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State to investigate San Francisco's slow pace in housing development
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In a clear repudiation of The City’s snail-paced progress on housing, the state will audit the various obstacles San Francisco imposes to development, the department of Housing and Community Development announced on Tuesday.

The move represents an escalation in the simmering conflict between the state of California and the City of San Francisco over the latter’s housing policies, which critics charge have stymied the construction of much-needed new homes in The City.

The Housing Policy and Practice Review of San Francisco is the first of its kind, according to HCD.

The inquiry will be headed by the Housing Accountability Unit, which was created by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year to hold cities accountable for complying with state housing laws.

Why a city in such need of new housing can’t seem to build it has increasingly dominated the political discourse in San Francisco.

The investigation comes as San Francisco scrambles to draft a state-mandated Housing Element, which requires an adequate strategy to develop more than 80,000 new homes by 2031, and new housing production has slowed to a near standstill.

The City submitted its draft Housing Element to the state in May. On Tuesday, HCD sent city officials back to the drawing board and outlined the plan’s deficiencies in a lengthy letter.

Among the draft element’s numerous issues, its timelines should be shortened, HCD noted in the letter. The department called on The City to justify how heavily its assessment of housing needs includes projects that are in “the pipeline.” The state also demanded the City’s plan include an analysis of its permitting process.

“While the element includes some information about the permit process and processing time … a complete analysis must evaluate the processing and entitlement procedures for potential constraints on housing supply, cost, timing, financial feasibility, approval certainty and ability to achieve maximum densities,” the letter states.

The announcement also comes on the heels of HCD’s admonishment of the Board of Supervisors’ much-debated “fourplex” legislation, which was ultimately vetoed by Mayor London Breed. The legislation would have allowed up to four units of housing on every lot in San Francisco, but critics, including Breed, argued that the bill was weighed down with so many conditions that it would have led to little or no new housing.

In announcing its review of San Francisco’s housing policies, HCD noted the notoriously long wait times for project approvals compared to other major cities.

“We are deeply concerned about processes and political decision-making in San Francisco that delay and impede the creation of housing and want to understand why this is the case,” HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez wrote in a statement. “We will be working with the city to identify and clear roadblocks to construction of all types of housing, and when we find policies and practices that violate or evade state housing law, we will pursue those violations together with the Attorney General’s Office.”

The state’s nine-month Housing Policy and Practice Review will be done in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development, HCD announced.

Breed quickly welcomed the review and pledged to cooperate.

“For years, San Francisco has made it too hard to approve and build new homes. That must change,” Breed wrote on Twitter.

The City’s Housing Element is due by Jan. 31, 2023. If it does not meet that deadline, it could face penalties, including disqualification from state funding.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco supervisor and hero to YIMBYs across California, also praised the state review.

“The days of SF & other cities flouting state housing laws are over. Accountability is here,” tweeted Wiener, an architect of the state legislation that allowed up to a duplex on any lot zoned for single family homes.

As e-scooter industry matures, riders move from renting to buying
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There’s little reason to visit 11th Street between Folsom and Harrison during the day. On the block that hosts some of San Francisco’s biggest nightclubs — Audio, Yolo, DNA Lounge — even the buildings look like they could use some sunglasses and a cup of coffee.

But if you’re one of the growing number of San Franciscans looking to buy their own personal electric scooter, this is the place to be.

Nestled amid the nightclubs is Fluidfreeride, San Francisco’s first dedicated e-scooter showroom and repair shop. Here, you can test ride and take home 22 different e-scooter varieties, ranging from $500 lightweight commuter models to $5,000 all-terrain two-wheelers. While other stores in The City, like PEV Works in the Bayview and Last Mile SF in Hayes Valley, sell e-scooters in addition to other products, no other store focuses solely on e-scooters.

“I find that the only people who really remain critics of scooters haven’t actually tried it,” said Sam Mollica, head of operations at Fluidfreeride’s San Francisco store. “It is a really powerful technology for getting around The City, especially a city like San Francisco where, by design, you’re not going to go more than seven miles in any direction.”

