Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Grand Jury on cycling: spineless and irrelevant

The Civil Grand Jury's report on cycling in San Francisco was so poorly conceived that it immediately qualifies for the recycling bin. This misconception is stated in this early fuzzball paragraph explaining the "Purpose of this Report":

The purpose of this report is to focus City attention on identified barriers to the successful implementation of the San Francisco Bicycle Plan: serious mistrust, conflict and misunderstandings among City stakeholders including motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. To move towards everyone seeing him/her self as part of the community sharing the roadway, the Jury recommends actions and amendments to the San Francisco Bicycle Plan. (page 4)

The real problem facing the city is not barriers to implementing the Bicycle Plan but whether/where to implement the Plan at all. The only real barrier to implementing the Plan has been the injunction in 2006 preventing the city from implementing the Plan until---and if---the court rules that the city's environmental impact report is legally adequate. (The hearing on that issue is scheduled for June 22, with a decision probably sometime in July.)

Instead of addressing the thorny issue of the litigation and why the court ruled against the city in the first place, the Grand Jury approaches the sharing of city streets with a group therapy model: can't we all---cyclists, motorists, pedestrians---just get along? Well, yes, more or less. The implication is that chronic discord on our streets is somehow holding up the Bicycle Plan, which is simply untrue. In fact the city was busily implementing the Plan, street by street, five years ago when we filed the litigation. The city's bike people weren't at all concerned about civility on city streets. Indeed, they saw the ambitious Bicycle Plan as a great leap forward toward "calming" those streets by means of hindering motor vehicle traffic in favor of cyclists with new bike lanes on busy city streets created by taking away traffic lanes and street parking. The bike people and their many enablers in City Hall weren't waiting for anyone's "attitudes and perceptions" to change. Only our litigation stopped the city from completely revamping city streets on behalf of a minority of cyclists.

The report blandly retails a lot of information that's easily available, along with a lot of information we don't need, producing clunkers like this paragraph:

It appears from review of the literature and comments from interviews that the jury conducted, that motorists see cyclists as arrogant, dangerous, despised, erratic/unpredictable, inconvenient, irresponsible, and vulnerable. Cyclists are viewed by many non-cyclists as not paying their fair share. Cyclists see motorists as an impediment, selfish, materialistic, causing world havoc with financial systems and the environment (page 11).

No shit! This is the sort of observation that someone from another planet might make after spending a few minutes on our streets, but it's not particularly interesting or useful to anyone who lives in San Francisco. A long---two and a half pages---smug letter from a cyclist named "Splork" is included in the text, followed by a discussion of a 2002 study from Scotland on motorists' attitudes toward cyclists. The report uses a couple of pages to discuss the non-issue of insurance for cyclists. Who cares, except cyclists and their insurance brokers?

Occasionally there's a nugget in all the dross. Ever wonder why city cops don't cite cyclists for infractions more often?

Police officers report (Interview, December 2009) that of all the complaints filed against them[with the Office of Citizen Complaints], one percent are from motorists and twenty to thirty percent are from cyclists. Officers commented that the potential for complaints from cyclists makes them reluctant to cite cyclists (pages 10-11)...Police report a disparity of complaints received regarding their actions from motorists versus bicyclists. Only one complaint is generated from 100 motorist citations; twenty to thirty complaints out of 100 involve bicyclists. Because of the high incidence of complaints from a certain segment of the population, the police are reluctant to cite bicyclists...Another police officer stated that they have certain beliefs about enforcement, but have to follow directives about what is important to do in light of the large responsibility they have. They understand the bicycle community and the political power it wields (page 23).

The Grand Jury thinks what's really needed is more enforcement of traffic violations on the streets and more education and training for all concerned. Toward the end of the report, there's this proposal for enforcing traffic laws against cyclists:

A "negative registration" process could capture the names and other pertinent data about cyclists who are ticketed by SFPD for moving or equipment violations or otherwise involved in traffic accidents where the cyclist is cited at fault. The cyclist should be required to appear at a "bicycle court" where prescribed safety education would be required. The format of the court, including a cycle-friendly venue such as a ride-up location, and an educational curriculum should be provided through collaboration among SFPD bicycle officers, the Bicycle Coalition and other cycling advocates. Notices to Appear, if ignored, should be pursued through SFPD and the courts. A nominal fee raised through "negative registration" to reduce resentment would most likely not be a deterrent to cycling (page 25).

I had to laugh when I read this, as if our sneering punks on bikes would consider appearing at this court for cyclists---with a "friendly ride-up location"!---to be sentenced to "prescribed safety education" for their infractions! The people who wrote this report are completely out of touch with both life on our streets and the political context of their proposals. No one familiar with city politics can possibly think that a Board of Supervisors that passed the Bicycle Plan unanimously with no environmental review, no dissent, and no discussion would consider such a proposal. The Grand Jury hasn't got the message that City Hall has been sending us for years: Bikes are Good, Cars are Bad, and Muni is to be neglected---or even obstructed, as the EIR on the Bicycle Plan tells us it will be once the court gives the city a green light on the Bicycle Plan. It's bikes uber alles.

Nor do they understand the cultural/political roots of the great, planet-saving bike movement. Get out of their way, they aren't burning fossil fuel! These mostly young people fancy themselves as rebels, and they have formed a smug, self-righteous political community with a strong political lobby in the SF Bicycle Coalition. Even the health and functioning of our Muni system takes a backseat to the bike lobby.

When the Report happens on an interesting subject, it wimps out, like its discussion of Critical Mass:

Chief of Police George Gascon is considering addressing the issue of Critical Mass, the last Friday of the month ride that ties up traffic. Currently, the police assign officers and a supervisor to a "pedal parade" that it cannot control. The Chief is looking at a New York policy that requires bicycle groups larger than fifty to obtain a permit. The permit would "put someone on the Critical Mass side down as responsible, map out a specific route, give drivers warning and possibly require payment for the police time expended escorting the group across the city" (Curb Critical Mass, San Francisco Chronicle editorial, March 17, 2010). (page 25-26)

Calling that a "discussion" is inaccurate. It's just a mention, with a spineless refusal to even take a stand---does it support the chief or not?---on Critical Mass, which, unmentioned by the Grand Jury, costs city taxpayers $10,000 a month for the police escort of a demo designed to screw up our rush hour traffic on the last Friday of the month.

What's really needed is a Grand Jury investigation into the litigation on the Bicycle Plan. Why did the city continue to push a case that the City Attorney knew he was going to lose? How much did that litigation cost---and continue to cost---the city? What about the relationship between the city and the Bicycle Coalition, a special interest group that's encouraged by City Hall to pursue its anti-car agenda with city contracts to, in effect, propagandize the people of the city with their own tax revenues, much like those TV commercials for the Marines that are bought with federal taxes. How much money does the city pay the Bicycle Coalition every year and for what? The EIR on the Bicycle Plan tells us that implementing the Plan will have "significant impacts" on a number of streets and Muni lines. It would have been a lot more useful if the Grand Jury had analyzed and warned the city about these impacts.

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