San Francisco Has a Centralization Problem

Conglomeration of Jobs into the City Center is Creating Harsh Transit and Spatial Realities for the City

Photo by Neal Chopra on Unsplash

San Francisco — the city with the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, and Fisherman’s Wharf — what isn’t there to like? Actually quite a lot. San Francisco is an extraordinarily interesting city from a planning perspective. In many ways planners have gotten things right—a sprawling bus system and no interstate cutting through the city. At the same time, the geography of the Bay Area — urban and suburban areas surrounding water—and the mass density of the city of San Francisco have complicated things significantly. Ever wanted to drive from San Francisco Airport to Marin County? Before you do the drive make sure to account for all the stopping you’ll have to do along Highway 1 given the amount of traffic lights and at-grade intersections in San Francisco.

This points to another large issue, which is that San Francisco is so dense and sprawling that there are so many narrow streets making drive times exorbitant. Moreover, bus times are similar given they use the same streets. It is the underground transit networks — BART and Muni at times, that work well (and that’s not to say that the buses don’t). Unfortunately, the transit systems all work in a similar fashion. They start at a far end of the city, and they operate towards the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown. After all, that is where all the jobs are.

Over the past couple months, I have been getting acquainted with QGIS, and one of the primary objectives I sought ought to achieve is to analyze transit disparities within the nearest major city to me, San Francisco. I anticipated there would be many, as in my prior experience of driving through San Francisco, I have seen many buses, often crowded buses, but they always seemed to take forever to traverse the city. At the same time, the zoning and layout of the city is just as conspicuous. If you drive on Highway 1 up to the Golden Gate Bridge, many will notice not just the slow speeds, but the lack of major offices. Rather, much of SF’s housing is on the “outskirts” of the city while the offices center around the Financial District.

My research with QGIS backed this assumption up. I found after reading in data from a public website that as you go farther away from the Financial District, not only do the number of jobs in a certain TAZ (Transit Area Zone) decrease, but the time to get to a job increases.

Centralization Symptom #1

One of the major reasons why transit times (and even auto times, for that matter) are exorbitant to reach jobs is because of the sheer congestion on the streets in SF and the amount of traffic lights. At the same time, the placement of the jobs in the city center creates all the congestion that occurs when people travel to them—many could consider this a major fail with city planning. Would you center all the major jobs in a financial district with very little direct access by car (I’m not a highway advocate at all, but SF’s mixed model with no highway through the city but also minimal rapid transit won’t cut it), and therefore bus? BART and CalTrain do a good job of bringing people from the East Bay and the Peninsula into the Financial District, but it is up to the Muni buses to actually bring people from the outskirts of the City Limits into the CBD (Central Business District). Despite being only 7 miles away, Outer Sunset feels like its own city given the driving times to the Embarcadero.

Another interesting finding I noticed regards San Francisco’s Transit Analysis Zones, or TAZs. As mentioned previously, the bulk of the congestion in San Francisco’s streets is centered in the Financial District, and the area around BART’s 4 major city center stops. At the same time, when looking at TAZs, the outlying zones highlighted earlier—the ones in Visitacion Valley, Bayview, and Richmond — are the ones with the most cars owned by residents. This striking contrast in car ownership versus congestion highlights San Francisco’s failure to get rid of cars in the City Center suggesting that there is a centralization factor pulling people into the city in their personal, polluting vehicles.

Photo from, Darker red indicates more reliance on cars

Centralization Symptom #1.5

Silicon Valley is the birthplace of the rideshare craze. As such, TNCs (Transit Network Companies, rideshare companies being an example) are used heavily in the Bay Area. Interestingly, data from SFCTA shows that TNC use is the highest on nearly the exact same streets that I isolated in QGIS as those with the slowest auto and transit speeds. Coincidence? Whether this is a direct correlation or not, TNCs certainly don’t help with congestion, but they can help brighten the future for public transit…

Why Centralization Matters (or doesn’t)

Centralization on its own isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If San Francisco had a better road network to facilitate fast speeds for cyclists, pedestrians, buses, and cars, we likely would see less congestion in the region. Moreover, if San Francisco was able to attract lots of people to its public transit network, we likely would also see less congestion. At the same time, continued centralization of jobs could continue to plague the hinterlands of the city. It is the districts in the far west and the far south that are suffering at the expense of the Financial District. Many people have far less access to good employment in the South part of the city, and notably those parts of the city face more poverty-related issues (although parts of the city near the Financial District also face their share of issues due largely to continued neglect).

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

What Does the Future Hold?

The biggest step forward we can take is to continue to invest in public transit. Continued investment into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines and existing BRT construction will help spread out people, and as a result spread out wealth. Allowing more people to both enter and exit the city center will have dramatic positive effects. Not only will we see positive economic effects, but if we can eliminate cars, we can minimize pollution as well.

Rising HS senior; I have interests in transit, sports, aviation, politics, progressivism, and everything in between.