It’s not uncommon to find people who think San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities, if not the most beautiful city, in the world. Neither would it be shocking to learn that people are finding it to be one of the most unlivable cities in the world.
The city has a mountain of problems, and residents know it. A recent poll that found nearly three in four residents believe the quality of life in the Bay Area has declined over the last five years. It’s a big leap from last year, when 65% — which was already an alarming number — said they thought the quality of life had become worse.
The homelessness problem, the steep cost of housing, and a plague of property crimes are clearly factors. Garnering less attention, but nevertheless a matter that needs to be addressed, is the city’s public transportation problem. It is, critics say, a dirty and dangerous experience.
Though BART is still cramming in passengers during weekday rush hours, it’s lost 10 million riders since 2015 during off-peak hours. This is especially evident during the evenings and on weekends. Data provided by the agency show that rides outside of typical commuting hours have fallen from 62.2 million in 2015 to 52.7 million in 2019, says the San Francisco Chronicle.
In fact, ridership across all public transit in the Bay Area is falling. According to the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, the “state’s most transit-rich region lost 27 million riders in recent years.”
“From 2017 to 2018, annual boardings dropped from 531 million to 504 million, a 5.2% loss,” says the just-released report.
A survey of 662 BART riders found that the reasons for falling ridership on that system include the lack of trains available on weekends, slowness, limited destinations, and “crime, cleanliness (or lack thereof) and homeless riders,” say the local media. Some of the riders’ comments included: “Nights are sketchy,” “I feel unsafe,” and “Antisocial behavior.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco buses have become an impediment to commuting rather than a means of expediting travel.
“Public transportation makes driving miserable,” says one San Francisco worker who has to navigate the city by car and wants to remain anonymous. “During the day, extra-long buses that are only one-quarter full delay traffic, as they slowly navigate turns, taking up the entire time the light is green.”
At the same time, “the city continues to eliminate lanes to create bike lanes, also making driving slower,” says our unnamed source. “But how many people use the bike lanes, compared to the number of drivers who are inconvenienced?”
The city, which adopted a Transit First policy in 1973, and has already closed off Market Street to private automobiles and might do the same with Valencia Street and Embarcadero, is now considering charging fees for entering downtown streets during rush hour to reduce traffic.
As our anonymous source has pointed out, the city itself has created much of the traffic congestion, with bike lanes, bus-only lanes, and a general “road diet,” that it now wants to relieve by charging fees. It’s all a part of policymakers’ efforts to force Californians out of their cars and into public transit.
But is dictating transportation choices a legitimate function of government? Lawmakers and bureaucrats should be public servants, responsive to public preferences, not central planners imposing their views on the private sector.
Few in California see it that way, though.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.