Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog - Moving for a Greener Future: The Climate Case for Public Transit

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Apr 20, '23 9:37 PM EST

    Hello Archinect,

    I'm at 518 Valencia in San Francisco for a panel discussion hosted by San Francisco Transit Riders on the role of public transit in fighting climate change. 

    The event is moderated by Ellen Wu, Executive Director of Urban Habitat, and panelists are:

    • Amanda Eaken, Chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board of Directors and Director of Transportation and Climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council
    • Jason Henderson, Professor in the department of Geography & Environment at San Francisco State University and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco
    • Tom Radulovich, Policy & Planning for Livable City, and a former elected director of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District from 1996 to 2016
    • John Anderson350 San Francisco Coordinating Committee member

    6:39: Ellen Wu asks Amanda Eaken to kick things off, and Eaken asks the smallish assembled crowd: How much of San Francisco's emissions are from transportation? We throw out guesses, and turns out the answer is 42%. How much of our transportation emissions are from private cars? 72%. And how much of our total emissions are from public transit? 1%.

    From left to right: Amanda Eaken, Jason Henderson, Tom Radulovich, John Anderson. Not shown: Ellen Wu.

    6:43: John Anderson: ...We're looking at conditions on planet earth that nature has never before encountered, and are facing changes that we can't predict. We know that if global temperatures rise two degrees or more, we'll be on an irreversible course. 

    Ellen Wu: Thanks for throwing down the gauntlet; we'll spend the rest of our time tonight talking about how to mitigate this risk.

    Tom Radulovich: There are also other costs of our current car-centric system of transportation in the United States, not only climate. The United States spends as much on parking as on the military. And low-income communities are disproportionately affected by pollution and traffic violence. 

    So if we think about climate justice, we need to think about health, as well--and hence the importance of infrastructure for livable cities through biking and walking.

    ...We also need to consider things such as: as we phase out polluting industries, how do we help people transition into new jobs?

    6:50: Jason Henderson: Climate justice is about cumulative emissions over time, and that is intergenerational. The cumulative emissions of the United States are far above that of the rest of the world, and this matters. Another thing we don't always consider is displaced emissions, which are the global emissions incurred when manufacturing the stuff that is consumed by the 10% of us who are most wealthy [disproportionately in the United States]. 

    Henderson makes the point that people really can significantly and quickly change their behaviors; there can be a rapid mobilization. For example, when the covid lockdowns happened, people generally complied, despite the politically polarized environment in the United States.

    Moderator Ellen Wu

    Wu asks the panelists to address how we can turn this crisis into an opportunity. Eaken responds first, addressing the fiscal cliff that the SFMTA and other transit agencies across the state are facing. 

    Eaken: You all know that transit was hit hard during the pandemic. And despite that, 100,000 people were still riding MUNI every day--mostly essential workers. Today, we're back to 400,000, but we haven't fully recovered. So we do need to increase ridership, help make sure more people pay, and push the state to provide gap funding to bridge us over transit's fiscal cliff when federal funds run out. Also, federal funds for highways can be flexed to cover public transit.

    Radulovich shouts out Seamless Bay Area for working on the tricky problem of how to help our various transit agencies play better together for riders.

    Wu: What are the political hurdles standing in our way?

    Henderson: This is what I study. In San Francisco, there's a lot pro-car values, focus on parking, and a sense that curb space is private. That said, it's also true that as the city is gentrifying, you have people who rent and park their cars on the street, and wealthier people who buy homes that more often have their own garages. So there are equity questions around this.

    There's also resistance to bicycling--not so much political resistance, but more institutional. The infrastructure just isn't there. At San Francisco State University, where Henderson teachers, more students would probably bike if it were easier to get their bike onto MUNI buses. "So that's some feedback for you, Madame Chair."

    Eaken: "Thank you for your comment!" [Audience laughter; we all know that Chair Eaken spends a lot of time in SFMTA meetings hearing public comment.]

    7:06: Wu: What can we learn from other cities?

    Radulovich: Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris has done a lot to shift road space from cars to people walking, biking, and taking transit. And they're seeing huge shifts in the city center, and even in the outer ring.

    And there are things we've done well in San Francisco, too, like transit priority: when you make transit faster and more reliable, people use it more. 

    And [State Senator] Scott Wiener says we should always be building a subway, and that's great--but that work is slow. We could build two or three miles of subway in a decade. We can alternatively build light rail transit, if we have the political will to allocate surface street space to this. One reason people like subways over surface transit is because it leaves street space untouched; but does that always have to be the goal?

