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What can San Francisco learn from other world-class cities? Residents share global travel ideas

When Vincent Korta visited his family in Paris this summer, he frequently turned to Google Maps on his phone to see the fastest way to get to his next destination. Driving, walking, taking public transport or cycling?

Almost every time, he said, the app recommended cycling. He often followed the advice – and he couldn’t believe how bike-friendly Paris had become since a previous trip three years ago.

This city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has transformed Paris by adding more than 180 miles of bike lanes, expanding bike-share programs, eliminating many parking spots, lowering the speed limit to 18 mph on many roads and by transforming certain streets into pedestrian promenades, including along the right bank of the Seine. She began labor after her election in 2014, but the pandemic pushed her into high gear and Korta hailed the results.

He was among dozens of Chronicle readers who shared stories of recent trips abroad after describing the joy of riding London’s new Elizabeth Underground line – faster, more frequent, cleaner and more spacious than Muni or BART could never hope to be.

Unlike what he saw in Paris, Korta’s adopted hometown of San Francisco is picking up the decades-long fight over whether cars should be restricted on 1.5 miles of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, ending some popular slow streets and doing little to speed up traffic. The mayor of London Breed hasn’t used the pandemic to transform San Francisco in a major way.

We are still the same overly deliberative, bureaucratic, cautious, argumentative and laborious city.

“I was shocked in a good way,” Korta said of Paris’ quick overhaul. “Not like the 30 years it took to build the 1.5 mile Van Ness line for example.”

Don’t overdo it, sir. Construction of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit tracks took only 27 years.

While there’s a lot to love about San Francisco — few cities rival its beauty, weather, geography, and food — there’s also a lot to learn from other cities that seem to be performing better.

Sturdier public transport has often appeared in the stories of Chronicle readers – and Breed herself. When I asked what impressed her the most on her 10-day March trip to Europe to woo tourists, she said the long-distance regional train. This is how his team traveled between London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris.

“It was incredibly easy to get out of the city centers, the trip was seamless and she was able to either work or rest during our train ride,” her spokesperson, Jeff Cretan, said. He said it cemented his longstanding support for California’s unrealized high-speed rail project, which could get travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours.

Others praised public transit in cities across Europe, Canada, South America and Asia. Stockholm’s metro contains 110 km of public art, and walking through it is like traveling through a giant gallery. Trains in London, Vienna and Paris arrive so frequently, readers said, that they rarely had to wait, unlike San Francisco’s J-Church which often ghosts hopeful passengers.

“Everything works so well here! Christopher Monnier said in a FaceTime call from Copenhagen. “It’s so much easier to get around in Copenhagen without a car than in San Francisco.”

He lives on Potrero Hill and drives regularly as public transport is scarce and he doesn’t feel safe cycling here. In Copenhagen, however, public transport is frequent and ubiquitous, and cycling is a breeze thanks to the vast, protected cycle paths.

Monnier said he also noticed how clean Copenhagen was compared to San Francisco, a frequent refrain from readers who have recently traveled abroad. Trash cans elsewhere are just trash cans and not flares. In London I saw basic containers – from a black box with a hole to a wire basket with a plastic liner – that worked very well.

In San Francisco, on the other hand, Public Works has been thinking about the best one-of-a-kind urban trash can for several years. He’s finally looking to get a handful of $12,000 prototypes into town for testing soon, several months behind schedule.

Other readers reported seeing far fewer homeless people stranded on the streets as they traveled elsewhere – and no glaring manifestations of untreated mental illness, fentanyl trafficking or drug use like those that exist in a few blocks from our city hall.

Cities around the world – including New York, London, Sydney and Vancouver – have opened supervised consumption sites to remove drug use from sidewalks and prevent overdoses, but San Francisco continues to wait after talking about it for more than a decade, while one to two people die every day from drug overdoses. Asked about the timing of opening an establishment here, Cretan said he had “nothing to share at this time”.

It can be refreshing to leave the misery of San Francisco behind and see cities that take better care of people than we do. I saw around a dozen homeless people in a week in London, a city that has a ‘No Second Night Out’ initiative to get people into homelessness as quickly as possible. Of course, countries with universal health care and more substantial social safety nets than ours will fare better in this regard.

David Chu, a Sunset resident and product manager, visited family in Seoul in May, said he saw very little homelessness and no obvious drug dealing or use.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I’m sure you could find it if you looked really, really hard, but it has nothing to do with the Tenderloin.”

He said that in Seoul there is more civic pride and a sense of common good. In San Francisco, he said, people regularly fight to prevent new nearby housing or services and often get their way to City Hall, further compounding our entrenched problems.

“How is our level of governance?” He asked. “San Francisco is a place that should be 100% world class, and unfortunately it’s often the exact opposite.”

Heather Knight is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @hknightsf

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