Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Surreal Experience

Since its publication late last year, I have given talks about my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls at a variety of locations, from a circa 1700s mansion to a meeting room in a modern banquet facility, with auditoriums and public halls in between.  My talk and signing in June of this year at the Towne Book Centre and Café in the Providence Town Center near Collegeville, Pennsylvania, however, will always stand out, for its surreal blend of both the medium and the message.

It is only mildly ironic that I would speak of the death of a classic American downtown amidst a modern shopping mall.  I strongly favor independent bookstores, and if a mall location is necessary for one to survive, then so be it.  Thus my complete willingness to appear at the Towne Book Centre and Café.  Besides, I bear shopping malls no professional ill will.  The King of Prussia Mall was the prime suspect during my investigation into What Killed Downtown?,  but my book does not identify it as the cause of downtown Norristown’s death.  It identifies a culprit of even greater dimensions than America’s largest retail shopping center. 

My interest in the Providence Town Center actually begins with its causal factor, the Southeastern Pennsylvania section of U.S. Rt. 422, known locally as “the Pottstown Expressway.”  The highway is itself a subject worthy of a historical case study, but it is the shopping center at its intersection with Pa. Rt. 29 that interests me more. 

The Expressway connects prosperous, bustling King of Prussia with Pottstown Borough to its northwest.  The construction of Rt. 422 was sold to the public for its benefit to the long-distressed borough of Pottstown, with Rt. 422 cast in the role of lifeline.  Of course, connecting anyone or anything to Pottstown was not the road’s true purpose, although that would have been an appreciated side benefit.  This substantial stretch of highway was actually constructed to foster development in what was then still largely rural land west of the then-existing Rt. 422.  The Expressway is a bypass around the traditional route, the westernmost portion of Germantown Pike, which originates in Philadelphia.  By the way, the Expressway does not actually connect to Pottstown itself, but to another limited access highway, the “Pottstown Bypass,” thus allowing Rt. 422 users to ignore Pottstown completely if they wish. 

There is always a web of influence, both financial and political, around selecting the exact path of a road, and there always has been.  The Pottstown Expressway was no exception.  Close to the road’s southern end, for example, it takes a very roundabout—and thus expensive—path to avoid some very old properties, including an estate known as “Fatland” that has been around since colonial times.  Whether this was due to concern for historic preservation or because its owner was Peter J. Camiel, who was chairman of both the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Philadelphia Democratic Party at the time, is officially uncertain.

While how much benefit the new Rt. 422 has been to Pottstown is debatable, there is no question as to its effect on all that undeveloped land along its path.  In the final analysis the new road did what it was intended to do: earn a great deal of money for those businessmen whose good political connections allowed them to purchase land in the right place at the right time, along with those politicians with good business connections.  The actual process was not nearly as simple or its profits as predestined as this short summary would indicate, however.  There was never any question that the quadrants formed by the intersection of Rt. 422 with the existing roads would be prime areas for development.  The devil was in the timing.

The two ends of the road were built first.  They were the bypass around Pottstown itself and a connection with U.S. Rt. 202 that included a high bridge over the Schuylkill River.  Both were completed in 1967.  The 13-mile gap between the two was subject to numerous delays, for a multitude of reasons.  An intermediate section opened in 1978, but the Pottstown Expressway did not open from end to end until 1985.  The total cost of the highway by that time had reached  $102 million.

Some investors had speculated early, but after the exact route of the road was known (not to be confused with “publicly known”) the jockeying for property and financing really began.  The 20-year delay, with intermittent starts and stops, played hell with several of the speculators.  Thus, while the eventual profit from development along the new route was basically guaranteed, the vagaries of the financial and real estate sectors served to enrich some but not others, often according to their timing.

Consider the case of the Providence Town Center.  It occupies the northeast quadrant of Rt. 422’s cloverleaf intersection with Pennsylvania Rt. 29.  The state road is of ancient vintage, and was guaranteed an intersection (upgraded, of course, as a condition of project approval by the local authorities).  The property, however, went through three owners before construction finally began (this is an enormous oversimplification, by the way).  The current owner, Brandolini Properties, began construction in 2008, only to be reminded that while location, location and location is important, timing is, in fact, everything.

