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Opinion

San Francisco’s streets are a safety disaster—time to call in the YIMBYs

An artistic depiction of a bustling urban street scene with trams, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians under a hazy sky.
Illustration by Midjourney

With the advent of the pro-housing YIMBY movement and the transformation of state housing law, San Francisco finds itself at a crossroads: Our city is now required to produce housing at a faster clip than it has in decades. 

Yet despite the incredible success of the Yes In My Backyard movement in Sacramento, the need to reverse decades of anti-housing policies and transform San Francisco into a more affordable, equitable and accessible city still faces a major barrier—our transportation systems. 

Our mass transit is underfunded and stretched thin. Our roads are designed for speeding cars, not walking or biking humans. And City Hall’s budget priorities still reflect a dedication to preserving parking and driving fast, not preparing for more walkable neighborhoods, denser housing and less climate pollution. As we near our 10-year deadline for SF Municipal Transportation Agency’s Vision Zero commitment, the city has accomplished almost nothing. We continue to set records for preventable deaths on our streets, often in the poorest areas of the city.

To reverse these terrible trends, we need a YIMBY movement for safe, affordable, sustainable transportation. 

My history with YIMBY-ism dates back to the beginning, when, in 2015, I met an impressive young activist, Sonja Trauss, who almost single-handedly started what we now call the YIMBY movement. Her early leadership inspired others who are also now housing legends—people like state Sen. Scott Wiener, Brian Hanlon of California YIMBY and Annie Fryman of SPUR

Thanks largely to their tireless advocacy, for the first time in 50 years, we have new legislation that mandates San Francisco fix its land-use regulations to enable housing production—incredible progress achieved in less than a decade. I’m proud to call myself a YIMBY. 

As new state laws begin to relieve San Francisco’s housing crisis, we will be forced to rethink how we prioritize various modes of transportation to better accommodate an influx of new residents. Thankfully, efficient urban transport solutions are well known and needn’t break the bank—dedicated bus lanes, wider sidewalks with bulb-outs and protected bike lane networks cost a tiny fraction compared to building roads and highways. 

But the necessary changes will require intense advocacy: San Francisco’s transit system is perpetually in financial crisis; we have a Kafkaesque Municipal Transportation Agency and Department of Public Works; and plenty of NIMBYs still think free car storage (aka street parking) is a human right rather than a government subsidy. 

Most commonsense measures to solve our transportation woes would improve our city for cars and drivers. Consider that in a recent survey by GrowSF, 43% of people in San Francisco said they would use a bike, e-bike or scooter for trips if there existed a safe, protected network of bike lanes across the city. This survey suggests hundreds of thousands would gladly ride to work or school, but only if the city makes it safer to do so. If we encourage those already interested to switch modes of transportation, what will happen with car traffic and parking? Bingo! An improved experience for everyone. 

Four Top Priorities

So what must we do to get these hundreds of thousands of city residents to bike or scoot instead of drive? The answer starts with these four top priorities for transportation YIMBYs: 

  • We need to upgrade our slow streets network by installing concrete traffic diverters every few blocks. Simple changes like this will immediately force speeding cars off these roads and let residents realize the full benefits of a safe and connected slow streets network. 
  • We must immediately implement the state-mandated 20 feet of “daylighting” at every intersection, which prohibits parking adjacent to stop signs, making it easier for drivers to see pedestrians when they enter a crosswalk. It’s a basic pedestrian safety standard nearly everywhere but San Francisco. 
  • We can accelerate the rollout of speed cameras, which are proven to save lives and have been in the works for 10 years, yet they still won’t go live in San Francisco until 2025.
  • We should immediately adopt a citywide no-turn-on-red rule, a proven quick fix that prevents drivers from hitting pedestrians in crosswalks. 

As I’ve met with activists and government employees who work on these issues, it’s clear to me that a huge amount of waste and bureaucracy is preventing us from rapidly adopting low-cost, high-impact active transit projects. SFMTA staff tell me the personnel situation is dire: Managers can’t freely hire and fire and don’t have the right workers to get the job done. 

Another bottleneck for simple changes is the SFMTA sign shop, which has about 30% of its positions currently filled. Like our infamous $20,000 trash cans or $1.7 million toilet, San Francisco has a bizarre requirement that we manufacture our own traffic signs. We need to investigate the current cost per sign (fully loaded with labor costs) to ensure we’re not once again lighting taxpayer money on fire and unnecessarily delaying important projects.

One major recent improvement for transit riders has been bus rapid transit. The rollout on Van Ness has succeeded, boosting ridership and reducing travel times significantly. Similar improvements on Geary Street should be made as fast as possible without being overly deferential to the NIMBYs willing to trade improvements benefiting thousands to save a single parking spot. 

Finally, let’s not forget that we can breathe new life and boost economic activity by pedestrianizing entire areas of our city. The opening of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park to pedestrians, bicyclists and mobility devices received significant pushback from leaders of the de Young Museum, who claimed the loss of parking would devastate museum attendance. Fast forward one year, and they are boasting to their Board of Trustees that attendance is up 124%.

Let’s double down on the success of JFK Drive by creating even more people-first places in bustling strips like Valencia, Hayes, Fillmore or Chestnut streets—they would all be great candidates for conversion to pedestrian plazas rather than traffic-choked corridors. If visionary mayors can pedestrianize the Champs-Élysées in Paris and Times Square in New York, what's our excuse for not doing so in our most vibrant shopping districts? 

Almost a decade ago, the housing crisis felt entirely intractable. Through tireless advocacy, times have really changed. To extend the progress we’ve made on housing, we need to turn our attention to how people get around the city. We need to stop our singular focus on cars and allow people to move about safely using a variety of modes. It’s not expensive, it’s better for the environment and it’ll even reduce traffic for drivers. 

Now is the time to make San Francisco more livable and safe for all. We need to build a strong and effective YIMBY transportation movement that puts people first and puts cars in their rightful place: the back seat.

Jeremy Stoppelman is the CEO of Yelp and a longtime San Francisco resident who has backed many YIMBY efforts, including 2022’s “Affordable Homes Now” ballot measure. Follow him on X here.