San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener is one of the most outspoken street safety advocates in the city government and Mayor Ed Lee’s appointee to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (a four year term).
In 2011, he was instrumental in passing Proposition B, which will allocate $248 million in General Obligation Bonds for fixing San Francisco’s streets, bridges and public spaces. In 2012, he’ll be tackling another far reaching transportation renovation: bringing high-speed rail to the Bay Area.
We spoke with Supervisor Wiener about improving the transportation experience in San Francisco, thinking long term on high-speed rail, why more taxis means fewer drivers, and other street safety issues.
GJEL: You’ve lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Has the way people travel changed significantly since you moved here?
WIENER: Not dramatically. We do see more people biking and I do know of more people who have gotten rid of their cars or have a car but hardly ever drive it. You know, I have some friends I never thought would ride Muni who now ride Muni at least some of the time.
GJEL: To what would you attribute that change?
WIENER: I think that’s a combination of the fact that parking can be challenging but also there are a lot of people who are realizing that just driving in this town is not always so fun.
And I’m realistic. I have a car. I don’t drive it that much, but there are times when I need to drive. I don’t subscribe to the belief that we are going to create a non-car paradise. There are people who need to drive whether that’s because of their job or to get groceries or getting their kids around.
But for the people who are only driving because they can’t get where they want to go otherwise, we want to give them the option to travel in a different way. So by improving Muni, by making the streets more walkable, by getting more cabs on the street there will be more people who decide that is more desirable to not drive.
GJEL: You mention taxis on your city council homepage. Why are cabs such a big part of your agenda?
WIENER: If you want to be a transit first city, if you really want to get people out of their cars, cabs are an important part of that system. Even if we had 100 million dollars each year to improve Muni to address its structural deficits, to expand service and to really upgrade the system, Muni is never going to be able to get you anywhere you want to go at any time. If you look at a city like New York, this city has a world-class transportation system, one of the most amazing subways around. That is part of what gets people out of their cars in New York, but their cab system is just as important.
People need to know that if they need to get somewhere quickly, they can jump in a cab and get there. And I personally have people tell me that if they knew they could get a cab when they wanted, they would sell their cars tomorrow. But we have a relatively low number of cabs, and our cab service is bad.
GJEL: The passing of proposition B was a big win for you this year. The city has tried to pass similar bond measures in the past, in 2005, what was different this time?
WIENER: A couple things: We put together a very strong coalition to get the streets bond passed of all sorts of different people including the Bike Coalition, the safety advocates, labor, the business community. We had a lot of different people involved who could agree that we needed to fix our roads and fix a lot of other infrastructure that this bond addresses.
It’s also important to keep in mind that in 2005, the last bond that failed, it got in the high 50s (in terms of votes), so that bond did well, it just didn’t make it to two-thirds. That was a much smaller campaign so we knew with the right campaign we’d have a shot at the two-thirds and I also think that, as time goes by, people just become more convinced that we need to do something drastic to getting our roads fixed.
GJEL: On transportation issues, some might see a tension between function and experience in urban planning. That is, there’s a belief that the things we do for quality of life, wider sidewalks, etc, are not the most functional improvements. This bond sort of addresses both needs. Can you talk about your emphasis on quality of life in San Francisco?
WIENER: I think anything we can do to improve our public spaces is going to bring people together and build communities. So when we now have $10’s of millions to spend on street safety and making our neighborhoods more walkable, to make room for outdoor seating by making the sidewalks a little wider–that improves our experience as a community. When we improve Muni with signal upgrades, it improves the public experience. When we make our streets more bikeable–that improves the public experience.
GJEL: Speaking of bikeable: The relationship between Muni buses and city cyclists isn’t all that great. There have been a number of collisions in the last year. Is the problem one of education for riders and drivers, or is it an infrastructural issue?
WIENER: We live in a very cramped city in a lot of ways. Geographically it’s a small city that’s densely populated. Many times we have narrow roads, and on these cramped spaces we have cars and large busses and cyclists and pedestrians so there’s a lot of potential for conflict on our roads. So we’re not going to make our geographic space bigger, but what we can do is make sure our roads are structured in a way so that everyone can use them and its clear who should be where and that it’s as easy as possible to make sure everyone can travel on our roads in a way that reduces those conflicts. That’s a real challenge but we have been moving in that direction.
GJEL: One of the crucial tools for a lot of the pedestrian advocacy organizations we talk to are strong statistics that help pinpoint where we can make manageable improvements. Are metrics an important tool for you?
WIENER: Yes, because they really help us make the case for why we’re doing this. Sometimes when we make changes, let’s say by having a longer crossing time for pedestrians. Sometimes people will say “you’re just doing this to undermine driving because you’re anti-car,” or something like that. And that’s not the case. We’re doing this because we have an unacceptable rate of injuries and fatalities for pedestrians.
[Stats] really help justify why we’re doing it. We’re not doing it for the heck of it, for unfounded reasons. We’re doing it because we have a lot of pedestrians in this town and too many injuries.
GJEL: What are you big transportation agenda items in 2012?
WIENER: I’m already engaged–and will be even more so–in high speed rail and making sure it happens and that it goes to down town San Francisco.
GJEL: That’s another controversial topic, what’s the status of that initiative right now?
WIENER: It’s in flux now. The press has sort of gone on a feeding frenzy against high-speed rail, and that’s unfortunate. Yes it’s expensive; yes it’s going to take a long time. But that’s true of any transformative infrastructure project.
You know the interstate highway system was not built overnight, and when the decision was made to build it, they didn’t have all the money in the bank. These projects take years and years and years and investment over time. But we know that without high speed rail we’re just going to have to spend an enormous amount on highways and doing a lot of things that are very expensive, have significant negative environmental impacts and then we still wont have a good transportation system.
GJEL: What do you think the hang up is? Is it that people do not think this sort of infrastructure is important, or is it a sort of cognitive issue where people recognize that they want or need these changes, but it’s such an enormous project that right now, with the economy not so flush, people aren’t willing to take the plunge?
WIENER: The short term, easy answer is to say, “let’s not take on these big projects because they’re expensive and they take a long time and they’re controversial.” So it’s easy just to throw up your hands and say, “lets not do it.” But if you look at what made this country great, it was our willingness to say, “we’re going to do something big and it may be expensive and it may take a longtime and politically it may be a heavy lift, but its going to be transformative.”
So whether it’s the interstate highway system, whether its building BART and Muni underground–whatever it may be—it almost always ends up being worth it. Can you even imagine what would have happened if people would have killed BART because it was going to be expensive and take a long time and be disruptive while they’re building it?
Look at the fact that we made the huge blunder of allowing Marin County and San Mateo to opt out of BART. If we had BART all the way up to Santa Rosa and down through the Peninsula to San Jose, it would be so much better. With these kinds of infrastructure projects, far more often than not, you regret not doing it, and you regret not going further.
GJEL: What are some things that people who are passionate about high-speed rail can do to aid its progress?
WIENER: When there are negative stories about high-speed rail, for example, write a letter to the editor. Keep lobbying officials, keep all of our spirits up and make sure that we’re focusing on high-speed rail, that we’re committed to it.
Sometimes you only hear from the people who don’t want it. As committed as you may be, sometimes you only hear from the opponent. And that’s tough psychologically for any public official, so it’s important to keep communicating and keep talking about how important it is.
Photo Credit: Dennis Hearnes Photography