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.