Undoing car culture in the Richmond District and making our streets for people again
By Jane Natoli
What do you think when you hear the phrase “car culture”? Perhaps the love affair with driving which continues to shape our society in profound ways? Perhaps the concerning dependence upon a technology which is responsible for a large amount of our current emissions in California? Whatever it is to you, it’s deeply embedded in our society, and in our cities. Those of us working to change our current relationship to cars cannot deny that.
That relationship is changing though (another thing us Millennials are killing I guess). Studies support the adverse impact of long commutes. Folks have been moving back to cities for a variety of reasons:
We are going to where the jobs are.
We just like cities.
San Francisco appealed to me because it made it easier to get rid of my car. I did, over four years ago, and I have not regretted it. I know I’m not alone.
While I am perfectly content to navigate San Francisco by bike, we have a city built for cars. As we begin to create a less car-dependent city going forward, it’s not as simple as just taking out lanes to magically make cars disappear. Well, actually, it is, but that would be incredibly disruptive to how we’ve currently built our city. We have to create a city which makes cars less necessary. That’s a huge challenge. It’s something we must ultimately face if we are serious about climate change. But it excites me when I think about how much of our city we will be able to reclaim from cars when we do, and how much better it will be for all San Franciscans when we do.
Geary Blvd is the main east-west thoroughfare of the Richmond. While it once held numerous streetcar lines, they were ripped out to make way for the buses decades ago. Throughout Inner Richmond, it is three driving lanes each way in addition to occasional turn lane, metered parking, and a median. West of there it narrows to two driving lanes each way as well as parking with metered parking stretching out to 28th Avenue.
This is the obvious impact of car culture, the actual street itself. Though it has a busy bus route, we do not have dedicated transit infrastructure, and it still remains unclear exactly when we will see that again in the Richmond. Right now, it’s chiefly built to serve folks who are in cars.
Geary BRT is about renegotiating how we use our streets. The most obvious impact of car culture is that we defer to automobile infrastructure. Lanes for driving or parking have become the default. Those walking or biking or taking transit have to make the case as to why we should “take away from space” for those driving. In the case of Geary, the argument is clear. Over 54,000 folks ride the 38 daily and decreasing commute times by even a few minutes will be a big win for all of those individuals. However it’s an argument those of us favoring complete streets have to make, constantly.
Folks balk at the removal of parking, the removal of lanes, because that’s what we know. However, we are constantly making decisions about how we choose to use our public spaces such as streets. There’s no rule that says they have to be for cars. That’s simply the decisions we’ve made, and frequently, continue to make. It is important to remember that. It’s always a decision. It’s not like off-street parking just happened. But it’s also the decision we’ve structured our city (and our laws) around. There’s so much more to untangle beyond “just a lane”. As frustrated as I am by the process around Geary BRT, I also realize this fact, and realize we must work to change that fact for the sake of current and future projects.
Unfortunately this is where we start to run into one of the many paradoxes which come up with trying to reduce our auto dependency. Many folks say they would take transit more if it were more reliable or took less time. In order to do that, we need to be able to dedicate space on streets to buses or trains. It’s hard to get the buy in for things folks won’t see any benefit from immediately, though. So as we think about how to change this, we need to focus on strategies to help break down those thoughts. And we need to remain sympathetic to the fact these changes will be disruptive. While merchants continuously seem to overestimate how folks arrive at their businesses and studies show complete streets actually increase support for local businesses, the actual construction can be disruptive and we need to have tools to support our local businesses during those times. We can be armed with all the good data in the world, but that doesn’t mean as much to some folks and we need to think about why.
We could be choosing to do other things with our streets, such as making complete streets safer for all users. It seems like this should be a compelling argument. But there’s always a but. Frequently, it’s parking.
So let’s start with parking. A principal way we induce the use of cars is through the availability of parking. Geary is lined with meters, however the actual cost is quite minimal. We don’t even collect on the metered spaces there on Sundays. But that’s not the only place to park near Geary. You could park on a side street, but why do that when the business you are visiting offers plentiful free parking?
Some businesses choose to provide parking. But we also have laws which mandate what kind of parking we provide. If you’ve ever been confused by the staggering amount of parking in a suburban shopping center, remember that it’s likely that way to comply with local regulations. Those regulations, of course, are driven by norms. Those norms come at a cost, though. That’s land we could be building more businesses and homes on. Does a Wells Fargo branch really need 18 spaces? Probably not.
If you know a meter is going to be available and isn’t going to cost much, why not drive? One great tool to induce other ways of getting around would be reducing parking by costing it more appropriately. It’s a commodity. Let’s start treating it like one. Let’s demand truly Demand-Responsive Parking in our city. Anyone who’s done or is doing any sort of activism that involves raising meter prices, removing parking, or building less of it knows that there is little more sacrosanct to folks than parking. But we need to start changing that, and we can start by framing it accurately, as a decision we have made and continue to make.
When new building with far more units than spaces is proposed, there is always concern about where people are going to park. When a new bike lane or transit stop is proposed, there’s always a question of how many spaces it will remove. When a surface parking lot is up for redevelopment, folks wonder where those cars are going to park once that lot is gone. It’s not without reason folks feel this way. That’s the world we have created. That’s the world most people know. We have to change the expectation that parking is free or of little cost. Because it isn’t, we subsidize it heavily. Not just in how much folks pay (or don’t) for those parking spaces.
So. Many. Curb. Cuts.
We still need to talk about parking. Because it permeates so much more than empty lots and undercosted meters. Parking also affects how we’ve constructed the homes in places like the Richmond District. Between Anza and Balboa on 8th Avenue, for example, there are 38 curb cuts for 39 garages. And yet the street itself is still constantly lined with cars.
