For 30 years, a 40-foot-high section of US Route 101 wove like a blackberry vine through a low, old neighborhood of Edwardian and Georgian buildings in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. Then, in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake, magnitude 6.9, fractured the elevated roadway. Some people wanted to repair it, but the city decided to tear it down—a rare unbuilding in a nation connected by highways.
Today it's hard to imagine that anyone defended the spur. The highway formed a wall between neighborhoods, and the right-of-way beneath it was a dark, unloved space. With the freeway pruned away, the city styled the newly revealed surface street—Octavia—after a grand Parisian boulevard, with an inner couple of lanes separated from parallel side streets by tree-lined islands. Octavia now terminates in a long, grassy park with a geodesic children's play structure at one end. Nearby are pricey shops and chic cafés.
Back when Jeff Tumlin was on staff at the urban planning consultancy Nelson\Nygaard, he worked on this remaking of Octavia Street and Hayes Valley. Now Tumlin—tall, lean, and bearded—is the new head of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency. On a sunny winter morning, he and I head for that green space so he can show me the freeway's ghost, barely visible in the odd, polygonal footprints of newer buildings along Hayes Street—they're catawampus, tucked into the spaces where the concrete artery used to curve through, insensible to the city's grid. Take away the veil of freeway and you get space for a more boogie-woogie street fabric. Less freeway, more park.
Tumlin has a preternatural awareness of urban ectoplasm. He's going to need it. Like the Loma Prieta quake, Tumlin is about to shake some things until they break—carve up a few more roads to create bike paths, new busways, parks … whole new ways for people to move around. It won't be easy; lefty, crazy San Francisco becomes the most conservative city in the country when it comes to changing the look and feel of the place. But this is the revolution that Tumlin and a generation of new-wave planners are waging.
“Almost no matter what you want to do with cities, transportation is the fastest and most cost-effective way of achieving your goals,” he says. “If you want to reduce 22CO2 emissions, if you want to advance social equity, if you want to foster small business success, if you want to increase land value, if you want to increase public health, if you want to reduce fatalities and injuries—transport is the place to do it.”
Cars are great. I say that as an Angeleno who grew up thinking of them as a perfect amalgam of fashion signifier and Gundam mech-armor, but also because of everything that the private automobile has made possible. Vanguard of an economic boom, the car democratized freedom of movement and social privacy—privileges that had been available only to wealthy white men. The whole economic premise of Fordism was that the laborers who powered the late industrial revolution, who built the cars, should also be able to afford them. And wow, did that ever happen. When the assembly lines spun up at the beginning of the 20th century, Americans owned just a few thousand cars. By the end of World War II, it was 30 million. As of 2017, there were more than 193 million cars and light-duty trucks in the US. That's roughly three cars for every four adults.
Cars are also terrible. They kill about 40,000 people every year in the US and injure millions more. Americans spend 54 hours per year slowly losing their minds in traffic, a waste of $179 billion in lost productivity and 3.3 billion gallons of gas. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and more than half of that is from cars. Combustion engines simply cannot help emitting carbon-based molecules that violently deconstruct Earth's climate. Cars—especially the short-hop, sub-5-mile trips that people who live in cities take as a matter of both habit and necessity—are the most obvious cause of climate change.
Or: You. It's you, driving to work, picking up kids, driving to the movies, doing the shopping. Your car habit is killing the world with fire and flood.
Really, though, it's not you. It's them—the people who made the laws that shaped the urban world and the people who built cities to fit them. Driving seems like what an economist would call a revealed preference, a thing people obviously love because they do it so much. But it's not. Driving is an enforced preference. The modern American city is designed to favor cars and make other ways of getting around suck. That's been true for at least six decades, but today our limited ability to imagine different shapes for cities is causing environmental collapse. It's time to hit the brakes. Want to cut carbon? Get people to drive less. But to do it, we'll need different kinds of cities.
