Thursday, June 16, 2005

Matt Smith: Bike Zealot, Part Two

Matt Smith confirms what I've been saying about the dangers of riding a bike in San Francisco. Smith rides his bike from Grove St. to the Weekly's offices down by SBC Park. His commute routinely involves scary, distressing encounters with motor vehicles:

These conflicts are extraordinarily stressful, and on those mornings I find myself spending the first part of the day numb with low-level anger and fear. And I'm what you might call an ace at this: I've bike-commuted in big-city traffic for the past 25 years. So if co-workers ask me about getting to our office by bike, I feel obliged to offer caveats about the sections where bike lanes disappear into impatient and sometimes dangerous auto traffic, and about the motorists who don't realize bikes have the right to occupy traffic lanes and who drive dangerously as a result. And if I didn't tell the co-workers, they'd find out soon enough on their own.

Okay, we can now stipulate this: Bike advocates know that riding a bike in the city is a dangerous means of transportation, even for an experienced cyclist. (See also "Mission: Not Impossible," Paul McHugh, Feb. 17, 2005, SF Chronicle). They understandably want to make it safer to ride a bike in the city, which is a sensible, uncontroversial idea. But when they argue that painting bike lanes on city streets and taking traffic lanes away from motor vehicles---as in the San Jose/Guerrero area in the Mission---is going to make it safer, they are being disingenuous and/or delusional. Smith also implies that if only motorists knew that cyclists had the right to occupy traffic lanes things would be different. But motorists already know, for example, that drunk driving and exceeding the speed limit are illegal, and many do those things anyhow.

Smith also presents the Bike Nut vision of a future San Francisco:

What if the asphalt of Fulton Street---six vehicle lanes that border Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean---were converted to garageless condominium towers, with a cafe-packed, San Francisco-style pedestrian/bike commercial promenade below? Next, imagine Lincoln Avenue, which borders the park's south side, being transformed the same way...At San Francisco's 2000 population of 777,000, the city was about a quarter as dense as cycle-friendly Amsterdam, suggesting S.F. could easily absorb at least hundreds of thousands of new residents, if only they didn't bring cars.

As I point out earlier (Matt Smith: Bike Zealot, Part One), as of Dec. 2004, there were 464,903 motor vehicles registered in the city. That is, most people in the city own a car, truck, or motorcycle---or drive a bus. This seems to be about the fact that our city is undergoing a seemingly inexorable gentrification process. And the thing about gentry---at least in the US---is that they inevitably own cars. The notion that the people who would buy Smith's condos in his residential highrises by Golden Gate Park---an appalling vision itself---are not going to have cars is simply not reality-based.

Those progressives who see the bike lobby in SF as a benign, win-win deal politically for the city are kidding themselves. The bike nuts are politically arrogant: Making the Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no CEQA review is a prime example, as is the monthly Critical Mass demonstration that is tied to no specific political goal. The bike nuts do Critical Mass just because they can get away with it, and it's evidently an effective organizing tool for the Bicycle Coalition. And now they want to undermine the city law that requires a parking space for every new housing unit built in the city, a sensible law that deals with the realities of auto use in San Francisco. Their vision for San Francisco: residential highrises lining Golden Gate Park, along with the Rincon Towers south of Market St. and residential towers along Market St (see the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan).

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Mirkarimi and Dufty

The June 20 edition of the Nation magazine includes Ross Mirkarimi in its roundup of "progressive city leaders," with a paragraph on his background and accomplishments, along with a picture of the always-photogenic D5 Supervisor:

Since his election last November he's campaigned to expand rent control to apply to domestic partners, pushed to set aside housing for artists and challenged the scapegoating of the homeless. And he's emerging as a champion of small businesses that are struggling as chains expand into San Francisco's neighborhoods. Mirkarimi has clashed with Mayor Gavin Newsom, a liberal hero nationally for his decision to permit same-sex marriages but an ally of business interests on the local level. And there's already talk that Mirkarimi might be the first Green mayor of a major US city ("Progressive City Leaders," John Nichols, The Nation, June 20, 2005).

This account of city politics seems distorted in a typically partisan manner. Who is "scapegoating the homeless" in San Francisco? Surely not Mayor Newsom, who, unlike the city's progressive leadership, is determined to help homeless people get off our streets. Except for Starbucks and the Pottery Barn in the Castro, where are chains expanding in the city's neighborhoods? And Mayor Newsom is labeled with what is the kiss of death in lefty circles---as being "an ally of business interests." But "business" is the main source of new jobs in the city, not to mention tax revenue from tourism, which is San Francisco's largest industry. City progressives have been, at best, indifferent to the concerns of local business, as they condone homelessness, graffiti/tagging, and Critical Mass. If Mirkarimi does make a run for mayor, these are the kind of issues his political opponents are sure to raise.

Bevan Dufty and Trader Joe's: Okay, Trader Joe's is trying to expand into the Castro district ("Trader Joe's Plan Draws Flak from Neighbors," Carolyn Jones, SF Chronicle, June 10, 2005). Although it's a chain, Trader Joe's is a fine store, skillfully stocked and with an attentive, well-trained staff. I patronize the one at Masonic and Geary, which has caused serious traffic problems in that area. In fact, the store routinely has two rent-a-cops directing all the traffic in and out of its parking lot. It would be a bad idea to let the chain put a branch in an even more densely-populated neighborhood like the Castro. And, unlike the Masonic-Geary neighborhood, the Castro area has some small grocery stores that would surely suffer economically if Joe's was allowed into the neighborhood. Yet Supervisor Bevan Dufty can't seem to pee or get off the pot on the issue:

"The Trader Joe's project is a dilemma," Dufty said. "It's been a goal for me to see high-quality specialty foods available in the Castro, but at the same time it's important for me to see how this very constrained site can work without causing a huge neighborhood impact. I have not taken a position on it because I want to hear what constituents have to say."

But District Supervisors should be more than windsocks for public opinion. Does Dufty really think he needs much political cover to oppose a Trader Joe's in the Castro? The question is, Is this project going to be good for the neighborhood? It would be particularly ill-advised to attract even more traffic into a neighborhood near the looming traffic disaster in the Market-Octavia neighborhood, which has six traffic lanes that will be opened in August, along with the new freeway ramp on the south side of Market St.

Supervisor Dufty has also been unhelpful on UC's greedy, for-profit housing proposal for the old UC Extension site. Even though half the site is in his district, Dufty has been silent on the grotesque proposal, leaving all the heavy lifting to Supervisor Mirkarimi, who has been a forthright opponent of the proposal.

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