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The Lash

Mad as hell? San Franciscans should look in the mirror—not just at politicians

Spurred on by an election year, the city's leaders are starting to lead. But will its citizens cheer them on, or respond with even more obstruction and complaints?

A vibrant scene with numerous emojis of various expressions floating over a cityscape with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Source: AI illustration by Clark Miller

For San Francisco's many problems—persistent homelessness, shocking fentanyl deaths, sniping politicians, a middling baseball team, to name a few—there’s a distinct feeling of momentum around town. Yes, really.

Crime is down. Artificial intelligence is driving a new tech boom. Even our stricken downtown, which had been quieter than a graveyard since the pandemic, has an unmistakable feel of liveliness about it of late. 

And in no small part because it’s an election year, there’s also a formidable barrage of good-government proposals emanating from City Hall. From rejuvenated parking and traffic enforcement to creativity in thwarting drug dealing, government officials are displaying rare, but admirable, vigor.

I wonder, though, if the city’s own employees and citizens, peerless complainers and dissenters in the best of times, will allow their leaders to lead them to a better future. Is San Francisco, in other words, willing to take yes for an answer when it demands more from its elected officials and the bureaucrats they appoint? 

Consider the city’s sorely needed plan to step up enforcement of parking violations. In recent years, parking control officers (the term “meter maid” is long passe) drastically reduced the number of tickets they write for cars parked in places that put others at risk. Between 2019 and 2023 citations for parking in intersections fell 42%, in bike lanes by 65%, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

In response, the city is acting. Facing prolonged criticism (from me and many others) of its failed Vision Zero quest to eliminate traffic fatalities, the city announced a plan to write more tickets.

That, in turn, provoked a reaction from parking control officers, who held a protest in front of SFMTA headquarters last week. The ticket writers—who, not coincidentally are negotiating a labor contract with the city—say the increased enforcement puts them at risk because of the abuse they face, physical and otherwise, from the ticket-receiving public. 

This is simultaneously unconscionable and understandable. On the one hand, city workers resisting doing their jobs is simply an embarrassment. They need to get back out there and do what they can to keep the rest of us safe. (For what it’s worth, the SFMTA says 89% of reported assaults in its system are against bus and train operators, not parking control officers.) 

On the other hand, parking enforcers should not be subject to any kind of abuse, and the city needs to punish anyone who physically keeps them from doing their jobs. Of course, nobody likes seeing bike-helmeted parking cops in open-aired golf carts ticketing their illegally parked car. But that doesn’t excuse abusive behavior. 

Citizens who stridently complain about wanting safe streets need to accept the other half of that deal with the city—enforcement—even when they are the target.

Change is too slow … except when it’s too fast

Another oft-heard lament is that the city moves too slowly. Not so with the transit agency’s response to the mid-March tragedy in West Portal that took the lives of a young family of four. In a brisk two months, the city proposed a redesigned traffic flow around the tragedy-stained intersection. The result? Loud, unhinged complaints from West Portal merchants that the city is moving too quickly to eliminate parking places and gum up the ability to navigate the shopping district. 

What followed the griping was a classic San Francisco delay tactic. The merchants, together with their supervisor, Myrna Melgar, have announced the formation of a committee to discuss matters. The Welcoming West Portal Committee promises to meet no fewer than three times “over the coming months and [to] develop a second proposal for consideration by the SFMTA.” 

The transit agency immediately caved, saying it looked “forward to engaging” with the committee “on a version 2.0 of the project proposal that responds to key themes of feedback heard while preserving our goal to improve safety.” 

Such words are mollifying—but they point to a chronic condition in the city. Call it process over progress. At some point, officials must finish listening to citizens and begin acting for the public good. That’s what we pay them to do. Our job, after giving them a suitable amount of feedback, is to accept their decisions. 

Something tells me that the West Portal merchants aren’t going to be happy, no matter the ultimate decision the Welcoming committee makes.

Traffic enforcement presents another embarrassment the city is trying to address. The Standard’s Noah Bustin recently reported data that shows just how thoroughly the San Francisco Police Department has stopped doing its job. Total traffic citations fell from 130,000 in 2014 to 5,100 last year. Understaffing and increased paperwork can’t explain a 96% decrease in traffic tickets. 

After much press attention was paid to the lawlessness of SF’s streets, the police have responded with a plan to conduct a wave of enforcement at the most dangerous intersections in the city. That’s a great first step by the SFPD. But the onus is on citizens too. We say we want safer streets. If the police have been goaded into policing, the citizenry should be prepared to see more flashing lights in the rearview—and accept the consequences. 

How this connects to bootleg fireworks

San Franciscans, it seems, like to gripe about safety while reveling in permissiveness when it suits them. And that extends to behaviors that many people don’t even consider to be crimes against the community—but that only adds to the level of chaos and disorder we see in our streets.

The fire department routinely reminds San Franciscans before the Fourth of July that fireworks are dangerous—and against the law. A 2022 news release, for example, reminded “residents and visitors that all fireworks (including those branded as ‘Safe and Sane’) are illegal in San Francisco.” It went on to cite the relevant municipal code, titled “Discharge of fireworks is prohibited.” 

The reality is that no one takes that public safety law seriously, including the city’s mayor. Last year, on July 4, I watched Mayor London Breed on a local television station smilingly urging viewers to “stay safe” as she headed off for the city’s official fireworks display. As a lifelong resident of the city, she knew full well that neighborhoods around the city were about to erupt in an illegal pyrotechnical orgy, a dangerous display that frequently leads to violence and serious injuries. She also knew the cops, collecting overtime pay due to the predictable melees, would do little to stop a pastime her constituents cherish. 

And so I ask, if the police started enforcing that very clear and sensible law, would we go along with them? Or would we scream at the cops for being killjoys? 

I have a hunch that one source of civic frustration is the ad hoc nature of city policymaking. There’s a throw-it-against-the-wall vibe to the traffic and parking plans that feels more like a military surge than a deliberative, and lasting, approach. It’s the same with other recent commonsense ideas from City Hall, including a curfew for convenience stores catering to Tenderloin drug dealers, a framework for fast-tracking small-scale city projects and easier permitting for outdoor events. Good ideas all. 

But why the eruption of policymaking only now, other than that Election Day is in sight? It would be wonderful to see this level of urgency all of the time, not just in election years, and for city dwellers and employees to applaud, not just obstruct, the moves when they happen.

Still, progress is progress. San Franciscans have no monopoly on bellyaching. It’s so much of a national phenomenon that New York Times columnist Pamela Paul recently suggested, “We are living in a golden age of aggrievement.” And to be clear, criticism is a valid and constructive facet of democracy. (Three cheers for muckraking journalism, while I’m at it!) 

Good things are happening. Will San Franciscans have the good sense to accept them and cheer on the civil servants toiling on their behalf? Or will we do what we too often do best—complain?

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