Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Group therapy with the bike people

Wednesday night's lecture/press conference/group therapy session led by the Department of Parking and Traffic's (DPT) Oliver Gajda, the Bicycle Project Manager, highlighted the peculiar psychology of the bike people. For all their passion for their dangerous hobby, they are surprisingly uninformed and don't seem to read much. They are also prone to self-pity and a sense of victimhoood, evidently seeing themselves as an oppressed and neglected minority, even though the entire city government, including the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, has been striving to implement their agenda for years.

Gajda's Wednesday night lecture was portrayed in Rachel Gordon's article (below in italics) as if it was a separate initiative, over and above the city's ongoing work on the environmental impact report (EIR) on the Bicycle Plan. In fact Gajda was simply presenting the details on the projects being studied in the EIR, which were on the list of projects in the Initial Study released earlier this month.

The Planning Dept. is doing the EIR, but DPT is the agency that did the Bicycle Plan in the first place and is responsible for the updates, which, for funding purposes, have to be done every five years. The present update happens to dovetail nicely with the preparation of the EIR.

Since there was really no new information to release, Gajda's presentation was more like a public relations move by the city to calm/reassure the restive bike people in SF, who are being whipped into a frenzy by the SF Bicycle Coalition---the city is dragging its feet on the EIR! Cyclists are dying while bureaucrats fiddle with the environmental study that was unnecessary in the first place! To emphasize the city's commitment to the SF Bicycle Coalition's agenda, Nathaniel Ford, head of the MTA, and Heather Fong, Chief of Police, made statements supporting safety for cyclists before Gajda took the floor.

Gajda's opening remarks included some important concessions: before the injunction, the city was incorrectly characterizing the Framework Document as the Bicycle Plan, even though it knew the Plan included a second volume, the Network Document, which contained detailed plans for every street the city wanted to change. As someone who's seen all the documents in the successful litigation against the city, I know that this pretense was maintained to the bitter end of the litigation, with the City Attorney maintaining that the Bicycle Plan was just the Framework Document, that the Network Document was merely a funding document for the SFCTA. Since all previous city documents said that the Plan consisted of both documents, it was easy to convince Judge Busch that the city was being disingenuous.

In response to a question about why the EIR was taking so long, Gajda emphasized how far-reaching and complicated the EIR had to be, since the Bicycle Plan itself was a citywide project affecting so many city streets. We now have two concessions from the city: that its strategy of pretending that the Bicycle Plan was simply one document was essentially a sham and a mistake; and that the Bicycle Plan itself was a large, ambitious project that required a large, equally ambitious EIR. All the commenters to this blog who called me names after the injunction and Judge Busch's decision can now send in their apologies, since the city now apparently agrees with what we tried to tell the Planning Dept., the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors three years ago: the Bicycle Plan is a large project that will impact many city streets, and it requires an environmental impact report.

When Gajda opened up the floor to questions from the audience, the bike people who had questions/comments almost all had an aggrieved tone. One man said that he had gone to five funerals lately for cyclists who had been killed on the streets. Gajda surely knows that no cyclists have been killed on city streets recently, but he didn't bother to point this out in his response. Robin Levitt, not surprisingly, advocated changes in state law to allow the city to do whatever it wants on city streets. But state law now clearly preempts local law on how streets are configured and how traffic is regulated, and it seems unlikely that the state legislature is going to change the law just for Progressive Land. A questioner asked about doing bike lanes the European way---putting them in a slightly elevated space between street parking and sidewalks. Gajda referred to "right-of-way" problems with that solution, by which he probably meant that at least five feet of space would be needed to do that, that either eliminating a traffic lane or street parking would still be necessary. A woman from the Urban Forest Council advocated planting trees in parking spaces, because she preferred riding her bike on tree-lined streets. Another questioner referred to "conservative" judges who make decisions like Judge Busch's on the Bicycle Plan. Gajda didn't point out that Judge Busch is a registered Democrat, though Judge Warren, who issued the original injunction before he retired, is a registered Republican. Hence, the injunction had bipartisan support. If there had been a Green Party judge assigned to the case, he/she would have come to the same conclusion, which was required by both the facts and the law.

