A Collective Impact Approach for Traffic Congestion Relief and Car-Lite Living in San Francisco
In San Francisco, over 50 percent of trips are completed by walking, biking or using transit. Our streets, however, are heavily congested with automobiles used by commuters; parents taking children to school and activities; and residents and visitors running errands, shopping and traveling to recreation. The congestion in our streets has been compounded recently by the surge in Uber and Lyft vehicle trips and ecommerce delivery services. The presence of car traffic throughout our city diminishes the livability of our communities and our quality of life. A strong shift to car-lite living can minimize traffic congestion, reduce air and noise pollution, strengthen communities and the local economy, and enhance individual health and well-being.
Local Transportation Goals, Policies and Vision
San Francisco has long held aspirational goals and policies for reducing auto dependence. A Transit First Policy, in the San Francisco City Charter, was established in 1973 with walking and biking being added as priority travel modes in 2007. The San Francisco Transportation Plan, the 30-year blueprint for the city’s transportation system, establishes the same priorities. The Vision Zero Policy (2014) focuses on safety on our streets, particularly for those most vulnerable in auto collisions— pedestrians and cyclists. Most recently, ConnectSF was launched with a 50-year vision for transportation with goals that include safety, livability and environmental sustainability and reaffirm the city’s aspiration to reduce auto dependence and congestion.
The San Francisco Climate Action Strategy has a goal of 80 percent of trips in the city being on sustainable modes by 2030. To facilitate such modal shift, busses, light rail, biking and other non-auto modes need to be efficient, convenient and safe. This requires a significant reallocation of streets and public space to support these modes and walking.
Systems Level Change
Changing transportation patterns is fundamentally a human behavior problem greatly influenced by external conditions. In addition to the reallocation of streets and public space, there are a myriad of physical, cultural and social conditions that must also be present to shift the transportation choices of individuals living in, working in and visiting San Francisco.
Drawing on interdisciplinary research on transportation behavior and recognizing transportation as a complex system, I suggest the following five components to promoting car-lite living in San Francisco (see diagram for another representation).
- Land use plays a foundational role in whether non-auto modes for travel make sense in daily life. Mixed-use, transit-oriented and mixed-income residential development with attractive public space provide practical and psychological motivation for car-lite living.
- Transportation infrastructure must be robust enough so that alternative options to driving are viable for most users (880 cities) with complete streets that have safe, dedicated lanes and space for public transit, biking and walking; multi-modal integration; shared mobility services; and excellent wayfinding tools and signage.
- Equity initiatives, anchored in transportation justice and safety, help to ensure that changes made in our transportation system benefit all users, especially those that cannot afford the expense of owning and maintaining a personal vehicle.
- Social interventions that leverage everyday life context and are timed with contextual changes for individuals can provide social support and financial incentives to enable behavior change. These interventions help individuals develop the motivation and competence necessary to regularly use public transit, bike, scoot and/or walk.
- Cultural norms encompass the many cultural forces that influence our personal transportation choices. Media, advertising, the behavior of role models and other culture shaping elements must shift from a focus on cars to other modes of transportation.
Below are some of the projects and programs (not exhaustive) taking place in San Francisco that relate to these five components for systems change in transportation.
|Land Use||Transportation Infrastructure||Equity Initiatives||Social Interventions||Cultural Norms|
Central Subway (2019)
Transbay Transit Center (2018)
Better Market Street (2022)
Van Ness BRT (2020)
Geary BRT (2021)
|Vision Zero SF
|New Residents Outreach
|Muni in ads
Civic, business and non-profit leaders in SF who bike, walk and use transit
Some of the specific programs listed above could fall into multiple components. The TDM programs, for example, contain both infrastructure (e.g. bike storage at property) and social interventions (on-site marketing). Projected completion dates are listed in Transportation Infrastructure as these represent significant opportunities for social interventions and shifting cultural norms.
