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SF loses $50M ‘Smart City’ grant for transit innovation

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A Muni bus drives in the red bus and taxi only lane at 16th and Mission streets Thursday, May 5, 2016.(Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco lost a “Smart City” challenge for a $50 million federal grant to transform The City’s streets into an experimental hotbed of transit innovation, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

The U.S. Department of Transportation held a contest among cities nationwide for the funding, and San Francisco was one of seven finalists pitching tech-oriented solutions to create transportation systems of the future.

Now it appears San Francisco has been eliminated from the contest, officials who worked on the project confirmed to the Examiner on Tuesday.

The project lead was Tim Papandreou, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Office of Innovation.

When asked by text message if the transportation department told San Francisco why it was not selected as a winner of the challenge, Papandreou replied, “Nope.”

When asked if the project would move forward in light of the federal loss, Papandreou wrote, “We’re reassessing.”

UC Berkeley also pledged many resources to the project, including researchers from various disciplines to analyze results of the new transit innovations.

Among those researchers was Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center and a leading expert on Uber and Lyft, who confirmed San Francisco was out of the race for the money.

“We gave it our very best,” Shaheen said.

The Columbus Dispatch reported Tuesday morning that Columbus, Ohio won the Smart City Challenge, and wrote, “Soon, driver-less vehicles will roam parts of Columbus.”

The plan pitched a dramatic revision of San Francisco’s streets: semi-autonomous Muni buses connected by wireless technology, shared bikes across The City, driverless Uber and Lyft vehicles, and shuttles to connect less dense neighborhoods to core transit lines.

Shaheen said the department of transportation “did not tell us why” San Francisco was not chosen, but “we had a feeling that it wasn’t going our way based on some questions in the orals.”


Click the image above or click here to see the SFMTA’s Smart City presentation. Click here to read SFMTA’s Smart City vision statement.

Mayor Ed Lee traveled to Washington D.C. to pitch San Francisco for the Smart City challenge earlier this month. While there, he announced that many local corporations pledged as much as $150 million in private contributions toward the Smart City project for San Francisco should it win.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said that funding was promised as a matching fund if San Francisco won the Smart City grant.

“It’s up to the individual companies on whether or not they’ll partner with us going forward,” he said, and SFMTA will meet with those companies to discuss “next steps.”

He said SFMTA broke their Smart City proposal down into 16 distinct pilot programs “deliberately,” making it easier to implement step by step “if we didn’t win.”

“Of course, we’ll need funding to do that,” he said.

In May, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited San Francisco to hear a pitch from The City for the grant, and was met by a roundtable 20-people deep of local technology bigwigs from Google, Lyft, Uber, and more.

“Our vision is really really bold,” Papandreou told Foxx at the time. “We want to launch the first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”

At that meeting, the Examiner asked Mayor Ed Lee whether San Francisco would implement the project even if The City lost the contest.

“We actually should be doing this outside of the grant,” Lee said. “The grant seemed to instigate something exciting.”

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  • scola251

    Huh? Columbus Ohio.

    I guess they need some innovation as that city has no transit to speak of. I mean it’s a fact that Columbus is the largest US metro area with no rail service of any kind.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    SF is only slightly better. Despite our terrible traffic, it’s still significantly faster to drive than take public transit. My 4 mile commute takes an hour and 8 miles of travel. When public transit can barely beat average walking speed, the only thing you’re getting is help hiking over the hills. Otherwise, you might as well get a car.

  • scola251

    I can assure you San Francisco is considerably better.

    San Franciscans complain, and rightfully so, about our transit system, but if you go to most of the country, you realize San Francisco is one of the 4 or 5 best cities for transit in America. It’s a low bar.

  • SFnative74

    This is why I ride a bike. Four miles can be ridden in 20 minutes without breaking much of a sweat. And it’s door-to-door and you spend no time looking for parking – though you have to make sure you have secure parking if you’re going to leave it all day. Otherwise, I’ll walk or take transit depending on the trip, and take a car if I need to.

  • Hunter

    Depends on your destination, but I bicycle almost everywhere I need within SF’s city limits, and I generally beat my friends who take taxis / drive. It’s obviously healthier, too—give it a try!

