Civic Action: A San Francisco Success Story in the Making

On July 7, the Restore Transportation Balance initiative submitted over 17,500 signatures to qualify for the November ballot in San Francisco. While the initiative is local, there are lessons to be learned by any group facing government overreach.

1. Address an issue which affects the real lives of a majority of the voters.

In any jusisdiction dominated by one party or ideology there are inevitably policies which are out of balance, calling for redress. This could be in education, housing, public safety, or many other areas. In San Francisco, one is transportation.

2. Understand the root causes of the imbalance.

San Francisco is second only to Manhattan in terms of urban density. There is no real subway, and a very limited freeway system. Conflict over the use of streets is inevitable.

In 1973 San Francisco adopted a “transit first” policy which has subsequently morphed into “public transit and bicycles only”. By charter, the problematic public transit system, the Department of Parking and Traffic, and the taxi industry are  governed by a board which must be dominated by regular transit riders. Predictably, despite the fact that most households (79%) find a need for a car to live their actual lives, the MTA’s intent is to force people out of cars by making their use expensive and inconvenient.

The MTA has a direct bureaucratic interest in getting money from motorists. Vehicle fees – meters, parking tickets, parking garages, neighborhood permits – comprise a larger portion of the MTA budget than do rider fees. The majority of funding comes indirectly from gasoline taxes.

As a backdrop, the MTA has a multi-billion dollar plan, Transportation 2030, to restructure the City’s street network to prioritize bus and bicycles while significantly reducing lanes for cars and eliminating thousands of parking spaces without replacement. Funding sources include greater fees for cars, general obligation bonds, and a Vehicle License Fee which will annually cost some $350 for a $25,000 car.

3.  Understand the opposition.

Like the military-industrial complex, there is an incestuous relationship of employment and City funding of studies between the MTA and advocacy groups such as Livable City. The mayor has been complicit in not appointing anybody to speak for car owners or merchants. The Board of Supervisors has been detached.

4. Understand the process.

Election law is arcane, particularly in California where much legislation is done by public referendum – drafting proposition language, getting approved petitions to circulate, validating signatures and circulators, writing arguments for the voter pamphlet, filing campaign finance statements, reporting of donor information. Experts are needed.

Money is also needed. Fundraising is difficult, but if there really is enough enthusiasm for the effort – and if victory seems possible – it will be available. Large donors help greatly, but Restore Balance’s significant number of smaller donors is essential.

5. Build alliances.

First, understand the nature of the public’s grievances. Restore Balance has received the endorsement of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the Council of District Merchants Associations, The West of Twin Peaks Council, and many other grass roots organizations and notable individuals. A majority of the Board of the Chamber of Commerce is in support.  Political philosophies and partisan affiliations vary all over the landscape, but the advocates from all areas of the City coalesce around the same objectives.

6. Have a strategy. Stay focused.

Messaging is critical. One usually has but a minute or two to explain the initiative. The Retore Balance premise is simple – An effective and efficient public transportation system is essential, but San Francisco needs a broader set of transportation policies which serve all of the people of the City – including the majority of households who need cars to live their daily lives.

Develop an extensive network of volunteers. Restore Balance has an energized network of well over 100 committed volunteers with an exceptional coordinator, an extensive data base, and frequent communications with an emphasis on celebrating success.

Develop a comprehensive communications strategy – op-eds in major newspapers; interviews on radio and television; a frequently updated web site; social media; on-line news outlets; public appearances.

Of high importance, ensure that the spokesmen stay on message. A broad coalition will have divergent views; the opposition will be eager to misrepresent the nature of the initiative – and vilify the background of the proponents.

So far, so good.

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