Even worse, Rachel Kraai, project coordinator for the SF Bicycle Coalition, fingered me as the party behind the successful litigation. She pointed at me and indignantly demanded that I respond to the alleged ongoing emergency for cyclists at the Fell/Masonic intersection. Would I be willing, in spite of the injunction, to allow some changes to that supposedly dangerous intersection? If Kraai was hoping to incite the aggrieved audience to turn on me with fury, she was disappointed, since they didn't. Still, her attempted incitement was irresponsible, though it was typical of the current leadership of the SF Bicycle Coalition. Gajda responded correctly that that meeting was not the proper forum for that issue, that the question should be directed to the City Attorney's office, which represented the city during the litigation. Does anyone really think that the Bicycle Coalition hasn't already brought the subject up with the City Attorney? I bet they have.

If she was honest, Kraai would have told her bike comrades Wednesday night exactly what the City Attorney told the SFBC. What I think the City Attorney told them: you/we don't have enough information to prove to Judge Busch that that intersection is any more dangerous than a lot of others in the city, since there is no reliable citywide data base on cycling accidents. Kraai referred to eight recent accidents involving cyclists at the intersection. But to make the case to Judge Busch, the City Attorney would have to show that these accidents were not the fault of the cyclists, that the intersection has a design flaw, and that something obvious could be done immediately to make it safer. I walk through that intersection regularly, and I often see cyclists taking the kind of chances that are routine for many people who ride bikes in the city, in particular, rushing to beat the light before it changes. Both cyclists and motor vehicles rushing to beat a traffic light is a recipe for disaster.

[This just in: We just received documents from the City Attorney telling us that the city is in fact going to ask Judge Busch to modify the injunction to allow the city to make changes at both the Market/Octavia intersection and the Masonic/Fell intersection. The date of the hearing is April 29, 9:30 a.m., department 301 in the Superior Court.]

New S.F. bike plan would add 34 miles of lanes
Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

San Francisco bicyclists would be able to ride on 34 miles of new bike lanes---routes that would, in some cases, mean a loss of curbside automobile parking and traffic lanes, under a plan being circulated by city officials.

The plan would nearly double the city's existing network of bike lanes, which cover 44 miles of city streets.

The proposed projects include new bike lanes on such roadways as Market Street, Ocean Avenue, Howard Street, Portola Drive, Masonic Avenue, Alemany Boulevard, Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street.

Some would require the removal of street parking and traffic lanes, or the narrowing of traffic lanes.

The recommendations are aimed at updating San Francisco's 1997 bicycle plan, a document that is required to make the city eligible for regional, state and federal grants.

In addition to creating new lanes, the new proposal calls for the creation of more secure bicycle parking. It also suggests starting a pilot project that would allow bikes on the Municipal Railway light-rail system and stepping up enforcement and penalties against motorists who illegally double-park in designated bike lanes.

In all, more than 50 individual projects are proposed.

The idea is to cement the role of San Francisco---with its famous hills and all---as one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America. The goal hasn't been universally embraced.

The push for bicycle improvements comes as the city is temporarily barred by court order from starting any new bike-related projects that entail physical changes to the streetscape.

Implementation of the bike plan was successfully challenged in Superior Court in 2006 on the grounds that the city did not undertake sufficient environmental analysis to determine the effects the bike-related improvements would have on such things as parking and traffic.

Rob Anderson, the citizen behind the lawsuit, said the city catered to a vocal minority of bicyclists without sufficiently studying effects on the driving public and merchants who want convenient parking for their customers.

As a result of the legal challenge, the Planning Department and Municipal Transportation Agency reluctantly started a wide-ranging environmental review of the proposals. A draft of the study is expected to be completed in the fall. The earliest the bike lane projects are expected to commence is in the summer of 2009. All the projects in the new proposal will be studied in the environmental report.

Meanwhile, city officials have been allowed to craft proposals for an updated bike plan, generally maintain the existing bike lanes and work on a bicycle safety campaign.

Bicycle activists, who point to polls they commissioned that show biking gaining popularity in San Francisco, have criticized the city for not moving fast enough on the required environmental analysis.

"San Francisco no doubt considers itself a leader in the sustainable movement, but in terms of the bike plan, city officials are not giving it the high priority they should," said Leah Shahum, who heads the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "The city was burned by the lawsuit. There's been a cautiousness and conservativeness around this issue. Bottom line: Is three years too long for this?" she asked. "Absolutely."

Nathan Ballard, spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom, said the city is working to ensure that the bike plan's environmental impact report "is the most thorough and legally defensible document possible."

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