Monday, June 13, 2005

Matt Smith: Bike Zealot, Part One

Now that SF Weekly's Matt Smith has come completely out of the closet politically, readers can see that he is a full-fledged bike nut ("Environmental Cycle," SF Weekly, June-8-14), in spite of the anti-Critical Mass piece he wrote in the Weekly two years ago ("Critical Masturbation," SF Weekly, May 14, 2003).

Smith is a True Believer in the implausible credo that bikes can save the world---or at least the Bay Area---from over-population, suburban sprawl, and environmental degradation. Smith lays out the problem as he sees it:

The number of residents in green-chatty San Francisco and Berkeley hasn't increased appreciably since the 1960s, thanks to a fierce Not in My Back Yard disposition that guarantees political resistance every time a new apartment building is proposed. Unless the hostile attitude of the Bay Area and the rest of California toward urban density changes, the new dwellings and businesses and work spaces needed to accommodate the forecast population growth will be built---but those structures will be part of suburban and exurban sprawl, occupying an Illinois' worth of space and paving paradise while they rise.

Smith is partly right about the population numbers: According to the US Census Bureau, there were 678,974 people in SF in 1960; the estimated population today is 744,230, which is down from a peak of 776,733 in 2000. But does anyone really think that the city's population declined more than 30,000 since 2000 because of nimbyism? The obvious reason for the population decline is the dotcom bust several years ago. In fact, when you look at the population numbers over the years, you can see the boom-and-bust pattern of development in San Francisco: In 1940 the city's population was 634,536, but by 1950 the population swelled close to what it was in 2000, 775,357. What happened between 1940 and 1950? World War II happened. The city's population soared as workers from all over the country poured into SF and the Bay Area to work in the shipyards and other war industries.

Where do bikes come into all this? Well, according to Smith, San Franciscans are nimbys because they assume, not unreasonably, that new housing will bring more people and more cars into their neighborhoods. Given effective opposition in SF to major housing developments, what he sees as necessary housing will inevitably be built out in the countryside, thus contributing to suburban sprawl. If SF would just forget about the city law that requires a parking space for every new housing unit built and completely embrace bikes, Smith thinks we can help solve the sprawl problem:

For San Francisco to transform from a generator to an inhibitor of sprawl, the car-apartment link must be broken. An officially sanctioned shift from automobile to bicycle traffic is potentially the cheapest, most efficient way to increase San Francisco's population without increasing the numbers of cars plying its streets.

I don't know about Berkeley, but in San Francisco overdevelopment of housing is now the problem. The Rincon Towers will house 8,000 people, and the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan calls for a 50% increase in population in that neighborhood over the next 20 years, including residential highrises in the Market/South Van Ness area. The Redevelopment Agency already has hundreds of new housing units on the drawing board for the old freeway parcels in that neighborhood. UC wants to put a huge, 424-unit housing development on the old extension site on Lower Haight St. And Mayor Newsom wants to add thousands of new housing units as part of the Transbay development and the Mid-Market plan.

This is a lot of new housing, which means a lot more people in the city. And this housing boom is only going to increase the seemingly inexorable gentrification of San Francisco. Even if you think this is good for the quality of life in the city, you can't convincingly argue that the occupants of the condos in Chris Daly's Rincon Towers, for example, are going to rely on bikes as their main means of transportation. Whether they come from San Francisco or elsewhere, these people are going to have money, and people with money own cars. These folks may have a bike stashed in the garage or the laundry room, but does anyone really think they are going to ride bikes to dine at Zuni's or shop at Union Square?

Even without this projected boom in housing development, according to the DMV, the city is already experiencing a significant annual growth in motor vehicles: There were 451,879 cars, trucks, and motorbikes/motorcycles registered in SF as of Dec. 31, 2000. As of Dec. 31, 2004, there were 464,903 such vehicles registered in the city. That's an annual growth on average of 3,256 new vehicles in San Francisco. (I'm now told, by the way, that buses are folded into the "trucks" category.) This too is apparently a consequence of gentrification, but it makes cycling in the city---already a dangerous, impractical means of transportation for all but a small minority---even less attractive as an alternative to cars and buses.

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