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Friday, March 22, 2013

Cars vs. Bikes: The Battle for Polk Street

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 7:45 AM


If you have both a car and a vested interest in actually being able to park it somewhere, it's possible you're feeling a little put upon these days.

Indeed, such that San Francisco's War on Cars exists (and don't worry, it doesn't), the last week has seen major developments on three of its fronts.

The onslaught began at Market and Dolores. By approval of the Planning Commission late last week, that intersection is soon to be "bulbed-out." That means more sidewalk, more greenery, more walkable, sittable, and hang-outable plaza space where multimodal urbanites can lock up their bikes, tie up their dogs, and munch on their kale chips outside the Whole Foods which will soon occupy that corner.

That also means -- you guessed it-- one less lane to drive in on either side of the street.

Just down the hill, the battle continues. Earlier this week, the SFMTA published its latest attempt to bring some order to the chronically unparkable and double-parker-plagued Northeast Mission, just in time for the construction of a new park -- and the removal of an old parking lot. The upshot of the proposal (being debated at John O'Connell High School as I write this): introduce meters and residential parking permits and encourage people to get to-and-from the Mission by other transportation means.

But to witness what is being decried as the most wanton assault upon citywide car-dom, turn to Polk Street.

This is where the SFMTA has proposed a series of possible design plans to make that commercial corridor more friendly for pedestrians, bikes, and buses.

Put another way, this is the most brazen manifestation of "the radical agenda of the SFMTA" which, in cahoots with the Bicycle Coalition, is plotting to remove 20 blocks of curbside parking from a street that is economically dependent on curbside parking.

That's the characterization of the plan according to the Save Polk Street Coalition, a pro-parking alliance of merchants and residents from around the neighborhood. Members of the coalition turned out en masse last Monday at a community meeting to register their displeasure.

And it was registered. In the aftermath of that meeting, it has since been reported that the SFMTA is (ahem) backpedalling on the entire proposal.

So what, it might be worthwhile to ask, was so objectionable about the SFMTA's pitch in the first place?

Last December, the agency published four possible design concepts to be considered separately over four sections of the street. These suggested scenarios ran the gamut from the cyclist's full monty (totally separated bike lanes dashed in glorious green from Civic Center to the crest of Russian Hill with plenty of bike corrals and parklets along the way) to something a bit more scaled back.

What is impossible to argue is that each of the scenarios would have constituted a significant improvement for those getting around that neighborhood on two wheels or two feet. The certain aesthetic improvements aside, any of the proposed design changes would have reduced the rate of pedestrian and cyclist traffic collisions on that street (about two per month, combined, between 2006 and 2011).

But what is also impossible to argue is that SFMTA's idea of an improved Polk Street is a Polk Street with fewer parked cars hugging the curb. In every scenario envisioned, street parking is significantly curtailed (though, it's worth pointing at, never completely purged).

What that would mean, the folks from the Coalition insist, is certain economic doom for the neighborhood. "We welcome customers to the area regardless of how they arrive but know that many people come by car," says the group's website. And the ease with which a would-be customer can park in front of a particular restaurant or grocery store is, they argue, a deciding factor in whether that customer decides to go there.

No doubt, there are certain circumstances when this is true. Consider this comment left on the Coalition's website: "How would I carry dog food if I cannot park near the Pet store[?] How about carrying groceries[?]...Not to mention my senior friends who will be inconvenienced and limited."

Fair enough. Though I perform most of my commuting, errand-running, and all-purpose getting about town upon a bike, not everyone is in the position to do the same -- even if they wanted to. And though I don't have a car, I do recognize that the elimination of parking spaces (in this case, up to 17 percent of all of the parking in the area being considered within a block on either side of Polk) is not cost-free.

But likewise, the SFMTA's improvement plan is not totally devoid of economic benefit.

And yet, as reported in the Examiner on Wednesday evening: "[The Bicycle Coalition] maintains that these improvements, such as dedicated bike lanes, would boost business. That idea was laughed at during the meeting."

That response is puzzling for a number of reasons. For one, it has been shown over and over and over and over again, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that increasing bike traffic in a neighborhood can be a boon for local businesses.

But beyond the issue of the bike lanes, the SFMTA plan also proposes the extension of sidewalks, the expansion of intersections, and the addition of parklets and bike corrals and plenty of boxed greenery. Is it really so laughably absurd to suggest that converting what is now an unsafe, narrow-sidewalked shopping street into an open, accessible, green corridor might be good for business? Even if that means that some of the driving customers will have to walk the rest of the way from Clay?

At the very least, this seems like a legitimate debate. Hardly something, that is, worth going to war over.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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