For our monthly meeting on Monday, February 3rd Urban Environmentalists welcomed Colin Dentel-Post and Paige Miller to present on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s current efforts to study possibilities for implementing “congestion pricing” in downtown San Francisco. The presentation to Urban Environmentalists was the first presentation to a community group, following two Policy Advisory Committee meetings.
Colin began his presentation by outlining the motivating challenges. San Francisco’s congestion has reached record levels, impacting trips for all street users (often even bus riders in bus-only lanes), increasing the potential for collisions (and thus possible injuries or deaths), and resulting in more emissions and noise pollution, further impacting the health and quality of life of those who live or work near downtown. The impact is particularly notable on vulnerable communities, who disproportionately live around San Francisco’s Vision Zero High-Injury corridors.
San Francisco’s policymakers have made some progress in recent years by introducing demand-based pricing for metered street parking spaces, adding red transit-only lanes to more streets, and just last November passing a new tax on “Transportation Network Company” services (e.g. Uber and Lyft). They recognize that it hasn’t been enough, leading to SFCTA’s call to action: moving more people in fewer vehicles.
What’s been done before
Congestion pricing isn’t a new idea - it has already shown success in London, Stockholm, Singapore, and other cities, and is now under consideration in a number of cities across North America (New York City has already committed to implementing it). It has been shown to lead to reductions in both congestion and emissions while increasing transit ridership. In Stockholm after an initial pilot period the public voted to keep their system in place.
The SFCTA also studied implementing congestion pricing in 2010 but the recommendations were not adopted, in part due to a decline in traffic during the recession. Since then there have been calls to introduce congestion pricing in a number of different plans around Vision Zero, climate action, and mobility, leading to the study in progress today.
Colin did note that equity needs to be a strong consideration as part of today’s planning effort. While there’s a lot that can be learned and replicated from the experiences in Europe and elsewhere one element that San Francisco can not implement unilaterally is that most of these places have a much stronger social safety net than the United States does today.
What’s on the table
Conditions have changed somewhat since 2010, both in terms of traffic patterns (in particular TNCs are substantially more prevalent today) and in terms of what sorts of technology can be used.
The SFCTA’s goal is to decrease car trips by 15%, with four corresponding goals: get traffic moving, increase safety, clean the air, and promote equity. To accomplish this some drivers will have to pay a fee to drive downtown, others may get a discount, and investments will be made to make it easier for everyone to walk, bike, and take transit. The specific policies are still being worked out, with the target of identifying a short list this summer and a recommendation this fall.
During the question and answer session a number of possibilities were explored in more detail.
When it comes to the implementation there is not a specific technology chosen yet but it will likely be using license plates, with a possibility for payments to be made through Clipper or FasTrak. The level of the fee isn’t yet decided yet, nor is the question of whether it will vary based on immediate demand.
While the boundaries are not yet set in stone the focus will be on the area around downtown, though if the region is too small it could lead to increased traffic just outside the boundary. Noting that 80% of trips into downtown San Francisco now begin from within the City, the 2010 study’s “Northeast Cordon” choice of the region bounded by Laguna Street, 18th Street, and the Bay is a starting point, as opposed to the “Southern Gateway” approach which would have tolled drivers crossing into the City regardless of destination.
Further, many of the downtown trips are now being made by TNCs. There has not yet been a determination of whether there will be a flat fee for crossing the cordon boundary or if there will be multiple fees for crossing through multiple zones, which could account for the impact of trips made just within downtown. It was reported that Uber and Lyft are supportive of this study as they would rather see car trips taxed equally rather than charges focusing exclusively on TNCs.
Another question touched on whether fees will vary for vehicles of different sizes, based on the research showing that SUVs take up 1.4x as much street space as smaller cars. The 2010 study hadn’t considered this option but it isn’t ruled out yet for this study.
