Sunday, September 04, 2005

How gentrification undermines Muni

The SF Examiner scooped everyone on the SPUR report on Muni with a story last week, while the Chronicle has yet to provide readers with an account of its contents. The 20-page report, while flawed in important respects, raises the alarm about disturbing trends indicating red ink---and fare hikes and service cuts---for Muni for years to come unless the city begins to act soon.

The report gives us some facts to keep in mind as we grapple with Muni's problems:

Yes, the city just raised Muni fares for the second time in two years, but the service cuts beginning soon will be the first in 17 yearsIt could be worse: Those service cuts will be only 7%, as compared with Golden Gate Transit's 27% cuts.

Labor makes up 75% of Muni's costs, which raises painful questions for a city that has always been pro-labor: How much is the city willing and/or able to reward Muni workers (4000 employees, and 2000 are drivers) for being fortunate in having a strong union? The fare strikers voiced solidarity with Muni workers who face layoffs, but to what extent should city government be a jobs program for an elite portion of the city's workforce? ("Muni employees have generous health and retirement benefit packages that have grown much faster than inflation." (page 8.)

Muni fares only cover 23% of the system's operating expenses, which means the misguided fare strike is both foolish and has no chance of success. Fares don't represent an important enough source of revenue for Muni to give strikers---even if they had significant numbers---any leverage. (The report doesn't discuss it, but the rest of Muni's budget comes mostly from city, state, and federal subsidies.)

We congratulate ourselves on our low bus fares, but New York, which charges $2.00 compared to Muni's $1.50, somehow recovers 53% of its operating expenses via the farebox, an interesting bit of information the report doesn't explain. What is New York doing that we aren't doing?

A fun historical note: "Private enterprise developed the first transit lines along the best natural routings. Typically, real estate developers built streetcar lines to promote new developments, such as the 21-Hayes to the once rural Hayes Valley" (page 3).

Yes, SPUR is a "pro-business group," but that bothers doctrinaire progressives more than it does mere liberals like me. The city's left often treats the business community with contempt and neglect, with its tolerance for disorder (Critical Mass, homelessness) and anti-social behavior (graffiti/tagging, Critical Mass, homelessness), even though the city's economy depends on business for jobs and tax revenue. And many progressives seem unaware that the city's largest industry is tourism, which makes squalor and disorder on city streets even a bigger liability.

In any event, the report reveals its bias early on: "More Muni service cuts will severely degrade transit service, causing some people to abandon Muni altogether and harming those who typically rely on Muni the most---youth, senior, disabled, and low-income residents," page 3). Where's the "workers" category? It's not seniors, the disabled, and poor people who jam the buses and streetcars during rush hour; it's working people going to and from work in the downtown area, where most of the jobs are. Without Muni, there would be no practical way for the city's workforce to get to work, the city's bicycle fantasies notwithstanding.

Pro-business or not, the SPUR report makes points that even city progressives can't ignore: If 75% of Muni's budget goes for labor, that effectively puts serious economies off limits, since the Muni unions are strong enough to resist any attempt at reducing pay or benefits, which is as it should be. But that also leaves SPUR itself little room for maneuver, since, given its perspective, the group is unlikely to advocate new taxes or bond measures to maintain the Muni system at a level likely to attract more riders.

Hence, SPUR urges some relatively inexpensive solutions: Make Muni faster and more efficient with transit-only lanes on main thoroughfares; expand proof-of-payment systems to make boarding faster; eliminate bus stops; cut bus runs on peripheral lines and focus on the main arteries like Geary, Market, and Mission, since the 15 busiest Muni routes carry 60% of the system's passengers. Other ideas: more short lines, like the Castro shuttle, and more express buses like the 38L, which experienced travelers on Geary Blvd. prefer.

The problem, as SPUR sees it, is that, instead of cutting service, Muni will actually need to carry more people just to keep up with the city's economic and population growth: "If Muni were to increase its ridership by an additional 264,000 trips per day (36 percent) from 736,000 today to 1,000,000 by 2015, the number of car trips in San Francisco per day would hold steady at current levels, so congestion would get no worse than it is today." (page 4).

This is where the SPUR report goes off the rails, so to speak. As the report notes with dismay, "more people are choosing to drive than to ride" in San Francisco. SPUR attributes that trend to Muni's inefficiencies and slowness. I ride Muni every day on a variety of lines, and my impression is that it works pretty well, given the hills, the mostly two-lane streets in the neighborhoods, the city's population density, etc. Since the meltdown of 1998, my experience has been that the Muni system improved steadily under the leadership of former Executive Director Michael Burns.

If Muni is not at fault, why are more people driving in the city? If the SPUR folks had been reading District 5 Diary, they would have had a readily quantifiable explanation: There are more cars registered in the city every year---many more. According to the DMV, at the end of 2000 there were 451,879 cars, trucks, and motorcycles registered in the city; at the end of 2004, there were 464,903. That's a jump of 13,024 in four years, which means on average there are 3,256 new vehicles registered in SF every year, more than 80% of which are cars.

Let's tie it all up in a nice, big ribbon: gentrification means more cars. Which is why luxury housing developments like Rincon Hill and projects like the Market/Octavia Plan---both of which SPUR supports---not only accelerate gentrification in the city, driving up housing costs for everyone, they also undermine public transportation in the city. The people who buy the condos at Rincon Hill or rent the new market-rate apartments in the Market/Octavia area are not likely to rely on buses to get to the wine country for the weekend---or even to get around in the city. They are going to own cars.

More people owning cars and driving in the city means fewer passengers and less revenue for Muni. The aggressive, pro-growth policies SPUR supports are actually making it more difficult to maintain the first-rate public transportation system the business community wants, so that the city can, well, grow even more.

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The Bay Guardian is stirring

The SF Bay Guardian is showing signs of stirring from its long, PC slumber---at least on the housing issue. The editorial in the August 17 edition ("EIR for Brotherhood Way"), about a proposed condo project in Parkmerced, could have been written by District 5 Diary:
The "neg.dec.," as it is known, is just another sign of the disdain the Planning Department has for the neighborhoods---and it is a very bad sign of how high-end housing development will be treated in the future (and with, by some estimates, 30,000 new units being slated for the southeast part of town, managing housing development is a very big deal)...From here forward, every single high-end housing project in San Francisco needs to be studied to determine whether it will have any effect on housing prices for others, whom it will serve, how the influx of even more rich people will impact the city, and whether any of this is remotely desirable.
Bold, intelligent words. Let's hope the Guardian follows through on this statement of principle, since many so-called progressives are an important part of the We Need Housing movement in the city, led by an aggressively pro-development Planning Department.

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