Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

How Can SF Keep Up With The Speed Of Change in Transportation Technology?

Traffic, transportation and technology, and how they interrelate, are hot topics these days. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to so many new technologies that affect transportation — from mapping to electric cars to autonomous vehicles to transportation network companies (Uber/Lyft) to sidewalk delivery robots to electric bikes and scooters, and lots of other things in between. When companies are based here, and want to test their products here, we become the first customers, the test market, the early adopters, the complainers (you kids get off my lawn/sidewalk/street!), the commentators, the regulators and the workers who labor on all these efforts. In transportation alone, it’s probably 10x the number of issues that any other city has to manage, so kudos to our overworked city officials who have been managing the complexity and change and diversity of opinion on these issues for years. But that’s the job we face — that’s San Francisco, and the exciting opportunities and benefits come with daunting challenges.

Just as we are a test market for technology, so too we must take on the task of experimenting with solutions both regulatory and market-driven that can lead the way to the future of transportation. San Francisco has the opportunity to promote innovation and support its own hometown industries. We have offices of innovation in government ready to lead the way.

How can we experiment with new transportation ideas while increasing safety for all road users and improving traffic? How can we expedite the ordinary processes and allow for more rapid iteration of ideas? We don’t know exactly what will work, but as citizens of the most forward-thinking town around, we need to let government try new things without the reflexive backlash of old school political alliances and tech-bro resentments. We need to be the city of just do it — not just say no. Sometimes not all the citizens will agree — but many didn’t want to take down the Embarcadero Freeway either, so sometimes government has to move forward even in the face of controversy.

The SFMTA put out an interactive map showing many of its current projects, including 64 bike-related infrastructure/improvement projects designed to improve safety. Some of these projects were envisioned in 2013 or 2014 and will be implemented in 2018 or 2019. The world is changing much more quickly than that, and we need to accelerate our regulatory and infrastructure processes to keep up.

With the addition of electric scooters and bikes, and dockless bikeshare, along with the city’s docked bikeshare, there will be many more road users choosing to use small electric vehicles instead of cars. This is a tremendous opportunity to reallocate the streets to reflect the changing mix and number of different users on the streets. We could have so many more users of small mobility devices — electric vehicles going slow speeds and taking up far less room than cars — if we provide them a safe place to ride, separated from car traffic. As this Curbed article noted:

By the end of this year, renting bikes and scooters will be a mainstream transportation option readily available to tens of millions of people in over 100 U.S. cities with the tap of a finger — and offered as part of trip-planning itineraries that include bus, rail, and ride-hailing.

The need for safety infrastructure was already urgent — but it’s especially urgent now. The U.S. streets that have not adequately planned for bikes for decades — most of them — will soon welcome even more types of wheeled vehicles. And the sidewalk — which has become the flashpoint in these conversations — is already far too narrow and poorly maintained in most cities to accommodate the needs of most walkers, let alone scooter operators afraid to ride in the street.

Whether the vehicle is docked, locked, electric, pedaled, shared, or owned, there is clearly a growing group of Americans who want to use their streets in a new way, right now. Cities have spent years chastising Uber and Lyft for increasing congestion. Now these companies are proposing solutions to get their users out of cars — and cities need to work quickly on the necessary changes to make this new urban geometry work.

This is clearly the direction that SF wants to go — in fact, the SFMTA’s map already shows plenty of terrific plans to install protected mobility lanes on city streets. These protected lanes are not just for cyclists anymore — they are for a broader and larger section of the population, including more women and a wider range of income levels. Giving people protected mobility lanes will enable more commuters to get out of cars for shorter trips in the city. If we connect more of these protected mobility lanes with transit centers like CalTrain, the Ferry Building, and BART/Muni stops — and give electric bike/scooter companies the ability to place sufficient numbers of vehicles in those areas — then we may be able to make a real dent in the number of people who can effectively cover the first/last mile to use transit.

What about resources to make this happen? Scooter and bike companies have offered money to support this type of infrastructure improvement. Let’s use this money to implement protected mobility lanes in San Francisco — either by moving street parking out from the curb to create a zone between parked cars and the curb, or by removing street parking in certain dense downtown locations where there is plenty of garage parking (which frankly is underutilized at this point). These options do not require taking away lanes of car traffic and do not require huge investments to implement. What will it take to make these projects happen sooner, in more locations, and not require 3–5 years of delay? Should we ask the transportation companies to provide people power as well as funds? Can we add more staff for cities to help share the burden of new technologies rolling out fast? We are a city of innovation and in the transportation space we need for government regulations and infrastructure to also move at a faster speed. What can we do to make that happen?

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Michele Kyrouz

Michele Kyrouz

writer | lawyer | host of Smarter Cars podcast | author of The New Mobility Handbook — Rethinking How We Get Around Cities