Session 6 – Transportation Justice
In the morning, we spoke w/ some old-timer veterans, Phil Chin, Landy Dong, who were the co-founders of Chinatown TRIP, the transportation justice advocacy organization for Chinatown. I heard them advocate for bus lines and public transportation to better serve the community in various forms: - Opposing empty express lines that would go through Chinatown w/o serving its constituents - Setting up railings in a high-speed expressway tunnel to protect pedestrians - Scramble lights to allow cars to more efficiently turn and give pedestrians explicit time and space to cross intersections on Stockton - Working w/ bike / scooter share companies to reduce bike share impact on sidewalks After reading the texts on transportation justice, I’ve realized how important of a public service that transportation is. Again, my suburban upbringing hardly impressed upon me the importance of public transportation – growing up in San Ramon, I either biked everywhere or asked my parents or friends for rides to anywhere. We had one bus line that went through town that no one ever rode, so I really had not understanding of the benefits that transportation brought. The texts, as well as meeting these transportation veterans and champions (both from a practitioner and advocacy perspective), realized how much transportation can segregate or diversity, enrich or impoverish, a community.
Yet, the most interesting point for the morning was asking these transportation advocates about their views on rideshare – Uber and Lyft. I feel deeply conflicted about Uber and Lyft and I wanted to hear their perspectives. On one hand, I believe in the potential of Uber and Lyft. From an engineering and network analytics standpoint, I do think that Uber truly creates more optimal routing for public transportation. Mathematically, bus routes are crude guesses at commuter flow and quite frankly, are suboptimal – the routes are refreshed every 5-10 years only after grueling policy reform and community opinion and then are static for those long periods. Conversely, Uber and Lyft are dynamic transportation networks that adjust almost instantaneously to rider demand. Whether that’s a bigger event over the weekend that calls in more drivers to meet that customer demand or whether that’s a temporary surge in calls such that drivers are routed over to FiDi from Richmond District, these are optimal network flows that adapt to customer demand. Throw in UberPool and if we drink the Uber Kool-Aid, Ubers are little vehicles of public transport that precisely factor in users’ origins and destinations to move more people at cheaper prices for the customer. Yet, ride-share is not black-and-white. While mathematically optimal, as Will said today, their implementation is shoddy. Congestion in the cities (upwards of 45K Ubers in the city) seems not to portend a reduction in car ownership. What happens to taxicabs? Declining rides aboard BART and Muni? The rapid decline in the worth of a medallion? I’ve definitely read of the suicides in front of New York’s City Hall. But as for taxis, I know that they are suboptimal network flows, in comparison to Uber and Lyft. Hand-hailing a cab is intensely suboptimal, especially if there is a customer right down the block heading to the same location, a case in point. I believe that commuter rail, however, still serves an important purpose and does relieve traffic from the road. But even buses – are they just larger, more inefficient guesses at commuter flow? Uber and Lyft not sharing data is also an intense problem for the city. Even though market force capitalism generally buck against regulation, I definitely see the aggressive, investor-beaten drive of these companies to make profits and withhold any sort of business intelligence. Especially as Uber and Lyft drastically affect urban traffic, I see that the current legal jurisdiction over taxi services residing at the state Public Utilities Commission (which results in the current laissez-faire modus operandi) leads to a free-for-all which has brought about negative effects in ride-share execution in the day-to-day of a metropolitan area. I’m not opposed to ride-share – truly, I think that ride-share does create value by more intelligently anticipating and transporting travelers. There is such a large available market here that I don’t think community organizations (unless another corporate entity, perhaps the taxicab unions, can stand together against ride-share) can simply oppose ride-share through restriction. Regulation is needed, but I think communities can stand to benefit from ride-share if both parties take a less combative stance.
How can ride-share better serve the community through designated loading zones and sharing of bus / taxi zones?
How can ride-share price differently for seniors and under-served populations?
How can ride-share provide extensive services for the disabled?
How can ride-share work w/ pubic services to subsidize fares for low-income populations?
These are some of my thoughts in which communities can band together w/ ride-share to make transportation more accessible, keep it equitable, and get more people more places in less time and lower cost. Protecting the community shouldn’t be a zero-sum game w/ ride-sharing companies seeking to make a profit off connecting riders to drivers and I believe that there exists immense potential here.
