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Last week, this city became awash in green as mayors from around the world prepared to burn acre-feet of jet fuel traveling here for the United Nations' World Environment Day.
This was nothing new for San Francisco, long the world's capital of greenwashing, the art of covering for anti-planet practice with Earth-friendly rhetoric. Our city is, indeed, environmentalism's New Jerusalem; it serves as headquarters to the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Earth Island Institute, to name but a few locally officed lobbying and affinity groups of global reach. And some Bay Area environmental groups -- the Sierra Club and Oakland-based Urban Ecology prominently among them -- have promoted the idea of increased housing and other development inside cities as a way to prevent nature-consuming sprawl.
But most of the supposedly environment-friendly citizens of this New Jerusalem have proudly nurtured an anti-urban infill ethos, the indirect result of which is expansive environmental devastation.
According to census data reported in the New York Times last week, between the years 2000 and 2030 California's population is expected to increase by 13 million -- that is, by the current population of Illinois, which happens to contain the tiny village called Chicago.
The number of residents in green-chatty San Francisco and Berkeley hasn't increased appreciably since the 1960s, thanks to a fierce Not in My Back Yard disposition that guarantees political resistance every time a new apartment building is proposed. Unless the hostile attitude of the Bay Area and the rest of California toward urban density changes, the new dwellings and businesses and work spaces needed to accommodate the forecast population growth will be built -- but those structures will be part of suburban and exurban sprawl, occupying an Illinois' worth of space and paving paradise while they rise.
As it happens, however, a local policy document with the potential to reverse this trend was wending its way through San Francisco City Hall, just as foreign bureaucrats were making environmental happy talk in the city's consulates and hotels.
It has an unfortunately bureaucratic name -- the "Bicycle Plan Update" -- but it would put the city's official imprimatur on the goal of increasing the number of transit trips around the city taken by bicycle fivefold, from the current 2 percent of all such trips to 10 percent by the year 2010. If enacted, the plan would make at least 20 changes to city streets, most of which involve the creation of bike lanes.
This may seem to the uninitiated like the type of heartwarming, practically minuscule measure of the sort that will have been discussed ad infinitum at the U.N. environmental proceedings, and that our local environmentalists are famous for.
But it's not. The "Bicycle Plan Update" has the potential to be one of those viruslike agents described in Malcolm Gladwell's pop-sociology book The Tipping Point, which made the case that subtle nudges in the right direction can ripple outward, creating dramatic changes along the way.
When San Franciscans line up at City Hall to protest new apartment buildings (and offices, stores, old folks' homes, and nursery schools), as they do every week, what they say they're worried about most is the prospect of new inhabitants bringing new cars. For San Francisco to transform from a generator to an inhibitor of sprawl, this car-apartment link must be broken. An officially sanctioned shift from automobile to bicycle traffic is potentially the cheapest, most efficient way to increase San Francisco's population without increasing the numbers of cars plying its streets.
Let's hope the waves of portentous eco-talk resonating through San Francisco last week put the city in the mood to implement the bike plan and perhaps tip the balance toward making this a truly environmentally friendly city after all.
Though the idea of changing San Francisco's streets so they accommodate more bicycle traffic safely may sound like a modest goal, it's actually astoundingly bold. Luring significant numbers of additional people into the ranks of bicycle commuters means reaching beyond the adventurous hard-core who pedal around the city right now. To make that reach requires traffic-regulation improvements that would transform city cycling from an often-scary experience to a consistently pleasurable one. Such improvements would, in cases where bike lanes replace auto lanes, inconvenience some motorists.
Turning tables in this way would nudge San Francisco's current bike-trip/car-trip balance from 7,500/413,000 a day to 42,000/380,000. But the nudge could result in revolutionary change.
Other cities that have taken concerted measures to expand bicycle traffic have found that people emulate their bike-commuting neighbors, if the trips are made pleasant enough. One U.S. Department of Transportation study cites the cities of Delft, The Netherlands, where bicycles are used for 43 percent of all trips, and Muenster, Germany, where they account for a third of all trips.
Just imagine what San Francisco would be like if only 275,000 cars plied our streets every day, instead of the 420,000 measured in 2000. It would make biking and walking -- and inviting new residents to come live inside the city -- more than attractive.
To give you an idea of why little shifts could mean big things if San Francisco officially encourages bicycling, let me tell you about my typical day.
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.