A more or less standard mix of national-chain restaurants and retailers aligned along the periphery were the first constructed, and their accessibility and high name recognition helped to counter the economic bad times.  It was a Wegman’s, however, that probably sustained the site.  The company’s blend of supermarket, ethnic buffets and sit-down restaurant proved to be an immediate and consistent hit with people from far and wide.  It occupies the local point of highest visibility along Rt. 422 as you approach from either direction.  The interior of the center languished for some time, however, and it is that interior that drew my attention during my earlier visits (yes, to Wegman’s; I love their cheddar cheese).

What rendered my talk and signing surreal during my most recent visit, however, was that as I stood and spoke, visible to me through the store windows and above the heads of my audience was the now largely open and functioning core of the Providence Town Center.  That core is laid out to evoke the very downtown Main Street shopping experience that shopping malls did so much to destroy.

When you first turn onto Town Center Boulevard off Rt. 29, there is little to indicate that the site is anything other than a variation of the by-now familiar layout of large box stores, restaurants, fitness centers, etc., all surrounded by large parking lots.  Once past these into the center’s interior, things change.   After crossing Broad Street, Town Center Boulevard itself assumes the form of an old downtown street, passing by brick sidewalks, small shops with (diagonal) street parking in front and antiquey street lamps.  Town Center Boulevard terminates as the base of a “T” intersection with Market Street, the thematic climax of this deliberately-designed “downtown” core of an otherwise conventional shopping center.  Dominating the intersection is a MovieTavern, complete with an old-time-evoking marquee alight with movie titles.  The MovieTavern is altogether modern inside, however, taking “dinner and a movie” to a new level.  Patrons can watch a movie while eating their dinner at tables.  Much of its marketing is aimed directly at families.

The remainder of this nostalgia layout rendered in modern colors and materials features small shops fronted by parking spaces along the “downtown” streets.  There is music in the air, but not from street musicians, or even any local music store; it is piped in from hidden speakers.  On a hot summer’s day there was activity out front of the MovieTavern, but not elsewhere on the streets.  People were able to park near to their destination, and spent little time passing between store and car.  As these small locations fill up, the diagonal parking spaces in the core will be insufficient to allow such convenience for all but the fortunate few with the right timing, but not to worry.  Larger, very conventional lots lie all around the site’s core, merging with the much larger stores (and their own sizeable parking lots) along the perimeter.

Providence Town Center is by no means the first such nostalgia-evoking shopping mall, simply the first in an area whose population once traveled to two real downtowns, in Pottstown and Norristown, for its retail and entertainment needs.  The marketing thrust of Providence Town Center is also, in its way, a minuscule version of the oft-recurring American impulse of nostalgia/guilt.  Often that nostalgia is advanced most by those who, while unburdened with guilt over their actions, had a lot to do with creating the conditions for nostalgia in the first place.  The finest example of that impulse is Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  That unsurpassed ode to a vanished American lifestyle was brought into being by the man who may have had more to do with ending that lifestyle than anyone else, Henry Ford.  On a more impersonal level, with an enormously lower budget and a great deal less concern for historical accuracy, shopping malls such as Providence Town Center now attempt to recreate—or at least to evoke—the very shopping experience whose death their predecessors had greatly hastened.  Henry Ford possessed both the money and the longevity to artificially recreate the real thing (period items rather seriously rearranged), and Greenfield Village survives to this day, albeit subsumed into a larger theme park.  One suspects, however, that these new old towns, whose authenticity is no more than plaster deep (and the plaster may actually be plastic) will experience a shorter historical trajectory than did the real old towns.  Families may enjoy both dinner and a movie on a summer’s evening, but will they want to stroll down an ersatz Market Street afterward?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Return of the “Pigeon-Hole Garage”?

By the late 1950s, merchants in the struggling downtown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, had been confronted for over a decade by a problem that still dominates urban centers today: the lack of “conveniently located” space to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles delivering shoppers to their stores.  Then technology seemed to offer a way out of their dilemma, promising to accommodate a large number of cars on a small footprint. An alliance of merchants and local banks, seduced by this near-miraculous solution to what had seemed a physical impossibility, produced the “Pigeon-Hole Garage” (that’s it in the photo to the left, at its 1962 opening).  The technology failed, dealing downtown Norristown both a financial and psychological blow.  Today a new technology has appeared that again promises to “solve” the problem.  It also promises to add fuel to the already white-hot dispute over urban parking garages, and provides me the opportunity to again demonstrate why I choose the title for my blog.

