I ride a bike for many reasons --and almost all of them are boring. Convenience, independence, a desire to be passably healthy and to spend as little money as possible on my own transportation -- all of these factors contribute to make cycling my preferred method of conveyance. These are, with some variation, the same reasons that most regular bicyclists choose to get around the way that they do and they are all perfectly mundane, personal, and apolitical.
So I'm always a little surprised how any discussion about cycling can easily devolve into a frothy-mouthed squabble over city planning or the California Vehicle Code. But really, I shouldn't be surprised, says Jason Henderson, an associate professor of geography at SFSU, because, as he puts it, the "allocation of street space" is always an inherently political proposition.
Henderson is the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, which takes a look at how competing ideologies frame the way that we talk (and inevitably fight) about transportation, public space, and the essential function of streets. After working on Street Fight for eight years, Henderson spoke to me on occasion of the book's release party tonight at The Green Arcade bookstore.
In what he admits is a pretty "simplistic breakdown," Henderson divides those who debate the politics of mobility into three warring camps: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives.
Among the progressives, you'll find the assumption that City Hall can -- and should -- actively reshape the way our cities operate. In other words, the current infrastructural bias toward cars isn't taken for granted. Rather, to tackle issues like congestion, traffic safety, and even climate change, San Francisco has an obligation to "regulate and contain the automobile." That means swapping parking spaces and car lanes for non-car focused facilities like bulb outs, designated transit lanes, and of course, cycle tracks.
Neoliberals, according to Henderson, are those who prefer that public space and transit systems be shaped as much as possible by market forces. While Bauer's buses and Uber may be the most obvious embodiment of this ideology, to the extent that bike lanes are seen as beneficial to higher-end business development and property values, they, too, can fit in with Henderson's neoliberal framework.
Stereotypes to the contrary, not all cyclists are progressive.
And then, finally, there are Henderson's car-loving "conservatives." These are the Rob Andersons [http://district5diary.blogspot.com/] and the Polk Street merchants [http://savepolkstreet.com/]; the people freaking out [http://missionlocal.org/2013/03/new-northeast-mission-parking-plan-draws-
heated-response/] about having to pay for parking in the Mission and the people
freaking out [http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2013/03/bike-lane-project-on-
panhandle.html] about losing parking spaces on Fell and Oak.
"When it comes to cars, a lot of people invoke this very conservative discourse: 'people want to drive and that's the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it," says Henderson. "They feel like they have a right, as individuals, to drive their car and they expect the public to provide facilities that make that relatively easy and cheap."
Thankfully, says Henderson, that attitude seems to be on the decline. On the issue of bicycle infrastructure specifically, while neighborhood opposition remains a formidable hurdle as ever for safer cycling plans like the Polk Street Improvement Project, both the Board of Supervisors and the Department of Planning are "miles ahead of most other cities." More importantly, the stop-and-start nature of San Francisco bike lane expansion notwithstanding (with an especially big stop during the Bicycle Plan injunction), ridership just keeps escalating.
But while ridership is up, that doesn't necessarily imply a grand triumph for Henderson's progressive values of transportation and mobility. As S.F. slowly breaks off its exclusive, long-term relationship with the car, there's a danger that more bike- and pedestrian friendly improvements will become synonymous with gentrification, he says. And maybe it's already too late.
"If we're really going to see this progressive vision all the way through, we can't have liability for the wealthy only," he says.
Instead, ensuring a certain measure of "livability for all" will mean making the city's improved amenities more affordable and accessible. And we can start, says Henderson, with Muni.
As a cyclist, it's easy to forget that we too have a direct interest in pushing for a more reliable and robust public transit system. Imagine, for example, how much easier it would be to sell a neighborhood association on a new parking-space-devouring bike lane if the residents of that neighborhood actually had a convenient alternative to driving. And imagine if they decided to use that alternative -- how much extra space that would create on the street for cyclists and pedestrians alike.
But as Henderson points out: "We can't have a truly progressive cycling city unless we really make ours a world class transit system. They're complementary."
Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco
Book launch party, tonight, 7-9pm @ Green Arcade bookstore, 1687 Market St., 3 rd Fl.
$5 cover (or free with purchase of the book)
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondae.