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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Progress (temporarily) blocked in San Francisco

Image of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition protest at City Hall
From the Wall Street Journal, 08.20.08:

San Francisco Ponders: Could Bike Lanes Cause Pollution?
City Backpedals on a Cycling Plan After Mr. Anderson Goes to Court

New York is wooing cyclists with chartreuse bike lanes. Chicago is spending nearly $1 million for double-decker bicycle parking.

San Francisco can't even install new bike racks.

Blame Rob Anderson. At a time when most other cities are encouraging biking as green transport, the 65-year-old local gadfly has stymied cycling-support efforts here by arguing that urban bicycle boosting could actually be bad for the environment. That's put the brakes on everything from new bike lanes to bike racks while the city works on an environmental-impact report.

Cyclists say the irony is killing them--literally. At least four bikers have died and hundreds more have been injured in San Francisco since mid-2006, when Mr. Anderson helped convince a judge to halt implementation of a massive pro-bike plan.(It's unclear whether the plan's execution could have prevented the accidents.) In the past year, bike advocates have demonstrated outside City Hall, pushed the city to challenge the plan's freeze in court and proposed putting the whole mess to local voters. Nothing worked.

"We're the ones keeping emissions from the air!" shouted Leah Shahum, executive director of the 10,000-strong San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, at a July 21 protest.

Mr. Anderson disagrees. Cars always will vastly outnumber bikes, he reasons, so allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more traffic jams, more idling and more pollution. Mr. Anderson says the city has been blinded by political correctness. It's an "attempt by the anti-car fanatics to screw up our traffic on behalf of the bicycle fantasy," he wrote in his blog this month.

Mr. Anderson's fight underscores the tensions that can circulate as urban cycling, bolstered by environmental awareness and high gasoline prices, takes off across the U.S. New York City, where the number of commuter cyclists is estimated to have jumped 77% between 2000 and 2007, is adding new bike lanes despite some motorist backlash. Chicago recently elected to kick cars off stretches of big roads on two Sundays this year.(Read more.)
Interesting article in an important national media outlet. As we marketing professionals say, any coverage is good coverage, even if it's not entirely favorable. It's always better to be noticed than ignored.

I might have preferred to see more from Leah Shahum--who is intelligent, responsible, and leads a 10,000-member organization--rather than Rob Anderson, who is, as described in the article, a wingnut. But the writer did a good job portraying him as a lonely eccentric, and the article illustrates a real problem of our polity when such iconoclasts can derail sensible public policies.

The article and associated video also spends too much time with Critical Mass, which really has little relation with Anderson's lawsuit. An undeniably high-visibility event, Critical Mass as a once-monthly protest/celebration is far less significant in San Francisco politics than the everyday advocacy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has been truly effective at gaining significant bicycling enhancements. However, Critical Mass is an attractive subject for biased reporters seeking to malign bicyclists. The traffic impact of Critical Mass is minimal--generally causing only a few minutes delay to any individual motorist--compared to the delays routinely caused by the automotive "Critical Mass" each and every day.

Anderson's argument is, of course, ridiculous. Essentially, he's saying that narrow streets cause air pollution from vehicles stuck in traffic idling. Sooo, we should bulldoze some buildings and widen streets, Mr. Anderson? Sorry, been there, done that. And all we got was even more vehicle traffic. This case should have been tossed immediately, if not for the city's inept and sloppy defense of the bicycle plan.

The temporary delay has for the moment prevented any on-street improvements in San Francisco. But as Leah Shahum indicated at the Car Free Cities Conference in Portland, important planning and preparation work for bicycle infrastructure has continued at the city's transportation agency, and many projects will be ready for rapid implementation once the stay is lifted. And the SFBC's cultural efforts have continued: Bike to Work Day was a huge success this year, and the coalition's membership continues to surge.

Image: Rhonda Winter/San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Visit: Rob Anderson says I ride because of political motivations, Cyclelicious
Visit: Biking, walking gain in San Francisco, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Warm Planet Bikes opens in S.F., Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


clark said...

"It's an 'attempt by the anti-car fanatics to screw up our traffic on behalf of the bicycle fantasy,' he wrote in his blog this month."
riiiiight. the perpetuation of fossil fuel use is the fantasy. what a load of crap.

