Sunday, July 29, 2007

Andy Thornley: Cycling organizer

Image of Andy ThornleyAndy Thornley is the program director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC). The Minneapolis native has lived in California for 20 years after stints in Boston and New York City. Thornley has lived car-free or car-lean his entire adult life and has been active with the SFBC member for more than 13 years. As the SFBC's program director for the past two and half years, Thornley has worked on many of the organization's big campaigns, including growing and improving the Citywide Bicycle Network, educating cyclists, motorists, politicians, cops, and reporters on how to have a safe and pleasant city for cycling, and encouraging bicycling as an everyday transportation choice. Thornley serves on the board of directors of the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition (BABC), the main regional bicycle advocacy organization, and on the board of directors of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC), a regional policy and advocacy organization working for smart, progressive transportation and land use outcomes in our part of the world.

As part of Bike Commute Tips' commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the pivotal 1997 confrontation between Critical Mass and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, I recently asked Andy Thornley for his impressions of how San Francisco has changed for bicyclists in the past decade.

Bike Commute Tips: What is the biggest positive change you've observed for bicycling in San Francisco in the past 10 years?

Andy Thornley: Funny you should ask, I've been thinking out loud lately that 10 years ago when I was biking around town I'd often have someone in a car or truck beep at me, waiting behind me at a red light or rolling up the street, but that almost never happens any more. So I suppose the most striking positive change for bicycling in San Francisco is the feeling that I belong on the street a lot more than I did a decade ago. There's still a lot of pushy, dangerous behavior by motorists, and the "system" (from police to politicians to traffic engineers) still has a long way to go in recognizing and facilitating bicycle traffic as legitimate traffic, but it's clearly more normal and accepted to be riding a bicycle in San Francisco than it was 10 years back.

Mostly this is because there are just lots more bicycles on the streets now, and that's because of things that build on each other: the self-evidence of bicycling as a peaceful, practical, simple, cheap, healthy means of transportation, feeding into enthusiasm for a common cause, organized and articulated and activated by the SFBC and partner groups and citizen advocates, which brings more bike lanes and outreach and encouragement, which leads to more bicyclists, which builds and builds and builds. I'm proud of the central and essential role that the SFBC has played in this striking improvement, as a staffer but even more so as a long-time member. In all humility I don't think SF would be nearly as bike-friendly or bike-full as it is without the SFBC's work.

Is there something uniquely San Franciscan about the remarkable growth of bicycling as an everyday transport mode? Could this story be replicated elsewhere in the U.S.? Well, for sure, there's no place else like SF, with the combination of mild climate and urban density and smart, self-defining culture, the traditions of environmentalism, social justice, participatory politics, street theater and un-self-consciousness--we're not people who get hung up on what we're supposed to be doing or thinking, or how we look when we're doing our thing, so the "childishness" and "down-class" stigmas of riding a bike don't discourage us so much. But even if the SF mix is unique, other American cities do have the essential ingredients to grow an everyday bicycling culture, and many are doing fairly well at it, indeed better than SF in certain ways.

But let's be clear: There's no U.S. city that's anywhere near as bike-friendly as Copenhagen, or Groningen, or Muenster, because no U.S. city has fully and honestly confronted the matter or re-ordering its public space for humans--as long as we're only "accommodating" cyclists and pedestrians along the edges of motor traffic, and not placing humanity at the center and "accommodating" motor vehicles, we're never going to reach a satisfactory state of urban civilization here in SF.

Bike Commute Tips: I believe on-street infrastructural enhancements (bike lanes, sharrows, etc.) are important to improved bicycling conditions. What is your view of the importance of street design ("complete streets") for encouraging a better bicycling environment?

