So much has been said of the housing boom—or bust, depending on your perspective—that San Francisco’s intricate transportation network tends to trail behind in the headlines. Which is too bad, since so much has happened since the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2009, and all of a sudden we were in a new decade: We didn’t have Uber. We didn’t have electric scooters. We didn’t even have an eastern expansion on the Bay Bridge.
What a difference 3,652 days make.
Today’s San Francisco teems with more people, more cars, and more transit options than ever before. And while we lost some transit favorites (rest in peace, “Back door! Step down!” exchanges on city buses), we gained much more. So let’s take a look back at transportation realities that were just a glimmer in someone’s eye during the aughts.
It’s easy to look back at taxicabs with a sepia-toned filter, wistful for the days of hailing a cab curbside. But the reality, just prior to the advent of ride-hailing apps, was anything but halcyon: stiffed rides. Frustrating dispatchers. The lack of tokens. The paltry supply of cabs that stubbornly refused to meet a soaring demand for rides. The system was broken. Enter the disruption of Uber, which, for better and for worse, ignited an era of ride-sharing.
On an average weekday, ride-hailing service vehicles make more than 170,000 trips within San Francisco, with over 5,700 of these vehicles operating on city streets during peak hours, according to the SF County Transportation Authority. This has resulted in people getting around the city faster than ever before, without having to call or hail a car.
But it has also caused a surge in traffic, which has put San Francisco pedestrians at further risk. According to a peer-reviewed study in Science Advances, Lyft and Uber are the biggest contributors to vehicular congestion in the city. Between 2010 and 2016, traffic rose 40 percent compared to what it might have been in a counterfactual 2016 scenario without Lyft and Uber.
The ride-hailing boom also turned Uber into an eponym, with many hopeful startups declaring themselves “the Uber of X.” So quickly mythologized was the San Francisco-based company that Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped, which details the rise and fall of former Uber chief executive and co-founder Travis Kalanick, is now one of 2019’s must-read books.
San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span
Completed in 2013, a gleaming white self-anchored suspension bridge replaced the seismically unsound (not to mention gangly) portion of the Bay Bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island.
The $6.3 billion project, which began construction in 2002, was engineered to withstand the largest earthquake expected over a 1,500-year period, unlike its predecessor.
Also unlike the old temporary span? The new bridge came with a bike and pedestrian path. Now if only its cousin directly next door would follow suit, cyclists could finally ride from SF to Oakland on the daily.
Transbay Transit Terminal
After 20 years of planning, nearly a decade of construction, and one multimillion-dollar rebranding, the Salesforce Transit Center (née Transbay Transit Center) and its sprawling 5.4-acre rooftop park opened in 2018. Stretching nearly three blocks between Beale and Second streets, the $2.26 billion sleeping giant turned into the city’s newest icon and a hope for a transit-forward movement.
Alas, that hope was cut short when, roughly six weeks after opening, workers discovered two cracked steel beams. This resulted in a temporary closure of the entire behemoth that lasted almost one year.
After it reopened in July of 2019, service resumed. Currently the center’s first floor offers Muni bus service via the 5-Fulton, 5-Fulton Rapid, 7-Haight-Noriega, 38-Geary, and 38R-Geary Rapid. The third floor hosts the 25-Treasure Island, AC Transit, WestCAT, and Greyhound regional bus service.
But the transit center remains a work in progress, as the bottom floor will eventually harbor Caltrain, which is expected to be done by 2028, and the ambitious California High-Speed Rail project, which—God willing—will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Streamlining of protected bike lanes
The city added more protected bike lanes this decade, with more to come. This year Mayor London Breed asked transit officials to add 20 miles of new separated bike lanes over two years, which would amp up the creation of safe cycling corridors. This came on the heels of the death of Tess Rothstein, who was killed by a driver on Howard Street in San Francisco’s South of Market district. The cyclist was riding on a stretch of street without a protected bike lane.
At the end of 2018, according to Streetsblog, San Francisco’s “bike network” was 448 miles with only 19 miles of it protected. Unlike unprotected bike lanes (or “sharrows”), a protected bike lane features a buffer between the bike lane and the vehicular lane or street parking.
Due to public outcry, the creation of a protected bike lane on the two-block stretch of Howard was created less than a week after Rothstein’s death.
Love it or loathe it, micromobility is here to stay. From Lime to Bird to Scoot, electric scooters, which appeared sans invitation on city streets and sidewalks in the spring of 2018, have proven to have staying power. A nationwide survey, “The Micromobility Revolution: The Introduction and Adoption of Electric Scooters in the United States,” released in July found momentous support for dockless electric scooters, with 70 percent of respondents favoring these two-wheeled rental devices.
Though they were temporarily banned by the city in May 2018, in a punitive act that admonished the startups for not following the proper channels prior to unleashing their devices, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency unveiled a Power Scooter Program that later allowed each company to rent out 1,000 scooters, with the possibility of bumping that number up to 2,500 should they meet service-level requirements laid out by SFMTA.
San Francisco could see roughly 10,000 rentable e-scooters citywide in the next decade. And, please, remember to keep them off sidewalks.
Today there are around 320 stations and 4,500 bikes in the city, offering standard human-powered pedaling bikes and electric cycles that help whisk the calf muscle-starved population up the city’s famously steep hills.
In 2017, as independent stationless bike shares emerged as a big new trend, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to create a regulatory and permitting framework to ensure that bike share were safe, orderly, and equitable for all San Franciscans.
Note that most of the bike shares, which have changed names and rebranded over the years, are owned by multibillion-dollar companies; Uber acquired Jump and Ford GoBike is now Bay Wheels, the bike share system Lyft operates in the Bay Area.
Play Streets SF and Vision Zero aimed to save pedestrian lives
The advent of Sunday Streets in 2008 proved that street closures are—surprise!—beneficial to both neighborhoods and pedestrians. The once-a-month, spring- and summertime street closures allow denizens to pedal, walk, and even dance on streets rendered safe during one all-too-brief afternoon.
The glorious Lord’s-day closures helped inspire this decade’s efforts to stop drivers from killing pedestrians. Most notable was Play Streets SF, a program that helps residents transform their block into an accessible, vehicle-free open space on a regular basis for neighbors to enjoy.
Pedestrian safety, or lack thereof, had become such a problem this decade that the city of San Francisco declared a state of emergency for traffic deaths. Approximately 30 people lose their lives and over 200 more are seriously injured by drivers each year. In 2014, the city adopted Vision Zero, a policy aimed at building better and safer streets, educating the public on traffic safety, and enforcing traffic laws. The goal is to reduce the amount of traffic-related deaths to zero by 2024—a feat it has yet to achieve.
The attention at pedestrian rights and safety helped the city pass the Better Market Street Project proposal in October this year. Over the next decade, the $604 million plan will transform Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and the Embarcadero, most notably restricting private vehicles between Steuart and Gough.
Clipper Cards replaced the Fast Pass
In October 2010, Fast Passes were phased out, marking the end for SF public transportation’s colorful analog past. The debatably more convenient—and certainly less cheerful—Clipper Card came into power, a plastic card that connects Muni, BART, and other agencies into one package.
Since crossing over to the other side, Fast Passes have turned into a cherished relic of San Francisco’s transit past. John Kuzich, an artist known for creating work with Fast Passes, showcased his work at the De Young Museum.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency followed a similar route in 2017 by phasing out paper bus transfers.