In the afternoon, we got to speak w/ two legislative aides who worked previously for Chinatown CDC and now work for separate members on the Board of Supervisors. After having spoken to a staffer for my US Congressman for my Hacking for Defense project about defense procurement, I really appreciated talking to these municipal aides to understand how policy is made at the municipal level. I asked them about TNCs aka Uber and Lyft and it was reassuring to hear that the legislative staffs and supervisors are aggressively working to understand the impacts of these transportation companies. The aides were less willing to share specific perspectives as they are probably hammering out their opinions as we speak, but I could tell that there was an emphasis to work w/ these companies and to understand their work. I also thought it was interesting to see that they aren’t as engaged w/ the judicial system. Although the attorney’s office is their client in that the prosecutors and defenders work in the justice system to enforce laws, the courts are quite separate – and really don’t interface all that much w/ the legislative system. It’s a bit different to what I learned about in government textbooks growing up where I always thought that our triply divided form of government meant that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches worked hand in hand, but it definitely seems like that the executive and legislative branches interact and engage much more frequently.
The round-table conversation w/ the legislative aides echo what I see at the higher levels of the military and even the corporate boardroom – this funneling of information flow, this intense ground-work done by an army of staffers (be it legislative aides for a municipal supervisor or US Congressman, consultants for a client’s C-suite, or DoD bureaucrats briefing a general officer or senior executive), this watering down of information into succinct slides (that almost seem disingenuous to me, to abstract away the nuances and complexities of any decision or policy) such that these decision-makers can make a decision. In some way, it seems like the decision is already made before the briefing gets to the decision-maker – how could they unravel information that may complicate the material being briefed, how could a leader spare the time to dig for more details or even know the right questions to ask? It seems like… for every 100 page policy report, the leaders only have time to read the Executive Summary – and then make a decision promptly off that. Although I don’t like writing executive summaries and watering down months of field work and data into 5 slides or a 5-bullet point white paper, I’m slowly realize that these summaries characterize how information is funneled to leadership and how important it is to both effective write these summaries and critically analyze them as well.
Session 7 – Sustainability + Community Tenants Association + Open Spaces
In the morning, Deland gave us a mini-lecture on trying to define sustainability and providing a framework to understand it. This introduction was extremely helpful b/c I have never thought about what sustainability means – and I always associated it w/ environmental justice. She provided a great four-block framework that has given me an intellectual quadrant to slowly understand sustainability:
- Environmental Quality
- Economic vitality
- Cultural continuity
I had always separated economic vitality away from sustainability and never quite understood where to place cultural continuity, so I appreciated that Deland made a space to include all these factors in achieving sustainability. Although this framework is reducing in simply naming four factors, it has been educationally helpful to me to start defining sustainability.
Over lunch, we got to speak w/ the President and two Vice-Presidents from the Community Tenants Association and match a face from the pictures of their gatherings to the actual people themselves. I appreciated that Erika contextualized how important their advocacy and education has been in rallying the community for tenant rights and how their influence has been duly noted by elected leadership in acknowledging and hearing this community organizing body’s needs.
In the afternoon, we paged thru architectural plans for various open spaces in Chinatown and it was quite shocking to see the differences b/w the nicely drawn design plans. Guinevere and I looked through the design layout for Chinese playground – and this was the first time I had ever seen an architectural plan for open space – how a space for net sports would encourage teenage athletics and socialization, how a clubhouse would offer indoor respite, how open space for tai chi would give seniors space, and how a play structure would give kids entertainment. I had always taken parks and open spaces for granted and the only investigation I had ever done was to look at a map to figure out how to get out of a natural park or navigate its trails, and it was fascinating to look at it from a community and urban plan perspective – how to intentionally plan and allot space for a community’s felt needs. It was always humbling to think about how these design plans actually play out – how Portsmouth Square’s bridge is under-utilized and attracts transients, how the lack of seating forces many seniors to stand, and how its actual presentation and implementation just differs from the geometrically cut design layouts underlying the actual park.
This week we were fortunate to be able to meet with two legislative aids for two district supervisors and learn what it like to advocate and fight for justice from the policy/government side of the coin. It was also amazing to be able to go on the dome tour of City Hall and get a 360º view of the city (at least the parts that weren’t covered by the fog). The most fascinating thing I learned was of the four-foot dry moat circling city hall to allow City Hall to move during an earthquake, remaining isolated from the surrounding earth to try to mitigate the damage.
I also really enjoyed Deland’s talk on sustainability on Thursday, and how there are a variety of issues and potential conflicts to consider when trying to make a city sustainable (e.g., cultural, environmental, political, etc.). It is also interesting that “sustainability” is something that many people say that they want to strive for, but there is no concrete definition or solid end goal, thus making it difficult to achieve or measure. Hopefully, however, the ambiguity does not dissuade people from working towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
On Saturday I went to the food festival on Waverly and fair on Grant. It was a very different feeling and scene compared to during the week, as there were far more pedestrians than normal, as well as many more tourists. It was neat to be able to see the various restaurants have opportunities to market themselves, and hopefully it will help their business. Additionally, it was the youth who were running the booths, so I was curious if the restaurants had donated their food as a fund-raiser or if they were receiving a share of the revenue as well. Plus, it was interesting to see younger Chinatown residents, since during the program we mostly see seniors and/or tourists. Unfortunately, they were all busy so I did not have a chance to ask them questions, but it would have been great to learn their thoughts about Chinatown and its future, as well as whether they wanted to stay or move elsewhere.
