San Francisco’s Transit Planning Process Threatens Market Street’s Revival

by Randy Shaw on February 11, 2013

When Kieran Farr recently resigned from the Geary Street BRT Advisory Committee, he stated, “what I’ve seen in the past 6 years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements.” Farr acted after planners announced that Bus Rapid Transit on Geary— a decade old idea set to be implemented in 2012—has been pushed back to 2020. But as Farr also noted, delay in implementing transit projects is less a national problem than a San Francisco one. The Geary BRT experience shows how the city’s seemingly endless transit and community planning processes discourage rather than foster public participation. Now the challenge is for the city to avoid similar diversions and delays in transit plans for Central Market, especially as “new ideas” have emerged that threaten the community consensus for the area.

Having spent countless hours trying to get the city to complete a Tenderloin-Little Saigon transit plan that San Francisco enacted in 2007, I sympathize with Kieran Farr’s frustration with the new delay for the Geary BRT. But equally troubling is what this process says about the future of civic engagement in San Francisco. Why should dedicated volunteers like Farr participate in public processes that never seem to end?

Farr comes from the world of start-ups, which may lead some to mistakenly conclude that he is too impatient with public processes. But I have heard the same frustrations from SRO residents in the Tenderloin and Sixth Street. The lack of efficient implementation of transit and other planning processes discourages everyone except people paid by the hour to attend endless meetings.

A San Francisco Problem

While Farr largely blamed “the American regulatory framework” for delaying transit improvements, New York City has dramatically expanded bicycling, pedestrian access, and made other transit and streetscape improvements while San Francisco’s Geary BRT was still being debated. The difference is that San Francisco allows opponents of transit projects to create endless delays, discouraging public participation under the guise of seeking to expand it.

San Francisco’s acclaimed public participation goals actually limit civic engagement. And while people still attend public meetings regarding projects that directly impact them, it becomes harder than ever to get people to join multi-year transit planning projects that—unlike private developments—have no state-mandated time deadline for action.

The Geary BRT process may be a lost cause (2020!), but we can still prevent San Francisco’s pattern of endless public processes from delaying the revitalization of Market Street.

Market Street at Crossroads

Mayor Lee initiated a planning process for the revival of Central Market in January 2011, and, amazingly, it actually came up with a community-backed plan (the Central Market Economic Strategy) only ten months later. After decades of meetings about Market Street that brought no results, a new process had set the city on the right path in less than one year.

While the Mid-Market-Tenderloin tax credit galvanized the area’s renewed investment, the city’s efficient adoption of a coherent strategy for Mid-Market also sent a powerful message: it said that this time the mayor and city officials were serious about action.

The Mayor’s creation of the Better Market Street project encouraged this sense of progress. The bold, highlighted text at the top of the “About” page on it website said it all:

“Market Street needs to be more than a transportation route, it needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space and many San Franciscans feel it falls far short of this ideal.”

Unlike the Geary BRT, which faced business opposition from the start, everyone was on the same page about Market Street. Even longtime skeptics believed that, after fifty years of decline, San Francisco’s onetime great boulevard was finally on the road back.

That’s why talk of shifting buses from Mission to Market and sending bicyclists in the reverse direction is so troubling. While I understand that “all options must be explored,” and believe in “keeping an open mind,” that Market Street is seriously being considered as a transportation hub for above-ground buses rather than bicycles is entirely inconsistent with the vision for the street that emerged from the community planning process.

This process concluded that a “Better Market Street” is all about it becoming a “vibrant public space” and “more than a transportation route.” Why then is this new bus option even on the table?

Or, as many who participated in creating a consensus vision for Market Street may be asking themselves, why be further involved if ideas contrary to what has been agreed upon can suddenly become viable? The plan for turning Market into a more intense bus route replaces consensus with confusion, creating the mistaken impression that the city’s vision for Market is entirely up for grabs.

Keep Market Street on Track!

Market Street has come too far in the past two years for its progress to be slowed by radical and backward visions that lack community or public support. The implementation of Better Market Street has already been pushed back to 2017. While this is later than some would like, it also enables projects like ACT’s new theater, the Market Street Plaza shopping center, and planned new housing on Market to come on line prior to the street renovations.

Nobody cares more about revitalizing Market Street than Mayor Lee. If even this most hands-on of all mayors can’t prevent San Francisco’s seemingly endless public planning processes from delaying Market’s improvement, then Kieran Farr’s lack of trust in the city’s ability to implement transit improvements will be widely shared.

And our historic opportunity to return Market Street to its former greatness as the city’s most visually exhilarating thoroughfare will have been lost.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron

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