Monday, July 12, 2010

Jack Fleck and "all that Jane Jacobs stuff"



Jack Fleck, the city's top traffic engineer, is retiring. Before he left he gave an interview to Streetsblog, the anti-car website favored by the city's bike people. Fleck reflected on the urban riots of the 1960s:

As a student I started connecting all these problems with the automobile and the first one was related to the urban riots, I mean the fact that at the time equal housing laws didn't exist. So, African Americans were pretty much confined to the inner city, at the same time the freeways were crisscrossing the cities and making them much less livable, destroying neighborhoods and creating noise and pollution and all of that, and they became like pressure cookers and they exploded, and so the inner city blight and the white flight were something I paid a lot of attention to the '60s.

This is a novel interpretation of the riots: It was really about cars and freeways "creating noise and pollution and all of that" that drove, so to speak, black people to riot and burn their neighborhoods. Maybe if they had had bikes, they could have escaped the ghettos, but, alas, the significance of that great historical toy---I mean "tool"---wouldn't be clear until later in American history.

And what about bikes and those "other modes" of transportation in the city?

We try to dedicate the space for bike lanes, for bus lanes. I'm not one to punish the drivers...but I'm trying to make it attractive for these other modes, and if it comes down to a choice where you can't do both, then I would favor the other modes. I don't really consider myself anti-automobile...you could get yourself in a lot of trouble politically if you try to take on all the drivers, why go there? You don't need to do that. That's why I was a little frustrated, or very frustrated, when the bike injunction happened, because we have been very careful to put in bike lanes that we felt didn't really cause any negative impact on the traffic...we knew that there were some that were going to be more controversial, and we were kind of putting off doing those, so the ones that had been put in[the Bicycle Plan], we thought were relatively non-controversial. So the fact that an injunction happened when we'd only done things that we thought were pretty safe was frustrating.

Yes, those injunctions just kind of happen sometimes, like the weather or natural disasters. You're going along, trying to make space for other modes---and wham!---an injunction comes out of nowhere to make you a little frustrated. Better make that very frustrated when you're talking to the folks at Streetsblog.

Hard to believe that a traffic engineer thought that taking away traffic lanes to make bike lanes on Second Street, Fifth Street, and Cesar Chavez, for example, was a "pretty safe" thing to do and wouldn't screw up traffic. As it turned out the EIR on the Bicycle Plan told us that, yes, the Bicycle Plan will have "significant" impacts on traffic and delay Muni lines on those streets. As a career traffic engineer, did Fleck point this out to the Planning Department, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors when they were pushing the Bicycle Plan through the process with no environmental review? Not likely, since Fleck was a lifer and only a few years from retirement. Why go there? You could just get yourself in a lot of trouble politically by bucking those advocating the bike mode here in Progressive Land.

Back in 2006 Fleck was just trying to make space for the bicycle "mode" on Market Street between Van Ness and Octavia Blvd. by taking away most of the metered parking spaces in front of small businesses to make bike lanes. Many owners of the businesses on that part of Market Street showed up at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing to protest the loss of parking. When asked what was the rush to get it done, Fleck tried to explain:

...we were urged on behalf of the Mayor's office and other people who were pushing to try to get this through by Bike to Work Day...We normally hold a Department of Parking and Traffic hearing...And then we usually go through the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation, which is an internal staff meeting. And then we also go through the MTA board. However, the Board of Supervisors certainly has the right and on other occasions introduced legislation directly to be heard at the board, which is the way it happened here today because of the attempt to try to get this installed by Bike to Work Day.

In short, the Mayor's office called Fleck and told him to get those bike lanes done by Bike to Work Day, so that he and other dignitaries could ride down Market Street for a photo op. That required abandoning the normal process and rushing it through that committee to the full BOS for approval. And who were the "other people" Fleck refers to? Leah Shahum and the Bicycle Coalition, the bike mode people, who have more power in San Francisco than those stick-in-the-mud small business people who Shahum lectured about how the change was going be good for them. (This was before the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee: Bevan Dufty, Ross Mirkarimi, and Fiona Ma).

As an advocate of electric cars, Fleck must have disappointed the Streetsblog folks, not that Fleck doesn't see the dangers involved:

Of course the danger is that they[electric cars] will be so successful that we'll have more sprawl, more automobile-oriented development. It does solve the problems of wars for a while, it does solve the problem s of air quality and hopefully can make a dent in global warming. It doesn't sove the problems of obesity and it doesn't solve the problem of urban life quality, all that kind of Jane Jacobs stuff...but I think given the danger of global warming and being underwater kind of makes everything else moot.

As all good progs know, all US wars are about oil, but electric cars will put an end to that. And even the bicycle mode doesn't work very well under water. But Fleck assured Streetsblog that he is a life-long bike guy:

I grew up in Peoria and all the kids rode bikes...We rode bikes to school, we rode bikes to go visit each other. We rode bikes to little league. I mean that was how we all got around and I was thinking about Ray LaHood...he's from Peoria, I'm sure he did that too, and he's a pretty big advocate for bikes right now, and that's pretty cool, you know?...Then at the University of Illinois I always rode a bike and when I lived in Berkeley I always rode a bike...

Then a confession: "...but I don't really ride a bike in San Francisco that much...I am definitely very comfortable riding bikes, but I don't do it as much as I used to." But all the other kids from Peoria who are now in San Francisco still ride bikes, and they are determined to redesign city streets on behalf of their mode, so that our city can become a lot like Peoria.

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