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Preparing for Transportation Innovations, San Francisco's Way

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ed Reiskin speaking at a podium.

From the SFMTA’s Director of Transportation:

Not since the advent of streetcars and automobiles have we seen such tremendous change in the ways people get around in cities. After decades of little change to transportation technology, recent advancements raise important questions that we all need to address.

Technological advances underlie most of the innovation that’s happening in transportation. New smartphone apps and payment systems make it a lot easier to get directions, plan and pay for trips and receive real-time transit updates with a couple of clicks. These changes are coming to all forms of transportation. Even the vehicles that move us are getting smarter and more sophisticated, allowing us to more easily detect problems and navigate our streets while keeping us safer.

Transportation innovations are happening at speeds that were unimaginable just a few years ago. While we can’t fully predict what changes the future will bring, nor how fast they will come, we can make sure city policies shape and dynamically plan for them in this evolving environment. Rather than be reactive, we should ensure innovative changes happen in a way that respects our unique city, its communities and values.

To that end, we at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority have developed a framework of guiding principles we can apply to emerging mobility services and technologies. Based on relevant city policies, the Emerging Mobility Guiding Principles framework (PDF) was approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors at its meeting last month.

Our idea is to develop consensus on the principles that are important for our city to adhere to as we evaluate and guide innovative transportation changes developed by us or by others.

These principles include safety, transit priority, equity, accessibility and sustainability. They also factor in congestion, accountability for transportation providers, impacts for workers and consumers, as well as financial impacts.

Technology-based transportation changes are already having a significant impact on our city. For-hire transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, which are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, have brought convenience to their users, but that convenience could impact congestion, safety and sustainability if not incorporated responsibly.

A recent SFCTA report indicated that our city sees more than 170,000 ride-hail trips each day, and that’s a very conservative estimate. Most of the cars providing those trips are coming from outside the city, and some of the increased traffic congestion we are seeing is likely related to that. Aside from adverse impacts on air quality, added transit delays and traffic congestion, more motor vehicle trips statistically leads to more traffic crashes.

In a future that promises more technological advances, the convenience that new technologies and services are bringing to some should not have negative impacts on San Francisco as a whole. We can help move the city forward by establishing principles based on city policies, and we can better evaluate and guide these kinds of services so that they complement our transportation system and support the city’s goals.

We have seen how new technology-driven services can do that, and we’ve led groundbreaking efforts to facilitate them. Since June alone, we've approved two new on-street parking permit programs for shared vehicles and electric mopeds, and we helped shepherd the San Francisco launch of the new, quickly-expanding regional Ford Go Bike bike-share system. These kinds of affordable, shared mobility options are proven to help reduce the need to drive and make streets less congested.

In our growing city and in these interesting times, we want to ensure that all people, especially those with the fewest options and the greatest needs, can get to where they’re going safely and reliably. We have to manage the ways cars are used to benefit the greatest amount of people in the most equitable way. That may require some hard trade-offs, but we have strong San Francisco values to guide us and a lot of exciting technology with the potential to make it better for all of us to get around the great city that is San Francisco.

This article also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.