Commentary

Commentary: Julie Pitta

Of Slow Streets, Closed Streets and Environmental Responsibility

Richmond Transportation Expert Andy Thornley Imagines A San Francisco Less Dependent on Cars

By Julie Pitta

You might have seen him pedaling through the neighborhood: A handsome, silver-haired gent on a bicycle festooned with colorful streamers and flags, pulling a handmade wooden trailer. 

Don’t let the quirky exterior fool you. Andy Thornley, former policy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, one-time candidate for District 1 Supervisor, and, for the last seven years, a member of the Sustainable Streets Team for the City’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), is whip smart and he has spent much of his brain power thinking about the future of city streets.

“Andy is a mentor,” said Winston Parsons, a San Francisco transportation activist. “He’s been an extremely valuable resource on complex issues relating to transportation.”

Expertise like Thornley’s is sorely needed as San Francisco grapples with climate change. It’s a crisis that can’t be overstated: Eight of the state’s largest wildfires occurred in the last four years. A little more than two years ago, a confluence of wildfire smoke and fog created conditions that turned the San Francisco sky a sickly orange.

City officials have responded admirably, updating the San Francisco Climate Action Plan, overwhelmingly approved by the Board of Supervisors last year. Among its goals is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60% by 2030. By 2040, San Francisco has promised to become a “net-zero” metropolis. 

Achieving those aims will be impossible without reducing automobile traffic. Cars are the greatest producer of green-house gas emissions, creating the very conditions that make wildfires inevitable.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Thornley about San Francisco transportation. Among the topics we discussed, were street closures, a polarizing issue in the Richmond where the Upper Great Highway and JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park are being considered as car-free spaces. (Note: Those roads are under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department; the SFMTA acts as its advisor.) Also being deliberated, is whether the City’s Slow Streets program, instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, becomes permanent, a decision that will be made by the SFMTA.

Thornley offered a compelling argument for reconsidering street usage. 

“City streets are public space,” he explained. “So are curbs. Right now, our streets are a mono-culture; automobiles have crowded out everything else. In fact, when you look at the overall amount of public space available in San Francisco, most of it is devoted to cars.

“Look, I’m not anti-car. The car is a remarkable tool and, for many tasks, it’s a suitable tool,” he continued. “But the answer to everything shouldn’t be, ‘We have to drive there.’”

How did American cities become so car-centric? Thornley delivered an important history lesson. Not only did Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company’s legendary founder, invent the assembly line, he created financing schemes so that the average consumer, for whom the price of a car was still out of reach, could buy one. Then the advertising industry worked its magic: The car was transformed from a useful tool to an object of desire.

As more cars were purchased, city landscapes were altered. For example, houses on Army Street – now Cesar Chavez – were moved to create an automobile thoroughfare. Cities, ours included, continue to widen streets even as exhaust fumes choke their residents.

“In crowded places like San Francisco, you just can’t keep piling up big metal boxes,” Thornley explained. “They take up too much room.” Consider the private and public spaces devoted to parking: “We’ve prioritized housing cars as we’ve failed to house people,” he said.

Cars are killing us by degrading our air and making it unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. They obstruct environmentally friendly forms of transportation like buses. Even so, breaking our dependence on cars will be painful, a fact that Thornley readily acknowledged. 

“This is going to be awkward for a time,” he said. “We’re asking people to have faith that this will ultimately be a good change.” 

What of those who say that streets can’t be closed until Muni has been improved? 

“That’s a case of where the perfect is the enemy of the good,” he said. “And, I look at it another way: People are not facing up to our automobile dominance.”

I’ve heard the arguments for and against permanently closing the Upper Great Highway and JFK Drive. I’ve listened to those calling for the reopening Lake Street. I’ve been disheartened to hear reopening advocates fail to acknowledge climate change. Reopening the Upper Great Highway can only be temporary. Rising ocean levels will force a permanent closure in about 50 years. A portion – the strip between Sloat Boulevard and Skyline Drive – will be eliminated in 2023, a casualty of waterfront erosion.

I’ve also been disappointed by reopening advocates’ attempt to stereotype their opposition as bicycle fanatics, so-called “tech bros in Spandex.” Those I’ve met are typically parents in recycled polar fleece deeply concerned about the kind of world they’re leaving to their children.

As the City tries to move people out of cars, it must tackle some difficult issues. Among them is providing broad access to public gems like Golden Gate Park and beefing up Muni service in widely traveled corridors. The good news is that many City residents have proven willing to embrace change. As more safe spaces have been created for cyclists and pedestrians, a greater number of San Franciscans have chosen to walk or pedal. As Muni expands, more will be likely to take buses. Those changes bring us closer to Thornley’s dream of a less car-dependent San Francisco. The alternative is unthinkable.

Julie Pitta, a former journalist at The Los Angeles Times and Forbes Magazine, is a neighborhood activist. She can be reached at julie.pitta@gmail.com.

2 replies »

  1. This is all pie in the sky.

    The people promulgating permanent road and street closures are almost all young techies, very wealthy, who moved here for work.

    Some are bicycle coalition fanatics — of the type who slow down vehicles, on purpose.

    I don’t know where these people have traveled, but car pollution is way worse than in most of the world. Sending cars onto other streets does not decrease the numbers of cars.

    It just increases pollution.

    They are building more high-end housing so there will be more cars. Rich people want to go out for drives, etc.

    Also, there is no transportation in much of the city, and, thanks to Mr. Tumlin, we have to wait a helll of a long time for a bus. Sunday saw a Superbowl sickout. It was dreadful.

    This is faux environmentalism. If these people want to do something positive for our open spaces, have Phil Ginsburg fired and sever all RPD ties to Parks Alliance, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, the Fields Foundation and Illuminate, etc.

    That will be a positive step, but they probably support park privatization and are YIMBYs as well!

    Like

  2. Our city’s infrastructure shifted to serve the automobile first.
    I remember the 1950s when we could hop on a streetcar at the turn-around on Cornwall Street (between California and Geary ) and ride it all the way downtown to stores like The White House or the Big E (Emporium).
    It’s a pity that railway line was torn out.
    Then, suburban neighborhoods like Shoreview, Seacliff, or St. Francis Woods were developed.
    These neighborhoods lack the European design of housing over storefronts – laundromats or mom-and-pop stores – which so many of us have lived in.
    Detached garages are an essential part of these kinds of residences. Their wealthy residents are expected to drive their cars everywhere rather than walk to nearby stores or services.
    Finally, I’ll never forget Redevelopment.
    Wonderful old Victorians were razed all up and down the Fillmore to make a high speed road to downtown.
    Geary Blvd was widened and turned into a freeway that is dangerous for pedestrians to cross and bicyclists to travel.
    Lawrence Ferlinghetti said in his inaugural address as Poet Laureate ‘What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than poetry.’
    Lawrence rode a bicycle well into his 80s.
    Like Lawrence, we ride our bicycles to get around and we are in our 70s.
    Car free roadways like The Great Walkway and car free JFK Dr provide safe transit on foot or cycle to reach essential businesses, services, or visit family or friends crosstown.
    With drivers ignoring speed limits, stop signs, double-parking, making U-turns unexpectedly, always in a hurry going nowhere fast, I experience car free roads as freedom from the endless stress of worrying over getting hit.

    Liked by 1 person

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