As I recount in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania from Main Street to the Malls, long ago (in the minds of planners, if not historians) and across the continent, the Borough of Norristown was attempting to deal with the two-sided problem brought upon urban grids by the automobile: traffic congestion and parking.  Most attention focused on the parking aspect.  Street parking and a few too-small surface lots were already both clogged and controversial.  The only location with a potentially sufficient footprint for a conventional parking garage of the necessary size lay at the already decaying west end of downtown Main Street.   An extreme form of parochialism among both Norristown’s merchants and its elected representatives ensured that such a solution never really entered the public discourse.  Thus, when a proposal for a parking garage requiring only a footprint that could be accommodated on a small lot in the center of downtown appeared, it seized the imagination of virtually everyone.  The new technology required the driver to only park on a lift; after all occupants had exited, the mechanism would raise the automobile and insert it into a space just large enough for the vehicle itself (hence the term “pigeon-hole”), then extract and lower it upon the driver’s return.  

While questions exist about the firms engaged to build and operate the machinery, it is clear that the banks and businessmen of Norristown placed their bet on a technological dead end. The “Pigeon-Hole Garage” was not just a failure; it was a debacle for Norristown.  The technology did not exactly take America’s urban centers by storm, either.  The concept did not die, of course, and has been reborn in the form of “stacked parking,” which invests a great deal less in the structure itself, and can be found today adding marginally to some parking lots in large cities.

History does not repeat itself, but broad patterns of behavior certainly do, and the new technology at issue promises another replay of an oft-repeated sequence.  The overall technology is generally referred to as the “driverless car,” and has become a frequent subject in a variety of articles, columns and blogs.  A first step—moving vehicles “communicating” with each other to prevent rear-end collisions—is on the horizon.  A potential early step in the direction of the “driverless car” could be the adoption of “autonomous parking,” one of the many examples of ongoing research into aspects of the broader concept.  Letting our cars park themselves could, as a recent article in The Economist suggests, ease our acceptance of letting them drive themselves.  Be that as it may, the technology of autonomous parking alone suggests myriad possibilities for the next generation of disputes over automobiles and the urban grid.  It could also result in the reappearance of the “pigeon-hole” concept on a much larger scale.

 Experiments currently under way by the Volvo company promise to give a car the ability to park itself, not just in the partial way already available on some, but from the garage’s entrance up the (still necessary) ramps, into a very tight space, then out again and back down to the driver, all made possible by the interactive wireless transmission of huge amounts of data.  The enticement is obvious: absent the need to open the car doors for people, each parking space can be smaller, and smaller parking spaces means more spaces per square foot of garage.  Parking garages would still need ramps, but they could be narrowed and tightened, thus adding to space available to shoehorn more cars in (theoretically) complete safety to both panel and finish.

Given the top-level corporate interest, the amount of money already invested and the determination of these and future players to fulfill the promise (and reap the profits) of this new technology, the debacle of the original attempt to “pigeon-hole” parked cars is not likely to be repeated.  This almost-certain future has enormous ramifications, not just for the automobile industry, but also for parking operators, urban planners and entire cities.

As the technology becomes prevalent, we can expect familiar historical patterns to recur.  Some advocates will see in autonomous parking the “solution” to downtown parking woes, and thus promote it loudly, to sympathetic (and deep-pocketed) interest groups.  At the other end of the spectrum, some will oppose it as only exacerbating the other side of the urban grid/automobile conundrum—traffic congestion, or just for extending the historical dominance of the automobile in the U.S.  Some in “the middle” may embrace it as a compromise, shrinking the footprint of parking in urban areas, perhaps without even reducing the total number of spaces available (a true siren song, that magical solution that would “benefit” everyone).  The variations on these basic, oft-repeating responses will be both wide spread and numerous.  They will be offered by those ostensibly well-qualified to offer an opinion (which I certainly am not), but even if you become involved in the details of any of these possibilities, this historian urges you all to, somewhere in a corner of your mind, remember that “the more things change…”

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Polk Street: On Corridors and Community

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers several definitions for  “corridor.”  While some are metaphorical (“the corridors of power”), the physical emphasis is on a travelled path, such as “a usually narrow passageway or route.”  The implication of the physical definition is that a “corridor” is something you employ to get from here to there.  Consequently, you give little attention to or thought about what you are passing while you are using a corridor.  And when you are not, such thought as you give to it is limited to issues that might affect your use of it to get from here to there.

