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.


  1. Pretty good post on the issue. Yes, it's not clear how many cyclists behave badly on city streets, but it's surely a significant minority large enough to be noticed by everyone who uses city streets.

    And cyclists themselves are a small minority in SF, making up only 3.4% of all daily trips in SF, according to MTA's own studies.

    The MTA's claim of a safety problem on Polk is also questionable, since none of the intersections on Polk make the city's list of dangerous intersections in its latest collision report. The intersection of Eddy and Polk is mentioned because of seven cycling accidents there over a three-year period. But the report also notes that cyclists are responsible for 50% of their own injury accidents due to their own reckless behavior.

    That Supervisor Chiu hasn't taken a stand on any of the plans yet tells us that the whole idea of bike lanes on Polk is problematic. The city should pave the street and leave the neighborhood alone with its "improvements."

    1. Rob, when you have walked the street and talked with the very many sorts of stakeholders, then your comments will be respected. And when you know how, or choose not to misread, stats, then your interpretation of them will also be respected. As it is, however, they're opinion pulled out of thin air and ideology and don't carry the weight of truth.

    2. Both the 3.4% and the 50% are from city documents, namely the annual Bicycle Count report and the Collision Report. Maybe you should ask Ed Reiskin about their "weight of truth."

      See page 25 of the Collision Report for this: "Fault for collisions seems to be evenly split among bicycle riders and motorists according to the SFPD collision reports."

      See page 3 of the Bicycle Count report: "SFMTA survey data in 2011 indicate that 3.5% of all trips in San Francisco are made by bicycle, a 75% increase in mode share since 2000 when bicycling was 2% of daily trips." Not very impressive---only a 1.5% gain in 11 years!

      Another MTA report, the Mode Share Survey, says the percentage of bike trips is only 3.4% (see page 6).

      Not clear if I can post links here, but all three of these reports are available through the MTA's website.

  2. The sensible option would be to remove some sidewalk and that way we can have more room for parking and possibly widen the street for more car traffic. Everyone knows that accidents from bikes and pedestrians are far worse than those driving. We need to make sure that 3.4 goes down to 0.

  3. Thanks for your well-considered piece. It's refreshing to hear someone acknowledge that entrenched views, X vs. Y, are blinding many to very real possibilities for consensus and design opportunities. I represent Folks for Polk and believe we spoke at an open house.
    Regarding the merchants, I've walked the beat talking with many and observed that anxiety about large, uncontrollable issues (online shopping/downloading, big box stores, the dropping US$, income disparity) have landed on tangible ones, e.g. cyclists and parking.

    Among many other Folks For Polk projects, we've sourced fair, private loans that would be available to vulnerable merchants for hits taken during repaving, regardless of which props are approved. This is a declared need that we have anticipated in advance on their behalf. However, it was clear that a good percentage of the merchants are financially fragile because of poor business decisions and no one, nor more parking, will save them from that. There's just so far the public purse can be plundered for a handful of people. I can give examples, but this may not be the venue.

    Another project is getting full details of all off-street parking facilities of which there are more than has been included previously.

  4. p.s. we draw from the cycling community among many others. We count among our advocates forward-thinking merchants on Polk and the neighbourhood associations we've allied with. The merchants are slated to be published as our 'Preferred Polk Places' when they feel comfortable that there won't be retribution against them by the SPSC and MPNA, a realistic concern.

    1. Funny that the merchants that oppose the bike lane don't mind putting signs to that effect in their shop windows, while those supporting taking away all that parking are supposedly too timid to do that.

      An alternative interpretation: there aren't many businesses---if any at all---supporting the bike lanes.

  5. Wrong and wrong.
    The only reason I waded into this sewer of a public issue was because merchants had: no idea what the proposals really were (many do not speak
    English well); had been lied to and threatened; and had signs put up while they were gone. We've continued to hear the same reports from others who are regular customers of those establishments. The signs themselves were lies and some of the originators of them have had run-ins with the police.
    If you're capable of seeing with an unjaundiced eye, get out there and find out yourself.
    After I reply to you private email, I won't entertain your uninformed comments.