Many of the questions about implementation details will depend on what enabling legislation ultimately passes in the state legislature, which is a requirement for this program to go into effect even locally. Before getting state authorization, the policy would need to win a majority of votes at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was estimated that the earliest that this would likely go into effect is 2025, provided that there is political will to pass it.
Check out the live tweets to see the full Q&A session:
What about SFMTA?
In two recent presentations the leadership of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has expressed strong support for this concept. At the 2020 Board of Director’s workshop Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin’s introductory slides included supporting this SFCTA study as one of several solutions to SF’s transportation challenges:
The recently convened Muni Reliability Working Group also released a set of recommendations several weeks ago which called for supporting strategies for congestion management, including pricing to help improve Muni service:
The Urban Environmentalists’ platform supports better sharing streets with people and lists decongestion pricing as one of several tools for achieving our climate and urban mobility goals.
SFCTA has a website for sending feedback and finding out about upcoming events: https://www.sfcta.org/downtown. You can also email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also plan to have them back to present to Urban Environmentalists again later this year, so join our mailing list to keep in the loop.
And finally if you want an even broader view on how subsidies for cars have impacted our urban environment please join us at Manny's on Monday, March 2nd for a conversation with Greg Shill and Jeff Wood:
Post by Cliff Bargar
On Monday, March 2nd at 7 PM we'll be hosting an event at Manny's (3092 16th Street, San Francisco, CA) with Greg Shill (Associate Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and author of "Should Law Subsidize Driving?") and Jeff Wood (principal at the Overhead Wire and host of the "Talking Headways" podcast) titled "How the Car Lobby Rewrote Our Laws And How We Can Reclaim Cities for People."
Greg's scholarship on transportation law and policy has been covered in a number of media outlets, including his own piece in The Atlantic. With renowned podcast host Jeff Wood along for the ride expect a riveting discussion on some of the biggest issues facing cities today, followed by a question and answer session.
Check out the event details on Manny's website or go straight to the Eventbrite page (tickets are $10).
If you want to get a head start on the discussion you can join us on Monday, February 3rd for a presentation on congestion pricing from the SFCTA at 1260 Mission Street!
Full disclosure: The author (Nathan Chan) has already canvassed for Shelly Masur.
On Wednesday, January 15, the leading candidates to replace Senator Jerry Hill of California’s 13th Senate District came together to debate climate change. The event was remarkable, both in terms of its attendance and organization. Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer Alan Mattlage had originally thought of the panel just two months ago. Hundreds of people turned out to hear what the candidates for SD13 had to offer regarding climate and environment for California. The event was sponsored by 350 Silicon Valley, Acterra, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Midpen Media Center, and Sustainable San Mateo County, and also included 20 other participating organizations, including Urban Environmentalists.
This month, there is an opportunity to hear from the SFCTA on congestion pricing, and an effort to reintroduce bus lanes on the Bay Bridge that transit riders are organizing for.
Learn about Congestion Pricing from the SFCTA
For Urban Environmentalist's next meeting on February 3, we will be hosting the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, who will be presenting their Downtown Congestion Pricing Study and Congestion Management Program efforts. The program will begin at about 6:30 with a 20 minute presentation followed by Q&A.
The SFCTA describe the benefits of Congestion Pricing on their project website:
Congestion in San Francisco has reached record levels. A rising population and job growth—combined with a growing presence of ride-hail vehicles—has resulted in clogged streets, particularly downtown and in SoMa. This impacts not only people who are traveling, but also the surrounding residents’ quality of life, safety, and health, and disproportionately affects low income communities of color.
Please RSVP here. If you want to participate remotely, please let us know and we will send you the info to join.
