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Uber, Lyft and San Francisco’s congestion problem

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An estimated 5,700 ride-hail vehicles make 170,000 vehicle trips within The City, according to a recent study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Every day, people in San Francisco use Uber or Lyft to get to work, to appointments and to visit friends and family. They are among the thousands that opt for Transportation Network Companies instead of driving a personal car, taking a taxi or riding public transportation. And if you don’t take a TNC, you are definitely aware of the thousands of automobiles carrying passengers daily.

As TNCs are booming in The City, it’s hard to ignore the fact that our streets are more congested than ever. Some are quick to blame TNCs for all of our traffic woes, but this is an oversimplification of what we see on our streets every day.

A recent study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority attempted to identify the impacts of ride-hail companies on San Francisco’s streets. The study estimates that on a typical weekday, an estimated 5,700 TNCs make 170,000 vehicle trips within The City. That equates to 570,000 vehicle miles traveled each day in San Francisco alone.

It also noted that TNCs are concentrated in the densest and most congested districts, especially in Union Square, the Financial District and SoMa, with most trips occurring in the northeast quadrant. The Outer Geary corridor, Marina and Inner Sunset also show high usage, particularly on weekends.

Some have used this study to point fingers at TNCs as the root of all of our traffic congestion problems. But the truth is the causes of traffic congestion are numerous and complex.

First, take a look at population growth. San Francisco’s population in 2010 was 805,000; today, it’s more than 875,000. During the same period, the number of people working in private industry and government jobs increased from 613,000 to 720,000. New construction projects all over The City, like the Transbay Terminal downtown, produce periodic lane and street closures. Thriving local markets demand more delivery services and transportation use. Drivers circling in search of parking, and double-parking in traffic lanes, compound the problem.

Simply blaming TNCs because our streets are congested ignores the whole picture. And it also ignores how TNCs are impacting our city positively.

First and foremost, TNCs provide a reliable option for those who don’t want to own a car. In recent years, single-occupancy car trips in The City have significantly declined. This while economic activity, population and job growth have all increased. In the last 10 years, city-owned parking garage occupancy dropped 30 percent. Financial District garages have seen a 16 percent decline. In other words, about 1,800 fewer cars are driving in and out of downtown annually.

This comes in part due to The City’s “transit first” policy, which minimizes single-occupancy vehicle trips by reducing garage spaces in most new residential buildings, prioritizing public transit and bicycles and pricing meters and garages to discourage peak period driving. It also comes in part to the fact that people don’t have to own cars when they have a variety of options for getting around town, including using TNCs.

TNCs also provide a public safety benefit; drunk-driving arrests in San Francisco dropped 42 percent since 2012. People are using TNCs to safely enjoy San Francisco’s vibrant nightlife, especially those who live in our outer neighborhoods that previously suffered from limited to nonexistent taxi service.
This isn’t to say we don’t have work to do to better understand how TNCs are impacting our city and how we can improve their integration into our transit system. More studies will help us understand the impacts and benefits of the ride-hail industry. TNCs should share their data to help The City implement best practices for those who take Uber or Lyft as well as those using other transit options.

We need to find ways to better integrate TNCs into our traffic flow and improve the ride-hail experience, like expanding pick-up and drop-off zones and developing better driver programs. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is working closely with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the ride-hail industry and key downtown stakeholders to try and tackle some of these issues impacting the downtown corridor.

Ride-hailing is a growing transportation option that enables people to live without cars or drive cars they do own less. We need to better understand its impacts so we can use it as another tool to help solve our congestion problems.

Tallia Hart is president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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