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Solving San Francisco’s gridlock puzzle

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, July 6, 2017 at 12:00:00 am

For decades, the San Francisco Bay area has been a region of prosperity. Fueled by the wealth of Silicon Valley, the city’s population growth shows no sign of slowing down.

Now, the region’s renowned public transit systems are feeling the strain of decades of expansion, as traffic congestion makes it hard to move around and causes headaches for everyone—businesses and consumers alike.

At the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Senior Vice President for Public Policy Jim Lazarus sounds a sanguine tone about traffic in the city.

“We don’t have congestion—we call it traffic,” he chuckled. “Traffic is good, congestion is bad.”

Lazarus has a behind-the-scenes view, as a member of the city’s new taskforce on reducing traffic, led by the San Francisco Chamber, which includes staff from the mayor’s office, regional agencies and a coterie of business associations.

“We have a fairly robust rapid transit system, but it’s bursting at the seams carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers a day,” said Lazarus. “There are no reverse commutes anymore. The traffic moves in all directions, all the time.”

The working group launched in 2015, in response to concerns the city would struggle to accommodate the one million expected visitors for Super Bowl 50. After the city successfully handled the influx, the group decided to continue meeting monthly to further develop strategies toward curbing the snarling congestion enveloping San Francisco’s winding grid system.

“This kind of ad hoc process led into some major meetings to give input to the city and the NFL,” said Lazarus. “That Superbowl, transit carried record loads, business didn’t grind to a halt and we survived with the kind of security constraints that were imposed on the town.”

At the working group’s monthly meetings, the agenda deals with strategies for enforcing traffic and parking control, as well as incentivizing sustainable options like carpooling and public transit. The group also studies current trends, like the effects of ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft, which now comprise roughly 20 percent of the city’s traffic, according to a report from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

“There’s probably 56,000 ridesharing vehicles on the streets at any peak time in San Francisco,” said Lazarus. “It obviously adds to traffic, but it’s also replacing vehicles, so we’re trying to learn what the real net impact of all this is.”

And, in a nod to its Silicon Valley DNA, the working group is planning with an eye toward future adoption of autonomous vehicles, which Lazarus believes is looming on the horizon.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to give road capacity a big bump up, meaning there will be more vehicles in the same amount of roadway,” said Lazarus. “We don’t know what the full effects will be, but we think it will move traffic better if you take some of the human error out of the equation.”

Public transit in the region accommodates nearly one million passengers daily. The city has slated transit improvements for the next 510 years, including the electrification of the Caltrain commuter line and the addition of new several planned subway stations, that are expected to boost the system’s capacity.

“With the growth of deliveries, jobs, private vehicles and rideshare, San Francisco can’t add to the street grid,” said Lazarus. “We can only try to make it more efficient, and that’s our real goal here.”

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