Dan said...

This iconoclast, as you well put it, has driven me up the wall, I don't think there's any other person who has sent me into such internal rage. What can we really do? This is an utter tragedy. It's pathetic that the best we can do is sit back and wait it out.
Happy to see this reported in the WSJ though, good national exposure.


Anonymous said...

We deserve better.

But nothing is more political than the one-sided perspective created by the power of the Big 3/SUV-Highway Contractors-Advertising-DOT-DOE entities. This story is a perfect example of what happens when the public debate remains skewed for decades. Only then do the rebels get the publicity. Cyclists are often characterized as rebels, even by other cyclists.

Jerks can be found on sidewalks, in cars, and on bikes too.

Rob Anderson said...

I'm a "wingnut," even though you're the one who does a blog about nothing but bicycles? Of course you'd like to hear more from Shahum. A single critic of you bike zealots in San Francisco drives poor Dan into an "internal rage"? (As opposed to an external rage?) Dan should take this up with his therapist. It's an "utter tragedy" that the city and the bike people have to obey the same laws as everyone else? This is what happens when you folks talk only to each other; you go into shock when someone expresses a different view.

You pooh-pooh the effect Critical Mass has on traffic, as if thousands of people riding through the streets for several hours isn't a nuisance for people. The relationship between "significant bicycling enhancements" and Critical Mass is murky, to say the least. Why don't you do it on Saturday then? Because you are in fact zealots and jerks.

No, Paul, we don't have to widen any of our streets to accommodate bikes; we just won't put bike lanes on streets where they don't belong.

You show a typical ignorance of the litigation. The city lost because of "the city's inept and sloppy defense of the bicycle plan"? Wrong! Rather, the poor City Attorney was handed an obviously losing case from the start. CEQA clearly requires at least a preliminary environmental review of any project that might possibly have a negative effect on the environment. The city did no study at all. It was an easy case for the judge to decide: no environmental study at all? Go back and do one before you implement the 500-page Bicycle Plan.

Paul Dorn said...

@ Rob Anderson
A couple clarifications. The logic of your argument is that narrow streets cause traffic congestion which means increased pollution. By this logic, we should do more Western Addition/Geary Corridor type urban renewal, demolishing buildings to widen roads (with or without bike lanes) blighting neighborhoods with boulevards to facilitate vehicle traffic. No thanks.

If you total all the traffic delays in San Francisco over an entire year, the impact of the ephemeral monthly Critical Mass rides is neglible. I'll stand on that point. Motorists cause critical mass congestion, each and every day.

Anonymous said...

What a bizarre thing to make a such a stand for. Cyclists? Really? As a commuting cyclist, I do get annoyed by other cyclists who blast through intersections and do other extremely rude things, but we have more problems than this, don't we?

Besides, if Anderson's vendetta against bikes is based on him being fed up with rude cyclists, is preventing the expansion of bike lanes, and, in tandem making it harder for cars and bikes to coexist going to solve those problems? The logic here is pathetic.

I for one cannot afford to drive to work, and Muni gets me to work late too often to be an acceptable alternative, so I ride. Why should I be forced to ride on dangerous streets? The needs of a cyclist are minor but fundamentally different than a car...and not too hard to address.

Anderson makes me feel embarrassed to be from San Francisco. We have such a modern and progressive city that is being held up by one man's unbalanced vendetta--even the psychos have a voice in this town obsessed with political correctness.

Kevin Love said...

Interesting to see Rob Anderson's comment here.

Of course, he doesn't do anything for his case in his very first sentence by attacking people who blog on their interests. Does he really think that anyone who sets up a blog on "nothing but" something that interests them is a "wingnut"?

As one of my fellow Torontonians said (anyone know the source for this quote?):

"Toronto has a great cycling infrastructure. Now the only thing we have to do is get all of the cars off of it."

Unknown said...

I hate SUVs, but I hate Critical Mass more. Growing up in the city, I foresaw a future with interconnected bike lanes that would get us everywhere we wanted to go. But I have sworn that I will NOT advocate for, or back in any way, any pro-bike laws or legislation until 10 years after the last Critical Mass ride. I know this will hurt some good people, but I'm fed up with the niggers of all colors that participate in that event.