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 email@example.com.