It is with some trepidation that I describe Polk Street as a significant north-south corridor, as it lies one block east of and parallels Van Ness Avenue (U.S. 101), which is San Francisco’s principal north-south corridor.  While Polk Street is definitely the road less traveled by, it remains a corridor, for several forms of transportation.  The volume and mixture of its traffic require close attention from those navigating it; even brief glimpses of the scenery to either side carry great risk.  And that is a shame really, for a journey along Polk Street can be much more than just the act of getting somewhere else; it is a trip through the highs and lows of San Francisco, both in geography and community.

I believe that now, during a temporary pause while MUNI collates the information from its “open houses,” is a time to reflect on Polk Street not just in the context of gain or loss for one’s particular cause, but on the more significant issue of how an improved Polk Street might make for an improved community through which it passes.  The key to that, in turn, lies in not thinking of Polk Street solely as a “corridor.”

The overwhelming focus of attention so far in the continuing saga of Polk Street has been on the narrow section, above Post Street.  It is by far the longer stretch, the players are more numerous and the stakes are certainly higher.  Small businesses line the narrow section for block after block.  Those using Polk Street to reach them, from semis to bicycles, must “share” a common lane in each direction along this stretch, a condition that pleases no one.  The fundamental struggle between expediting traffic and providing parking is most starkly displayed here, with bicycles an additional—and welcome--component in the mix.

The community that deserves attention, however, lies at the lower section of Polk Street.  It begins at Post Street, precisely the point that Polk Street widens.  It is a shorter stretch, extending south just to Turk Street; below that are the large, new Civic Center buildings that house only elements of city government, and then only during the day.  

Polk’s wider width on this lower stretch cushions it from the sharpest edges of the disputes that rage about the stretch above, although not the disputes themselves.  There are also fewer businesses here. The representatives of Save Polk Street that I spoke with knew of no businesses south of Post that were members, despite the fact that lower Polk contains virtually the only automobile-oriented businesses south of Union Street; stores for auto parts, shops for auto repair and motor courts, each with its own small parking lot.  Save Polk Street has nonetheless taken a position in favor of the “safety changes only” option for this section, as it has for the narrow section to the north.  This is to be expected, and expected equally is its continued focus on Polk’s narrower, longer and thus “more important” segment to the north.   The bicycle coalition will also focus its efforts above Post Street, for equally good reasons.

The combination of a wider street and far fewer merchants has made the lower section almost an afterthought to those with a particular cause to support.  This is unfortunate, for the intersection of Polk and Post Streets is a border in rather more ways than just that of street width.  If your travel is southbound on Polk Street, the up and downs you have traversed from Union Street to this point are substantial, but they are only geographic.  The adjoining community differentiates largely in the level of affluence.  As you descend from the western ridge of Nob Hill, however, you are entering “Polk Gulch,” a name now considered very politically incorrect among the neighborhood boosters, who prefer “Polk Village.”  Gulch does have a purely geographic origin, but it remains reflective of the descent in income and class a southward journey quickly demonstrates.

The border between affluence and want is an abrupt one, but no more so than is common in any large city.  The first clue comes between Sutter and Post: an awning that proclaims “Check Cashing, ” with a smaller sign below advertising “Payday Loans.” Another such establishment appears just below Post.   There are no such signs on the higher elevations.  But now you have entered the Tenderloin District, technically its western boundary.  If you had any doubts, the street people hanging out at the corner convenience store quickly eliminate them.  The structures that abut the sidewalk begin to signal the change later, as the small shops that characterize upper and middle Polk Street begin to disappear, further accenting the difference from the heights of Russian and Nob Hills.  But much more than the buildings and their inhabitants have changed.  The difference between Good Vibrations up the hill and Frenchy’s Adult Superstore below Post is as much one of attitude as altitude.

Even what remains the same is different.  People sitting along the sidewalk enjoying the sun and conversation are a common sight all along Polk Street.  On upper Polk, they are sitting in chairs next to little tables while eating dainty creations and sipping coffee.  Below Post Street, they are sitting in wheel chairs or just front stoops, and sipping from bags and bottles.  Those in the cafes above may have arrived by car or bike as well as by properly-shod foot, but down here they are the urban poor, mostly elderly, and the only wheels involved in getting them here are the ones on their chairs.

