Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rob Anderson: from meanie to "advancing the cause of bicyclists"

Maybe my relationship with the SF Weekly's Matt Smith is looking up. According to his latest rant, I've actually done a lot "to advance the cause of bicyclists" in San Francisco.

Even allowing for the heavy-handed irony, that's an improvement from three years ago, when Smith called me "mean," a "cyclist hater," a "callous anti-bike zealot," and a "busy attention-seeker," the latter because I ran for District 5 Supervisor. Okay, he's still calling me a "bike-hater" and an "anti-bike nut," but I'll take his latest as something of an olive branch.

But Smith still has a sketchy grasp of state enviromental law:

Anderson and Miles made the novel argument that bikes are bad for the environment because they get in the way of automobiles, which must then idle and emit more smog. A judge agreed that San Francisco city leaders had flouted California environmental law by forgoing environmental review. And he slapped the city with a punitive-seeming injunction, forbidding bicycle-related improvements, even ones that don't take away space from cars, such as bike racks.

There's nothing at all "novel" about requiring a project---especially a major project like the Bicycle Plan---to include traffic studies in its EIR, since impacts on traffic are a common concern about any new development. We weren't particularly concerned about bike racks, but Judge Busch's decision prohibited any changes to the "hardscape" of city streets, probably because he had little faith that the city would do the right thing---based on its previous conduct on the Bicycle Plan---he made the order pretty broad.

Smith's real quarrel is with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires an environmental study of any proposed project that even might have a negative impact on the environment. Seems like a sensible law to me, but the city's bike people were shocked that the law was applied to the Bicycle Plan, even though it proposed redesigning many city streets---taking away traffic lanes and street parking to make bike lanes---which clearly could have had a negative impact on the city's environment by making traffic in the city a lot worse. (The DEIR on the Bicycle Plan, by the way, confirms that the Plan will make our traffic worse.)

Since then, Anderson has used the judge's ruling to tirelessly share his view that bike lanes are a plot by extremists bent on harming ordinary Americans' way of life. The Wall Street Journal even did a story on his unusual crusade last year, in which he railed against the city's "bike fanatics." "The behavior of the bike people on city streets is always annoying," he told the Journal. "This 'Get out of my way, I'm not burning fossil fuels.'" (The story also noted that Anderson himself hasn't owned a car for 20 years.) He also regularly catalogues his complaints about the bike nuts on his blog. "These people are arrogant crackpots determined to screw up our traffic based on a juvenile vision of the future of San Francisco," he wrote on May 14.

I'm not particlarly concerned about the American way of life, which has survived a lot worse than the self-righteous bike movement. The bike people are just a politically aggressive interest group that has our dim-bulb, PC city leadership under its influence. But the way the city and the bike people were proceeding with the Bicycle Plan before the injunction could be described as kind of a plot, when you consider that few even in the city's political community knew exactly what they were trying to do to our streets.

And the SF Bicycle Coalition, an interest group with a stake in the outcome of the process, did the public "outreach" for the Bicycle Plan with $300,000 of the taxpayers' money. It's probably fair to say that the supervisors themselves, who voted unanimously to make the Framework Document part of the city's General Plan, had little knowledge of what was actually in the 500-page Plan. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it an attempted "coup" by bike people in and out of city government to redesign city streets on behalf of a minority of bike zealots.

Yes, the Wall Street Journal quoted me as saying that "The behavior of the bike people on city streets is always annoying." But I doubt that I said always annoying. "Often" is more like my view. "This 'Get out of my way, I'm not burning fossil fuels'" is a sentence fragment that the writer didn't catch before publication, though I'm sure I said something like that, since that seems to be a common attitude among cyclists.

"Anderson's lawsuit 'increased the resources the MTA put into the bike plan, the traffic analysis, and the outreach, by a factor of three at least,' said Dave Snyder, transportation policy coordinator at San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a private smart-growth think tank. 'It encouraged them to consider all of the bike lanes as a package, and introduce them and get them approved as a package, which is way more efficient than what they planned to do' before Anderson's lawsuit."

Well, yes. But it's a remarkable bit of chutzpah for Snyder---who was the executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition for 11 years---to say that now, since he was the author of the deceptive, illegal piecemealing strategy the city was following before the injunction. The whole point of Snyder's strategy was to avoid having to do an expensive, time-consuming EIR on the Plan that would delay all these "improvements" to our streets. Obviously Snyder and city officials simply thought they could get away with doing it that way.

