Co-Designing Equitable Transportation in Southeast San Francisco

Julia Kong
Apr 17 · 8 min read

Improving transportation options in a historically underinvested neighborhood facing an imminent wave of gentrification.

Image description: A butcher paper with handwritten notes and post its are on the floor surrounded by a small group of participants

Reflex Design Collective facilitates creative processes that lift up the brilliance of front line innovators who navigate through lived experiences of oppression every day. We call this process Equity Design. This is a story about Equity Design in action.

The Landscape: Black San Francisco, Displacement, Environmental Justice, and a home to Immigrants

Last spring, San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) brought on Reflex Design Collective as a consultant to improve transportation in a historic but rapidly gentrifying area of San Francisco. San Francisco district 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Visitacion Valley, is full of vibrant, resilient communities. It’s also difficult to get around in. There are few public transportation options and traffic congestion is common. Parking is highly limited and there is little infrastructure for bikers. It’s not uncommon to see cars parked on sidewalks or experience 20 minute delays at Muni stops. We heard stories of unreliable bus routes, especially near the public housing — one resident shared that she is often left waiting on the bus in the middle of her route for half an hour while the driver goes on break.

There is also a sense of feeling forgotten. Some shared observations that the Muni line becomes more unreliable as it enters the Bayview-Hunters Point area, where a car may go out of service with no warning, while others reflected on the larger sense that San Francisco’s tech boom has left this area behind. These companies do not often employ residents of Bayview-Hunters Point or Visitation Valley, and if they do, it is often through gig jobs rather than salaried tech positions. Many of these transportation-tech companies do not serve this area, instead drawing service maps that exclude the low income neighborhoods. When you Google a map of San Francisco, you’ll notice that it often cuts off halfway through Bayview-Hunters Point, leaving the southern half of this neighborhood and Visitation Valley out of view.

Image Description: A generic city map of San Francisco that cuts off above Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley.

These disparities are not by accident. Structural factors like institutional racism and classism shape the built environment here. Bayview-Hunters Point is a historically African American neighborhood and currently contains the highest remaining concentration of Black San Franciscans, whose population has more than halved since 1970. While there was a considerable white working class population for much of the district’s history as a hub for industrial jobs, today the district is home to sizeable immigrant communities including Asian, Pacific Islander, and Latinx groups. Many areas of district 10 are home to low-income residents due to its more affordable housing.

District 10 has experienced a history of institutional neglect and disinvestment that includes redlining by the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, meaning that residents were denied access to federally guaranteed home mortgages that helped many communities establish wealth¹. As of 2014, 47% of district 10 residents rent², meaning nearly half of residents are vulnerable to displacement in the current expensive housing market. Right now, this corner of San Francisco is set to host the largest redevelopment project in San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake, which includes Lennar Homes’ Shipyard, and is reaching a significant turning point with the imminent wave of gentrification.

Along with the threat of displacement, the district is also a flashpoint for community organizing around environmental justice challenges. Residents have a history of standing up against the environmental health hazards they disproportionately face from nearby highways, industry, and the contaminated EPA Superfund site at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard. The persistence of these structural factors for decades, despite promises to address them, has created low levels of trust in government amongst community members.

Given this history and conversations with community members, Reflex adopted a Mobility Equity approach to address the history of injustice, neglect, and associated trauma affecting long term residents. Mobility Equity is defined by the Greenlining Institute as: “a transportation system that increases access to high quality mobility options, reduces air pollution, and enhances economic opportunity in low-income communities of color.” In the context of this project, the goals expanded from simply improved mobility to include all of the following goals that leverage transportation to create a more equitable future:

  • Increase transportation choices for district 10 residents who do not have access to a car
  • Increase connectivity between district 10 and the rest of San Francisco
  • Improve air quality to positively impact Environmental Justice within the community
  • Support employment opportunities and economic development
  • Improve public safety and security for all, understanding that safety for some communities could mean threatening the safety of others (e.g. increased policing). Our approach specifically sought out solutions that would not further this dynamic.
  • Build community power: “The ability of marginalized communities to influence decisions in a way that addresses their needs and concerns”³

Community Power: “The ability of marginalized communities to influence decisions in a way that addresses their needs and concerns”

For this project, we focused on lifting up residents’ perspectives on improving transportation options within the district with near-term, non-infrastructure transportation options. This included solutions such as public shuttles, carpooling, or a bike program, rather than more bus lines, since these infrastructural improvements are already being implemented in the long term. To address the structural inequity affecting these communities, our Equity Design approach focused on building the power of those on the front lines to influence the process and the outcomes of the project.