  • lulubella

    Lee will only push for transit ideas like this if it results in national eyes on SF that winning this grant would have provided, because he only cares about how he looks as he climbs his way to that China ambassadorship. The idea that he would make efforts to improve the city for the masses by implementing these plans now that we’ve lost the grant is laughable. He’s had plenty of time with VCs and tech leaders and could have used that leverage to work out any number of ideas for infrastructure improvements through their creativity, technology, and capital. Instead he chose to focus on green lighting corporate tax breaks and housing their high earners to create an insulated economy for landlords and pricey services the rest of us can’t afford. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Well, sorta. Four flat miles can be ridden in 20 minutes. Given that both Mount Davidson and Twin Peaks are a good chunk of that four miles, even on a bike I’d have to ride well out of my way to get to work. From the McLaren park area, I’d have to ride East first, hit the “wiggles”, then back West, which is roughly what I do now on a combination of buses and BART. I’d also need a change of clothes and a place to shower and the time to get that done. So the 20 minute commute increases to maybe 30 minutes with the detour and to at least an hour with the change and shower. (And I’m lucky, I have access to a free place to shower a couple city blocks away; this isn’t common.)

    If biking were a feasible alternative, I’d do it. But the topography of the city doesn’t lend itself to biking as a general solution.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    McLaren Park to Inner Richmond, almost due North for four miles. Google says, taking the “wiggles,” that it’d be 6.3 miles of riding and 41 minutes. (But a young co-worker that lives near me said he could do it in less time, but he’s also more than a decade younger than me.)

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I’ve lived in other large cities without rail. They primarily focus on buses, just like SF does. Aside from the West Portal to Embarcadero subway line and the leg of BART that runs through the Mission, Glen Park, and Balboa Park, we’re pretty much all buses. This is a bus city with a novelty subway to get tourists from the Castro to Embarcadero and the airport to Embarcadero. Soon, we’ll have a quick little line to China Town. Compare that to DC or NYC. Los Angeles has 23 miles of subway that they’ve built starting in the mid-90s and most of it this century. Meanwhile, SF has 4.7 of muni subway, 6.9 of BART subway (Calling the piece between Glen Park and Balboa as “subway”). Added up, that’s roughly 11.6 miles of functioning subway. Soon, with a lot of fanfare, we’ll add 1.7 miles from the Caltrain station to China Town. The tourists will be pleased.

    I’d be curious to see how you come by our “4 or 5 best” rating when even LA has a better public system than ours. I think we were “4 or 5 best” last century, sure. Even in DC you can catch the subway to the museums. Here, you need a bus.

  • sfsoma

    The only innovation in SF is giving free reign to UBER, Lyft and the other law breaking ride share services.

  • Hunter

    Yeah, I hate getting to / from the Glen Park Bart / McClaren area on a bike—it’s one of our few freeway-barricaded spots that’s really unpleasant coming from central SF on two wheels. If I was going that route, I’d take the flattest route: get to Mission or San Jose Ave, ride that to Cesar Chavez area and jump to Valencia, then up 17th to Sanchez (Wiggle around Duboce Park up to the Panhandle) and then through GG Park close to your Richmond Cross street. That would probably take around an hour for a moderate biker. However, if there was any traffic at all, Google Maps thinks it would take at least 30 minutes driving anyway, not counting time to find parking.

  • De Blo

    That is 100% right. Try Atlanta, Dallas, or Los Angeles. Even DC and Chicago are not perfect; my family needed 2 cars in DC but we have thrived in SF with 1 car that we only use on weekends. People like to whine but San Francisco has amazing transit. I take BART to commute and I know my commute will always just be 11 minutes.

  • De Blo

    Wrong. I have lived in San Francisco for over a decade and have only taken trains. There is no need to every take a bus except after 1 am when BART quits running. My commute from Glen Park always takes 11 minutes. If you choose to live in a neighborhood without trains then that is your own choice and you should not complain. I have lived all over the country and San Francisco transit is literally the best except for New York and DC. We are #3 out of thousands of cities. That is impressive.

  • De Blo

    I live right by McLaren Park and my commute by BART from Glen Park to the Financial District takes 11 minutes.

  • De Blo

    I live by McLaren Park and the 1 mile walk/ bus ride/ bike ride to Glen Park BART is super easy (although on a bike a bit challenging on the uphill return along Silver Avenue). Keep in mind that walking there is a nice pedestrian footbridge over I-280 that links the Portola/ Excelsior to Bernal Heights and the Mission (too steep to do easily on bike though).

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I take the 29 to Balboa, BART to Powell (to avoid being harassed by drug dealers at Civic Center), and then catch the 5 bus back to Inner Richmond area. The BART takes a mere 10 minutes, as you note. The rest of the hour is on a bus or waiting for the train/bus to arrive. Total commute time varies a bit, but it ranges between 50 and 70 minutes. This zig-zag of a trip is easily 30 minutes faster than taking the “direct” bus that goes due North-ish from the Ex.