A similar theme is seen in the food outlets.  Food along Polk is ethnically diverse, with a great many locations that are tasty and healthful, plus a few that are famous (see Oyster Depot, Swan).  There are no national brand fast food franchises on Upper Polk.  The first—Subway—makes its appearance at Sutter.  Then, at Eddy there are two, KFC and Taco Bell.  Actually they are one: one building, one entrance, one counter, but two menus.  Neither has any provision for parking, nor any apparent need.  Their customers (with the exception of truck drivers on lunch break) all walk, most from the Tenderloin District to the east.  The chicken is lousy, even for KFC.

Even the buses avoid lower Polk.  The southbound Route 19 bus turns east on Eddy, to turn south again on Hyde, while the northbound 19 does not even turn onto Polk Street until Geary, having come up Larkin.  There are more customers on those streets than on lower Polk.

Muni’s options for this lower stretch derive from the wider width available, but they also suggest that while Polk Street may be a corridor, very few vehicles of any sort travel its full length, particularly to or from its southern edge.  One of Muni’s options put to the public was to divert northbound traffic off of Polk Street entirely for the first few blocks.  This hardly suggests high vehicle usage.  It does not require statistics to conclude that most of those who travel Polk Street turn onto and off of it at some point, headed in other directions.

Thus, while Polk Street is a transportation corridor, it tends to be a partial one, allowing it to nourish its neighbors along the way.  Except, it seems, those unfortunate enough to live in the Tenderloin; they can’t even benefit from the scrutiny that controversy would bring.

Upon the conclusion of whatever work the final project actually undertakes, Polk Street will continue to be a transportation corridor, and a safer one.  While we will all likely applaud the result (some more than others perhaps), those who focus solely on the street and its traffic will miss a much more important point:  the true significance of streets, roads, or any other form of transportation corridor derives from what they do for the people and communities they touch.  Some understand this more than others, in their own way.  The merchants behind Save Polk Street fear that making Polk Street easier to travel will make it harder to stop, particularly in front of their stores.  As I stated in my previous post, this fear should not be airily dismissed.  At a very personal level, these merchants realize the importance of people using the street as not just a means of getting somewhere else, but as a means of getting to the people—and thus enriching the community—along the way.  There has been much talk within the bicyclist community about how they should stop and buy at the stores along Polk, to convince merchants that safer cycling will mean more business.  This is to be encouraged, but will a safer corridor encourage its users, pedestrians as well as bicyclists, to stop and buy at the stores on lower Polk also?  While I don’t expect bicyclists to greatly increase the business at KFC/Taco Bell, there are several other stores and shops that do deserve a boost.  This can only benefit a community that could use the help.

When all is said and done, it is the community, not the corridor, that should matter the most.  Regardless of how you get there.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Parking vs. Bicyclists on Polk Street

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA, or “Muni”) unveiled its latest thinking on the contentious issue of traffic vs. parking on Polk Street in two “Open Houses,” April 27and 30, at the First Congregational Church of Christ at the corner of Polk and Bush Streets.  Neither event was a meeting, and thus lacked drama that greeted Muni’s previous version of its plans.  Discussions took place in small groups or just face to face.  Rhetoric was in abundance, but little true dialogue.  I attended both meetings, my goal being more to comprehend the subject at its different levels, than to examine the technical details.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I frequently shop along Polk Street, and I walk to get there, as I live just a few blocks away.  I also own neither a car nor a bicycle.

The section of Polk Street to be rebuilt spans the 20 blocks between its intersection with Union Street to the north and McAllister Street to the south.  Muni’s most recent offering divides this into two sections, the “narrower width” from Union to Post, and the “wider width” portion from Post to McAllister.  This is in accord with the existing situation, as Polk Street widens from Post Street south.  The current traffic configuration on Polk Street changes at this point also.  South of Post Street bicycles have a dedicated lane for both north and southbound traffic; north of Post they must share the lanes with motor vehicles.

