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A policy wonk’s holiday wish list

Six wishes for a better San Francisco
Children might not be wishing for year-round school, but their future success could benefit from it. Photo: Alexas_Fotos

Around the world, children spend the holidays hurriedly writing out all of their wishes for the year ahead. There are no limits on what can be wished for; from ponies to PlayStations, everything makes the list. Putting pen to paper or, more likely, finger to iPad, kids make their desires explicit in the hopes that someone, somewhere will grant their wildest dreams.

San Franciscans should do the same for their elected officials. A policy wish list can similarly crystalize the big-ticket items that would radically change quality of life in the area. So here’s my list of policies that would transform our hometown and assuredly make some holiday dreams come true.

WISH 1: LESS TRAFFIC AND MORE REVENUE VIA CONGESTION PRICING

The average San Francisco commuter spent 79 hours stuck in congestion in 2017; that’s more than three days in traffic and sufficient for the city to be among the top five most congested cities in the world. Accordingly, commuters should wish for the implementation of congestion pricing. This traffic regulation scheme would dynamically charge drivers for entering the city center based on the current congestion level. London, Stockholm, and Singapore have all successfully tried congestion pricing and recorded cuts in traffic; what’s more, they did so in a cost-effective way. For example, London’s system generated $3.63 billion in revenue in a decade. So congestion pricing in San Francisco could feasibly be like a wish for more wishes: I’d recommend allocating the additional revenue to mental health services and homelessness assistance programs.

WISH 2: SAFER SIDEWALKS AND MORE EFFICIENT DELIVERIES THROUGH COMMON CARRIER LOCKERS

Cars bypass them, cyclists avert them, and dog walkers chase them — package delivery drivers clog streets and staircases in the pursuit of getting everyone their latest Amazon purchase in a timely fashion. Given that San Franciscans are unlikely to suddenly swear off e-commerce (how else would you get the latest gizmo in two to three business days?), policy makers must take steps to ameliorate the burden posed by an ever-expanding pool of package deliverers. Common carrier lockers — picture big mailboxes in front of buildings with five or more stories — expedite deliveries by allowing drivers to simply pull up to the curb, distribute the packages at street level, and then be on their merry way. An experiment of such lockers in Seattle reduced the total time spent delivering packages by 78 percent per building. Again, this wish seemingly would allow other wishes to be fulfilled. Shorter delivery times would clear roads, save companies money, and reduce the chance for cyclist collisions.

WISH 3: END THE SUMMER SLIDE WITH YEAR-ROUND SCHOOL

This is one wish that certainly won’t make it on children’s final drafts; yet, parents concerned about income inequality, labor force participation, and the achievement gap will find that year-round school is a great way to feed many birds with one scone. Despite receiving high-level support — President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan both made clear that the traditional school year is a vestige of a long-gone agrarian past — school districts have largely stuck with the seasonal approach to schooling.

The result is that U.S. students spend on average just 180 days in school; this is shockingly low in comparison to countries like Japan (243 days), South Korea (220), and England (192). The perpetuation of summer has facilitated persistent disparities: A Brookings report found that “on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning.” These losses — referred to as the Summer Slide — were larger among older students and most prevalent among lower-income students. San Francisco can stem the slide and improve educational outcomes by ending summer.

And, for those with vacation plans, year-round school still includes several breaks.

WISH 4: ADUS ASAP

With the big-ticket items already on the list, the final wishes mirror the fallback requests kids make, like asking for a pony — as well as a chance to visit the stable. One is much more feasible than the other.

In the same way, residents should wish for the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department to handle Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) applications in four months or less. This goal, set by Mayor Breed, would be a significant improvement on the previous average review time and at least marginally contribute to addressing the city’s chronic lack of housing. To meet the demand for housing, San Francisco will have to build up, out, or creatively. ADUs certainly fall into the latter category and can only move the dial so far before residents will have to again weigh going up, out, or a combination of both.

WISH 5: ZERO-IN ON YOUTH HOMELESSNESS

Reducing homelessness ranked as the top issue for many voters in the recent election. Winning and losing candidates put forth several plans to do just that, but there was no consensus on the appropriate first step.

That’s why city officials and community advocates should rally around the specific goal of ending youth homelessness by 2028. Cities that have made significant progress against homelessness have often started by zeroing in on a specific subpopulation of the homeless community; in Phoenix, Ariz., the strategy helped eliminate homeless veterans in the span of a few years.

San Francisco should similarly apply the approach by concentrating on the more than 1,500 homeless youth currently on its streets. Doing so will not only reduce homelessness in the short run, but will also reduce its long-term prevalence by addressing the causes of chronic homelessness at an earlier age. A University of Minnesota report found that investment in youth experiencing homelessness pays for itself when just 6 percent of the the group reaches self-sufficiency. San Francisco can surely cross that threshold.

Even if Mayor Breed and proponents of the recently passed Proposition C succeed in realizing the measure’s promised homeless funding, applying a specific filter to these funds may maximize their effectiveness.

WISH 6: BOARD OF SUPERVISORS ACCESSIBILITY

San Franciscans with long commutes, childcare woes, and inflexible work schedules should wish for a more itinerant Board of Supervisors. More specifically, they should push the board to hold their meetings in community centers in each district on a rotating basis. Democracy is a participatory sport, but as long as the arena is City Hall, only certain players will get to play the game.

I’d argue we’ve been pretty nice. Let’s hope policy makers agree and make our wishes come true.

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