SF leaders search for ways to blend car-reliant worshippers with transit-first policies

In a city where promoting alternatives to California’s car culture is the unofficial religion, Sunday can be a day of conflict.

The Rev. Malcolm Byrd’s Sunday morning ritual includes collecting the angry notes left on his and other double-parked cars on Golden Gate Avenue. They’re left by bicyclists upset that automobiles are blocking their lane during services at Byrd’s First AME Zion Church.

Such righteous anger, while perhaps well-intentioned, is received by “your classic old church lady,” Byrd said. And that lady is part of a citywide congregation that is overwhelmingly old and car-reliant, with no other viable way to get to services.

This dependence on automobiles is challenging religious leaders and transit officials in San Francisco to find a compromise that can reduce congestion and promote transit while still allowing aging worshipers to access their faith communities.

Two-thirds of people who go to religious services in The City do so via car, according to a survey conducted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, which represents churches, synagogues and mosques. And these car-commuting worshippers also skew older — 69 percent of the 601 respondents were over 45, with a quarter of them senior citizens.

Their preferred mode of transport runs up against official San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency policy, which is to promote public transit such as Muni and BART as the first option to get around.

Religious leaders, however, say that option is simply not realistic for many parishioners.

“It’s not within reason to expect a 95-year-old woman to get on the bus and get to church,” said Byrd, who added that as many as 70 percent of his 100 or so Sunday worshipers come from outside The City. “We’re not just a driving church, we’re a commuter church.”

This is not a Sunday-only issue.

Rita Semel has several transit options to reach Congregation Emanu-El near the Presidio from her home in Pacific Heights. But she drives.

Semel chooses her car in part because she is 92 — although she always carpools — but also because it’s preferable to returning home in the dark on Friday nights.

“And driving is easier than the parking problem,” she said.

Byrd knows all about that. The SFMTA has plans to add a bicycle lane and remove parking on Masonic Avenue next to his church.

If the cycle track project goes forward, that could mean even more double-parking — or fewer worshippers on Sundays.

Meanwhile, bicycle and transit advocates aren’t happy with places of worship either. They have long chafed at the informal arrangements that allow motorists to double- park or park in medians outside houses of worship on Sundays, calling it special treatment that favors drivers.

Recently, Mayor Ed Lee heeded a call from religious leaders, who took issue with the SFMTA’s decision to activate parking meters at noon on Sundays.

Lee has asked the SFMTA to roll back the policy.

“[The mayor] has heard a number of concerns from the interfaith community about Sunday meters and expects the [SFMTA] to consider their concerns as well as the concerns of others as they discuss the issue,” mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

The SFMTA has dubbed Sunday meter enforcement a success.

Drivers can find parking spaces on Sundays in four minutes, rather than circling for 14, because more spots tend to free up due to the meters. And Sunday meters netted The City $11.7 million in revenue last year, with $4.5 million of that coming from parking tickets, according to agency spokesman Paul Rose.

The SFMTA board of directors could abandon Sunday meters during budget discussions this spring, which begin April 1.

And in May, the agency is expected to begin studying the worshipper-transportation question more closely.

The SFMTA plans to gather data on where the congregants of the four churches — Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Unitarian — atop Cathedral Hill come from and how they get there in order to “better understand their needs,” Rose said.

That might end the conflict.

“The City takes the tech industry and the green industry seriously, as they should,” Byrd said. “We’re asking city leadership to take the church seriously.”

Correction: The church in the picture was erroneously named in the caption as St. Francis Cathedral. The church is Saints Peter and Paul.

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