Our Approach: Redesigning the table

We worked in partnership with local community leaders, including CBO staff, organizers, and engaged residents to customize our Equity Design workshops to be accessible and relevant to all residents, especially low income and long term residents. We call this “co-designing the design process”. It’s a phrase full of jargon but so important for threading equity throughout the entire process. It’s not enough to just have underinvested folks at the table to design the solutions — the table itself must also be redesigned with community leadership to be more accessible to underinvested communities. For example, public meetings are often hierarchical, Eurocentric spaces that set the stage for disengagement and confrontation. In these specific neighborhoods, the history of government studies that did not often seem to lead to real change generated — as it often does — further pessimism and disengagement.

Co-designing the table also allowed us to attend to specific dynamics within district 10 communities. Through this outreach and thought partnership, we learned about the nuances of meeting various communities within district 10 on their own terms. For example, it became clear that groups differed in terms of what qualifies as a safe gathering space due to multiple factors, including varying levels of trust in the police. To address this contrast, we pivoted our plan from holding one large workshop for community visioning to hosting three smaller sessions in places that are more familiar and safe to each community.

Findings such as these shape how we set up the co-creation process to be responsive to historical and political dynamics. For example, because there was low trust in government studies leading to tangible changes, we started investing efforts earlier in our process to promote implementation by seeking funding partners and technical feedback on ideas. We began all of our co-design workshops with transparency around funding sources, who was responsible for implementation, and what technical constraints we had for potential solutions. This allowed for a deeper, two-way exchange of knowledge and information, rather than simple consultation of community members.

Image Description: 3 adults in a discussion at a table with worksheets, stickers, and food on it. Other participants sit in the background in front of a decorative poster that says “Community Multi-purpose Room”

Most importantly, we would not have been able to address district 10’s local dynamics without partnerships with local community based organizations. El Centro Bayview, BMAGIC, and the Community Youth Center Bayview graciously provided a bridge to the communities they serve, providing everything from feedback on workshop materials to translation and co-hosting workshops themselves. These key partners formed the bedrock of our creative collaboration with their constituents.

Through a series of 4 multilingual workshops, over 150 district 10 residents and city staff designed more than 90 ideas to make transportation more equitable in District 10. These eventually were narrowed down to 10 final proposals that were vetted for mobility equity, feasibility, and sustainability. All in all, this process involved:

  • Partnership with over 15 community leaders to understand local history and context, what barriers residents would have to participation, and how we could make the co-creation process relevant and accessible, especially for low income and minority residents
  • 3 workshops to vision how to improve transportation in the area, hosted in English, Spanish, Cantonese and ASL
  • Evaluation of ideas for technical feasibility, equity, and financial sustainability by talking with technical experts and potential implementation partners such as Lyft, Chariot, and SFMTA
  • 1 final quadrilingual workshop where residents refined and adapted the final proposed ideas
  • 150+ residents involved as paid co-designers throughout the process

Outcomes: Pursuing Implementation

After this 8 month co-creation process, we came out with 10 final proposals for innovative, equitable transportation options. Many of these ideas were created and vetted by long term, low income, disabled, non-english speaking, and minority residents.

Image Description: A young volunteer talks to a seated elder while adults write on worksheets around them

The final proposals included ideas such as:

  • A community shuttle for grocery shopping in partnership with a local shuttle company
  • A translator and transportation coordinator to book and plan rides for the many non-english speakers who cannot currently use ridehailing apps
  • A subsidized carpooling service to bring kids to school

The final set of 10 solutions to improve transportation were unanimously approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this past December. This means that our partner, San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), is now pursuing implementation by seeking funding, coordinating partnerships, and developing policy to support the ideas.

Final Thoughts

Throughout the process, the project benefited from the support of a partner agency (SFCTA) that was ready to grow towards greater equity in its work through the Equity Design process. Moving forward, we are hopeful about the opportunity to cultivate larger institutional shifts in how the public sector builds partnerships with their constituents and continuing to work towards institutional transformation through the centering of grassroots leadership.

Stay tuned for more lessons from the field of Equity Design.

Thank you to Brooke Staton and Julia Kramer for providing edits and additions

Reflex Design Collective

Reflex Design Collective is an Oakland-based equity design consultancy. This space explores the practice, questions, and work from our daily lives.

Julia Kong

Written by

Managing Partner at Reflex Design Collective

Reflex Design Collective

Reflex Design Collective is an Oakland-based equity design consultancy. This space explores the practice, questions, and work from our daily lives.