    Wu: What makes you hopeful?

    Henderson: The 2024 election is going to have huge turnout, especially in San Francisco. So we need transit priority on the ballot, and attach it to climate and to our goal of getting 80% of trips to be "sustainable" (which has been defined for this purpose as transit, biking, walking, and carpooling). [Henderson is referencing the fact that higher turnout elections tend to have more progressive voters].

    Eaken shares stories of many cities building transit priority lanes. In one city, where 1% of vehicles are busses, which carry 50% of the people, on the first day that the transit-only lane was in use, the bus started flying past the rest of the traffic, and "people were literally cheering on the bus."

    Eaken: There's a narrative that ridership is down. But as Tom pointed out, where we have made investments for improvements, we're actually beating pre-pandemic ridership numbers. The 49 Van Ness bus is at 109% of pre-pandemic ridership; and we can do this quickly and relatively cheaply. [Note: the 49 is spectacular and has a ton of ridership, but it's been pointed out to me that its ridership is also boosted by the suspension of the 47 route, which covers similar areas.]

    Radulovich: Transit lanes, slow streets, car-free spaces are all exciting in San Francisco. We're also beginning to see cracks in the narrative around electric vehicles (EVs), as we realize that they're not the full answer we were looking for. EVs have a lot of embodied energy, so they need to be driven a lot to make up for those up-front environmental costs; and they need a lot of infrastructure changes. We know that 95% of particulate pollution from cars isn't from the tailpipe but from friction from the tires--and electric vehicles are heavier, so they generate more of that.

    So we're waking up to the fact that what we need is walkable and bike-able cities and transit. 

    Anderson: I still think that electric vehicles are part of the solution.  One thing that gives me the most hope is a survey from the Economist a few weeks ago, that found that interest among young people in owning a car is plummeting. 

    Question from the audience: What role do you see for fare-free and lower-cost transit?

    Eaken: We did make transit fare-free for youth, which we're really happy about. My kids kept losing their Clipper cards, so this is great. But our financial challenges are so significant, and we know that the number one reason that people don't take transit is the service, not fares. So until we have a funding source that makes up the revenue that we get from fares, it's not realistic to go fare-free. 

    That said, there are some people for whom the fare is a burden, and we need to have that conversation and subsidize there. But not for the many for whom it's not a burden, because we have a $100M fiscal cliff. $100M is the equivalent of 20 muni lines, and nobody wants to cut 20 lines.

    Radulovich: I understand, because I used to run a transit agency as well. But if we think about what we want to encourage as a society, and what we want to discourage--driving alone--let's think about how we price parking versus transit. It's insane!

    With transit, you're supposed to pay for every trip, but with parking, we hide the cost from motorists wherever we can. There's a fundamental cost for parking, because somebody had to pay for building that street. You can charge people what it costs to build and maintain the street, and add a means-tested program to subsidize it for low-income people. 

    So it's nuts, because we're setting up all the wrong incentives. 

    Eaken turns to the audience: When--it's not a matter of if, but when--we propose unpopular things like raising parking fees, we need all of you to show up in support of this.

    Wu: What are strategies we can deploy to make transit here as widespread, cool, and diverse as it is around the world? 

    Eaken: Did you make it out to SOMArts for the Muni Raised Me art exhibit? It was incredible! And I love the idea of introducing unexpected experiences and joy--like what if one of every two hundred busses is an art bus, or one of every thousand rides you get to DJ? But also, transit needs to be impeccably reliable. And as Vice Chair Borden has been championing, we need better customer service. For example, paying your fare needs to be as easy as possible, by tapping your credit card if that's how you want to do it. 

    Radulovich: I'm probably the wrong person to ask how to make things cool for young people. But one thing is skateboards, which are popular among younger people. Skateboard advocacy is still growing and is where bike advocacy was twenty years ago. You can't take your skateboard into buildings with you everywhere, for example, and there's more we can do for skateboarders. 

    Another thing is electric scooters; something about this captured young people's fancy. And it's not just tech bros riding these; it's a diverse group. So we need to take young people's transportation desires seriously.

    Anderson: My dream is to attract local movie stars and celebrities, and maybe you could find them on the bus. I'd also love to see places for scooters to ride that are safe but not on the sidewalk; and to be able to bike across the Bay Bridge. 


    Thanks for reading!

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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