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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Josh Switzky: Cycling planner

Image of San Francisco Critical MassJoshua Switzky is a city planner and urban designer working in the City Design section of the Citywide Policy (Long-Range Planning) division of the San Francisco Planning Department. Born and raised in the suburban San Fernando Valley, Switzky graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in business/marketing and moved to San Francisco in 1996 intending to be the marketer and ad guru for environmental groups and nonprofits. He was living car-free, relying on transit. He didn't have a bike. That soon changed. He became active with Critical Mass and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and it was about this time that we encountered each other and became friends. He has also served on the boards of directors of Livable City and Walk San Francisco. Switzky put his great intelligence and passion for sustainable transportation to work for the Congress for the New Urbanism, and would later earn a scholarship to the graduate city planning program at MIT, exploring the interface of city design and transportation. For the past five years Switzky has been at the city Planning Department.

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 Switzky 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?

Josh Switzky: The number of people cycling around the city for transportation has visibly skyrocketed in the past 10 years, and the amount of infrastructure has increased steadily--though there is still a long, long way to go. Almost none of the bikes lanes that are on the streets now were there when I started cycling in the city 10 years ago. I think I was San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) member number 1,100 or something like that, and now they have over 6,000 members.

Bicycling is also firmly entrenched in the political and bureaucratic consciousness now, and it certainly was not 10 years ago. There was barely one bicycle planner then, and it seemed cycling was anathema to the political, planning and engineering establishment. I think the tipping point in San Francisco was really the pressure of Critical Mass. It’s unquestionable that the City would not be where it is today without that upwelling that got everyone’s attention. Without CM, the SFBC wouldn’t have had the spotlight and platform. It’s the necessary yin and yang of social change. CM certainly wouldn’t have caused lasting and real change without the SFBC providing the articulated, level-headed, informed policy vision.

In the professional world, I think there is definitely a sea change happening in terms of the profession and the bureaucracy independent of the advocacy and political world. There’s a whole new generation of planners and engineers who understand and are sensitive to multi-modal planning, environmental issues, and are more worldly and well-traveled. The old generation is giving way, through both retirement and osmosis from the surge of younger planners.

I think the increases in cyclists in SF has led the increase in infrastructure and accommodation. We’re reaching the stage where without more infrastructure, the number of cyclists will plateau. SF has a high population of young, creative, non-conformist, highly-educated, progressive, worldly, and health-conscious people. I think this is definitely a benefit, which possibly gives it an edge over other cities, but I think that can only get you so far without really making the necessary infrastructure investments and tough policy decisions.

Bike Commute Tips: You spent time in graduate school in Boston/Cambridge. How would you compare Boston and San Francisco in terms of bicycling?

Switzky: Physically and demographically, Boston and SF are very similar. They’re the same size, have roughly the same population, very similar built environments, and comparable transit systems. However politically and socially, Boston has maintained a grittier, more conservative, blue-collar and parochial, clan-dominated environment. It certainly embraces transit, but for some reason not cycling. Boston is a huge college town, but the voters are the permanent population.

I moved to Boston fresh from the energy and rising success of the SFBC. The most frustrating thing I found was the cycling advocacy community in Boston. The established advocacy group at the time was pretty milquetoast, populated by polite recreational cyclists and vocally dominated by transportation advocates who were the “vehicular cycling” devotees. These folks shunned CM like the plague and similar in-your-face grassroots organizing, and were often (and shockingly) opposed to bike lanes and similar infrastructure. They would go to their graves insisting that bikes are just like cars and fighting for their rights to share road space with cars and trucks and trying to convince people to just learn the rules of the road, get along, and stop being scared, rather than organizing people to lobby for the creation of safe and attractive facilities for potential cyclists who, for obvious reasons, don’t find the status quo attractive.

It was frustrating and self-defeating, so I gave up on it. There were a couple small scrappy bike groups (e.g. Bikes Not Bombs) with some great people, and a fledgling CM which I tried to inject some energy into, but as a short timer in Boston, I couldn’t invest too much into it.