The store, which opened in April, is selling about two scooters per day, Mollica said, and also does brisk business repairing and re-selling scooters that people bought online.

Many of Fluidfreeride’s customers are delivery workers, Mollica said. Another common customer category is construction workers who need to travel quickly between sites. Office workers accustomed to biking to work are making the switch to e-scooters to avoid having to shower and change at the office.

And at a time of high gas prices, lots of customers say they’re investing in a scooter to save money on transportation. Most e-scooters can be fully charged for less than $1, Mollica said. “As long as gas prices stay high, more and more people are looking into alternatives. We hear that pretty much on a daily basis.”

Fluidfreeride, which also has showrooms in Miami and Brooklyn, could be a sign of a maturing industry. While most people got introduced to e-scooters via scooter sharing services like Bird and Lime, a growing number of consumers are opting for personally owned scooters — a trend clearly visible in San Francisco’s bike lanes.

“The greatest thing about the shared thing is it got a lot of people’s hands on scooters,” said Mollica, who previously worked for the now-defunct scooter share startup Skip. “They have that moment where it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how fun it was, how easy it was and how quick it got me to where I was going.’”

Oliver Bruce, a tech investor and the co-host of the Micromobility Podcast, also sees the transition to personally owned e-scooters as a logical development. High per-ride prices, strict caps on the number of vehicles they can deploy and other regulations imposed by cities have hampered the growth of shared scooter companies.

“What you find is a lot of people will walk outside and just say, ‘I want to have a scooter, and I want it to be reasonably priced, and I can’t find that,’” Bruce said. “So what you’ve seen is an explosion in the personally owned scooter market as a result.”

In a recent blog post, Bruce likened the emergence of shared scooters to internet cafes. When the personal computer was still fairly new, “what people would do is go and rent them by the minute or by the hour.” Bruce said. “Over time, computers got better, and so we ended up with our own stuff.”

Bruce points to a trove of data indicating that the future of e-scooters is personally owned rather than shared. Segway (yes, that Segway), one of the largest scooter manufacturers in the world, reported in May that it had produced a total of 1.5 million scooters for shared companies, and an additional 8.5 million for personal use. In a 2021 McKinsey survey of people who said they would be interested in using an e-scooter to commute, 87% said they would prefer a personally owned or subscription model over scooter share.

Eric Min was picking up his brand new Apollo Phantom scooter at Fluidfreeride this week. “When I was living in The City, I took the scooters around a bit. And then I was looking for an easy transportation solution for getting around without having to actually drive places. And that’s kind of what inspired it.”

Gas prices, Min said, were not a consideration. “This is pretty powerful, so it’s just for the fun factor.”

Even for someone committed to buying a scooter, selecting the right kind can be daunting. I tested out a classic commuter model, the $1,000 Mosquito. This 30-pound scooter has a maximum speed of 26 mph, and a range of 15 to 20 miles, depending on hills. It feels much like a shared scooter, absorbing bumps in the road, though its acceleration is much more powerful.

I also tried the $2,600 Inokim OXO, which has a maximum speed of 40 mph, and a 40-50 mile charging range. This is a 74-pound beast, with 10-inch wheels and a deck wide enough for two feet side-by-side. Breaking 30 miles per hour on the OXO in the Folsom Street bike lane felt reckless. But on Harrison Street, a wide road without a bike lane, the scooter felt safer as it kept pace with car traffic.

Safety is the elephant in the room with e-scooters. Initial studies of shared scooter programs found injury rates considerably higher than bike share, but those studies didn’t account for the effect of inexperienced riders and low-quality vehicles. There’s little safety data on personally owned e-scooters, and there’s such a wide variety of makes that it could be difficult to draw firm conclusions for some time.

Mollica believes the risks of e-scooter riding are comparable to those of cycling. In some cases, e-scooters might be safer by allowing the rider to easily jump off their vehicle and by being taller and more visible to cars.

Still, it’s obvious that super-charged scooters traveling over 30 mph introduce additional risks to riders and other people on the road. Owning a souped up scooter entails a responsibility similar to what society vests in drivers, Mollica said. “You can go to any car lot, get in a car and it’ll go over 100 mph. You can’t legally drive 100 mph on the street. The responsibility lies on the driver.”

