San Francisco’s MTA boss Jeff Tumlin is one of a new breed of planner trying to kick cars out of the city. That’s good for business, good for people, and amazing for the planet.
04.01.2020 06:00 AM
For 30 years, a 40-foot-high section of US Route 101 wove like a blackberry vine through a low, old neighborhood of Edwardian and Georgian buildings in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Then, in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake, magnitude 6.9, fractured the elevated roadway. Some people wanted to repair it, but the city decided to tear it down—a rare unbuilding in a nation connected by highways.
Today it’s hard to imagine that anyone defended the spur. The highway formed a wall between neighborhoods, and the right-of-way beneath it was a dark, unloved space. With the freeway pruned away, the city styled the newly revealed surface street—Octavia—after a grand Parisian boulevard, with an inner couple of lanes separated from parallel side streets by tree-lined islands. Octavia now terminates in a long, grassy park with a geodesic children’s play structure at one end. Nearby are pricey shops and chic cafés.
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Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez
Back when Jeff Tumlin was on staff at the urban planning consultancy Nelson\Nygaard, he worked on this remaking of Octavia Street and Hayes Valley. Now Tumlin—tall, lean, and bearded—is the new head of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency. On a sunny winter morning, he and I head for that green space so he can show me the freeway’s ghost, barely visible in the odd, polygonal footprints of newer buildings along Hayes Street—they’re catawampus, tucked into the spaces where the concrete artery used to curve through, insensible to the city’s grid. Take away the veil of freeway and you get space for a more boogie-woogie street fabric. Less freeway, more park.
Tumlin has a preternatural awareness of urban ectoplasm. He’s going to need it. Like the Loma Prieta quake, Tumlin is about to shake some things until they break—carve up a few more roads to create bike paths, new busways, parks … whole new ways for people to move around. It won’t be easy; lefty, crazy San Francisco becomes the most conservative city in the country when it comes to changing the look and feel of the place. But this is the revolution that Tumlin and a generation of new-wave planners are waging.
“Almost no matter what you want to do with cities, transportation is the fastest and most cost-effective way of achieving your goals,” he says. “If you want to reduce 22CO2 emissions, if you want to advance social equity, if you want to foster small business success, if you want to increase land value, if you want to increase public health, if you want to reduce fatalities and injuries—transport is the place to do it.”
Cars are great. I say that as an Angeleno who grew up thinking of them as a perfect amalgam of fashion signifier and Gundam mech-armor, but also because of everything that the private automobile has made possible. Vanguard of an economic boom, the car democratized freedom of movement and social privacy—privileges that had been available only to wealthy white men. The whole economic premise of Fordism was that the laborers who powered the late industrial revolution, who built the cars, should also be able to afford them. And wow, did that ever happen. When the assembly lines spun up at the beginning of the 20th century, Americans owned just a few thousand cars. By the end of World War II, it was 30 million. As of 2017, there were more than 193 million cars and light-duty trucks in the US. That’s roughly three cars for every four adults.
Cars are also terrible. They kill about 40,000 people every year in the US and injure millions more. Americans spend 54 hours per year slowly losing their minds in traffic, a waste of $179 billion in lost productivity and 3.3 billion gallons of gas. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and more than half of that is from cars. Combustion engines simply cannot help emitting carbon-based molecules that violently deconstruct Earth’s climate. Cars—especially the short-hop, sub-5-mile trips that people who live in cities take as a matter of both habit and necessity—are the most obvious cause of climate change.
Or: You. It’s you, driving to work, picking up kids, driving to the movies, doing the shopping. Your car habit is killing the world with fire and flood.
Really, though, it’s not you. It’s them—the people who made the laws that shaped the urban world and the people who built cities to fit them. Driving seems like what an economist would call a revealed preference, a thing people obviously love because they do it so much. But it’s not. Driving is an enforced preference. The modern American city is designed to favor cars and make other ways of getting around suck. That’s been true for at least six decades, but today our limited ability to imagine different shapes for cities is causing environmental collapse. It’s time to hit the brakes. Want to cut carbon? Get people to drive less. But to do it, we’ll need different kinds of cities.
Build Cities for Bikes, Buses, and Feet—Not Cars | WIRED
San Francisco’s MTA boss Jeff Tumlin is one of a new breed of planner trying to kick cars out of the city. That’s good for business, good for people, and amazing for the planet. Adam Rogers 04.01.2020 06:00 AM For 30 years, a 40-foot-high section of US Route 101 wove like a blackberry vine through… [Read More]