These five components of systems level change in San Francisco transportation connect the micro (everyday transportation choices by individuals) with the macro (conditions that influence transportation choices in the aggregate). With the right mix of these components coordinated to support the use of non-auto modes, substantial and lasting change in transportation patterns and reduced traffic congestion may be possible in San Francisco.
Political will and leadership are critical to facilitating and funding the two foundational components of systems level change in transportation: land use and transportation infrastructure. Strong coalitions demanding change are instrumental in overcoming the status quo which manifests itself in everything from resistance to reduction in car parking spaces or adding bike lanes to dark money fueled opposition to public transit measures. The expansion of non-auto modes through scooters and other little vehicles can help build a larger coalition of those who want to see San Francisco streets less dominated by cars. Political leadership by the mayor and city officials is also essential. Newly elected Mayor London Breed laid out a transportation platform that prioritizes non-auto modes.
San Francisco needs a mayor who understands the connection between land use and transportation, who fights for Transit First, who knows the frustration and joys of riding Muni because she’s done it all her life, who rides a bike and has struggled to pay a parking ticket, who’s frustrated by our congestion, and who embraces well-regulated new technology. We need a mayor with a plan to make transportation work for everyone, a mayor with a track record of fighting for improvements and for the resources we need. I am that Mayor.
- Mayoral candidate London Breed, May 2018
This vision and platform, Transportation that Works for Everyone, centers on equity. Equity Initiatives, the third component of systems level change, help to actualize transportation equity so that all San Franciscans have access to safe, affordable and efficient non-auto modes for daily travel.
Social interventions and cultural norms can build on changes in physical conditions (land use and transportation infrastructure) to facilitate and accelerate change in personal transportation behavior. As our transportation choices are deeply rooted in personal habits and lifestyle, supportive social and cultural conditions are needed to make non-auto modes the norm in San Francisco. There is an abundance of research that demonstrates how our behavior is largely influenced by these conditions, whether we are aware of it or not. In a nutshell, we tend to do what others around us are doing (such as how they transport themselves) and is reflected in cultural messages and cues.
Systems level change in transportation, in San Francisco, is unlikely to happen if each of the components is developed and implemented on its own. As with any complex social change, the interactions between the components is paramount. A coordinated, sustained effort is needed to bring together all the components of the system and align them in support of reduced traffic congestion and increased use of non-auto modes. While agencies like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency play a central role, cross-sector partnerships with government, business, non-profit and other types of organizations are needed to change the system. The collective impact approach is a structured, proven way to build and sustain cross-sector partnerships that advance complex social change in geographically bound areas such as cities.
Collective Impact Approach
Collective impact is “a systemic approach to social impact that focuses on the relationships between organizations and the progress toward shared objectives.” (Kania and Kramer, 2011) To facilitate systems level change in transportation, organizations in San Francisco can implement together the five conditions of the collective impact approach: a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. The building blocks for all five conditions are present in San Francisco’s transportation system.
The multiple benefits of car-lite living—minimal traffic congestion, individual health, community cohesion, local economic activity and less pollution— can bring together diverse organizations and agencies from government, non-profit, business and academic sectors to work on systems level change in transportation. These stakeholders can build a common agenda to catalyze and embark on their work together. A primary outcome of the common agenda process is developing a shared understanding of the problem(s) to be addressed and the approach to solving it, including a strong commitment to it by all shareholders.
A common agenda can build on the visionary policies and plans for San Francisco, already in existence, such as:
- Connect SF
- San Francisco Transportation Plan
- SFMTA Strategic Plan
- Vision Zero Policy
- Plan Bay Area (regional)
SPUR provided a Blueprint for Change for San Francisco’s Next Mayor in May of this year. The six areas of change in the transportation section of the blueprint provide another roadmap for a common agenda:
- stand by San Francisco’s commitment to putting transit first
- make the city safe for walking and biking and bring an end to all traffic-related deaths
- manage car traffic
- make new transportation technology work for the city
- connect San Francisco to the region and the state—with rail
- secure funding for the next 50 years of transportation policies and get more built with the money we have now
All of these six areas build on the many current plans and activities taking place in San Francisco and push them to become bolder, more coherent and more transformative in their impact—a collective impact initiative could be the means to achieving this ambitious but necessary change for transportation in San Francisco.