Mollica is optimistic that scooters will rapidly become safer, smoother and more accessible to different kinds of people. “The designs, in my opinion, still have a long way to go. And it’s really early days.” 

Is California's infrastructure ready for an electric vehicle future?
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When it comes to electric vehicles, we may have put the car before the charging infrastructure. Zero- and low-emission vehicles are considered a crucial part of how the United States will transition away from fossil fuels — and the Bay Area is leading the way with about one in four new cars whirring off dealership lots with a battery instead of a gas tank.

But in densely packed cities like San Francisco, questions about where to charge and whether Pacific Gas & Electric’s infrastructure can support the future strain on the grid remain unanswered.

Despite recent mandates that would outfit new construction and crowded parking lots with charging stations and legislation to streamline the planning code, the EV infrastructure in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities has lagged behind.

This has caused competition for plugs and occasional waits for charging stations across The City, especially among those who can’t charge at home.

“We know that the demand for public charging is going to or has already outpaced the supply of charging stations,” said Lowell Chu, interim program manager of energy and clean transportation at the San Francisco Department of Environment.

There are now over 820 public EV charging stations in San Francisco, said Chu, but this number is set to rapidly increase in the coming years as The City moves to fully realize its EV Roadmap.

“The intent is to effectuate that build-out of the public charging network,” said Chu. “By 2030, all new vehicles should be electric — 100% electric. And by 2040, everything that moves should be electric — because the transportation sector is responsible for half of all our greenhouse gas emissions. Half.”

The City plans to install 5,000 chargers by 2030, in line with San Francisco’s emissions reduction targets. It’s a tall order, but help from both federal and state funding is on the way.

This week, the Senate voted to pump billions of dollars toward speeding up the transition to clean energy, with a healthy share allocated to the transportation sector. The Inflation Reduction Act, which heads to the House for a vote on Friday, would funnel money to electric car purchases over the next decade, including a $7,500 tax break for new electric vehicles.

Although who and what kinds of cars qualify for these credits have sparked some debate, the goal is to make EVs accessible to people across income levels, policymakers assert.

But even as chargers crop up in more places, new research shows that California’s grid may not be ready to accommodate the flurry of EVs and infrastructure required to keep pace with consumer demand and the state’s climate targets.

“Is the system capable of meeting current energy needs? The answer is certainly yes,” said Duncan Callaway, professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley and an author of the study. But, he said, “the pace of circuit upgrades will need to triple between now and 2030 to meet the goals California has for electrification.”

Callaway estimates that those upgrades could cost PG&E up to $10 billion. But it’s not the money that worries him — it’s the pace of change. Right now, PG&E estimates that one in five EVs in the U.S. charge from its grid. But that could swiftly shift as the demand for electric vehicles continues to grow.

“If all customers in PG&E’s service territory overnight purchased electric vehicles, nearly every circuit would need to get upgraded,” said Callaway. “PG&E’s workforce needs to be able to absorb this new shock of projects,” he said, adding his research shows that it will be tricky for the utility to do so at its current pace.

“Utilities have an enormous task,” said Justin Wilson, director of public policy at ChargePoint, an EV charging network started in 2007. “What we’re doing with electric vehicle charging is taking an entire sector — the liquid fuels-based sector — and moving it onto the electrical grid. We need to be real that this is going to require grid upgrades.”

But this issue is top of mind for utilities like PG&E. The company said it’s committed to providing programs and incentives to help redefine the energy landscape through building grid capacity while also exploring second-life battery programs, autonomous EVs, and other technologies that would support California’s clean air and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Meeting The City’s climate targets will also require people to think beyond cars. Chu noted that 80% of trips taken would need to transition to low-carbon alternatives like walking, biking and taking public transit by 2030 — and that doing so will help reduce the demand on the grid.

While the future of EV charging in San Francisco poses many questions, it also represents an opportunity to rethink how we get around and what’s powering our movement through our city.

And when it comes to charging up, “We want to be as convenient as filling up a tank of gas,” said Chu.