Think about what would be possible on a street without curb cuts. They are frequently a major challenge when we look at installing protected bike lanes. They create a more treacherous streetscape, and one where we can do much less with our streets because we have to make space for those garages. We create a sidewalk which people frequently put their cars in.
We need to find creative ways to try and take back our streets from idle cars. I think we can accomplish that in a couple ways. In the Richmond District, many buildings require seismic retrofits due to the soft-story ground floors which are frequently garages. However, this also creates an opportunity for us on the west side to add more homes for people instead of cars as we can add accessory dwelling units at the time in many of these locations. This is directly turning housing for cars into housing for people, something we need to do much more aggressively.
Second, we have to look at creative ways to get back a streetscape we can make more livable for people. Perhaps that takes the form of a curb cut buyback so we can start putting blocks back together and actually put in bike infrastructure which protects those of us riding. We currently use programs like that parklets to reclaim street space for people though we only have a couple here in the Richmond. Perhaps it’s more legislation to encourage turning housing for cars into housing for people in locations beyond soft-story retrofits. Whatever forms they take, they have to be ambitious plans. We cannot do this on the margins. That’s already where we push our infrastructure for those walking, biking, or taking transit. It’s time to start truly centering those needs.
Beyond streets and parking
Of course, it’s not just homes and streets. It’s also businesses. Whether it’s a Chevron station at Arguello or an O’Reilly Auto Parts at 3rd (with free customer parking!), there are a number of businesses just in Inner Richmond which directly support automobiles. A Toyota dealership occupies two large corner lots and has a smaller lot in a third location for used cars. While we have nothing on the level of three gas stations at four corners like you can go see on Divis, there’s still quite a bit of commercial space on a street like Geary dedicated to businesses for cars.
As we reduce our dependency on automobiles, we reduce our need for gas stations and tire shops and auto parts stores. Of course, we have to be cognizant of the human impact here. While I would love to see better uses for those locations than large lots full of cars, these are places folks are making their livelihoods, and we must be aware of that.
But times change. As we aggressively consider how to move away from cars and their many negative impacts, we cannot forgot the people impacted. We also cannot use that as an excuse. We should be able to move away from such a car-dependent environment and provide opportunities for folks directly impacted by our changing times. These aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. And if we are successful, we create more engaging, people-oriented businesses and more homes throughout our neighborhood.
The Human Toll
I’ve been hit by people driving twice in my life, once while walking and once while biking. Both times I’ve been fortunate to walk away with only minor injuries. It’s disturbing how often I talk with people who’ve also been hit while biking or walking. It’s disturbing how many folks aren’t around to tell those stories because they were fatally hit. It’s far too common and it’s unacceptable.
By far, the most dismaying way we subsidize car culture is by ignoring the lives lost, or reducing what happened from preventable to “accidents”. We don’t even assign agency, frequently saying a car or truck or vehicle injured or killed someone. We could be choosing to assign agency to those who kill other people with their vehicles, even if they do not mean to. We do not, or at least we do not at the pace we should, considering how many people are killed by people driving every year.
Is convenience really worth the cost of someone else’s life? The answer I keep coming back to unfortunately is, for most people, yes. We have not had our own equivalent of the “Stop de Kindermord” movement here. Vision Zero is trying to create some of that urgency to help folks change that, but we are going to need to see more data to see if last year’s dip in fatalities is actually a trend toward zero or not. I sincerely hope it is, but 20 people dying from vehicular-related crashes is still 20 too many. It’s even more galling to consider that’s the lowest figure in more than a century.
We have to work to keep holding our city and our fellow citizens accountable. That means taking a serious look at how we treat folks who kill other people while driving and not just dismissing it because we’ve structured a society around automobiles. Driving is a privilege, not a right, and we need to start holding people accountable if we are ever going to succeed in truly getting to Vision Zero. We need to start designing streets which prioritize safety over speed to help prevent those situations as well. We are never going to take our streets back for people if people keep getting killed on them. And we shouldn’t just accept that as a cost of living.
So what can we do?
These aren’t insurmountable problems. I can see the path forward on lots of these. Ideas like congestion pricing might not be right for the Richmond, but we can start showing up and advocating loudly for things like the 8th Avenue Neighborway. Get loud for things like daylighting and bulbouts at intersections. Show your support for Geary BRT. Buy a bike, or start riding yours a bit more often. Take the 5 and realize that as frustrating as Muni can be at times, it’s also pretty damn good and we should do more to support it. Change starts with us. Honestly explore getting rid of your car. It’s hard at first, I know. But almost 5 years in, I don’t regret it. My life didn’t stop. Yours won’t either.
Support bills like SB827 which will help reducing the required parking for our new homes in transit-rich locations. Ponder wonky ways about how we can transform car dealerships and curb cuts and ground-floor garages into spaces which are built for people, not cars. Think from a perspective beyond the automobile. Start seeing everything on the street for what it is, decisions we’ve made as a society, not infrastructure set in stone.
Then start imaging what it could be. Think about Clement when the Farmer’s Market is going and imagine it being like that all the time, full of people and vendors and vivacity instead of parked cars. Imagine a truly protected bike lane from Arguello to the Pacific Ocean, not just paint. Picture a car-free Golden Gate Park every day, not just Sunday (and some Saturdays). These things aren’t going to change tomorrow. But they aren’t going to change at all if we don’t work to change them.
Write an email to Supervisor Fewer and ask her what she is proposing to help make our neighborhood and our city less car dependent. Share with her your ideas about how we can get there. Our future depends on it.