Tumlin expertly pedals a bright orange Jump bike toward the park on Octavia. I’m less expertly pedaling his bike, an electrically boosted thing that’ll spin up to 25 mph if I don’t watch it. (Tumlin often tweets about his rides on his ebike, and a few weeks after our trip, someone tried to steal it—during Tumlin’s photo shoot for WIRED. He ran after the guy and got it back.)
Honestly, I look like a wobbly, bike-curious dope in a secondhand helmet. Tumlin, on the other hand, cuts a natty figure in a sweater, jacket, and really nice shoes. (At work he favors tailored suits; a local news outlet reported his new job with the headline “Mayor Appoints Stone Cold Fox Jeffrey Tumlin to Lead SFMTA.”)
The Parisian version of Octavia, it turns out, isn’t all he’d hoped. “We screwed this one up,” Tumlin says. “The island is too narrow, so the outside lanes are too wide.” Traffic pours off the still extant part of the old freeway toward the park, and some cars use the outside lanes to bypass the center. Making the point, a silver sedan rolls up and presses us from behind. We float right and it accelerates. I see Uber and Lyft stickers in its rear window. As the sedan crawls past, Tumlin looks through the window at the driver, smiles broadly, locks the extended middle finger of his left hand on target, and says, amiably but loud: “Fuuuuuck yoooooou.”
Maybe that makes Tumlin sound like a zealot or an asshole. In my time with him, he was neither; he says he just doesn’t like bullies. And he thinks that cars screw up cities. That’s why he peels off from the park and turns down a side street. A hundred years ago it would have been an alley; a hundred years before that it might’ve been space for horse-drawn carriages. Now it’s a cozy street full of shops—an expensive luggage store with displays more like an art gallery, a famous maker of custom-made corsetry. We dismount where the street is lined with stone benches and plantings that make it almost too narrow for cars. That’s what Tumlin wants to show me. This urbane little street is designed for people moving at the speed our eyes and brains are most able to process and respond to, he says—which happens to be no faster than a run. But behind the wheel of a car, inputs come too fast. Thirty miles an hour! Locked in a steel box, toggling between a crime podcast and Google Maps, an illusion of aloneness disconnects us from the sometimes literal impacts of our behavior. We get, frankly, deranged. “The social contract breaks down,” Tumlin says.
“Yeah,” I say. “You don’t even have to wear pants in a car.”
“It’s also literally the only place you can get away with murdering someone by calling it an accident,” he says.
The people sharing spaces on the sidewalk, or inside a bus or subway car, though, self-assemble as if in a theater where we perform civil society for each other. We remove our backpacks so more people can fit. We let people exit before we enter. Someone in front of us drops something, we pick it up for them. Tumlin has shown me this little street because it’s scaled to let all that happen. “But I can’t say my job is telling people about civility,” he says.
After he left Stanford and ended up at NelsonNygaard, Tumlin worked not only on that Octavia park but in cities from Seattle to Abu Dhabi. In fact, a lot of what he’s planning for San Francisco would look familiar to the rest of the world. New York just closed 14th Street, a key crosstown boulevard, to private cars—a bus trip that took 17 minutes now takes just 10, and weekday ridership has been up 17 percent. Seattle’s adding new homes and new transit. Oslo is banning cars from its city center. The center of Ghent in Belgium is divided into zones that transit can cross freely but cars can’t. London charges drivers to enter downtown. And Paris—oh, man, Paris. After building miles of bike lanes and turning huge swaths of the city car-free, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has reduced car traffic by 22 percent. Her reelection campaign is predicated on eliminating 60,000 parking spaces and building a “city of 15 minutes,” where jobs, housing, and anything great is within a quarter-hour’s trip—on foot, on bike, or on Metro.
That’s all a ways off for San Francisco, but you can see the road ahead. As Tumlin and I pedal over to the long north-south artery of Van Ness Avenue, we have to dismount to get past a construction project, where workers are putting in separate lanes for bikes and buses. We hang a left on Market Street and pull into the new bike lanes tucked behind new boarding islands for buses, all built in preparation for Market’s closure to private automotive traffic. (A proposal to set aside part of the San Francisco-to-Oakland Bay Bridge for buses is pending.)
Of course there are obstacles. At one point on our ride, the bike lane we’re following takes a sudden turn away from the curb, out into traffic, and then quickly back inward again. Thanks to the litigious, whiny owner of the store we have just passed, the bike lane zigzags around exactly one car’s worth of parking. And, acceding to local demand, the transit agency built a handful of the city’s new trolley-boarding platforms with a single parking space, positioned so that a car in that spot blocks the doors of an entire trolley car. “While at the citywide level, I think we could all agree that the safety of transit riders is more important than a single parking space,” Tumlin says wryly, “at the block level, it becomes more challenging.”
The Mission Bay neighborhood, south of the Giants’ baseball stadium, used to be wetland, industrial buildings, and parking lots. Now Tumlin and I ride through a gleaming new town, built higher and denser than most of the city, threaded through with a burgeoning UC San Francisco campus. At a park that has become a semipermanent cluster of food trucks, Tumlin and I lock up the bikes and get food. Surrounded by med school students nursing brunch cocktails, we talk about a special irony of his new job. Everything he’s trying to do is the philosophical opposite of the plans a bunch of powerful technology companies just a few miles away have for disrupting cars.
Their solutions sound pretty good at first. Electric cars don’t emit carbon—at least not locally. Robot cars are supposed to be smart enough, someday, to platoon together as close as the segments of a caterpillar, solving traffic congestion. And when we don’t need them they’ll just sort of float away instead of requiring giant parking structures. Imagine Uber, but without the oppression of the proletariat.
Tumlin doesn’t buy any of it. New car technologies don’t solve old car problems. Models of a city where only robot Ubers ply the roads hint at smoother traffic flow, but a more realistic simulation—one combining dumb private cars driven by dumb people (not you, other people)—showed increased congestion and more pollution. Ride-hail services already simulate what a robot autopia would look like, and it turns out for solo trips they emit about 50 percent more carbon dioxide than private cars per passenger-mile. Half the time those cars are on the road they’re roving, empty, trawling for fares.
If you’re hoping that electric cars will solve that carbon problem, well, maybe. But electrics are a stable 2 percent of the US fleet; SUVs are 70 percent and climbing. It’s not enough to make a dent. “There’s this incredibly tech-centric discussion around fuel sources that misses the many ways that cars pollute,” says Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. “Even if they swarm, they’re about 1/500th as spatially efficient as a train, and in cities, space is capital.”