"But Anderson's lawsuit has fixed that. It has forced the city to make a detailed, highly engineered project out of a bike plan that five years ago was, comparatively speaking at least, more of an empty political gesture."

It's not surprising that Smith and Snyder want to rewrite this history, but it simply won't wash. The 500-page, two-volume Bicycle Plan---the Framework Document and the Network Document---was a lot more than "an empty political gesture" in 2005, when the city began implementing it on the streets of the city. That was the year the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Framework Document, making it part of the General Plan, while hiding the Network Document over at the San Francisco County Transportation Agency (SFCTA), where they could then use it to cherry-pick future bicycle projects.

One-quarter of the plan's stated goals involve corralling the law-breaking impulses of yahoos such as the aforementioned pamphleteer[Steve Jones]. The plan calls for bicycle safety education, and, more importantly, "improving bicycle safety through targeted enforcement." That's right: ticketing law-breaker cyclists as well as scofflaw motorists. The plan calls for working with police to put a high priority on "motorist and bicyclist violations." And it even calls for working with police and the courts to create bicycle traffic school, for wingnuts who might think it's okay to blow through red lights.

Oh, please. As if the SFPD is going to launch a serious traffic enforcement effort when it and every other city department is awash in red ink. It's not going to happen; it's just hot air. Smith and mainstream cyclists would like to distance themselves from the goofball Steven Jones types, but the pseudo-rebel ethos is an important element in the whole bike trip for a substantial number of cyclists. These people are saving the planet---get out of their way, they aren't burning fossil fuel!---even as they work out their Mommy and Daddy issues on the streets of our city.

The city plans to spend between $3 million and $4 million next year on bike improvements, with a total of $14 million to be spent on the entire plan. That's a cheap way to get more types of traffic moving in the city.

But you have to factor in some other numbers, like whatever the city is paying to have 13 people in MTA working on bike projects (see the roster below in italics). And the $120,000 a year that it costs to have 20 city cops on overtime babysit the monthly Critical Mass demo. And you have to consider the money taxpayers are spending to consider putting a bike path on the Bay Bridge ($1.3 million for the study), which, if given a green light, could cost as much as $390 million.

Since 1997, when much of the local police force was diverted to crack down on a law-breaking Critical Mass ride, some San Franciscans have regarded cyclists as an offensive fringe group. This is true in part simply because some motorists find it irksome to have to slow down for them on narrow city streets. But it's also because some people have taken to cycling as a form of activism or counterculturalism, rather than what ordinary bike commuters like myself consider it to be: merely a healthy, efficient, enjoyable, and cheap way to get to work, take my kids to school, cart the family to the ocean in the evenings, and ride to Marin County on the weekend.

I laughed when I read this, recalling Smith's description of his often hair-raising daily bike commute four years ago:

These conflicts are extraordinarily stressful, and on those mornings I find myself spending the first part of the day numb with low-level anger and fear. And I'm what you might call an ace at this: I've bike-commuted in big-city traffic for the past 25 years. So if co-workers ask me about getting to our office by bike, I feel obliged to offer caveats about the sections where bike lanes disappear into impatient and sometimes dangerous auto traffic, and about the motorists who don't realize bikes have the right to occupy traffic lanes and who drive dangerously as a result. And if I didn't tell the co-workers, they'd find out soon enough on their own.

Taking your kids to school or the beach on a bike? This sort of thing only invites the rest of us to wonder whether these folks---whether "ordinary bike commuters" or counter-culturalists---have any sense at all. Funny that society rightly makes a big fuss about making motorists put small children in car seats, but those little canvas trailers that some morons haul their children in are legal.

Bicycle Program Staff
Oliver Gajda
Bicycle Program Manager
Damon Curtis
Associate Engineer
Jessica Manzi
Associate Engineer
Nick Carr
Bicycle Safety Outreach Coordinator
Heath Maddox
Bicycle Sharing Program
Deirdre Weinberg
Planner II
Raoul Roque
Junior Engineer
James Shahamiri
Junior Engineer
Jose Guadamuz
Engineering Assistant
Ryan Dodge
Planner I
Phil Olmstead
Intern Planner
Kevin Johnson
Tim O'Keefe
Intern Engineer

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