Steven J. Moss
In 1900 San Francisco’s was home to almost 21,000 horses, roughly one horse for every 17 City residents. While these animals made life easier С carrying people and packages С they also made it much smellier. On average a horse produces 15 to 35 pounds of manure daily. San Francisco’s roads were covered with upwards of 700,000 pounds of dung every day, all of which had to be swept up and disposed of. This, in turn, attracted huge numbers of flies, with dried and ground-up muck blown around by the wind. And the horses had to be stabled С which used up large amounts of increasingly valuable land С and fed С requiring even more acreage be dedicated to producing and distributing hay, necessitating an extensive supply network outside the City.
Automobiles started to make regular appearances in San Francisco in the late-1800s. Over the ensuing decades horsepower steadily pushed aside horses. By 1930 there were in excess of 145,000 automobiles in San Francisco С more than any other Bay Area county С and a fast diminishing horse herd. Today San Francisco hosts more than 455,000 cars С the fifth highest automobile population among Bay Area counties С and virtually no horses.
Cars, like horses, make life (much) easier. But, particularly given their large population, do even more damage than the animals, belching noise, toxic heavy metals, and polluting air and greenhouse gas emissions, which, before the advent of sophisticated exhaust controls, used to be far smellier. The City’s herds of automobiles also require huge amounts of paved-over land, as well as a fueling supply network that extends to unstable and hostile parts of the planet, triggering enormous expenditures on national security measures and regular environmental catastrophes.
Car’s nastier aspects prompted City residents to at least pretend to prefer alternative transportation modes. According to the City Charter, San Francisco follows a “transit-first” policy, in which “travel by public transit, by bicycle and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.” Last amended by voters in 2007, the policy has been intermittently followed. Walkability hasn’t changed much over the years, though cement sidewalks are an improvement over manure-strewn mud, and the emerging generation of parklets and pathway gardens makes perambulating more pleasant and environmentally sound. The development of miles of new bicycle lanes has made the City more bike friendly, though there continue to be regular confrontations between automobiles, bikes, and pedestrians. Most distressingly, according to a recent Bay Citizen analysis, Muni’s on-time performance may have significantly declined over the past decade, from 70 percent in 2002 to 61 percent today.
Despite the City’s lackluster pursuit of transit-first, growth in San Francisco’s car population has almost stalled over the past decade. The number of automobiles registered in the City rose by just 3.6 percent between 2002 and 2011, compared to a 10 percent jump in the Bay Area’s vehicle population. On a per capita basis there’s been virtually no growth in San Francisco’s car population. There were 562 cars per 1,000 residents in 2002, and 564 cars per 1,000 in 2011, less than a half a percent increase, roughly steady at one car for every two people. In contrast, the Bay Area’s already high number of cars per capita grew by almost five percent С from 738 to 771 per 1,000 people С stretching towards almost one car for every non-San Franciscan resident in the region.
While San Francisco has roughly the same number of cars per person today as eight years ago, they’ve shifted location. Noe Valley’s and South-of-Market’s car populations have shrunk С by between three and 14 percent С while Bayview’s, Mission’s, Potrero Hill’s, and Visitacion Valley’s have jumped, by between seven and 37 percent. In 2002 per capita automobile ownership in Bayview was slightly lower than the Citywide average; today there are 713 cars per 1,000 residents in that neighborhood. The Hill has followed a similar pattern, with car concentration rising from 498 per 1,000 in 2002 to 631 per 1,000 in 2011.
Bayview’s and Potrero Hill’s high car concentrations are almost certainly driven by these neighborhoods’ substandard transit infrastructure, combined with their emerging status as commuter communities and, for Bayview at least, the last bastion of plausibly affordable family-friendly housing. Noe Valley and SOMA are better served by a transit-first infrastructure, and residents of these neighborhoods may more often work within a few miles of their homes. It’s no wonder traffic and parking congestion have become hot topics in Bayview, Mission and Potrero Hill.
While traffic and parking congestion have worsened in most Southside neighborhoods as a result of growing car concentrations, related air emissions probably haven’t risen much. In 2002 the most popular car in the City С as well as in the Mission and Noe Valley С was the 32 miles per gallon (mpg) Honda Civic. In 2011, San Francisco’s С and Mission’s, Noe Valley’s, and Potrero Hill’s С most prevalent automobile was the 49 mpg Toyota Prius. On a vehicle by vehicle comparison, that’s more than a 50 percent increase in fuel efficiency, which, if extrapolated to San Francisco’s entire car population, would swamp emission increases associated with slow population growth in the City’s vehicle fleet.
Emission reductions associated with improved efficiency have been offset by the fact that, almost certainly as a result of a string of bad economic years, San Franciscans are keeping their cars longer. The average car in the City was roughly nine years old in 2002, compared to 10 in 2011. The average automobile age in Mission and Bayview is almost 12 years old. Older cars are dirtier cars, counterbalancing San Franciscans’ predilection for the latest fuel efficient vehicle.
Unlike the City’s previous horse population, there are no signs that cars will disappear from our streets. However, San Francisco’s vehicle population is shifting locations. In some neighborhoods it’s getting cleaner and smaller. In others, older and denser. Like the street sweeper who followed behind horse carts scooping-up manure a century ago, the City’s transit-first policy should catch-up with the herd.
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