Bay Bridge Bus Lanes
Urban Environmentalists are also joining with other groups in organizing to bring bus lanes back to the Bay Bridge. Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director for SPUR, sets out the case in the SF Chronicle:
Now is the time for action on transit efficiency across the Bay Bridge and beyond. Climate change is nearing the point of no return. Passenger vehicles are the single greatest source of carbon emissions produced in the Bay Area and California. Too many neighborhoods, particularly those traditionally housing vulnerable communities, have been hurt by the volume of cars pouring onto and off of highways. We have a governor who is serious about delivering on climate goals. BART and AC Transit are in agreement that our regional express buses can and need to do more. This is the moment to forge the state, regional and transit partnerships necessary to demonstrate great freeway- and bridge-based bus solutions.
If you would like to get involved, please reach out to us!
Our January meeting is Mon, Jan 6 at the YIMBY Action Clubhouse in SF, at 6pm. We will discuss heat pumps, solar panels, and building codes! RSVP if you want to participate remotely as well and we'll send a Zoom link. For the new year, we hope to make the first Mon of the month a regular meeting time and include many substantive discussion topics for meetings, while continuing to do organizational work largely online.
The group leads have been busy working on our platform.
Happy Holidays, and we'll leave you with two news items:
Our December meeting is Monday, Dec 2 at the East Bay for Everyone space in Oakland, at 6:30pm. We will also have a social and networking happy hour on Tues, Dec 17 at Cafe Flore, at 6pm. We especially invite folks working and volunteering in other environmental, housing, or transportation-focused organizations to come say hello and share ideas!
It has been a busy month for news on the climate and housing front.
We had an incredible turnout and audience engagement at our panel last Thursday! Our panel received over 100 in-person attendees and 160 online registrants, and our livestream got interest from as far away as Australia! If you want to check out the event, you can watch the livestream, see slides to be posted on the Connecting Communities webpage, and review the livetweet thread. Check out the info below about ways to get more involved with our panel hosts and participants.
We will have an organizational meeting next Tuesday in SF to discuss our draft platform and group structure, and we will have additional events next month that will be relaxed and fun for newbies as well.
American Planning Association Northern California Chapter
Commute with Enterprise
San Mateo Office of Sustainability
Silicon Valley Community Foundation
Spare the Air Resource Teams
We are thrilled to announce our panel on Oct 17 in Oakland! Register here.
Thanks to our co-hosts TransForm, SFHAC, and SPUR, and to our panelists, David Garcia, Chris Jones, Bruce Nilles, and Nina Rizzo.
Our panel is part of TransForm's series Connecting Communities 2019! Check out the other panels coming in the next couple months.
Want to help us plan or staff the event? Sign up to volunteer here.
Recently, Urban Environmentalists submitted a petition, signed by more than 79 San Francisco residents, to the San Francisco Department of the Environment urging them to consider dense infill development as a mitigation strategy in responding to the Board of Supervisor’s declaration of a Climate Emergency. Now, we are pleased to announce that the Department has released their 2030 emissions reductions strategic plan. The document outlines seven Strategic Priorities and their associated emissions reductions, which includes priorities that Urban Environmentalists strongly support, such as building electrification and mode shifting. Specifically, we applaud the following goal scenario assumed in the report:
By 2030, 80% of all trips are taken by walking, biking, or transit.
Urban Environmentalists was also pleased to see that the Department is considering the connection between density and a robust, multimodal public transportation system.
Enhancing biking, walking, and transit systems is part of a larger strategy to make transportation more accessible and affordable for all. These modes also encourage denser and more affordable development, while improving community cohesion.
However, Urban Environmentalists believes that San Francisco should also consider the reductions in global emissions that the Strategic Priorities would cause, in place of focusing on reducing the emissions of existing residents. A city with carbon-free electricity, a mild climate, and low per capita vehicle use is a city that should welcome new residents and work diligently to prevent its existing residents from being displaced to suburbs with a higher carbon footprint. For example, a recent UC Berkeley study found that urban infill in San Francisco would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions more than any other single measure. 
We look forward to voicing our support for components of the strategic plan and continuing to advocate for new, dense, energy-efficient housing in San Francisco.
- Robert Spragg
 California Local Government Climate Policy Tool (Adapted from Jones et al. 2018)