Monday, July 04, 2005

"The morning rush hour is nothing"

Even the editors at SF Weekly must have thought that Matt Smith went too far in his bike zealotry ("Environmental Cycle," June 8-14). Smith's piece presented the Bike Nut vision of a future San Francisco: anti-car and anti-parking, in favor of residential high-rises next to Golden Gate Park on Fulton and Lincoln, and, not coincidentally, anti-Muni ("Gridlock," SF Weekly, May 4-10). But all Smith did is make explicit both the tacit agenda of the city's Bike Nut community and the implications of that agenda for the future of the city. The bike zealots are not just in favor of bikes and bike safety in the city; their agenda also requires making it as difficult and expensive as possible to drive and park a car---or a truck, bus, or motorcycle---in S.F. And, of course, Muni is too slow and unreliable. They think the more we discourage cars and denigrate Muni the more people will turn to bikes as a safe, sensible, environmentally benign alternative.

But, as the article in the current SF Weekly nicely illustrates, they have a long way to go before they achieve that goal. In fact, they never will, since it's neither reality-based nor desirable for the overwhelming majority of city residents. Curt Sanburn's article in the current issue of SF Weekly ("Driving San Francisco Sane," June 29-July 5) is the perfect antidote to Smith's bike zealotry and that of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

After years in the city without one, Sanburn bought a car:

Day by day and block by block, I fell into a grid-bound mindset of a San Francisco driver. The learning curve was as steep and long as, say, 17th Street. But once I mastered the grid(s), my options were many, traffic jams were few, and it took 20 minutes to get anywhere in the city---even though San Francisco has a much higher vehicle density than New York City or Los Angeles County.

Sanburn quotes people who drive in the city: "It's complicated but civilized," says Teresa Trego. "It's easy to drive here...The pattern of streets is clear...I'm amazed at how little traffic there is---the morning rush hour is nothing," says Jim Chappell, president of SPUR.

Sanburn emphasizes how unique the city's grid is and how there is indeed a learning curve for city drivers before relative mastery is achieved, even though the city has a staggering number of licensed drivers (533,969 as of 2002) and registered vehicles per square mile (9,693).

Sanburn's piece includes sensible discussions of four-way stop intersections, one-way streets, and mast-arm signals. But the gist of his article makes this important point: Driving a motor vehicle in the city is a reasonable---even civilized---way of getting around.

And there's this, though it's outside the scope of Sanburn's article: Riding Muni buses is also a sensible, civilized way of getting around the city.

And undermining the city law that requires a parking space for every new housing unit will only increase competition for street parking, not push more people onto bikes. Riding a bike may seem practical to a hardy, adventurous minority, but it will never be the choice for an overwhelming majority of city residents, which is why allowing the bike zealots to make it difficult for drivers in San Francisco could, sooner or later, provoke a political backlash. Drivers and Muni passengers---that is, an overwhelming majority of city residents---could turn on the bike nuts politically if they continue to raise parking fees, parking fines, and take away traffic lanes on behalf of a very small, politically aggressive---and delusional---minority.

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