Thursday, July 25, 2013

Critical Mass

Illustration by  Jim Swanson

Critical Mass is an issue that won't go away. It's an institutionalized, traffic-snarling monthly demonstration that continues to give the city's bike people a black eye. Matt Smith, a card-carrying bike zealot himself, summed it up in the SF Weekly back in 2003 (Critical Masturbation):

Critical Mass is, of course, that monthly festival of traffic-ordinance-breaking that, participants say, will somehow, someday, convince people to give greater rights to bicyclists. A thousand or so bicyclists gather at Market and Embarcadero the last Friday of each month, then ride together through congested streets at rush hour, briefly tying up traffic by blocking intersections. I've cast my mind back over the six years since the famous Critical Mass demonstration in 1997, when police ran amok and over bicycle protesters. And I can't for the life of me figure out how breaking traffic laws---which are the only real friend bike riders have when it comes to surviving amid cars---is supposed to make streets friendlier for bicyclists. The monthly demonstration infuriates motorists, and most voters in San Francisco, for good or ill, are motorists.

Couldn't have said it any better myself. Along with bad behavior every day on city streets by a lot of cyclists, Critical Mass helps make the bike people the most unpopular special interest group in San Francisco.

After the riot in 1997, the city essentially gave up trying to stop Critical Mass, and since then the bike people have been successfully bullying the people of San Francisco on the last Friday of every month.

Joe Eskenazi does an update on Critical Mass in this week's SF Weekly (Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance), and he finds that not much has changed since 2003, except that Critical Mass is even less relevant now than it was then.

Eskenazi mentions our successful litigation against the city:

In fact, the city is hustling to make up for lost time. San Francisco was in 2006 slapped with an injunction against installing cycling infrastructure such as bike lanes after a judge bought outspoken bike critic and blogger Rob Anderson's argument that the city shirked on analyzing the environmental impacts of that infrastructure.

Actually, two judges agreed with us, since, before he retired, Judge Warren issued the first injunction against the city after we showed him the city was implementing the Bicycle Plan before the hearing on our suit (To get an injunction, you have to convince a judge that you're likely to win when the hearing is held). Judge Busch then kept the injunction in place when he issued his decision and while the city was working on the environmental review he ordered.

It wasn't a hard decision for either judge to make, since the law---the California Environmental Quality Act, aka "CEQA"---requires environmental review of any project that even might have a negative effect on the environment, and the city hadn't done any environmental review of the 500-page Plan. We warned the city that what it was doing was illegal, but both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors brushed us off contemptuously and unanimously voted to make half the Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan, while stashing the other half of the Plan at the SFCTA disguised as a funding plan.

Interesting to note that everyone but me who writes about these events never points out City Hall's egregious misbehavior not only by evading the law but also by dragging out the litigation for years. City Hall knew what it was doing was illegal; they just thought they could get away with it.

Eskenazi recites the Bicycle Coalition's party line about "71% more [bike]riders since 2006---despite the injunction." That number is only from the count the city does on one day a year of the number of commuters on bikes, not a citywide count of cyclists. Since the MTA and the Bicycle Coalition have such a chummy relationship, does anyone really believe that the bike people don't know the day of the count and turn out to inflate the numbers? But even those inflated numbers aren't very impressive, as I've pointed out before.

Aaron Peskin, who was president of the Board of Supervisors when it unanimously and illegally passed the Bicycle Plan, is tapped for a soundbite:

"The Bicycle Coalition is probably one of the most powerful special interest groups in town right now. I'm not calling bicycle transportation a bad special interest. They're a good special interest," says former Board of Supervisors President. "But, as a political matter, they'll side with the greediest developer to get 10 extra bike spots."

Of course the bike projects have never been any threat to the seemingly inexorable gentrification process in San Francisco, since most cyclists are well-off young white guys. Eskenazi apparently didn't press Peskin to explain exactly why the Bicycle Coalition---and redesigning city streets for that minority---is "a good special interest," but Peskin was running with the lemmings on the Bicycle Plan just like he was on the Central Subway boondoggle and the highrises on Rincon Hill.

Eskenazi downplays/denigrates the neighborhood resistance to the bike lanes City Hall wants to put on Polk Street:

Polk Street merchants recently revolted over a plan to install bike lanes and parking at the expense of some car parking. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest, Rutgers urban planning professor John Pucher notes that shopkeepers are eagerly signing onto waiting lists for bike corrals.

Even assuming that's true about the Northwest---and Pucher is a bike zealot, not an objective source of information---we're talking about San Francisco and Polk Street here. Gee, I wonder why shop owners on Polk Street don't want to lose the street parking for their customers? Don't they know that the Bicycle Coalition and the MTA understand their interests better than they do?

And it's not about just losing "some" parking. The first version of the Polk Street project would have eliminated more than 200 parking spaces, and the latest version will still eliminate more than 100 parking spaces. It's also people who live in Polk Gulch who "revolted," not just "merchants."

After a riff on the money the city needs to make the city into another Copenhhagen, Eskenazi goes to Pucher and the MTA for some Big Thoughts:

"Bicycle boulevards"---in which some auto lanes are removed in favor of bike lanes and everyone is made to slow down---are now being rebranded as "neighborhood greenways." This is marketing, says Pucher. Building bicycle-friendly roads "benefits pedestrians, people crossing the street, neighbors who want to chat in the street. You can make the argument you're doing it for the kids!" And, as this is San Francisco: It's good for dogs, too. It's an argument that, likely, will be put before city voters. "We need to get things on the ballot," says [the MTA's Tim]Papandreou. The shortfall of $25 million a year between the present and 2018 "is too large to make up internally."

But the real issue is not about money; it's about the limited space on city streets. San Francisco can always get the money for what it wants to do. There's simply not enough extra space on busy city streets to make bike lanes, and street parking is already tight in most of the city. The bike people are already taking up way too much room on our streets and in the city's political life.

The only way the city could get money for bike projects with a ballot measure is by sneaking it into a measure ostensibly for something else, like the city did with Proposition K in 2003 and the street bond two years ago.

If the city puts a stand-alone bike measure on the city's ballot, it will be rejected by the city's voters, who have never had a chance to vote on all this crap.

Make my day: Put it on the ballot.


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