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Taking the road less traveled by Lyft, Uber and car

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If San Francisco is serious about getting cars off the road, it must make the sustainable transportation choices more affordable. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Last week, The City finally got a peek at something it’s long yearned to see: Uber and Lyft driving data. On a typical weekday, these rides represent 15 percent of all trips inside San Francisco, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. That’s a lot of vehicles potentially taking rides away from environmentally friendly options, like public transportation and The City’s fuel-efficient taxis.

Coincidentally, the state also found this month that while California’s greenhouse gas emissions declined overall, emissions from on-road vehicles increased from 2014 to 2015. Taken together, the two studies paint a dire picture. Unless we change the way we commute now, rising seas and flooding might make boats San Franciscans’ only option in the future.

When President John F. Kennedy gave his famous moon shot speech in 1961, he acknowledged “we possess all the resources and talents necessary” to accomplish space travel. San Francisco and California also have the resources and talents necessary to reconfigure our transportation sector. After all, we boosted the economy while putting The City on the road toward 100 percent renewable by 2030. Why can’t we also make gas-powered commuting an ancient pastime?

Starting out on a car-free road would first require consistency from San Francisco’s leaders. In February, The City passed a forward-thinking ordinance requiring developers to provide transportation options that don’t involve cars. But last week, The City approved extra parking for the “One Oak” condominium tower at the transit-rich intersection of Oak and Market streets. The developer claimed less parking would make the project unfeasible.

His claim highlights another problem: Even if leaders consistently push zero-parking projects, residents of new luxury towers may not want to ride a bus. Perhaps if public transit was as elegant and convenient as driving, it would be more desirable.

“We need to take the stigma away from local public transportation and get it working well,” Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, an attorney focused on housing and transportation issues, told me.

A car can seem pretty tempting after watching the 43 bus barrel past your shivering body on a Wednesday night, or getting stuck in a hot, crowded BART car for 20 minutes. Bay Area residents have described their transit experiences to me as “not fun,” soul-crushing and a “special kind of hell.”

But improving comfort is just the tip of the iceberg. For other residents, driving is more efficient than taking multiple bus and train lines. One San Franciscan told me she wakes up at 6:15 a.m. and drives to work in Hayward, even though the commute has caused her severe leg pain. She’s not alone. Reports show regional transit ridership is declining.

“Regionally, we’re not doing so great,” Tilly Chang, SFCTA’s executive director, admitted to me. “If one part of the system is not working, it affects the others.”

Maybe more Bay Area residents would take public transit if they could ride one line directly from home to work. In 2008, California passed a law designed to reduce car use by encouraging commercial and residential development near transit. But cities have been slow to take advantage of the incentives under Senate Bill 375.

Hayward, for example, only met 3 percent of its regional housing need in 2015, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments. The San Franciscan who works there said it’s more expensive to give up her shared, rent-controlled apartment and move closer to work. If the Bay Area is serious about getting cars off the road, it must make sustainable choices affordable.

As San Francisco sweats under record-breaking heat this week, the need to do more to combat climate change is clear. It’s not simply about regulating Lyft and Uber or one project’s parking spaces. It’s addressing the many reasons people drive. We need a moon shot — a goal to reduce regional car emissions by a specific time.

“Without the moon shot, we’re going to strangle our region,” Tepperman-Gelfant told me. “We’ll hurt low-income families who are bearing the brunt and the environment.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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