This Has Been a Very Strange Week If You Ever Walk Places

We're in the middle of a major shift in how we conceive of the roles of streets and sidewalks.

It’s been a weird week. The Secretary of State is probably going to be shitcanned for calling the president a moron and hogging the ratings. A prankster fired the British Prime Minister, who was further laid low by a hilarious sign malfunction. And apparently, if you kill enough white people at a cultural event associated with whiteness, even the NRA will consider adaptting to reality.

But in San Francisco, it was especially weird for people who ever go anywhere, particularly if you walk on your own two legs. A third pedestrian fatality in less than a month — 90-year-old David Grinberg, who was walking to the park — hammered home the point that San Francisco’s streets are dangerous places. Meanwhile, the guerrilla group SFMTrA continues to outpace the sclerotic city agency tasked with getting S.F. to zero pedestrian deaths by 2024. 

This was also the week when San Francisco put the kibosh on a plan to ban robots — or “autonomous delivery vehicles” — from city sidewalks the way we prohibit Segways. Sup. Norman Yee, who sits on the Vision Zero committee, couldn’t muster enough votes in the face of vocal opposition from business and labor groups.

You can make the case that a blanket ban is unwise, and that targeted regulations would be better. But autonomous machine technology is still very error-prone and occasionally terrifying, so maybe banning it for the time being and revisiting the issue once the picture improves isn’t really such a bad idea. The justified hostility to the convenience-mart-disrupting Bro-dega doesn’t seem to transfer to robots coursing along the sidewalk, which they will almost certainly do at speeds significantly faster than the average human — to say nothing of vulnerable seniors — walks. 

Odder still, keeping sidewalks accessible was also the rationale behind this week’s vote against bicycle chop shops. It’s an open secret that many people pedaling one bike while holding onto a second have just stolen somebody’s ride, but while there are legitimate concerns about making the lives of unhoused San Franciscans more miserable, there is still a clash here. We can’t have bike parts strewn on a seldom used sidewalk under the Central Freeway, but we’re open to burrito-bots whizzing up and down the heavily traversed sidewalk on Valencia?

Meanwhile, the streets themselves are arguably no safer. It was only last week when the Board of Supervisors was introduced to the novel idea that maybe Uber and Lyft drivers behave in boorish, entitled ways on the streets. Confronted with city data that TNCs, or “transportation network companies,” commit two-thirds of all violations downtown, Sup. Aaron Peskin expressed stunned disbelief. And at the state level, a preliminary report by the California Public Utilities Commission declined to mandate that Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers, saying existing regulations were sufficient.  

We know why Uber and Lyft are opposed to that one. It’s not because they value their passengers’ wellbeing, and definitely not because they’d go to the mat for their hard-working drivers. It’s that it would be a step toward recognizing that the ride-hail giants are legitimate employers and not just apps for a disposable contract workforce. For them, it’s the hill to die on — and they’ll do anything to stall for time until the acceptance of autonomous cars renders the issue moot. Still, what more must Uber do before California ceases to give this company the benefit of the doubt?

Whether it’s Waymo, Uber, or boring old GM, those first truly autonomous vehicles will almost certainly come from California. Tantalizingly, we could also see the end of the internal combustion engine in less than 25 years, too. But beyond any single proposal or piece of legislation, we seem to be in a period of major upheaval when it comes to transportation, and while some of that is technological in nature, a lot it feels like a cultural shift in the way conceive of the proper roles of streets and sidewalks and how we allocate funds accordingly. Nationwide, Americans are beginning to rethink the idea that transportation equals cars equals highways. But in San Francisco, as in so many things, we’re the lab rats. So let’s get it right.

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