Environmental Cycle

San Francisco is the world capital of the art of hypocritical, Earth-friendly rhetoric. Official support for bicycle commuters could lessen the cognitive dissonance.

I start by hoisting my bike downstairs and rolling along Grove Street, then onto the bike lane on Fulton Street, which peters out three blocks from City Hall. This means I have to fight for lane space with motorists from there, on the way to our offices near SBC Park, before I pick up another bike lane on Seventh Street. Every couple of weeks or so, one of those motorists so strongly believes cars should predominate that he tries to force me, physically, out of the lane.

Coming back home, I travel up a very nice bike lane north on Seventh Street, but it disappears at Market. To continue westward along McAllister Street, I must cross three lanes of one-way commuter traffic within a block's distance. Perhaps once a month or so, I encounter a motorist who's astonished I'm there. He sometimes communicates this sentiment through aggressive, and dangerous, veering and gunning moves.

These conflicts are extraordinarily stressful, and on those mornings, I find myself spending the first part of the day numb with low-level anger and fear. And I'm what you might call an ace at this: I've bike-commuted in big-city traffic for the past 25 years.

So if co-workers ask me about getting to our office by bike, I feel obliged to offer caveats about the sections where bike lanes disappear into impatient and sometimes dangerous auto traffic, and about the motorists who don't realize bikes have the right to occupy traffic lanes and who drive dangerously as a result. And if I didn't tell the co-workers, they'd find out soon enough on their own.

To understand why automobile use is closely tied to the difficulty of building new apartments in San Francisco, let's revisit my daily trip to work. Across the street from the building that houses SF Weekly, an empty lot became a block of apartment buildings contiguous to the China Basin development in the South of Market area. Developers nowadays assume people will come and go from their buildings in automobiles, so new construction often creates neighborhoods that look nothing like the funky storefronts and stoops people associate with San Francisco.

The bottom floor of this building is a parking garage whose solid face takes up an entire city block, interrupted by a gated, two-car-wide opening. The wall, and the stream of traffic that flows through the opening all day, is as garish and ugly an urban amenity as one could ask for, yet it's typical of new buildings citywide. And even if apartment developers don't wish to accommodate cars, they have to; city code requires that every unit include a garage space. The resulting ugliness can be seen everywhere; where old rows of San Francisco-style storefronts and blocks of prewar stoops and front doors are interrupted by new buildings, solid walls and garage-door openings prevail.

Averse to increased auto traffic and the ugliness associated with new parking garages, neighbors and other activists protest new apartments (as well as office and commercial buildings) whenever they're proposed. Attorneys make a sideline of joining these fights, filing lawsuits on the environmental grounds that new buildings create additional traffic. Developers consider such lawsuits and neighborhood battles an ordinary cost of doing business in San Francisco, a cost so high that relatively few buildings are erected.

And in the end, because apartments are scarce and high-priced here, people drive in from suburbs an hour or more away, from homes recently built on empty, once wildlife-filled Central Valley fields, to work in San Francisco, pumping smog into the air as they go.

What if the asphalt of Fulton Street -- six vehicle lanes that border Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean -- were converted to garageless condominium towers, with a cafe-packed, San Francisco-style pedestrian/bike commercial promenade below? Next, imagine Lincoln Avenue, which borders the park's south side, being transformed in the same way.

This may sound far-fetched. But when Vancouver replaced a proposed waterfront freeway that was to have circled downtown with a bicycle-pedestrian walkway a decade or so ago, transit planners found that the number of humans traversing the paths exceeded projected freeway traffic. And the resulting beautiful parkway added enormously to the value of development rights on nearby city-controlled land.

At San Francisco's 2000 population of 777,000, the city was about a quarter as dense as cycle-friendly Amsterdam, suggesting S.F. could easily absorb at least hundreds of thousands of new residents, if only they didn't bring cars.

Perhaps our pro-business governor was mindful of the economic opportunities inherent in reducing auto traffic when he told a U.N. World Environment Day audience Wednesday that California planned to get serious about reducing greenhouse gases. My hope is that the Board of Supervisors passes the new bicycle plan this month, and that the city's business, progressive, and neighborhood interest groups do everything possible to meet the magical 10 percent bike-commuting goal. Once we reach that tipping point, there's no telling where we'll go next.

One possibility: Perhaps the next time global environmentalists converge on San Francisco, it will be because they're coming to a mecca of green living, rather than a greenwashing laundromat.

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