Tumlin has a degree in urban studies from Stanford, which didn't help him get a job when he graduated in 1991 and moved to San Francisco. He was poor, but that was OK. “I was having my perfect young, queer, new San Francisco arrival experience. Those were my formative years. I was finally having a life.”
So when Tumlin finally got an offer a year or so later, it held little appeal. It was back at Stanford, running the unglamorous university parking system. Except, dollars. “I thought, OK, fine, I will do this, ignore my job description, and they will fire me. But I'll make enough money to go to graduate school,” he says.
He arrived back on campus amid a crisis. The earthquake that knocked over the San Francisco freeway had also damaged about a third of the university's buildings. Its considerable endowment was down too. Stanford's land had become its most valuable resource.
Taking advantage of that resource, though, was a whole other thing. Constant not-in-my-backyardist opposition to Stanford's real estate development efforts had culminated in what Tumlin describes as a “bizarre deal” with Santa Clara County, where the campus sits. It was an omnibus, but with a catch: The school was allowed to develop up to 2.1 million square feet of new construction—but only if peak-period traffic around the campus stayed at 1989 levels.
That seemed impossible. More buildings would necessarily mean more people, which would necessarily mean more cars, right? And all of them would want to sit on what Tumlin increasingly thought of as his parking lots, so he'd have to build more of those too … which would induce demand for more cars and cause more traffic. But then his team came up with a radical plan. “What's unique about universities is that they are the property owner, the developer, the landlord, and the tenant,” Tumlin says. “They can actually do systems thinking in a way that is rarely possible for government agencies, particularly transit agencies.” Tumlin, the head of parking, decided not to build any more parking lots.
Instead, his department offered every Stanford employee $90 a year, cash, if they didn't buy a parking permit; while simultaneously raising parking rates. Rather than spend $18 million building new lots, Stanford spent $4 million of the parking income on paths and places to lock up bikes, banned private cars from a main road on campus—buses and bikes still allowed—and built 2.1 million square feet of buildings. Traffic remained at its 1989 baseline.
While it's true that universities are more terrarium than town, the tension between using land for cars or for people—whether to build infrastructure for private journeys or public destinations, if you will—stymies cities too. How do you make sure people can easily get to where they want to go? Public transit networks, mostly rail, guided the growth of US cities through the first half of the 20th century. Even the booming metropolises of the postwar years—Los Angeles most famously—sprawled along the branches of metastatic trolley networks. Then a methodical automotive-industry public relations project taught Americans that the freedom of movement cars offered wasn't just convenient, it was downright patriotic—much more so than dirty, crowded cities. Carmakers lobbied for roadbuilding—like, how about a whole interstate highway system?—and road builders came to support anything that led people to buy a new car. Cities across the US tore the tracks up. You can see their ghosts in the broad grassy median strips on boulevards across the country.
Racism and classism go a long way toward explaining why public transit got nuked, but that nuking is still a weird, self-hating move. It makes cities a lot less fun. Researchers disagree about the degree to which people love big houses on curvy cul-de-sacs and malls anchored by big-box stores versus, say, multiunit housing, densely packed skyscrapers with street-level retail, and a vibrant café culture. But let's just stipulate that people who like cities like cities.
Yet those preferences aren't reflected in the classic guidelines for traffic planning. The standards simply favor plenty of parking and streets that hold a lot of cars. The result is sprawl, downtowns that empty at 6 pm, car-dependent suburbs and exurbs, and roads choked with traffic. This kind of city—Houston, Phoenix, greater Los Angeles—eats up resources and coughs out carbon. It's obvious when you say it out loud, right? Cities take up 2 percent of all land on Earth, but they're responsible for 70 percent of global emissions. But in dense cities with transit, people drive less. “Right now, cars are the dominant life-form in most of our cities,” says Daniel Kammen, an energy researcher at UC Berkeley, “not people.”