Thornley: As much as I'm a "take the lane" kind of guy, it's relatively easy for me to be assertive and act like just another vehicle when I'm riding--I'm a noisy, 220 lb., 47-year-old male on a tall bike who's been doing it continuously for many decades. For all the terrific growth in the everyday bicycling population in SF, that cycling segment is still made up mostly by young men--I'm always thrilled to see mothers and grandmothers and families biking in the city, but they're still fairly exceptional among the bike traffic. If we're ever going to get past about 5 percent of trips happening by bike (on our best days these days), we need to make serious room for bikes on our streets and help less adventurous people become comfortable with the experience. That means separated bikeways, not just bike lane stripes. That means car-free streets, not just traffic-calmed streets, or anyhow traffic calming that really calms, 20 MPH zones with real enforcement, true bike boulevards with traffic diverters, real stuff and not just paint.

Bike lanes are kind of like training wheels for traffic. They're a pretty primitive way to re-prioritize traffic movements and public space use, and have essentially no substance by themselves to provide safe and dignified bike space, but they sketch out the premise of bike space and to the extent that cyclists and motorists play along with that premise, bike lanes train traffic behavior towards the culture we desire. Of course when a motorist parks in a bike lane, or drives in a bike lane, the whole culture-training exercise falls apart and we're left to improvise again.

Now having said that, let me allow the pragmatic side of my mouth to take over and say that bike lanes are better than no bike lanes--however equivocated and frail the bike space is with a bike lane, it's almost always a better cycling experience than the roadway without that bike lane. And the bicycling public is very supportive of bike lanes; certainly our members think bike lanes are important and they want more of them, more continuous bike lane routes across town--our latest member survey showed this again, and the Report Card of Bicycling in SF showed strong support for bike lanes among SF cyclists generally.

So yes, let's keep striping bike lanes and building out a network of bike lanes, as well as educating and enforcing and encouraging. And let's push for and implement separated bikeways and bike boulevards ad car-free roadway at the same time.

One last thought on the "facilities" topic: With the growing use of the shared-lane "sharrow", we're living with the odd child of the Vehicularists (bikes "drive" like motor traffic, no need for special bike lanes or paths) and the Facilitators (bikes get their own lanes and paths and signals and signs) here in San Francisco. Developed as a pavement marking symbol here (with inspirational precedents from elsewhere), the sharrow is intended to be used as an indicator of bicycle routing where a conventional bike lane would not fit (for physical or political reasons).

The official plan now is to lay down a string of sharrows on every street in the official Bicycle Route Network which doesn't already have bike lanes or is expected to have bike lanes striped in the next few years, which is wonderful to the extent that the dotted lines on the map become dotted lines on the ground, and the bike route network gets a little less hypothetical. And for those streets where motor traffic is slow and thin, this degree of bike facility is probably adequate, although it does impose a Vehicularist philosophy on the official bicycle circulation system for that part of the network -- take the lane and ride with traffic.

In other applications, such as the downtown 2.5 miles of Market Street, from the Ferry Building to 8th Street, sharrows are really not enough to make a difference for most cyclists in terms of safe, dignified bicycle space, and they're definitely not enough to bring out new cyclists, to get potential cyclists actually riding and using the route. Sharrows are an interesting tool, useful within their limited scope, but we've got to be very careful not to let them be viewed as the ultimate treatment for any roadway where motor traffic is more than a slight menace.

Bike Commute Tips: One of the big successes for the SFBC this year was "Healthy Saturdays," which bans cars from a mile of roadway in Golden Gate Park on Saturdays, as it has been on Sundays for 40 years. Can you talk about the significance of "Healthy Saturdays"? How does this park victory fit into the SFBC's overall strategic vision for a more bicycling friendly city?

Thornley: Healthy Saturdays and the "Healthy Zone" of GG Park roadway on the eastern end of JFK Drive are central to the SFBC's vision of an outstanding city for bicycling for one big reason: This is where bicyclists are born. This is the number one place where San Francisco kids learn to ride a bike, the place they make their first unassisted, no-training-wheels bicycle flights, a nursery for wee cyclists. There are other places in the city where you can teach your child to ride, but the Healthy Zone is the big learn-to-ride space.

Of course it's also important family bicycling space, and non-threatening bike space for grown-ups--a lot of adults I talk with tell me it's the only place in the city where they ride, when they ride with their children. So it's not just a hatchery for fledgling cyclists, it's where many adults do their riding, and of course we know that some of those cycling adults get to a comfort level where they leave the park and ride on the streets. So it's a bicycling incubator for all ages.