Shared measurement can further increase commitment to changing transportation patterns in San Francisco through agreeing to common performance measures. The first step is on agreeing what to measure. An overall shared result could be the city’s goal of 80 percent of trips in the city being on sustainable modes by 2030. Each organization can contribute towards achieving that result and/or other related measurable goals such as reduced vehicle miles traveled, reduced transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, improved equity-related measures and improved quality of life indicators. Once common measures are determined, developing means of regular data collection, analysis and sharing puts a system of shared measurement into place. A vast amount of transportation data is already collected by local and regional agencies that may be useful to a collective impact initiative for traffic congestion relief and car-lite living. (As one local and related example, Vision Zero SF regularly collects and analyzes data on traffic fatalities to measure progress towards the desired result, shared among its partners, of eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2024.)
Mutually Reinforcing Activities
Many non-profits, agencies, businesses and individuals in San Francisco are working to make public transit, biking, walking and other non-auto modes the default choice for most trips completed by San Franciscans and visitors to our city. Coordination among all these entities and their activities is necessary to create the supportive conditions for individuals to regularly make non-auto mode choices. Working together in a structured way can reinforce, bridge and extend existing organization-level activities to implement systems level change. Such collaboration can also lead to new approaches that shift the activities of participating organizations to be more in alignment with a common agenda for reduced traffic congestion and car-lite living.
Diverse transportation-related partnerships that support mutually reinforcing activities exist in San Francisco. These include:
- Vision Zero Task Force (led by SFDPH and SFMTA)
- Transportation Sustainability Program (SF Planning, SFMTA and SFCTA)
- Safe Routes to School Partnership (led by SFMTA and SFUSD)
- SF Better Streets (SF Planning, SF Public Works, SFMTA and SFPUC)
- Better Market Street (SF Public Works, SFMTA, SFCTA, SF Planning, SFPUC and Office of Economic and Workforce Development)
- Commuter Benefit Ordinance (SF Environment + Employers)
- Bicycle Friendly Business Awards (SF Bicycle Coalition + Businesses)
These and other transportation partnerships and initiatives in San Francisco could be brought together in a collective impact initiative to increase their impact in creating supportive conditions for car-lite living.
Continuous Communication and Backbone Support
Backbone support is considered the most essential condition for success in many collective impact initiatives. This support is best provided by dedicated staff that can serve as a neutral convener. A full-time director or coordinator can manage the collective impact initiative, with the help of key stakeholders, and through the many dilemmas that must be managed throughout the process to sustain momentum and catalyze change. Another function of backbone support is to provide continuous communication that keeps focus on the common agenda and shared measures; promotes coordination among internal stakeholders; and increases visibility and encouragement of car-lite living throughout San Francisco.
The neutrality of the backbone staff is important in that the initiative is not perceived as the agenda of one or a few organizations. The Mayor’s Office, a foundation or an academic institution, invested in the overall outcome and interested in bringing diverse perspectives together, may be the place to locate backbone support. Backbone staff could also emerge from collaborative, visionary planning initiatives such as Connect SF that currently involves SF Planning, SFMTA, SFCTA and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
With a new Mayor and an influx of new funding for transportation (Regional Measure 3, gas tax increase, etc.), the time is right to bring cross-sector organizations together for addressing the serious, growing traffic congestion in our city and to systematically increase non-auto mode use. A collective impact approach, executed well over time, has the potential to influence the daily travel behavior of a vast number of individuals living and working in San Francisco and make San Francisco a healthier, more vibrant and more livable city.