European cities have been doing radical surgery on themselves to cure those ills for decades. But one of the first people in the US to try to put that knowledge to work was the head of New York City's Department of Transportation, a San Francisco-born New Yorker named Janette Sadik-Khan. Appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007, Sadik-Khan had already been a federal transportation official and worked for New York under Mayor David Dinkins. The year she started her new job, New York was looking at a million more people moving in by 2030, but the administration also wanted to reduce emissions. Sadik-Khan came home from a trip to bicycle-crazy Copenhagen with an idea: Move parallel-parked cars a few feet out from the curb and use them as a bulwark for bike lanes. “We'd sort of lost the script that our streets could be for anyone else,” Sadik-Khan says. “People that were walking or biking or taking transit, they were left with a scrap of the street.” So she took some of it back.
New York drivers, never shy, complained about losing lanes. Retailers worried about losing customers. But polling showed that pretty much everyone else loved Sadik-Khan's changes. She got 400 miles of bikeways built. She turned Times Square car-free, started a bike-share program, and helped found a national organization of city planners that could teach US cities to push these kinds of ideas as hard as the old car-forward ones. “We just lit the spark, gave cities permission to innovate,” Sadik-Khan says. “Change is difficult. A lot of cities are debating whether to build more roads and highways. They need to stop repeating the failures of the last century.”
Tumlin expertly pedals a bright orange Jump bike toward the park on Octavia. I'm less expertly pedaling his bike, an electrically boosted thing that'll spin up to 25 mph if I don't watch it. (Tumlin often tweets about his rides on his ebike, and a few weeks after our trip, someone tried to steal it—during Tumlin's photo shoot for WIRED. He ran after the guy and got it back.)
Honestly, I look like a wobbly, bike-curious dope in a secondhand helmet. Tumlin, on the other hand, cuts a natty figure in a sweater, jacket, and really nice shoes. (At work he favors tailored suits; a local news outlet reported his new job with the headline “Mayor Appoints Stone Cold Fox Jeffrey Tumlin to Lead SFMTA.”)
The Parisian version of Octavia, it turns out, isn't all he'd hoped. “We screwed this one up,” Tumlin says. “The island is too narrow, so the outside lanes are too wide.” Traffic pours off the still extant part of the old freeway toward the park, and some cars use the outside lanes to bypass the center. Making the point, a silver sedan rolls up and presses us from behind. We float right and it accelerates. I see Uber and Lyft stickers in its rear window. As the sedan crawls past, Tumlin looks through the window at the driver, smiles broadly, locks the extended middle finger of his left hand on target, and says, amiably but loud: “Fuuuuuck yoooooou.”
Maybe that makes Tumlin sound like a zealot or an asshole. In my time with him, he was neither; he says he just doesn't like bullies. And he thinks that cars screw up cities. That's why he peels off from the park and turns down a side street. A hundred years ago it would have been an alley; a hundred years before that it might've been space for horse-drawn carriages. Now it's a cozy street full of shops—an expensive luggage store with displays more like an art gallery, a famous maker of custom-made corsetry. We dismount where the street is lined with stone benches and plantings that make it almost too narrow for cars. That's what Tumlin wants to show me. This urbane little street is designed for people moving at the speed our eyes and brains are most able to process and respond to, he says—which happens to be no faster than a run. But behind the wheel of a car, inputs come too fast. Thirty miles an hour! Locked in a steel box, toggling between a crime podcast and Google Maps, an illusion of aloneness disconnects us from the sometimes literal impacts of our behavior. We get, frankly, deranged. “The social contract breaks down,” Tumlin says.
“Yeah,” I say. “You don't even have to wear pants in a car.”
“It's also literally the only place you can get away with murdering someone by calling it an accident,” he says.
The people sharing spaces on the sidewalk, or inside a bus or subway car, though, self-assemble as if in a theater where we perform civil society for each other. We remove our backpacks so more people can fit. We let people exit before we enter. Someone in front of us drops something, we pick it up for them. Tumlin has shown me this little street because it's scaled to let all that happen. “But I can't say my job is telling people about civility,” he says.