Muni’s latest outreach to the Polk Street community took the form of graphic and textual outlines of three proposals for each of the two sections into which Polk Street has been divided.  Next to each graphic was a large piece of blank paper, and both red and blue magic markers with which visitors were invited to register their comments in a San Francisco-appropriate bold and colorful manner.  They filled up rapidly and had to be replaced often.  A survey asking which alternatives the individual preferred was distributed and collected.  Other displays included a transportation survey which updated some statistics, claiming that 50% of Polk Street shoppers arrive on foot, as compared to 19% on public transit, 16% by car and 6% on bicycles (“other” and “no response” made up the remainder).  These figures differ a little from those previously distributed about the project.

The most recent MUNI proposals follow the standard three-option format of engineer presentations to the unschooled: An option for little (or no) change, one for much change and a compromise middle ground.   Only the sequence of the three options differs between the wider/narrow option presentations.  Greatly oversimplified, the three options for the upper portion are (A) safety improvements only, (B) a designated bike lane only in the northbound direction, and (C) two designated and marked bike lanes, one in each direction.    On the wider (southern) portion of Polk Street, the road width and considerably less traffic has resulted in somewhat different options.  Option (A) would provide a complicated combination of a single bike lane northbound, separated from a parking lane on the center of the roadway, with a bike lane southbound and only one vehicle lane, in the southbound direction. Northbound vehicle traffic (considered very low in in this section) would be rerouted, perhaps to Larkin Street one block to the east, which is one-way northbound.  Option (B) features two “buffered” bike lanes, one in each direction, while option (C) outlines safety improvements only.
There appears to be little controversy over the “wider width” options on southern Polk Street, although rather more over the specific details.  This is largely because the lower section of Polk differs considerably from that above, with fewer retail merchants in stores along the street (I will deal with this difference in a later post).
Along the upper section, however, controversy reigns.  The dispute over this section is—on the surface—yet another replay of the “do you expedite street travel or provide street parking?” dilemma that has plagued urban commercial streets since the advent of the automobile.  The antagonists are even arrayed in the conventional manner: those who travel the street seeking a swifter journey versus local merchants who want to preserve street parking.  Yet there are two fundamental differences here, both of which actually suggest that progress has been made in the priorities of both the public and municipal government.  First, the basic motive for the project is not to either expedite traffic or safeguard parking, but to produce greater personal safety for those using the street, regardless of how.  This shift of safety from a side issue to the driving issue should be welcomed by all, whether walkers, riders or drivers.  Second, and of personal interest to me as a historian, is the fact that the traffic to be expedited at the expense of parking is not that of automobiles, but of bicycles.  Drivers are likely to be inconvenienced regardless of the options selected; curbside parking will probably be reduced and some motor vehicle traffic may even be rerouted off Polk Street itself.  The true “winners” of this dispute will likely be bicyclists.  Assuming that MUNI will not select the “safety improvements only” options on both sections, the question is by how much.  Street parking has thus slid to third place on the priority list.  I consider this a step forward.

Not everyone thinks so.  The proposal spurred the formation of “Save Polk Street,” which claims to represent the local merchants.  The group bitterly opposes the cutting of parking spaces, while verbally supporting the need for increased safety measures.  They were present at both open houses, wearing and selling black T-shirts emblazoned with “Save Polk Street.”  The organized opposition, the “Folks for Polk,” while more diverse, draws its primary support from bicyclists, who lined up their bikes and literature outside the church building.

The merchants’ very verbal opposition to MUNI’s offered options is based solely on the perceived threat to Polk Street businesses that a loss of even some parking spaces would entail.  The current MUNI proposals make their position somewhat more difficult.  For the upper portion of Polk Street, while Option (C) would eliminate 18% of parking spaces “within one block of Polk Street,” both option (A) and Option (B) would eliminate the same number of spaces, now identified as no more than 5%.  Nevertheless, “Save Polk Street” has formally endorsed Option (A) for the “narrow width” section and opposes both (B) and (C), despite the fact that the loss of parking spaces are the same for both options (A) and (B).   Needless to say, they also dispute MUNI’s figures about how people arrive at Polk Street via automobiles as well as the cost in parking spaces of all the options.