  • scola251

    LA has made great progress, but no, their system is not yet better than ours.

    DC is one of the best in the country, in large part because the Federal government has invested in it as a showpiece to show the US could build a system. That said, they’ve had serious issues in the last few years.

    In general, New York is indisputably the best.

    Numbers 2-3 are DC and Boston, you can debate in what order.

    The next set are Chicago, San Francisco and Portland.

    Then there’s Philly. For the longest time there was a huge gap after Philadelphia but LA is coming on strong due to major recent investment, but there aren’t a lot of other cities even close thereafter.

    So I guess I shouldn’t say 4-5, but rather 4-6.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Starting off with “wrong” is fairly rude–not something I’m used to dealing with here in SF. Most people are polite, even when silently judging you.

    In any event, you’ve clearly not read what I’ve written. If you’re traveling down the Market Street subway route, your’e golden. If you’re going anywhere else in the city, you’re on a bus. Every neighborhood that doesn’t border the muni subway or BART line, which is the large majority of them, is a neighborhood without. And given the nature of finding housing here, “your choice and you should not complain” is pretty tone deaf, especially given that the majority of the city, geographically, has no easy access to the subway.

    New York, DC, and Los Angeles have better systems. As does Chicago. San Diego’s likely bests San Francisco as well, though I’ve never personally ridden it.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    How are you measuring?

    I would measure first as the size of the line, where miles only count if they aren’t subject to traffic signals or vehicle traffic. (So in SF, pretty much anything above ground doesn’t qualify except for a bit of BART South of Glen Park to the Daly City border.) To simplify things, I didn’t try to subtract out overlaps in lines like BART and Muni do from Civic Center to Embarcadero or the Red and Purple lines in LA do through downtown.

    If you look at Chicago, for example, you see that the subway and elevated rail lines span out into the various neighborhoods rather evenly. I don’t have much experience with Portland’s map, but it looks like a lot of light rail that shares the road much like Muni does in SF. In San Diego, a lot of that system runs on dedicated pathways that don’t intersect with roads as much. As soon as light rail shares the roads with cars, it slows down as it is subject to all the same delays buses experience plus the added bonus of not being able to change lanes to avoid an obstacle like a double parked car. (Folks on the N line in the Sunset know about that bit of fun.) As implemented in SF, above ground light rail is possibly even slower than walking.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Because I live in the Ex, I’m lucky enough to have dedicated parking at home. When my partner was out of town, I drove to work for a week. I go up and over at Glen Park to Clayton, down through the Haight, over the panhandle, and then hang a left on Fulton, Turk, or Geary (depending on traffic.) Same route home. It takes 20-30 minutes during rush hour. That’d save me 5 hours of personal time a week. Parking at work is a tad tougher, but there are dedicated lots provided I’m willing to fork over a few hundred dollars a year for a pass. Assuming minimum wage of $15/hr, 20 hours a month of additional personal time would “pay” for the parking pass in two months (assuming I value my time at my hourly wage rate.)

  • Hunter

    Definitely saves time, but you’re also paying for your car repairs / insurance / gas, which are a bit harder to calculate, but a few thousand per year at minimum. Most people are commuting to central SF, where parking is more difficult / $$$ and transit is also better. De Blo reminded me of another option, which would be biking to Bart or a bus line that gets you most of the way, then biking the final connection to work.

  • scola251

    A very simple method: Does it go from places people live to where people want to go for work, going out, shopping, whatever, and does it get them there in a reasonable amount of time.

    In short: How useful is it.

    Measuring miles is useless. Public transit is not a roller coaster. You don’t ride it for entertainment and hope it goes fast to get your heart racing. You ride it to get somewhere.

    For example, in LA you can’t get to the airport, UCLA, or much of the Westside in any reasonable way. Until a weeks ago, you couldn’t get to the beach. In NYC or Boston you can get anywhere you’d want to go. In SF you can get to the vast majority of places.

  • sfmission

    Don’t forget the other SF innovation…allowing 500 bikes to block cars for 20 minutes while they all ride by. The entitlement theory is well founded with this group. The city has motorcycle cops who actually escort the mayhem but do nothing more. I am surprised more bike riders in the group are not run over like last time.

