Thursday, June 02, 2005

The bike fantasy

(This letter was sent to the SF Chronicle on 5-31-05 in response to Leah Shahum's opinion piece, below in italics, that appeared on the same day. My letter wasn't published.)


Anyone who is familiar with the streets of San Francisco knows that Leah Shahum and the Bicycle Coalition are living in a fantasy world. According to the DMV, there are now 447,585 motor vehicles registered in San Francisco---not including buses---and there are more every year as the city continues to gentrify. The Bicycle Coalition thinks painting bike lanes on the streets of the city makes riding a bike a safe, sensible alternative to riding Muni to work. It doesn't, and it never will. 

There's a dark side to Shahum's bike fantasy: The Bicycle Coalition endorses the monthly Critical Mass, which encourages the bike fanatics to converge on downtown on the last Friday of the month during rush hour to screw up rush hour traffic, making it difficult for working people to get home ( City government is taking driving lanes away from motor vehicles for bike lanes to pander to this small, Politically Correct minority. The bike fanatics are getting a political blank check from our progressive Board of Supervisors, which recently voted unanimously to make the 200-page Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no environmental review. 

As Shahum herself admits, part of being a bike advocate means being anti-car---make it as expensive and difficult as possible to move around in the city by motor vehicle, including buses---even though many more people in the city sensibly choose cars and buses as a means of transport over riding a bike.

Rob Anderson

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
Let's get rolling with bikes
Leah Shahum, 

Executive Director, Bicycle Coalition

As mayors and media from around the globe arrive in San Francisco this week for World Environment Day, the City by the Bay will be presented as America's most environmentally conscious one. Yes, we recycle record amounts of waste. We invest millions of dollars in ecological restoration projects such as Crissy Field. We are considering a shopping-bag tax to discourage overuse of plastics. Nearly two-thirds of us in San Francisco identify as environmentalists, according to polls, so we must be doing our part. But pull back the shiny, green facade, and we find a city that can go much further. When it comes to one of the major sources of environmental damage---transportation---we are mostly (green) talk. Cars and light trucks are the leading source of air pollution in the region, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Vehicles contribute roughly half of San Francisco's nearly 10 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. How are we falling short as a green leader when it comes to transportation?:

* Within the last few weeks, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ding transit riders with an extra quarter fare increase (the second in two years) rather than make up the Muni budget deficit through higher fines on illegal parking and a slight increase in parking meter rates. It is unlikely that nickel-and-dimeing transit riders to protect the privilege of cheap driving will encourage people to leave their cars at home more often.

* The Golden Gate Bridge District is still considering charging a toll on people who walk or ride bicycles across the bridge, something no other community in the country is doing. Imagine the tourist sign: "Welcome to San Francisco. Thanks for choosing the most environmental way to cross our bridge. That will be $1, please."

Leaders at the regional and state level understand the importance of encouraging nonmotorized access across the Bay Bridge---well, across half of it anyway. As plans stand, we will be able to travel sustainably on a bicycle and pedestrian pathway between Oakland and Treasure Island, but for that final stretch to San Francisco where no path is planned, you're on your own. After the World Environment Day spotlight fades, San Franciscans need to get serious and show by example how to buck the trend of America's traditional cars-are-king mentality. We need to implement some of the ideas showcased in other countries to reclaim cities for people and not just for cars. We need to prioritize San Francisco's environmental---and public---health over the perceived convenience of car culture. We can start by building a citywide bike network. By connecting key routes with dedicated bike lanes, we can triple the number of bicycle commute trips in the city from the current 35,000 to 100,000 a day.

Examples from around the world shows[sic] that once you provide the physical infrastructure (such as inexpensive bike lanes), people respond. When cities in the Netherlands made a concerted effort in the 1970s to encourage bicycling by switching some dedicated space on the roads from driving to bicycling, bike usage jumped to as high as 50 percent of their populations. San Francisco's own bike-commuting population doubled in the past decade, thanks to modest improvements. Our potential is far greater, with nearly half of San Francisco adults owning bikes and factoring in our mild climate and dense urban environment. (Even most of the hills can be avoided by advance planning or riding on a bus with a bike rack.)

We should follow the lead of London and Paris, which have recently prioritized bicycling for local mobility and environmental sustainability. Of course, along with incentives for bicycling, these cities also set up disincentives to driving. This carrot-and-stick approach to transportation is another way we can learn from our European counterparts. Worthy proposals tested in other cities and now being considered in San Francisco include downtown congestion pricing; decreasing parking availability in areas well-served by transit; and fixing arcane "environmental" regulations that stymie bicycle and pedestrian projects while green-lighting projects that increase automobile trips. In the end, it all goes back to the adage to "think globally and act locally." What this means on a practical level is that San Francisco decision-makers need to start saying "no" to more parking and cheap parking fines, and instead prioritizing a citywide bike network, wider sidewalks, traffic calming and effective, affordable public transit.

As San Franciscans, we have the opportunity to prove that our green vision, ideals and actions at home can change the world. Luckily, some of the planet's greatest urban planners and policy-makers are coming to town this week to show how it's done. Let's take copious notes and be sure to get their business cards.

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