Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The conversation we should be having about bikes and cars

Illustration by Jim Swanson

I don't usually read editorials, but when I do I can see why these institutional op-eds have no bylines. The folks who write this stuff get to indulge in fact-free hot air without taking personal responsibility for it.

The SF Examiner joins the fray on the bike issue with a clueless editorial (Rare pedestrian deaths exploited by bicycle foes) to match the one in the Chronicle the other day, replying to C.W. Nevius's April 5 column:

This idea of two-wheeled liberalism is an attitude that is pandered to by the likes of curmudgeonly columnists at San Francisco newspapers. Consider this quote from a recent column on a proposal to fund Muni by slightly increasing parking fines. “OK, I get it,” the columnist wrote. “Cars are evil. And I drive a car so I must be punished. It’s the law.”

Nevius's column was about how the city is getting ready to put the bite on city drivers---again:

OK, I get it. Cars are evil. And I drive a car so I must be punished. It's the law. On the other hand, I ride a bike two or three times a week, have a Clipper card and regularly take public transit.

The Examiner editorialist complains that Nevius's column "does nothing to truly advance the conversations that need to be happening." But Nevius was taking part in a different conversation---about soaking people who drive in SF---than the peevish Examiner editorialist wants to have about the cyclist who killed a pedestrian last month:  

And so it is with Bucchere. A bicyclist who kills someone is, quite simply, an outlier. Bicyclists can be rude---they certainly ride through red lights or on the sidewalk and are rarely punished, in part because on the scale of criminality, this is fairly minor. But the one thing they almost never do is kill someone. We shouldn’t let this incident distort our approach to traffic laws or add fuel to the apparently endless battle of the bike and the car.

Calling Nevius a "bicycle foe" is wide of the mark, since the Examiner left out the next sentence in his column, where he notes that he's both a cyclist and owns a car; he's expressing his annoyance that City Hall is activating parking meters on Sundays and raising parking fines again. Nevius understands that the city is doing that not only to raise money but for ideological reasons since official city policy is anti-car.  

Cyclists, by the way, are also rarely killed in collisions with motor vehicles. In a normal year, one cyclist a year is killed on city streets; in a bad year it's two or three. According to the MTA's annual Collisions Report, between 2002 and 2009 an average of 1.5 cyclists per year died on city streets in accidents with motor vehicles. Pedestrians have more fatalities than anyone, and even those deaths are in dramatic decline over the last ten years.

The Examiner editorial finishes with a dramatic flourish:

Bikes kill people. Cars kill people. People kill people. A reasonable discussion about why this is needs to happen, and it does no one any good to sit back and fan the flames by using hyperbole and half-truths.

In fact traffic fatalities overall are declining on city streets, thanks to the MTA's focus on making our streets safer.

After the irrelevant swipe at Nevius, the Examiner editorial still doesn't tell us what conversation it wants to have about city traffic.

In the wake of the latest pedestrian death, the cycling community and its enablers in the media have been surprised by all the negative feedback. The reality: the drip drip drip of bad behavior by cyclists on city streets over the years has made them an unpopular special interest group. And then there's Critical Mass, where a lot of these boors get together to annoy people who are trying to get home from work on the last Friday of the month. 

What people find galling is that, in spite of all the bad behavior over the years by cyclists, City Hall is relentlessly pushing policies that make it more difficult and expensive to drive in San Francisco while redesigning city streets on behalf of the bike people with projects like the Bicycle Plan, Masonic Avenue, bike lanes on the Panhandle, etc.

The conversation we should be having should address this question: Why is this obnoxious minority taking up so much room on our streets and in our political life?

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