Unfortunately, I was not feeling well and missed Deland's Tuesday presentation regarding a brief history of planning as a profession. :-( This week was also a short one as there was only one session with the 4th of July holiday falling on a Thursday. As a result, I will share more insight into one of our experiences we shared during the previous third week. An event that I genuinely enjoyed was having a sit down conversation with Mrs. Lee, a board member of PYRIA. Here, we listened to her life story through a translator. Although we heard her stories through a translator, her lively expressions and passion for her work transcended language barriers. Her story captivated me beginning to finish and I wish that I had more quickly thought of questions to ask her. Something that stuck out to me during her story was that she told us she was aware that people talked/talk behind her back in English as she is a very outspoken and driven individual, but that this did not sway her because she knows what she's doing is right for residents. I feel honestly quite privileged to hear from this older generation of community activists that we read about, are taught about, but rarely get a chance to meet in such an intimate and genuine setting. As we were dispersing, I just had to ask Mrs. Lee if she knew my late paternal grandmother as they lived in the same Ping Yuen complex around the same time. I showed Mrs. Lee pictures of my grandmother and at first I thought she did not recognize her and was a bit crestfallen, but after telling her my grandmother's name -- she knew her! Mrs. Lee said she knew everybody and it's not hard to believe as she told us she walked the complexes handing out flyers to every resident during her active organizing period. As shared before, a reason that I wanted to participate in the UI program was to become closer to my familial roots in Chinatown. Every link that I can feel closer to my grandmother, no matter how small, is so very important and special to me and I hold them near and dear to my heart.
- Megan Mah
This week of UI has been the most interesting so far. Our Tuesday consisted of an overview of the planning profession presented by Chinatown CDC's Director of Housing Development, Whitney Jones. Mr. Jones’ presentation was a brief outline of what his career as a senior planner consists of. This introduction to housing development was packed full of information and I appreciated that it was broken up into understandable portions as this was my first time being introduced to this complex topic. The part that I enjoyed the most out of Mr. Jones’ presentation was the informal quiz that he created. The beginning of the quiz asked us to identify which buildings were affordable housing. I’ve seen most if not all of the provided photographs, but I had no idea that most of them were considered affordable housing. As I mentioned previously, I do not have a lot of background with affordable housing. In my naivety, I envisioned affordable housing as unkempt, unattractive, and undesirable places to live. These ideas were constructed after my father’s retelling of his experiences growing up in the Ping Yuen as a young child in the mid 1960s to early 80s. After this presentation, I realized that most of these present day locations were very carefully constructed, beautifully designed with the needs of residents in mind, well maintained, and finally that a lot of work is put into the before, during, and after stages of affordable housing.
I have my weeks and activities a little jumbled right now, but I'm pretty sure this week we also toured the Chinatown CDC property on 1535 Jackson Street. I was surprised to learn that the Chinatown CDC was in possession of this building as the area is vastly different from the heart of Chinatown and the rest of the larger Ping Yuen housing complexes. After, we were able to tour the upstairs SROs. This was my first time in a SRO and I was very surprised how small the living accommodations were. I was even more surprised to learn that these rooms were considered rather large for a SRO... Before the upstairs tour, we heard from Ms. Heather Heppner, Chinatown CDC's Senior Construction Manager. Ms. Heppner was very informative regarding the construction process as well as non-construction items of business such as figuring out ways to mesh the future residents of this property together. Coming from a Communication Studies major background, I thought that this part was the most intriguing. Ms. Heppner made us aware that Chinatown CDC is anticipating folks that are of non-Chinese descent to be renting the newly constructed SROs in the future. As a direct result, they are being proactive in their planning of how to introduce both old and new residents to each other. This proactive planning is so important towards the quality of life for all and I think that this is great foresight on behalf of Chinatown CDC. I look forward to learning how they plan on managing this.
