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Mean People's Court 

On many fronts, the spiteful are doing harmful things that you should know about

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
If bumper stickers had subheads — newspaper jargon for the teaser sentences that dangle below headlines — then "Mean People Suck" would be followed by, "And watch out because they seem to pop up everywhere trying to screw up people's lives."

To wit:

An S.F. cyclist-hater just succeeded in halting citywide bike lane construction with a lawsuit that rests on this absurd claim: replacing car commuters with bike commuters may harm the environment.

Meanwhile, a different group of mean people who wish to transform the Sierra Club into an anti-Mexican-immigration lobby also won a recent court ruling boosting their noxious cause.

And the mean-spirited Service Employees International Union this month has apparently renewed its efforts to limit the legal rights of the infirm, the elderly, and the mentally disabled who reside in nursing homes, as part of a lobbying deal with private, for-profit nursing homes.

The definition of meanness can change depending on who's watching, of course. Transit priorities, immigration, and tort reform are, after all, legitimate topics for public debate.

So here's a handy guide for determining whether someone's truly nasty, or just misguided. Mean people tend to hide their true motives. They're big fans of taking away rights from people who are already disadvantaged. And if their narrow agendas prevail, these people will make life worse — not just for their perceived opponents, but for everyone else as well.

I'm tempted to name the callous anti-bike zealot whose petty lawsuit hit pay dirt earlier this month by halting all San Francisco bike lane construction. But I won't, because San Francisco is the kind of town where nastiness and notoriety combine to bolster dreams of political grandeur.

In that spirit, this guy is a busy attention-seeker. He ran in 2004 to represent District 5 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Nobody seemed to want what he was selling, however: He placed 18th. Since then he has maintained a blog inveighing against perceived enemies, with bicycle commuters residing near the top. Judging from the number of people commenting on his extended blog posts — mostly zero — he's one of those lonely yet harmless people who pass their time muttering about personal antipathies without actually hurting anyone.

The bike-hater changed that, however, with a recent lawsuit filed on the grounds that a citywide plan to connect various segments of bike lanes violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

The argument goes something like this: Any time traffic planners remove car lanes or parking spaces to make way for bike lanes, motorists end up having to spend more time in traffic. So the cars spew more smog. So bike lanes hurt the environment.

However, the idea behind bike lane networks in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Sacramento — and in Münster, Germany, and elsewhere — is that making bicycle commuting safer with bike lanes, at the expense of space for cars, helps people drive less. Less driving eases traffic congestion. So there's less pollution. Bikes take up less transit space and parking space than cars, meaning there's less need for plant-smothering asphalt. And because car-free living is more compact in this way, it allows cities and suburbs to grow without as much Mother Nature-destroying sprawl.

But California environmental review guidelines assume incorrectly that the vast majority of people are always going to get where they are going by car, no matter what. Anything that impedes motorists' forward movement or access to parking spaces, this logic says, is environmentally harmful.

The anti-cyclist gadfly falsely told a reporter for the Chronicle that his lawsuit was merely aimed at making sure city officials followed all the proper bureaucratic processes, and that he had nothing against bicycling per se. Judging from his numerous Internet postings on the issue, he wasn't being truthful to the reporter.

He says he believes bicycle commuting is not a legitimate transportation mode. It's an irresponsible activity. It's merely a "lifestyle statement." Encouraging cycling by painting bike lanes is "wrongheaded, PC nonsense that, for utopian political reasons, has the city's progressive elite in its thrall."

I'm not sure he interviewed bike riders to determine that cyclists aren't engaged in a serious transportation mode. Personally, I would have told him that it takes me 11 minutes to get from my office to the Mission, a trip that takes 45 minutes by bus. I would have told him it costs our company thousands of dollars per year to pay for employee car parking, and nothing to park bicycles.

The mayors of cities such as Sacramento and New York, and all over the world, meanwhile, have implemented policies based on the belief that when it's safer and more convenient to commute by bike, more people do it.

That's because people tend to take car trips when they believe motoring is most convenient, and they move around in other ways when they don't. That's why San Francisco's car-unfriendly, transit-rich Financial District is not constantly frozen in automobile gridlock. And this is why painting bike lanes on Valencia Street resulted in a 144 percent increase in bike traffic.

To accommodate the flawed logic behind state environmental review policies, San Francisco now conducts an individual environmental impact study whenever they do a bicycle-oriented traffic improvement such as painting a bike lane. Each one of these studies seeks to prove that the improvement doesn't harm Mother Earth. But it so happens the city Department of Parking and Traffic didn't do a complete environmental review for the overall city plan for city bike lanes, which would have cost around $250,000.

Instead, the department has been operating under what's called a "common sense exception" to the Environmental Quality Act's review requirements.

The attention-hungry man filed the anti-bicyclist lawsuit he falsely claims is motivated by a concern about bureaucratic process. And a Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month, saying San Francisco is barred from installing "any signs, pavement markings, or making any other change to any street, traffic signal, building, sidewalk, or other land use or other physical feature in San Francisco to implement the plan or any part of it."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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