We have had some members and other cyclists express skepticism that the Healthy Saturdays campaign serves the SFBC's mission, or that the campaign is too expensive in terms of the SFBC's resources or political capital. No doubt there is a limit to how much time and energy we can and should spend on any campaign, and given the fierce opposition the Healthy Saturdays idea received from some quarters, we were burning a significant amount of energy on the campaign over the past few years. But if this city is ever going to make serious, meaningful movement on rebalancing its public realm away from automobile dominance and toward humanity and civility, we've got to be able to chase cars off a mile or so of park roadway on at least two days of the week.

Bike Commute Tips: Can I ask you the "carrot-stick" question? How far can we use encouragement (carrots) to make SF more like Amsterdam, and how much will we need to actively discourage motoring (sticks)? Could we reach a point where no amount of encouragement (more bike lanes, more bike racks, more transit access, etc.) will attract additional bicyclists? What is your perspective on the strategic need to diminish the relative appeal of driving to improve the relative appeal of bicycling and other alternative modes?

Thornley: I think the two prongs of that question are connected closely--many of the bicycling encouragement techniques we're pursuing will require "taking something away" from motorists, whether roadway space, parking space, or unhindered access to a given street or set of streets. Imagine how encouraging it will be to bike traffic when we restrict private auto access on Market Street!

Perhaps rather than characterizing the "discouragement" dimension as the stick, something with a direct impact, we might look to the experience of public policy and programs to discourage tobacco smoking--we won't ask you to give up your car, there will simply be fewer and fewer places in SF where you can drive freely and park freely (or cheaply). The public health, public safety, and public works costs of private auto trips must be reflected better in how right of way is allocated and priced, through congestion pricing and other use fees, and parking management and pricing. Private auto trips inside SF must be priced fairly, relative to the costs associated with them, not as a punitive thing but just on simple economics -- the massive subsidies we give motorists in free/cheap parking, free roadway access, and dislocated responsibility for public safety and public health, must be reckoned with and reconciled and reformed.

But politically it's still a hot potato to even mention, let alone act on, rebalancing the public realm away from private motor vehicle dominance. The city has a master plan for bicycling. which was adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors and Mayor two years ago but badly underfunded and starved for resources, then things got worse when a couple of cranks sued the city over the bike plan on the basis of its environmental review; the city lost the lawsuit and since last June there's been an injunction forbidding the city from implementing any physical improvements for bicycles until a full EIR is prepared and certified and the bike plan is re-adopted.

Even though this lawsuit and injunction are based on procedural nits, the idea that environmental regulation could hold up a plan to make SF a better city for bicycling is outrageous. And the essence of the environmental obstacle is that re-allocating roadway space to bicycles and pedestrians and transit might slow cars down and cause congestion, which is considered to be an environmental impact. Preposterous, and yet we're wrestling with it right now.

Bike Commute Tips: What are the remaining challenges in San Francisco you would most like to see improved in the next decade? Based on your experience as a bicyclist and advocate, how optimistic are you that these challenges will be resolved?

Thornley: The biggest challenge continues to be the car-centric perspective within the "system" -- even in green and groovy SF, despite clearly-declared policy in the city charter (the Transit First Policy) and a hundred subsidiary policies and resolutions and initiatives, we're still very much stuck in the "move more cars faster" mentality of 50 years ago, humanity and civility be damned.

So how do we get un-stuck? Elect True Green leaders, don't put up with press release politics. Join the SFBC. Speak up at City Hall hearings. Bring your bike inside when you shop. Learn your rights and responsibilities. Expect more, demand more, speak up, speak out. Ride daily, celebrate monthly!

Additional Bike Commuting Tips 10th Anniversary Interviews:

Maggie Robbins: Globalist on a bike
Josh Switzky: Cycling planner
John Holtzclaw: Cycling Environmentalist
Dave Snyder: Visionary Velorutionary
Anna Sojourner: The city on two wheels
Image: vs. Goliath (David Gartner)
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

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