Michael Chen '07: Bullish on Cities, with Many Fewer Cars
Michael Chen 07 Bullish on Cities

Micheal Chen is based in San Francisco and travels throughout the city by bicycle to help reduce his carbon footprint. He has been championing a ‘car-free’ lifestyle through a partnership with the local government. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Michael Chen ’07 has been working remotely as a data engineer for Meta (formerly Facebook) in San Francisco. He doesn’t own a car; he can walk, bike, or ride a bus or cable car almost anywhere he needs to be. It’s a “car-free” lifestyle that he’d like to see become more the norm in San Francisco and other cities, an idea he has been championing through his involvement in local government.

The UPenn graduate chairs the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens’ Advisory Council for his district. Last year he was elected as one of 14 delegates representing his state assembly district in the California Democratic Party. These incremental steps, he believes, are crucial to enacting change in his city on a grassroots level.

“I think that local government is an area where you can start to have the most influence; you can see the most tangible outcomes immediately in your very own community,” he says.

He envisions large cities in the future deconstructed into “urban villages” where everything people need is within a 15-minute walk, and public transit makes the entire city accessible in less than 45 minutes. Drastically reducing vehicle traffic in large cities isn’t an outrageous concept. In Berlin, an effort is underway to create the largest carless district in the world, an area that would equal the size of Manhattan. A charge to reduce private automobile use in London’s city center has existed since 2003. Paris has committed to investing 250 million euros through 2026 to make the entire city bikeable.

Building Healthier Communities

Chen has witnessed how reducing traffic can build better, healthier communities. During the pandemic, the City of San Francisco closed a 1.5-mile section of road in Golden Gate Park to private automobile traffic to allow more people access to the outdoors. Elsewhere in the city, a two-mile stretch known as the Great Highway was temporarily closed. City officials eventually reopened the highway to traffic Monday to Friday, but on weekends, the Great Highway has continued to be a popular destination to take in the city’s coastline by foot, bike, skates, or scooter––a reflection of how our values have shifted during the pandemic. A good public transportation network is also key to reducing traffic, says Chen, helping people connect with each other and ensuring access to healthcare providers, parks, and exercise.
As chair of the advisory council, Chen deals with a multitude of transportation issues: Are the sidewalks wide enough for groups of people to pass? Is it safe for 12-year-olds to bike to school? How do we make streets safer for people? What is the driving speed in dense areas? The city’s transportation system is interconnected, and how well his district’s transportation system flows affects the entire Bay Area transit system.

“In the United States, our reliance on cars for transportation forces us to drive to work, to school, to shop. More than one half of transportation emissions in the United States come from light vehicles like cars,” he says. “There are, comparatively, very few neighborhoods where people can do all those things without a car. We know there is a high demand for these sorts of neighborhoods because they are so expensive. I’d like San Francisco and the United States in general to invest in more of these neighborhoods and for more people to have the opportunity to live in these neighborhoods. And selfishly for myself, more walkable neighborhoods would put downward pressure on my rent!” Chen says.

An Ideal ‘Car-Light’ City

In his ideal car-light city, there would have to be allowances for commercial vehicles, public works trucks, emergency and delivery vans, etc., and a number of limited permits for private cars. Today, San Francisco has the largest trolley and bus fleet of any transit agency in the United States and Canada that is almost entirely pollution-free, since the electric power comes from the city’s hydroelectric system. The city’s goal is to have a 100 percent all-electric trolley and bus fleet by 2035. As impressive as that sounds, Chen notes that there is still a lot of work to do. More than half of households in San Francisco own a car, particularly in the less dense outer neighborhoods with less transit access.  

“As the city becomes more densely populated, we are confronting challenges of geometry,” he adds. “You can only have so many cars in the footprint of the roads and parking that we have. Urban real estate is very expensive: we need to ask ourselves should space go toward parking and road space for one car? Or to more economically productive uses like commerce or housing?” 

Civic Engagement from Lakeville to San Francisco 

At Hotchkiss, Chen helped the School participate in the Folding@Home project, which involved using idle computer power for biology research to help understand and treat diseases. While the Hotchkiss program no longer exists, the Folding@Home project is ongoing and is focused on using computer power to fight SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. “There are some parallels with the endeavor I launched at Hotchkiss and my interest in community work in San Francisco today. I strongly advocate that more people become civically aware and participate on a local level, to use their spare time to help their community,” he says.  

Two books that have inspired Chen to become involved in local politics are: Politics is for Power by Eitan Hersh, on how we can use politics to better our communities and live our ideals; and Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, on the decline of community organization, trust in government, and social capital in the U.S.


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