  • sfmission

    Columbus is the State Capital which may have a lot to do with it. Since San Francisco already has a transit system maybe Columbus presented itself more professionally with planning and innovation that San Francisco does not have. Getting anything accomplished in San Francisco takes an act of god. Look at 16th and Mission. 3 murders and Piss Plaza is still a smelly dangerous mess.

  • poetinsf

    “We actually should be doing this outside of the grant,” Maybe this is why SF didn’t win. They figured SF has enough resource to do it on its own, they wanted to give to someone else who absolutely needs the grant to get it started. A sort of affirmative action.

  • JustJake

    It’s no secret that SF has fundamental problems in executing it’s “plans”, and I suspect the PR smokescreen about all the ambitious stuff they proposed with their Smart City plan was viewed with skepticism, and appropriately so. If only the city could accomplish the basics, the real work of running the city as it exists, and avoid the distractions, the constant chatter from politicians trying to climb up the ladder.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    If the system is rated based on coverage without consideration for effectiveness (efficiency), it is only useful as a system of last resort. Your measurement would rank the SF system equally high if a 3 mile trip took 3 minutes or 3 hours. Part of the goal here is a system that replaces cars even for people with the resources to own, park, and maintain them. Why would I use a system so slow it is only marginally faster than walking and three times slower than driving during rush hour? Any ranking must consider more than coverage; it must include some measure of effectiveness.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Oh certainly, there’s a lot of additional costs involved in owning a car. But you need to weigh that against the value of your time. The median wage in SF is slightly over $80k. Assuming $80k and working 2080 hours per year (full time/40 hours), the hourly wage is roughly $38.00. Assuming I made that, adding 30 minutes a trip is 5 hours per week of extra commute time on the bike/bus/train/walking at a cost of $760/month. That would buy a decent commuter vehicle and keep it fueled and maintained. (Remember, biking time needs to include shower and change time.)

    De Blo’s suggestion would work for some people, but not for folks in my area. The best I could manage is a bike ride from Civic Center to the Inner Richmond, which is certainly easier than McLaren to Inner Richmond but likely not much faster than the 5 rapid. The system is designed for people who have fewer options. If you live along the main Market transit corridor or along BART and you work along those two corridors, you’re good. Everything else is a time/money tradeoff that favors driving for anyone that can afford it.

    (Note also that bikes are prohibited on crowded BART cars which is every car during rush hour.)

  • Hunter

    Ok, but that’s a slightly unrealistic calculation since you can do other things while on the train than while driving (reading, checking email, sleeping). Many people work on their commute.

    Biking keeps you busy, like driving, but I value getting fresh air / exercise (tho I don’t get sweaty enough biking to need a shower at work) over sitting in a car, traffic frustrations, and burning fuel. Not sure you can put a $ amount to it. My commute is also downtown, where parking would be more difficult (and costly), but I’ve also chosen my job location so that I would be able to bike there in under an hour. Different values I guess.

  • Hunter

    Also, I should mention that if you want better bike / transit routes along your commute, sign up for the SFBC/SFMTA emails and lobby them to push those specific developments. There’s a lot of opportunity in SF (for better or worse) for citizens to have a say in improving street designs.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    This kind of goes into another rant of mine (sorry) regarding how crowded the trains are. But in my experience, it’s not possible to read or work on the BART in the evenings. I leave a little earlier than rush hour in the morning so I do get some time online to read news, but in the evening it’s all I can do to find a spot to stand and hold on.

    What this city needs to do, really, is build a subway system that serves more than the Market corridor and the Mission. By building the China Town leg they’ve pretty much proven that tourism is a larger concern than residents. There is no North/South line anywhere in the city and there’s no line that serves communities West of Twin Peaks (plus West Portal).

    When we moved here, we got rid of one car and kept one because one of us commutes to San Mateo for work and we have an elderly, large dog. (How do dog owners get their pets to the vet when buses and trains generally prohibit them?) I figured I’d use the great SF public transit system. I’ve been using it daily for about 18 months and have decided I’m buying another car or motorcycle because the system is so broken it cannot compete with driving, even in rush hour, even with parking hassles, even with high gas prices. We’ll use it to go downtown for shopping or dinner on nights and weekends when time is less of an issue for us, but for commuting, it’s simply not competitive. It needs to do much better than 4 miles per hour for a North/South commute.

  • scola251

    Did you miss the bit about “and does it get them there in a reasonable amount of time.”