  6. @Rob
    3.4% cycling reflects current estimates whereas the growth in cycling has been 79% in the past 5 years. One need only go outside to see the truth of that.
    In the 1940's there were way fewer cars on roads than there are now, but planning is done to accomodate growth thus the push for highways throughout the US. However, future need in infrastructure is for the long term and cycling is growing at a very great rate - everywhere. Try it, you might like it.
    All reports of collisions note at-fault and as you must know, they are often technical points at best, to wit rear-ending. A young woman cycling uphill on Polk at a very slow speed was assigned partial fault for having been hit by a driver who didn't look before opening his door. Video footage of the incident proved that the judgement was absurd. It's not a flawless system by any stretch.
    Just like most cyclists, I dislike and make no excuses for scofflaw cyclists just as I - and presumably you - don't make excuses for scofflaw drivers who, as we both know, are far more likely to kill. Fact: as long as cycling is dangerous there will be a higher percentage of risk-takers among cyclists. The reverse is also true. I'd like to point out that cycling is not just recreational for many but is an economic need.
    I'm really busy - I have other work, one of my kids is visiting soon, and I'm planning travel - so I don't have time to look back for the details of your skewed interpretation of the 'top 7% of collisions' figure but it is erroneous.
    Just to establish that I'm not blowing hot air, I studied statistics thence analyzed them as part of my first career in medicine; at Harvard and Yale Medical Schools, et al. I got my second Master's degree in Architecture, worked at that including planning and project management, thence home-schooled my kids for 9 years with very great success.
    At the University of Sydney (Australia) I conducted a global literature review of health interventions that determine public health. One of the many reasons I'm advocating for active transport is that Americans are killing themselves with their lifestyle. You seem to be indifferent to that so I'll note that, unless we get a grip on our health and health care costs, the U.S. is doomed.
    Shame you didn't intro yourself to me when you attended the SFMTA Open House. You seem bright and articulate and I would have been interested to hear what you plan for your own second act. Having had several, I highly recommend doing so.
    I won't be responding to anymore of your online comments, but I wish you well.
    - M.

    1. We not only don't know who the merchants are that support taking away all that street parking to make bike lanes, we don't know who you are, either. How could I have introduced myself at the open house? My "second act"? I've been blogging about these issues at District 5 Diary since 2004, and I will continue to do so.

      You refer to your "private email" to me, which I blogged about last month:

      Reading this comment and the email to me last month, I can understand why you want to keep this exchange private and out of "the sewer of a public issue," since your clueless, semi-literate comments aren't helpful to your argument, such as it is. This is a public issue that should be debated thoroughly in public.

      Your academic resume is irrelevant. You have to at least read the three city documents I cited above, all of which are relatively short and easily available on the MTA's website.

      So it's a 79% gain in cycling now? You need to get the party line straight, since the claim is of a 71% gain. As someone who supposedly knows statistics, you should be able to recognize a phony argument based on numbers, which is what that is. According to the city's own numbers in the docs I cite, cycling in the city has only increased from 2.1% to 3.4% in eleven years! As long as you fail to come to grips with the actual numbers on this issue you are in fact "blowing hot air."

      There are two lies the city and the Bicycle Coalition are propagating: that cycling is growing significantly and that it must be made safe regardless of the consequences for everyone else who uses city streets.

      Cycling will never really be safe, since most cycling accidents have nothing to do with othe vehicles; they are "solo falls." But the most serious injury accidents are collisions with other vehicles, something that's impossible to completely prevent as long as bikes and motor vehicles share roads---that is, forever. That and the solo fall factor is why I would never ride a bike in SF or anywhere else. It's inherently dangerous.

      The city has radically oversold cycling and irresponsibly downplayed the real dangers. People can be fit without riding a bike. I walk and jog but just walking regularly can be enough to maintain health and fitness.

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