State bills and private tunnels, again

Seems like some things are happening in the state legislature. Also, Elon Musk continues to make a fool of himself. Let’s go over what’s happened lately.

Housing-related transit bills

Since last time I took a look at SB827, the bill has gotten some amendments. Mr. Wiener did largely amend the bill as he told me he would. The new version of the bill instates some demolition controls where they don’t exist and protects rent-controlled units that developers might otherwise try to remove in areas where SB827 is applicable. It explicitly defers to local inclusionary zoning laws as well, though it doesn’t instate any if IZ doesn’t exist already in the area, which seems like an oversight. However, the bill is moving in a direction which I think is good and which tenants’ rights advocates should be happier with. The list of amendments can be found here.

D3 supervisor Aaron Peskin put up a resolution that would enjoin the city government to officially oppose SB827. I had the opportunity to go to City Hall and listen to public comments on the issue. It seemed like the people who were speaking out against SB827 were largely older residents, many of them from neighborhoods which were already too expensive to be touched by the latest rounds of gentrification, and had a lot to say about the destruction of neighborhood character. One younger speaker worked with the Housing Rights Committee and drew on personal experiences with eviction to express opposition to SB827. Another compared the lack of infill development to climate change denial. It’s clearly a very personal issue to many people.

I still believe this bill has the right idea, because it acknowledges the interplay between transit and housing. Greenfield development and adding housing in car-dependent areas is unsustainable. Not adding any at all risks the continued displacement of neighborhoods and communities that are already being pushed out by gentrification. If we think SB827 will fray the fabric of existing communities, we should try to get amendments for further protections and inclusionary zoning. But we’re going to need to produce more housing.

In that vein, another transit-oriented housing bill that has come up recently is AB2923, which was introduced by David Chiu (AD17) and Tim Grayson (AD14). the full text of which can be found here. It is a bill which would give BART more control of zoning on land it owns within a half mile of a BART station. This seems to be aimed at BART stations further out in the system, where such parcels are generally used as parking lots. I’m not sure that this will do much to mitigate the housing crisis in absolute terms, but it enshrines a commitment to use public land for people rather than cars.

Leave your car home

Congestion pricing is a policy that makes motorists pay for use of heavily-traveled downtown streets. It made the news last year as a subject of dispute between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing around a decade ago for environmental sustainability reasons, but that proposal didn’t go anywhere. Mr. Cuomo reintroduced the idea recently, and Mr. de Blasio, who notably does not ride the subway much, was not too pleased with the idea.

Cities in California are not allowed to impose their own congestion pricing programs unless they existed prior to June 1, 1989. AB3059, introduced by Richard Bloom (AD50), seeks to change this and allow for pilot programs to go forward in four cities. This can raise money for transit improvements such as red lanes and BRT, and it’s an effective mechanism to counter the externalities of having so many cars in dense downtowns without actually closing them off to cars altogether. Policies like this could shift the mode share in SF by quite a bit.

A friend of mine was worried that fees like this might be regressive. I don’t think we need to worry about this, because people who own cars drive into downtown for work are usually well above median income for the area. (Mr. de Blasio similarly defended his rejection of NYC congestion pricing by claiming it was regressive, even though most of the cars in the project area are taken by the bridge and tunnel crowd, and middle- and working-class people in the city overwhelmingly ride the train.) Improvements to bus riders’ commutes and better funding for public transit more generally will make for better mobility for many more low-income folks.

More Boring ideas

I wrote a post about how the Boring Company was pursuing some very backwards ideas for regional transportation, and didn’t seem to want to allow for the possibility that they could be used for higher-capacity transportation. Elon Musk tried to respond to this type of criticism a few days ago:

This thread brings up a number of issues I had already talked about in the earlier post. For one, the video does show merging and other features of freeway traffic which are going to be an operational nightmare at headways of 3 seconds. It’s still not clear how the pods will remain evenly distributed throughout the system given non-uniform demand. Moving between the tunnel and street also takes a long time, so loading vehicles into the tunnel will be slow. Furthermore, there will only be one spot per station, so multiple vehicles trying to get out at this station are going to have to queue—this will cause further congestion in the tunnels themselves. Stations close to particular attractions or job centers will be clogged like this frequently, so this is definitely going to be a problem. These are obvious and well-known consequences of the freeway-style design, so I’m not sure how Mr. Musk thinks he will avoid them.

Many people have compared the new system to a bus, but more expensive to build and use. This is correct in some ways, as it’s a fixed route with frequent stops. However, it is going to run into other problems that buses do not have. Because the pods are presumably going to try and engage in some kind of carpooling, they are going to be weaving in and out of the tunnels quite frequently, popping up at street level, letting people off and on, and going back down. This forces the dwell times for the pods to be much longer than they would be for buses or rail. Buses and rail can tolerate longer dwell times because they have the potential to ferry so many more people at a time, so it is still efficient. For the smaller Boring Company pods which need to operate at incredibly high frequency, this will instead take a big bite out of capacity.

But another interesting development is the shift in stance on door-to-door transportation, and what it means for the basic idea behind the project. Wasn’t the whole point of this project that you would be able to travel directly to your destination quickly? If Mr. Musk is now willing to admit that he is only taking people “very close” to their destination, why not invest in infrastructure that can get us the same benefits with lower costs, higher capacity, and better efficiency? Viaducts are going to be cheaper to build and maintain than tunnels even if Mr. Musk achieves his stated cost per mile, and they can be used for busways and rail, so you don’t need to build so many. And if the tunnels are supposed to meet “all personalized mass transit needs” (highly unlikely), then who needs to take their car at all?

In any event, 2018 is shaping up to be an interesting year for legislation about housing and transit. Get involved! Your representatives in the state legislature will be sponsoring these bills, and you should let them know if you support them, or go to public comment sessions if you have the time. The future of San Francisco, the Bay Area, the whole state rests on whether or not we can tackle these issues.