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Visionary Thinking 

The "X Plan," a draft of Muni's hopes for the future, offers a glimpse of transit utopia

Wednesday, Dec 5 2001
In my mind's eye I have spied the coming war. I have witnessed battles along Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. In North Beach and on Market Street I have seen brother turn against sister, neighbor against neighbor. Finally, my vision says, there will be peace. And it will be a deeper, more harmonious peace than the city has ever lived.

I have seen the "X Plan," the template for San Francisco's coming struggle between cars and public transit. And in the end, my vision says, it will be for the good.

During the past few weeks Muni Director Michael Burns has been quietly circulating a transit-improvement wish list (titled "X Plan Draft" in the version I obtained) that, among other things, proposes cordoning off miles of traffic lanes with cement guardrails, creating car-free, high-speed bus rights-of-way. The result would be "high-capacity, easily accessible, rapid-transit-style" service for the entire city, the plan says.

But while promising greater transit harmony, the X Plan also portends years of scuffling between western S.F. residents -- who have traditionally opposed projects that impede cars -- and central city residents, who are more likely to ride the bus. With the proposed closure of dozens of miles of thoroughfare traffic lanes, the old ill will may rise again.

As with Siddhartha, Charles Darwin, and St. Malachy O'Morgair, archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, before me, my vision involved a voyage. To see into San Francisco's transport future I traveled: to Blackpool, England, site of Great Britain's first passenger tramway, and one of the world's earliest light rail systems. I went to Edinburgh, Scotland, which recently closed traffic lanes to private cars, creating a network of exclusive rights-of-way for buses, bikes, and taxis. I went to London, which has hired a pair of New York consultants to lead a citywide public transit overhaul. I took the ferry to France, traveling by bus to Paris, where the mayor is in the midst of an epic fight to oust automobiles from the city. And I took the Chunnel back.

At the end of my journey, which involved 80 hours of travel by train, bus, car, boat, subway, and airplane, I reached the following conclusion: Transport is an awful thing. By the end of two weeks I was sick with a cold. My neck and back hurt; I had a headache; and I had a large, stress-induced canker sore. I learned what any urban planner or weekday commuter already knows: It's not travel we want -- it's access.

For three-quarters of a century, gaining greater access to jobs, schools, shopping, and recreation has meant getting an automobile. To realize this dream of quick, easy car access, streets were made increasingly wider at the expense of public space, sidewalks, and buildings. Rail systems in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere were torn up, making way for more automobile traffic. In San Francisco, like everywhere else in America, driving and parking spaces replaced walking space, playing space, living space, and work space -- all to realize the dream of quick and easy access. Before, streets such as Bush, Sutter, and Geary were akin to lively, walkable Parisian streets, lined with turn-of-the-century, seven-story apartment buildings with ample sidewalks and thriving storefronts. Over the years these streets have been widened into four-lane, one-way car-moving devices. Few people walk there, retail businesses can't seem to stay afloat, and there is no public life to speak of. At the end of 2001 San Francisco downtown streets are completely saturated with car traffic; adding significantly more cars would create dawn-to-dusk gridlock.

In accommodating the dream of easy access by automobile, we've put the richness of urban life out of reach.

Frederic Objois and Patrick Simbault, thirtysomething officials with Paris' division of streets and transit, hug their jackets against the early-evening chill and gesture toward a blocklong traffic barrier recently erected to keep cars out of the bus lane. The barrier is the indirect handiwork of Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor whose election in March ended a century of right-wing rule in the French capital. He provoked a fierce debate in Paris by fulfilling election promises to boost public transport, walking, and cycling at the expense of the private car. As a symbolic first gesture, during the holiday period from mid-July to mid-August the mayor closed the expressway along the banks of the Seine to cars, allowing bicyclists, roller skaters, and pedestrians to roam free.

Former French President Georges Pompidou had justified the construction of this disfiguring motorway along the once grass-carpeted riverbank with the quip "les Français aiment leurs bagnoles" (the French love their cars). Four decades later Parisians hated the resulting auto exhaust enough to elect a mayor who promised to wean the city from cars. To this end, Delanoë's transit department has been charged with creating 41 kilometers of car-free bus-bike-taxi lanes a year, building an ambitious subway that circles the city's perimeter, and, most controversial of all, effectively banishing automobile through-traffic from Paris' central neighborhoods. According to this "green neighborhoods" plan, smaller streets will become one-way routes to nowhere, striped so it becomes impossible to reach one side of the neighborhood from the other without driving in circles for hours.

"Once you get in, you won't be able to get out," explains Denis Remond, the mayor's Cabinet adviser for traffic and parking. "Drivers will be forced to stay on arterial streets."

Motorists have been outraged since the closing of the Voie Georges Pompidou; one filed a fruitless lawsuit to end the closure. Delanoë's right-wing opponents call his anti-car efforts "infantile." But troop morale remains strong.

"What we want is to favor public transit, the metro, buses, and bicycles," says Serge Arnold, chief of the transit department. "As it stands, 94 percent of our city's street space is dedicated to automobiles, yet only 25 percent of the people here drive cars. We want to balance the equation a little."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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