Folsom, and Shotwell. The streets I now bike on are Harrison, Folsom (north of 17th St.), 17th Street, 14th Street and 22nd St. I often used to hunt for parking near ODC—on Shotwell, 17th, and 18th streets.  I rarely used the lot at 17th and Shotwell. $2 might not be a high price for an hour of parking, but it’s quite high for 5 minutes to pick up or drop off a child at dance class.
My observations about the Draft NE Mission Parking Proposal released in March 2013:


Know your RPP
1)Charging for street parking is a good thing. Charging $104 per year for a residential parking permit, although better than nothing, is far too little. The city of San Francisco should be putting as much pressure as possible on the state legislature to allow the city to charge a price that makes sense depending on neighborhood density and other demands for scarce street space.  San Francisco’s density is only going to increase.  The SFMTA needs this pricing tool to have any hope of managing parking effectively.

2)The RPP (residential parking permit) zone is too narrow.  It should extend at least to Potrero Avenue. Anyone living on the blocks between the eastern edge of this zone (Alabama) and Potrero Avenue is going to be very sorry about thirty seconds after this RPP gets put in place because anyone hoping to continue with free parking will just move their vehicles there.

A new park where there used to be parking lot!
3)I am all for the new park on 17th St. Parks and green space are more important than car storage any day.

ODC teens
   4)ODC is no doubt a pain in the neck to anyone who lives on Shotwell. ODC also is a first rate modern dance company that makes a tremendous contribution to the community via their dance classes and their children and teen programs. (Really, their dance program for teens is phenomenal.)

     5)Having spent a lot of time on Shotwell between 17th and 18th, giving the ODC Dance Commons a loading zone will be a huge improvement. If the SFMTA can get passenger pick up and drop off for St. Charles School to really be on 18th instead of Shotwell, that would also improve the situation enormously. As it is stands now, Shotwell is pretty much misery between 3:30 and 4:30, and not much fun between 5:30 and 7:30. Also, if metered parking spaces really were available at these times on Shotwell, 18th  Street or 17th Street, parents might be inclined to use them rather than double-park like they do now because there is nowhere to park except the expensive, time-consuming lot.

6)Curiously, this NE Mission neighborhood is currently a car-sharing desert. City Carshare offers 3 cars and 1 pick up, and Zip car offers 6 cars and two vans, all of them around the edges of the neighborhood rather than in locations convenient to this population. To really encourage car-sharing, this neighborhood, with its density, needs to have a car available every other block.

7)The 16th and Mission BART station should make this area a transit lover’s dream. Instead, the BART plaza itself and the area immediately surrounding are unsavory at best during the day and patently unsafe at night.  If you would not want your fourteen-year-old daughter there alone just after dark, then it is not safe enough to function as a major transit destination and transfer point. If the plaza smells bad and people get harassed going to and fro, suburbanites will never take BART to, say, an ODC evening performance rather than drive. This is a crying shame.  The dysfunction of the 16th and Mission plaza without a doubt induces driving and all the negative health and neighborhood implications that entails.

8) This area would be perfect for bike share.  Really, really perfect.

9) There are quite a few unused curb cuts on Shotwell between 17th and 18th alone.

12 bikes = 1 car
10)A bike corral near the ODC Commons is an excellent idea.

11)It appears that much of the planned metered areas are not for commercial customers but rather to provide parking to employees of businesses in the area.  Especially the large ones such as PG&E, MUNI, UCSF and Comcast, all located, surprisingly, within three short, easy-to-walk blocks of BART. Charging these employees for parking rather than providing it for free is a good thing, though I wish it could be more than 50 cents an hour. However, even 50 cents an hour starts making a $72 monthly Muni pass cost-effective, and some employees may indeed begin to choose to walk, bike or take transit to work over driving if free parking is no longer an option. But given one of the employers is the City of San Francisco (at the Muni Barn) I would like to point out the savings that I, as a taxpayer, would receive from the SFMTA more actively discouraging its employees from driving to work. Driving a bus or a light rail train is an extremely sedentary job with all the associated health risks and accelerated health costs of a sedentary lifestyle. If MUNI drivers walk, bike or take transit to work (walking a few blocks on either end of their commute), they will be far healthier, their health care costs will be lower, and they will miss fewer days of work. This saves me money. If they drive to work, though we may think this is doing them a favor, these drivers will lead sicker and shorter lives. Last but not least, if our public transit system is not good enough or convenient enough for our public transit workers, who exactly is it good enough or convenient enough for? I would also point out that the health costs savings of not driving are also true for PG&E, whose employee health care costs I pay for through my utility rates. And UCSF, being a health care provider presumably cognizant of health care facts, should not allow any of its employees to drive to work just to set a good example.