Bike Commute Tips: I believe on-street infrastructural enhancements (bike lanes, sharrows, etc.) are important to improved bicycling conditions. You've already mentioned the views of other bicyclists who dispute this, arguing cyclists should simply learn--through "street skills" education--to take their rightful place in traffic. What is your view of the importance of street design ("complete streets") for encouraging a better bicycling environment? What's made the difference in SF?

Switzky: I think my previous answer shows my bias. Also, as a city planner and urban designer, I firmly believe that physical environments and infrastructure significantly shape people’s perceptions and the choices they make--and research has routinely documented this. You can’t educate and hand-hold every potential cyclist until they’re comfortable sharing the road with two-ton SUVs and 10-ton trucks and buses. It’s not even a reasonable proposition to ask of people.

Though it's a stereotype, I've found that the vast majority of the "vehicular cyclists" are middle-aged men who ride a lot. People should certainly learn to get comfortable on the road and learn some tips and tricks, but you’ll never reach or teach enough people, and this will only ever be appealing to a slim slice of the population that is already pre-disposed to cycle in traffic for ideological or economic reasons. That’s certainly how I started cycling.

But you can’t build a lasting, growing cycling population on that principle. You won’t get 10 percent of the population, including older people and families, to bike daily on that principle. It shouldn’t be necessary to go through boot camp and fear/confidence training before feeling comfortable riding to the grocery store or the park or to work. Like I said, I think a lot of the late 1990s growth in cycling in SF was a demographic thing, but I think that trend has waned and we’re really starting to see the real payoffs of investing in infrastructural change. People aren’t going to assert their rights to the road if they don’t feel comfortable. Getting about the city shouldn’t be a stressful thing, and no matter how seasoned you are, riding in heavy mixed traffic is not particularly relaxing. The less cycling seems like it takes testosterone and a sense of renegade daring-do, and the more it seems genteel and almost matronly, the more your average person will naturally start cycling.

Bike Commute Tips: You are employed as a planner for the city of San Francisco. What role does planning play in creating a more livable city, and what role does politics play? Where should bicycling activists in San Francisco and elsewhere direct their advocacy: At planning agencies? At public works agencies? At politicians? At all of them?

Switzky: I think politicians definitely. As I said earlier, the agencies are increasingly filled with educated and bike-conscious planners and engineers. They just need to be given license to do the right thing. That comes from political pressure and directive. Agencies generally don’t do what there is not political will to do, even if they know how to do it and know that it’s right. At this point in SF, it’s really the politics that is holding things back. Even more so on transit planning than for cycling I think. The other big obstacle is CEQA – the California Environmental Quality Act. It’s a well-meaning legacy from the 1970s environmentalism that has been turned perversely into a twisted legal tool to stall, add cost, and oppose any bike and other environmentally-friendly development. That’s a whole other saga. But it deserves priority attention from the state environmental community.

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 experiences as a bicyclist, advocate, and planning professional, how optimistic are you that these challenges will be resolved?

Switzky:Besides completing the Bike Network, I’d like us to move past basic on-street bike lanes and really try a more northern-European bike-centric, rather than auto-centric, model of bike facility design. We have to get past the traffic engineering mindset and take a more environmental design-based approach -- street designs including cycle paths, woonerf/home zones (slow-zone shared streets), and the like. I think we have a long way to go in improving the incorporation of cycling with transit here--BART, GG Transit, Muni Metro. I’m tepidly optimistic because we have a very bureaucratic approach to street design and even bike engineering, and just because things are done all over Europe, our risk-averse system won’t try them until they’re blessed by every federal, state and local agency.

Additional Bike Commuting Tips 10th Anniversary Interviews:

Maggie Robbins: Globalist on a bike
John Holtzclaw: Cycling Environmentalist
Dave Snyder: Visionary Velorutionary
Anna Sojourner: The city on two wheels
Image: Stephanie Booth. San Francisco Critical Mass.
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

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