After he left Stanford and ended up at Nelson\Nygaard, Tumlin worked not only on that Octavia park but in cities from Seattle to Abu Dhabi. In fact, a lot of what he's planning for San Francisco would look familiar to the rest of the world. New York just closed 14th Street, a key crosstown boulevard, to private cars—a bus trip that took 17 minutes now takes just 10, and weekday ridership has been up 17 percent. Seattle's adding new homes and new transit. Oslo is banning cars from its city center. The center of Ghent in Belgium is divided into zones that transit can cross freely but cars can't. London charges drivers to enter downtown. And Paris—oh, man, Paris. After building miles of bike lanes and turning huge swaths of the city car-free, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has reduced car traffic by 22 percent. Her reelection campaign is predicated on eliminating 60,000 parking spaces and building a “city of 15 minutes,” where jobs, housing, and anything great is within a quarter-hour's trip—on foot, on bike, or on Metro.
That's all a ways off for San Francisco, but you can see the road ahead. As Tumlin and I pedal over to the long north-south artery of Van Ness Avenue, we have to dismount to get past a construction project, where workers are putting in separate lanes for bikes and buses. We hang a left on Market Street and pull into the new bike lanes tucked behind new boarding islands for buses, all built in preparation for Market's closure to private automotive traffic. (A proposal to set aside part of the San Francisco-to-Oakland Bay Bridge for buses is pending.)
Of course there are obstacles. At one point on our ride, the bike lane we're following takes a sudden turn away from the curb, out into traffic, and then quickly back inward again. Thanks to the litigious, whiny owner of the store we have just passed, the bike lane zigzags around exactly one car's worth of parking. And, acceding to local demand, the transit agency built a handful of the city's new trolley-boarding platforms with a single parking space, positioned so that a car in that spot blocks the doors of an entire trolley car. “While at the citywide level, I think we could all agree that the safety of transit riders is more important than a single parking space,” Tumlin says wryly, “at the block level, it becomes more challenging.”
The Mission Bay neighborhood, south of the Giants' baseball stadium, used to be wetland, industrial buildings, and parking lots. Now Tumlin and I ride through a gleaming new town, built higher and denser than most of the city, threaded through with a burgeoning UC San Francisco campus. At a park that has become a semipermanent cluster of food trucks, Tumlin and I lock up the bikes and get food. Surrounded by med school students nursing brunch cocktails, we talk about a special irony of his new job. Everything he's trying to do is the philosophical opposite of the plans a bunch of powerful technology companies just a few miles away have for disrupting cars.
Their solutions sound pretty good at first. Electric cars don't emit carbon—at least not locally. Robot cars are supposed to be smart enough, someday, to platoon together as close as the segments of a caterpillar, solving traffic congestion. And when we don't need them they'll just sort of float away instead of requiring giant parking structures. Imagine Uber, but without the oppression of the proletariat.
Tumlin doesn't buy any of it. New car technologies don't solve old car problems. Models of a city where only robot Ubers ply the roads hint at smoother traffic flow, but a more realistic simulation—one combining dumb private cars driven by dumb people (not you, other people)—showed increased congestion and more pollution. Ride-hail services already simulate what a robot autopia would look like, and it turns out for solo trips they emit about 50 percent more carbon dioxide than private cars per passenger-mile. Half the time those cars are on the road they're roving, empty, trawling for fares.
If you're hoping that electric cars will solve that carbon problem, well, maybe. But electrics are a stable 2 percent of the US fleet; SUVs are 70 percent and climbing. It's not enough to make a dent. “There's this incredibly tech-centric discussion around fuel sources that misses the many ways that cars pollute,” says Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. “Even if they swarm, they're about 1/500th as spatially efficient as a train, and in cities, space is capital.”