- Megan Mah
The first week of the Chinatown Urban Institute has been very intriguing. Although only two sessions have passed, I am already starting to better appreciate and understand this neighborhood. Having recently completed my undergraduate degree at San Francisco State with a minor in Asian American Studies, I had a good general idea of Chinatown’s history. However, after Gordon Chin’s walking tour, I learned so much more about the residents and their struggles, triumphs, and resiliency through community activism. I was excited that we were meeting with Mr. Chin as I had written about him in my last semester final project which explored the topic of slow gentrification within SF Chinatown. During our second session, we were given a presentation by Malcolm Collier. I learned that Mr. Collier was present during the Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968 at my alma mater. His careful photographic documentation over the past few decades was very impressive and memorable. The latter half of this session was very fun as we were given the opportunity to explore Chinatown through a group scavenger hunt. Some of the fun facts that were given as clues had us scratching our heads! This activity was a great way to get to know my small group as we worked together to brainstorm the scavenger hunt list. This first week has been great and I can’t wait to see what the following weeks bring in terms of new experiences and buildable knowledge.
- Megan Mah
ON TUESDAY MORNING WE HAD A LECTURE ON THE HISTORY OF PUBLIC TRANSIT IN CHINATOWN FROM MEMBERS OF THE CHINATOWN TRIP. WE LEARNED ABOUT THE SYSTEMIC RACISM THAT HAD BEEN IMPLEMENTED BY THE PUBLIC TRANSIT SYSTEMS TOWARDS THE ASIAN COMMUNITY LIVING IN CHINATOWN (30 BUS). DURING THE PRESENTATION, WE HAD ALSO LEARNED ABOUT THE PROJECTS THAT TRIP OVERSAW WHILE ASSISTING THE CITY. SUCH PROJECTS BEING THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CENTRAL SUBWAY SYSTEM AS WELL AS THE SCRAMBLE CROSSWALKS (SUCH AS THE ONE AT JACKSON AND STOCKTON). SO WHEN LATER THAT AFTERNOON WHEN WE WERE TAKING PUBLIC TRANSIT TO CITY HALL FOR THE DOME TOURS IT WAS NICE TO SEE THESE EXAMPLES IN THEIR PHYSICAL WORKING FORMS. THE DOME TOUR WAS EXTREMELY FASCINATING ESPECIALLY SINCE I NEVER KNEW THAT CITY HALL OFFERED TOURS OF IT TO THE PUBLIC. ALTHOUGH I HAD AN EXTREME CASE OF ACROPHOBIA DURING THE TOUR, IT WAS FASCINATING TO SEE THE HISTORY OF CITY HALL ILLUSTRATED BY THE PEOPLE AND MATERIALS THAT BUILT IT. AFTER THE DOME TOURS, WE HAD A SMALL “MEET AND GREET” WITH TWO PREVIOUS CCDC STAFF ANGELINA YU AND CALVIN YAN WHO ARE NOW WORKING AS LEGISLATIVE AIDS TO DISTRICT SUPERVISORS.
ON THURSDAY MORNING’S LECTURE OF DELAND, WE DISCUSSED THE DEFINITION OF SUSTAINABILITY AND HOW IT IS IMPLEMENTED WITHIN A CITY/ SOCIETY. WE TALKED ABOUT THE HISTORY OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORT TOWARDS THE PRESERVATION OF NATURAL RESOURCES, SUCH AS THE PROTECTION ACTS FROM THE 1960S. WE ALSO TALKED ABOUT THE TRIPLE BOTTOM LINE, WHICH BASICALLY STATES THAT THERE NEEDS TO BE A EQUAL “GIVE AND TAKE” BETWEEN THE ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNITY, AND PROFIT IN ORDER TO HAVE “LONG-LASTING SUSTAINABILITY”. ONE STATISTIC FROM THIS LECTURE THAT SURPRISED ME DURING THIS LECTURE HAD BEEN THE CAUSE AND EFFECT THAT THE INTRODUCTION OF FASTER AND MORE RELIABLE PUBLIC TRANSIT COULD, IN TURN, RESULT IN THE GENTRIFICATION OF THAT NEIGHBORHOOD/ COMMUNITY. LATER THAT AFTERNOON WE HAD LUNCH WITH THREE OF THE BOARD MEMBERS OF THE CTA, WHERE WE LEARNED ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE ORGANIZATION AS WELL AS THEIR CURRENT PROJECTS.
ON SATURDAY I HAD ACTUALLY ATTENDED THE WE ARE THE CITY CHINATOWN: SUMMER SATURDAYS ON WAVERY STREET FAIR. WHERE I WAS ABLE TO NOT ONLY EAT A BUNCH OF TASTERS FROM THE STALLS PRESENT AT THE FAIR BUT ALSO GAINING MORE EXPOSURE TO THE ARRAY OF RESTAURANTS THAT ARE LOCATED IN CHINATOWN.
