Motorists fight back in "transit-first" San Francisco

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San Francisco is one of the most traffic-congested US cities, but a new coalition says we need more parking and fewer bike lanes
SF Media Co.

Believing that they’re somehow discriminated against on the streets of San Francisco, a new political coalition of motorists, conservatives, and neighborhood NIMBYs yesterday [Mon/7] turned in nearly twice the signatures they need to qualify the “Restore Transportation Balance in San Francisco” initiative for the November ballot.

It’s a direct attack on the city’s voter-approved “transit-first” policies and efforts to reduce automobile-related pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It would prevent expanded parking meter enforcement unless requested by a neighborhood petition, freeze parking and permit rates for five years, require representation of motorists on the SFMTA board and create a Motorists Citizens Advisory Committee within the agency, set aside SFMTA funding for more parking lot construction, and call for stronger enforcement of traffic laws against cyclists.  

“With 79 percent of San Francisco households owning or leasing an automobile and nearly 50 percent of San Franciscans who work outside of their homes driving or carpooling to work, it is time for the Mayor, the Supervisors, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board to restore a balanced transportation policy for all San Franciscans,” the group claims on its petition.

But given that drivers already dominate the space on public roadways, often enjoying free parking on the public streets for their private automobiles, transportation activists say it’s hard to see motorists as some kind of mistreated population.

“The idea that anyone who walks or cycles or takes public transit in San Francisco would agree that these are privileged modes of transportation is rather absurd,” Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART board, told the Guardian.

He said this coalition is “co-opting the notion of balance to defend their privilege. They’re saying the city should continue to privilege drivers.”

But with a growing population using a system of roadways that is essentially finite, even such neoliberal groups as SPUR and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce have long promoted the idea that continued overreliance on automobiles would create a dysfunctional transportation system.

“Prioritization of the single modes of transportation isn’t a matter of ideology, it’s a matter of geometry,” Radulovich said. “We’re all better off, including motorists, if we prioritize other modes of transportation and encourage people to get out of their cars.”

Still, the revanchist approach to transportation policy in San Francisco has been on the rise in recent years, starting with protests against parking management policies in the Mission and Potrero Hill, and continuing this year with Mayor Ed Lee successfully pushing the repeal of charging for parking meters on Sundays.

The coalition behind this ballot measure includes some of the combatants in those battles, including the new Eastern Neighborhoods United Front (ENUF) and old Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods. Other supporters include former westside supervisors Quentin Kopp, Tony Hall, and John Molinari, and the city’s Republican and Libertarian party organizations.

Spokespersons for the coalition didn’t return Guardian calls, but we’ll update this post if and when we hear back, and we’ll have a longer analysis of this issue in next week’s Guardian.

But Radulovich said that while conservatives are helping drive this coalition, anger over the city’s transportation policies is more of a throwback to a bygone era than it is based on conservative principles (for example, the SF Park program criticized by the coalition uses market-based pricing to better manage street parking and encourage turnover in high-demand areas).

As he said, “There are certain people who believe in the welfare state, but only for cars and not for humans.”