A frequently made point among those who oppose vehicle parking in urban areas basically on principle (and I count myself among this group) is that the opposition of local merchants is “irrational,” i.e., not based on actual experience.   They offer several examples to prove their contention.  It is at this point that my bias as a historian comes in, and causes me to distance myself from such arguments.  The point about “irrationality” is valid (although I would prefer “non-rational”), but, if there is one thing that my research in urban history has caused me to give greater weight to—and tolerance for—it is the innate conservatism of small business owners.  The fact that its expression in the admittedly hyperbolic “Save Polk Street” cause is based on emotion rather than data should come as no surprise to anyone.  Even the data can be understood as threatening if viewed through a reasonably sympathetic eye.  Small retail businesses are the urban market economy’s equivalent of peasants, operating so close to the survival margin that even a slight change for the worse might destroy their efforts.  No small business owner on Polk Street would view the possible loss of even 5% of his/her income, let alone 18%, with anything but dread.  Even the logical understanding (by the rest of us, at least) that many of those who currently drive cars are going to come to Polk Street anyway is hardly comforting.  What would be an “acceptable” drop in revenue for a Polk Street business?  And who among us is qualified to make such a judgment?  My final observation on this point is that judging from the business turnover on Polk Street just since I began to walk it, and the current number of empty storefronts, owning a small business on Polk Street is not exactly a license to print money.

In addition to store owners who believe instinctively that they stand to lose and bicyclists who see clearly that they stand to gain, a third group (while I am oversimplifying I might as well go all the way) was also present in some number.  These were local residents, the majority of them well into maturity, and quite a few in the fullness of their years.  They are the pedestrians who frequent Polk Street most often, and the experience has made many of them quite vocal.

  The “open houses” are not a referendum; no vote totals will be taken, and the final decision will be MUNI’s.  It is nonetheless tempting to view the process as a struggle between merchants and bicyclists and speculate on whose side the “undecided,” the local residents, will line up.  From my personal (and highly unscientific) survey, this third group may be largely indifferent to the loss of vehicle parking, but is by no means inclined to support much—if any—gain by bicyclists.  While neither of the two direct antagonists can count on anything more than qualified support from this group, I suspect that most of the neighborhood residents may actually side with the merchants.  The fault for that unfortunate possibility can be laid squarely on the bicyclists themselves, or rather a small minority of them.  At the two open houses at least, the local residents, the voices of experience, tended to express a substantial animus against bicyclists in general, each with personal examples not limited to Polk Street.  The reason is well known: the tendency of some bicyclists to avoid all rules of the street that they possibly can.  Virtually every local resident has stories about how bicyclists behave, and how they respond when reminded that they also should obey the traffic rules.  And yes, I count myself among them.  Before anyone gets upset, please let me add that I have no idea how many act in this way, or what percentage they constitute.  I believe that bicyclists (like gun owners) are overwhelmingly honest, law-abiding citizens.

Bicyclists have also hurt their cause in public statements and online comments.  It is disturbing to hear or read the statements by (again, a minority of) self-identified bicyclists that dismiss the concerns of the local merchants, or blithely predict that some businesses will be have to be replaced by those more friendly to bicyclists (read upscale), such as cafes.  At the very least they tend to confirm the impression of bicyclists as elitist snobs, contemptuous of those whose role in life is to serve them, preferably with trendy coffees.

Anti-bicyclist anecdotes were by no means the only opinion expressed by local residents.
A familiar theme appeared in their comments about the search for safety: “instead of passing new laws, why don’t we just enforce the ones we have?”  If the goal is safety they say, the answer is simple:  more police on the street to tightly enforce the traffic laws; against drivers, but against bicyclists even more.  This local version of the classic argument used against any and all proposals for change is indisputably correct; unfortunately, it is also moot.  Too many laws and too few personnel have been the reality for a very, very long time; law enforcement has always had to select which laws to actually enforce, and which to turn a blind eye to.  In today’s world of increasing health costs for public employees, no city has the option of flooding the streets with additional officers.

MUNI claims that after the comments are tabulated and processed, it will offer its “final” plan (although in San Francisco, few plans are ever final).  That plan will be composed of one of the previewed options for each section, albeit with modifications in many details.  This has not prevented charges by both sides of official favoritism toward the other.  Given that this is after all, San Francisco, the local merchants have more valid reasons to believe this than do bicyclists.  It is unlikely that MUNI will recommend the “safety improvements only” option for either section, and almost certainly not for both.  Bicyclists are favored to win, but “Save Polk Street” will continue its struggle.  The timetable of how this issue will play out is uncertain, but be sure of one thing:  the war has not ended; other battles lie ahead.