On July 9, we had a lecture about transportation in Chinatown with Rosa Chen, Phil Chin, and Landy Dong (Chinatown TRIP). The goal of Chinatown TRIP is improving transportation. It has avocated for a longer bus line and safety for pedestrians. It's sad how we have to have an accident in order for change to happen. Phil Chin talked about his experience with public transportation and felt as if he can do a lot in San Francisco. He and Landy Dong wanted to support the community and help it. It takes a long time to install projects and some factors such as fundings and community needs can delay projects.
After that, we took a tour of City Hall. I had never been to City Hall before and it was interesting to finally take a step inside. I don't really recall much about what happened when we talked with the legislative aides, but I remember that they also advocate for housing and works with organizations to support the community.
On July 11, Deland gave a lecture about sustainability and how it can affect the community. Following next was talking with members of CTA, the Community Tenants Association. They advocate for tenants' rights and housing rights and senior welfare; talked about how there was a lot of eviction for seniors and wanted to help the community.
- Michelle Mei
On Tuesday, we met Landy Dong, Wil Din, and Phil Chin who were the founding members of Chinatown TRIP. It was incredible to hear their stories and how they got involved in serving the Chinatown community. For me, I was particularly interested in learning about history of the MUNI bus lines. Growing up in San Francisco meant riding the buses frequently, which sparked my interest in transportation. I was surprised to learn that the current 8 Bayshore bus was formerly an extension of the 30 Stockton bus. I take the 8 almost everyday and I never knew the history behind it (it was still the 15 when I was in elementary school). All the buses that run through Chinatown are almost always crowded. It was surprising to learn that the bus lines that serve Chinatown were not at the top of the list for ridership (https://www.sfgate.com/travel/resources/transit/article/San-Francisco-most-crowded-bus-routes-Muni-SFMTA-14057322.php). I am skeptical of the data that was used because it was through Google users voluntarily reporting, not an official passenger count. Of course the seniors and children who depend more on public transit would not be counted. I am excited to take the T line when Central Subway is completed (I kept my T line t-shirt from the phase 1 completion just for this).
We also met Angelina Yu and Calvin Yan, both legislative aides in their respective offices at City Hall. They talked about their jobs and how they got there. To wrap up the day, we went on a dome tour. It was my second dome tour so it was fun to see how much the city skyline has transformed from the last time I went up to the dome.
On Thursday, Deland Chan went over the idea and intentions of sustainability. I took a class last year about sustainability in cities, and the one thing that was drilled in my head was the “three E’s” which included: environment, economy, and equity. Deland’s version of sustainability was similar, except it also included the cultural aspect. It really changed my perspective of sustainability when culture is added to the picture. There is no real way to measure and keep track of culture. Traditions, languages, and even food is important to people, but it is not being considered when we think about the future. I hope to see more plans that have community and traditions in mind when it comes to new development.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten comments and questions about being the only student not of Chinese descent in the program. While learning about the technicalities of urban planning has been interesting, one of the most important things that I’ve learned in these last few weeks is that the challenges Chinatown faces are quite similar to the challenges facing that other minority communities, particularly African American neighborhoods.
The histories of the Chinese and Black communities are quite different. However, low-income Chinese and Black communities in the Bay Area face many of the same struggles. Just like many predominantly African-American neighborhoods, Chinatown faces a growing threat of gentrification. Rising prices in San Francisco are affecting minority communities across the board, and minority-owned businesses face increasing rents and changing consumer bases. Solving these issues on a large, impactful scale means that minority communities need to work together. That starts with understanding the issues that other communities of color are facing. So, even though I’ll probably get more comments about being the only non-Chinese student in the program, I know it’s important to understand the challenges of other communities in order to advocate for social and economic justice for everyone.
I joined this program to gain a new perspective on issues that I’ve been studying in my economics coursework. Over the last few years, I’ve developed an interest in how our built environment affects the economic, physical, and social wellbeing of a community. I chose to become an economics major because of my interest in urban and public economics. In my courses and research, I’ve looked at how affordable housing, transportation, and public infrastructure impact economic outcomes. I wanted to take a different look at these issues from a new perspective, one that took a more community-oriented, practitioner approach.
Before starting this program, my knowledge about Chinatown was quite limited. I knew about the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory on Ross that I always bring friends to when they come to visit me in San Francisco. I knew about a small restaurant on the upstairs floor of an older building on Kearny, and I knew that I could get cheap souvenirs on Grant Ave. That was the extent of my knowledge about Chinatown. And while I definitely have a lot to learn about the community, it’s culture, and it’s fascinating history, I already feel like I’ve become more familiar with the neighborhood. I look forward to what is to come with this great cohort.