If a city's most valuable resource is its land, the idea should be to let more people make use of it, not fewer people with more expensive toys. “Congestion is an economic problem, not an infrastructure one,” Tumlin says. Streets are a resource, often poorly managed. Transit serves more people more efficiently. That's the real problem with Ubers and Lyfts, in the end. “Left to their own devices, private mobility operators will provide more exquisite personal convenience for the privileged,” he says. “The result of Uber and Lyft is that my streets can move fewer people.”
“For a lot of people a car means freedom and social status,” says Janette Sadik-Khan. “But if a city provides you no choice but to drive, a car isn't freedom, it's dependence. If you have no choice but to drive for every trip, it's not your fault. Your city has failed.”
This is Tumlin's honeymoon phase. He's still a little famous for dressing, one Halloween, as the city's new marquee bus terminal, with a tessellated white metal skin and, famously, a broken spar that required an eight-month closure for repair. He printed out the Penrose pattern for his suit and wore a top hat with a crack. Tumlin's social media presence is so cheeky, people @reply him to complain when buses are late. The mayor and Board of Supervisors support him.
But the city's public works department is embroiled in a corruption scandal that could expand, and Tumlin's agency is groaning under the weight of bad morale and hundreds of unfilled jobs. Some of his jobs problem is just city bureaucracy BS. But another is also an issue nationwide: housing. Being a bus operator has, historically, been the kind of job that provides a pathway to the middle class in the US, especially for people of color. Yet someone who can't afford to live in the Bay Area can't get that job. “The rising cost of housing outpaces an employer's ability to pay,” Tumlin says. “I am talking out loud about converting office space to dormitories.”
At about the same time as American cities started pulling up their trolley tracks, they were passing laws that made it harder to build dense housing. Governments started encouraging people to own their own houses on their own plots of land, and weird baby boomer pastoralism and racism produced exclusionary zoning laws.
The result? Small businesses can't thrive. Gentrification displaces poorer residents. Homelessness goes up. The construction of new homes gets pushed to the edges of cities and beyond, so people have to drive more, which makes their lives more expensive and emits more greenhouse gases. Transportation and housing are as intertwined as strands of DNA. But in California, legislation that would have made it easier to build clustered, multiunit housing near transit lines has failed to pass the state's Senate two years in a row. If you make it illegal to build dense cities, it's hard to cut carbon. “Housing policy is climate policy,” says Constantine Samaras, a climate and energy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “City policy is climate policy.”
A lot of home-owning Americans find local produce shops and neighborhood cafés in front of apartment buildings charming as hell in Paris or Tokyo, but they'll take to the city-council barricades to prevent their construction back home—in defense of “parking” or “neighborhood character.” That's especially true in San Francisco. “Most of us came from somewhere else and had an amazing arrival experience that was transformative. We became our best, truest selves, and it was magical and beautiful. But we cling to the San Francisco that was here when we arrived,” Tumlin says. “I escaped a place that was oppressive and conformist and had this astonishing coming-out experience, but one that was extraordinarily self-involved. There is an upside to conformist societies: They tend to be communitarian, especially if you are in the in-group.”
That's an extraordinary critique, not just of San Francisco but of the California dream. Tumlin is saying that to have the cities we need, we need to let go of the cities we have. The ideal city is a place where lots of different kinds of people with lots of different amounts of money can live and work. It has to be easy to get around without a car, even for people whose bodies can't ride bikes or hop over potholes, and for people who have kids to drop off on the way to work and groceries to buy on the way home, and maybe flowers to buy next door to the dry cleaner's. These are places where people want to live, because it's nice there. The fact that those places also adapt to and mitigate climate change instead of causing it is a bonus.
Tumlin and his generation of planners are offering a new vision of what broke American civil society. The culprit wasn't rock and roll or miniskirts or hippies. It wasn't immigrants or violent comics or violent TV or violent videogames or drugs or feminism or atheism or Fox News or cell phones or Russian hackers or even Dungeons and Dragons.
It was just cars.
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ADAM ROGERS (@jetjocko) is a senior correspondent who covers science and culture.
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