people on bike and scooter on green lane, transit boarding island with landscaping, and Muni bus

Photo by SFMTA Photography Department

Transportation has changed immensely over the past two years due to the COVID pandemic. Transit agencies throughout the region have grappled with these changing conditions even as new forms of mobility have been advancing. What might a post-covid future look like for San Francisco’s mobility? Our Executive Director, Tilly Chang sat down recently with Andreas Nienhaus, a partner in Oliver Wyman’s Automotive and Mobility practice, and Alexandre Bayen, associate provost for Moffett Field Program Development at the University of California, Berkeley, and former director of the university’s Institute for Transportation Studies. The below excerpts draw from their conversation with added perspectives in light of recent developments.  

Getting people back on transit and hybrid commute patterns

There will always be a commitment to public transit because we are a dense city and there are no more efficient modes or dependable options, especially for the most vulnerable residents of our city. Our hope is to get people back to transit with frequent, reliable, clean service, and affordable fares. We have been working with our regional agency Metropolitan Transportation Commission to support all of our operators: Muni, BART, AC Transit, Water Emergency Transportation Authority, and others, and are very grateful to the federal government for the recent infusion of over $500 million in operating support for Bay Area systems. This comes at a critical time when transit agencies are working hard to support the return of commuters. 

With the emergence of hybrid work schedules, we have the potential to have a more sustainable, less congested commute pattern. On the other hand, with the possibility of a two to three day per week physical presence for many workers, we run the risk of having just as acute peaking in the middle of the week and making it uneconomic to purchase a monthly transit pass. This may cause us to re-think how we pay for transit, and to supplement rider fares with other sources. It shouldn’t cost more to take transit than to park or take a ride-hailing service to work.

Autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and new mobility

Transportation accounts for 47% of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions, so we are aggressively pursuing mode shifts and clean mobility. Electric vehicles will be a large part of the solution to bring San Francisco’s carbon emissions down to our target levels. In addition, given our Transit-First policy, we need to encourage the use of sustainable modes as we electrify. San Francisco has an 80% goal for low-carbon modes, which includes transit, biking, walking, and carpooling. Muni’s fleet is already among the cleanest in the industry - to fully convert its fleet we need to retrofit and modernize their facilities.

Meanwhile, autonomous vehicle commercial services are being tested and deployed here in San Francisco, and we’re seeking stronger rules on reporting and operations, even as we pilot our own AV shuttle service on Treasure Island later this year. Transportation network companies like ride-sharing services are in a transition phase right now with many investing in micro-mobility as well. Ride-hailing prices are now higher perhaps due to fewer drivers and because the companies are accountable to shareholders. We’re still early in the AV industry trajectory - we need a lot of transparency and public involvement to shape this path thoughtfully and equitably in the coming years.

A best-case scenario for San Francisco mobility for the next five to 10 years

The most important thing is to safeguard and strengthen public transit. We will eventually recover from the COVID pandemic and that economic recovery must be transit-based if it is to be healthy and avoid hyper-congestion. This means developing our bus rapid transit and regional rail network, closing equity gaps, rebuilding our aging infrastructure, and preparing for adaptation to climate change.

As we do this, the whole Bay Area needs to focus on the integration of transit and affordable housing. We’re going to need to support cities and transit operators in pursuing transit-oriented development and more seamless transit, and combine that with innovative demand management strategies, including turning parking minimums to maximums and creating more transit eco-passes. That’s the kind of robust approach that can maximize transit ridership and avoid exacerbating congestion, wealth disparities, and our climate crisis.  

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