Everyday Activist: Transportation for a Livable City’s Jeremy Nelson

by Matt Hayashi on January 10, 2005

Jeremy Nelson might compare a free parking spot on the street to sneaking a free ride on the MUNI. Yet while a free ride on the MUNI is punishable by fine, a free parking spot is just kind of nice. As those of us who use alternative modes of transportation are largely responsible for the money that pays for building and maintaining such modes, car drivers, on the other hand, are not holding up their end of the deal.

For Nelson, who is Policy Director of San Francisco’s Transportation for a Livable City (TLC), the city’s below-market rates for parking signify a sort of “socialism for vehicles.” “But what about the red, metal boot on my front driver’s side wheel?” one might ask. Yes, we do give parking tickets and yes, occasionally, the boot, but Nelson insists the drivers in this city have it easy. There are impacts on air quality, water quality and public health that are not captured by existing fees for vehicles. In an environmentally progressive city such as San Francisco policy should encourage alternative modes of transportation and discourage rampant vehicle use, not the other way around.

There is more to the story than just cars, however. When Nelson began working with TLC in 2003 he focused on parking policy. Since then he has expanded into the myriad of issues surrounding transportation in San Francisco. Bicycle and pedestrian safety, traffic calming, urban planning, the public domain and the transit system are all concerns of TLC. Informed and well educated in urban planning, Nelson helps TLC make pragmatic and balanced decisions in their campaigns. He spends much of his day in TLC’s office on the corner of Market and 7th, researching statistics and precedents in SF as well as studying the policies of various other cities such as New York or London. Just outside his window there exists an incessant flow of traffic across SF’s main drag; a little reminder of just exactly what he’s up against.

Beyond Chron: What are some important accomplishments of TLC?

Jeremy Nelson: The major one that I can recall is the Prop K transportation sales tax. TLC was actively involved in getting that passed. It went to fund not just road maintenance and street sweeping, but actually to fund pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure such as bike lanes, traffic calming, pedestrian countdown signals, and also to fund bus rapid transit. So basically, unlike many transportation sales taxes, which just go to build roads, maintain roads and expand roads, this one had a very environmentally progressive focus where the majority of the money went to make it safer, more hospitable and more convenient to travel by more sustainable modes. There was a major coalition of groups but TLC was very active.
In related transportation funding, we’ve been working with MUNI for the last budget cycle as well as the latest one to look for new policy measures, rather than balancing their budget deficit on the backs of transit riders, which seems to be the agency’s first response,.. ‘Lets raise fares or lets reduce service and pick up our savings there.’ When your first move is to cut service and/or increase fares you are essentially balancing your budget on the backs of transit riders and punishing people who are taking the bus. So again we worked with other groups and really pushed them (MUNI) last year when they were considering service cuts, to look at a broader range of policy measures, and this goes back to some of the things we talked about; capturing the whole social, public health, environmental impact and motor vehicle use. Using your revenue sources to disincentivize behavior that you don’t want and incentivize the kind of behavior’s that you do want: ride the bus, walk, bike.

Beyond Chron: What kind of opposition do you encounter?

Nelson: I think a lot of opposition to some of the ideas that we advocate for comes again from car-centric thought. There’s actually a generational disconnect… if you talk to folks who were growing up in the forties and fifties – family members, neighbors – there’s a sense that having a car represents achieving the American Dream. It represents progress and freedom, and that we should try somehow to encourage people to buy into that system. The problem is you can’t have it all. You can’t have vibrant streets, you can’t have safe streets and you can’t have a great transit system if your policies are car-centric. So if you want all the good things that urban life has to offer, you have to in many ways limit the reign of the vehicle in the city.

Beyond Chron: What do you love/hate about what you do?

Nelson: I guess what I like about what I do is I feel I have a chance to improve the quality of the public realm, to improve the quality of our transportation system , and to move in a more sustainable direction. That improves the livability of the city not just for current residents, but for generations to come. And so I’d like to try to think of that as being not only in my own self interest in improving the current conditions of the city but also that it will have an impact that hopefully builds incrementally over time and that San Francisco could really carve out a niche for itself. That we have the greenest, most environmentally sustainable and livable city because of the decisions we made around what kind of transportation we encourage and what kind we discourage, and how we design our streets, and how safe we made our streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, and because we build a world class transit system. That could be, you know, if you’re selling a product, that could be our niche, so if we can build that and leverage that then future citizens can benefit from that as well.

Beyond Chron; And.

Nelson: And what I don’t like is how hard that it is!

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