    For example Chicago had a better system in the 80s when the red and blue lines had skip-stop A/B service. Now that it does not it takes just as long to get downtown from many densely populated north side neighborhoods as it does on the N from the Sunset even though those lines are fully dedicated tracks. South Side lines are faster but drop you in the median of a freeway next to the vacant lots that previously were housing projects. From there you have to catch a slow, unreliable bus to get to most places.

    Thus by the measure of “Does it go from places people live to where people want to go for work, going out, shopping, whatever, and does it get them there in a reasonable amount of time” they are similar.

  • Hunter

    Haha, yeah the West side of SF is a total lost opportunity, both for housing and transit (but ideally they’d be expanded in conjunction!). The Central Subway would actually serve a lot more local people if it continued onto North Beach / the Wharf / Ft. Mason and then South to Mission Bay / Dog Patch / Bayview. Or maybe it actually will continue on the T-3rd line? Despite its stupidly short length, Chinatown is one of our densest neighborhoods, so giving residents a swift connection to Bart is a plus.

    Motorcycle or a scooter sounds like a good choice for your commute, especially if you have a bike + car for other trips. Or look for jobs downtown. ;-)

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    West and South, yes. Bayview is pretty much SOL. The Chinatown line is an underground extension of the T. It dives under the city on the other side of the Caltrain station. The above-ground T line is, like the N, J, and others, a total waste of money and time. Buses would be better (and buses aren’t great either.)

    The reason I’m so down on the muni light rail (above ground) is because they are slower than buses due to the way they share the road. Buses can at least change lanes. For a public transit system to compete with and replace private cars by appealing to commuters (rather than by penalizing cars) you’ll need a system that minimizes the miles it shares with cars. Here, that means subways.

  • Hunter

    yeah, transit-only lanes (with a barrier) would be a big plus for our streetcar lines. I’ve had good luck with underground train lines, though they do back up in an absurd way (and then you get like 3 of the same line all in a row). My problem with buses is the lines here seem to stop every 2-3 blocks.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I tried to catch a muni rail at Civic Center to get to the Castro for their farmers market after work. There was over a hundred people waiting for a train. Each flavor of car went by, L, M, N, K, etc, and they were packed full like sardines. The cars stop, doors open, nobody twitches for fear of the entire human puzzle unraveling, and then the doors close and the train whooshes away leaving the same hundred people waiting. 6 cars went by and I finally gave up, left the station, and caught the above-ground F, which had almost no line. They’ve got a 10-car platform and only run single cars with high demand? It’s insane.

    The buses stop constantly. That’s why my 4 mile commute takes about 90 minutes on the “direct” bus. However, once those light rail trains come above ground, they’re just as bad as bus in how often they stop and they can’t change lanes to avoid obstacles and morons. So the bus wins as a better option (which is a sad state of affairs.)

  • Hunter

    That’s bizarre – I wonder if it was after a Giants game or other event where cars were filling up near Caltrain/Embarcadero? Never seen Muni that bad on a normal rush hour. There’s some reason the SFMTA can only run short trains underground (I think it has to do with on-street length limits due to block sizes I believe), but at least they’re now able to do double boarding, which took about 5 years to figure out.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I’ve experienced this twice to date, both on Wednesdays and both at around 5:30pm (peak rush).

    I haven’t seen them do double boarding yet. Just one to two cars at a time. Double boarding would make sense as would running cars more often. But as I live close-ish to a BART station and it beats the Muni rail to downtown by a significant amount of time (the Church street line takes roughly 5 times as long to reach Embarcadero as BART does) I’m unlikely to notice when they do finally implement double boarding.

    It should be noted that double boarding is an incremental efficiency improvement to a system that needs a wholesale reconsideration. If they cannot support trains longer than two cars while demand outstrips that supply, nothing is going to save that system. In the end, it’s going turn into a running joke and there will be even more private vehicles on the road.

  • Hunter

    Double boarding was pretty disappointing IMO because while two different lines could be in the station at the same time, each one opened its doors at both ends of the platform (letting people off while the previous train was boarding, then moving up into its spot and opening the doors AGAIN). This seems like a waste of time—all it does is allow people to exit crowded trains a few seconds early.

    I agree that the short cars are a waste. Maybe they will figure a way to do several cars (once we get the new fleet) and if that’s an issue above ground, they can separate and run in smaller fleets once they’ve left the tunnels…who knows.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I’ll cross my fingers! I’d love the system to work for a city of over a million people with no cars. How cool would that be?

  • Hunter

    Truly TRANSIT FIRST. ;)