12)This plan is mostly all stick and no carrot. Because the fewer cars parked in or driving through the area, the lower the friction all around to residents and businesses alike, one carrot the SFMTA could offer is this: Anyone who lives or works in the NE Mission area and who donates their car to one of  (to be determined) San Francisco charities, gets their choice of two “premium” incentives: 
a.) The Transit Package:  one free Clipper Card, 12 months of Muni A pass loaded onto card allowing unlimited travel on Muni or BART within San Francisco ($864 value), three free months of City CarShare membership, a $20 BART card, and two free Cable Car rides. 
b) The Bike Package: one free Public 7 speed bike ($449 value), one year membership to the San Francisco Bike Coalition (and all attendant member discounts), three free months of City CarShare membership, a $20 BART card, and two free Cable Car rides.

This could be advertised in flyers to residents and businesses. The incentives could also be offered to congregants of St. Charles Church, the families who attend St. Charles School, and people taking classes at ODC.  (It is possible the list of  charities to donate to could include the St. Charles School and ODC.) The flyers should also point out that by selling their car they will avoid car-related costs on average of $4500 per year (medium sedan more than 5 years old), $7500 per year (medium sedan less than 5 years old), or $11,000 per year (SUV or van less than 5 years old.)

Lost hometown treat
Anyone receiving the premiums would have to deduct the value of the Muni pass or Public bike from the tax write-off of the car donation, but since most people don’t itemize their deductions and won’t claim the write-off, it won’t matter much. The actual cost to the city would be very little, assuming you could get Public Bike (or some other bike company), the SFBC, City Carshare and BART to donate in exchange for advertising their products and/or directly recruiting new users to their services. The Cable Car rides would just be a nice treat. (Do you know how many San Franciscans actually get to ride our city’s cable cars these days? Precious few.)
 
Now, probably few in the area would take up the offer, mostly because unless their car is a junker, selling it is always going to be the better economic deal. (Unless they just don’t want the hassle of dealing with Craigslist buyers.) But even if only 10 people donated their car in exchange for the premiums, such a program would:
a) Be good PR. The city is not only taking but willing to give. 

b) Let folks know explicitly the cost of a Muni pass and what you get for it. Though we might assume everyone knows this already, people who drive everywhere very possibly do not.

c) Put the idea in people’s head that getting rid of their car might be something they want to do.

d) Put into people’s heads the idea that transit + carshare is as good as a car or bike + carshare is as good as a car

e) It might be just enough to nudge someone on the fence into taking action.

f) It would get those ten cars off the street. 

 The reason to only give the package if someone donates their car (rather than sells it) is that the donation process is much easier to track and control via the companies who do this for the charity non-profits. In addition, if someone donates a car, they then don’t get a pile of cash to buy a new one, making it far more likely to result in a net reduction of cars on the streets. The transit pass premium is more likely to be chosen since it’s a better economic deal than the bike, although anyone who realizes the convenience and health benefits of biking might choose the shiny new bike.



Spot of bicycle badness
13)There needs to be bicycle infrastructure in this area that is separate and protected. Most ordinary people will not attempt to bicycle on city streets until a network of separated cycle lanes are introduced. (I would say 14th Street, 15th Street, 17th Street, Folsom, and Harrison all need them.) This means currently the average person in San Francisco is denied the convenience, economic savings and health benefits that bicycling provides. Also, more intersections need daylighting via reduced parking adjacent to the intersections to increase motorist visibility of pedestrians and bicyclists. Removing parking to accommodate these needs should probably be done now, before the SFMTA gets reliant on the income from the newly installed meters. A small point: drivers coming west on 17th cannot see the bike lane where it starts back up after the intersection at Treat and are constantly clipping it, endangering cyclists. The parking spot on the northwest corner of 17th and Treat needs to be removed to provide bicyclists more room, the bike lane needs to be painted green at least right in this area to give it better visibility to motorists, and then soft hit posts (or something even more substantial) need to be installed to protect bicyclists.

14) I am guessing fully 50% of the parking in this area will need to be RPP zone to make this plan work. (In current plan it’s more like 35%?) I am also guessing that a 50% RPP/50% commercial meters mix will reduce parking demand enough to make this a truly pleasant/safe bicycle and walking neighborhood. This in turn will reduce car parking demand and induced car driving, which in turn will make the neighborhood even more pleasant, on and on in a positive, self-reinforcing cycle. This will increase land and housing values, and the neighborhood will become family friendly, neighborly, healthy and serene. But then the MTA will be accused of insidious gentrification. I guess you can’t have everything.

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