By Aarian Marshall
I’ll start with the bad news, because I think you can take it: You can’t beat San Francisco traffic. As long as people want to live in this idyll by the bay, tech companies set up shop off Market Street, and bars offer expensive drinks made with fruit shrubs, cars and tech buses will choke its roads.
“Anecdotally, the only major cities unfettered by congestion are terribly declining Rust Belt ones,” says Marlon Boarnet, an economist and urban planning researcher with the University of Southern California. (Think Detroit, Buffalo, Youngstown.) “In our most thriving cities, we can’t make the congestion vanish because the cities are thriving.” San Francisco’s booming so hard, the only place in the US where you’ll find worse traffic is Los Angeles.
What San Francisco believes it can do, however, is improve life in the city by making it easier to get around without a car. This week, its Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance requiring developers to stock new residential or commercial projects with more alternative-transport perks than ever before. This is no all-out war on vehicles, but rather an attempt to cut down on the number and length of car trips the natives take each day.
And if it works, San Francisco’s data-driven approach could become a template for other American cities hoping to turn big talk about transportation innovation into big action, and big results.
Starting next month, the more free parking any new SF project plans to provide, the more it must do to encourage alternate ways of getting around. Want to build a condo complex in the Mission with 20 parking spots?1 You need 13 points under the new Transportation Demand Management regime. To get there, you can provide some dedicated spaces, or even memberships, for a car-sharing service (six points). Furnish the basement with a fleet of bicycles for residents (one point). Set up a shuttle service to the closest train or bus station (14 points), or stick a handy screen with real-time transit schedules in the lobby (one point). Dedicating space to on-site childcare earns you two points, since it means fewer parents driving to drop off and pick up the kiddos.
The big idea from the city is to give developers some flexibility, but make its priorities clear: In a constrained city expected to add 100,000 households and up to 600,000 cars by 2040, people need travel options that aren’t driving alone.
“This is just one small piece of the overall transportation puzzle,” says Wade Wietgrefe, a San Francisco city planner. A city also needs to support these changes with ingredients like more robust public transport, miles of protected bike lanes, tolls for solo drivers during rush hour, even zoning regulations to encourage more walkable neighborhoods.
Related video widget – small
Cities like Seattle, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Arlington, Virginia, have been using this sort of anti-personal-car regulation for decades. But San Francisco is the largest in the US to give it a whirl and the first to apply these rules to both commercial and residential developments. There’s good reason to expect positive outcomes. “Studies of transportation demand management programs show modest changes at the site when sufficient incentives are provided, meaning significant subsidies like free transit passes,” says Genevieve Giuliano, a transportation policy researcher with USC.
The best news for San Franciscans is that the city has pledged to be open-minded about how these incentives play out. “It’s important to have this be data-driven,” says Viktoriya Wise, chief of staff for the sustainable streets division at the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency. “As we collect data on different measures, we’ll be able to adjust the program.” With enough numbers to crunch, the city could get really, really micro—like giving developers extra points to build a bike-share station in exactly the spot that needs one.
You’ll have to be patient: This program won’t bear serious fruit for 10 to 20 years, given the pace of development. The first projects built under the new rubric won’t get off the ground for another 18 to 24 months. But San Francisco planners say they’re already getting calls about the ordinance from other cities interested in taking this approach for a spin. And for the family that gets access to an in-apartment storage spot for their car-share friendly car seats (two points!), the lifestyle changes will happen a lot sooner. Too bad they’ll still have to find ways to entertain toddlers while stuck in traffic.
Related video widget – wide
1Post updated Monday February 13 at 1:45 pm. The neighborhood previously named in this example, Mission Bay, falls under the purview of the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, so the transportation demand management rules cited in this piece do not apply there.