Voting With Your Feet: The Three Camps at War Over the City's Mobility

It's always surprising how any discussion about cycling can devolve into a squabble over city planning. But, says Jason Henderson, an associate professor of geography at SF State, the “allocation of street space” is an inherently political proposition.

Henderson is the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, which looks at how we discuss transportation, public space, and the essential function of streets. He divides the politics of mobility into three camps: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives.

Among the progressives is the assumption that City Hall can – and should – reshape the way our cities operate. That means swapping parking spaces and car lanes for bulb-outs, designated transit lanes, and cycle tracks.

Neoliberals, according to Henderson, prefer that public space and transit systems be shaped by market forces. So to the extent that bike lanes are seen as beneficial to business development and property values, they, too, can fit in with the neoliberal framework.

The car-loving conservatives are the people freaking out about having to pay for parking in the Mission and the people freaking out about losing parking spaces on Fell and Oak streets.

“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,” says Henderson. Thankfully, says Henderson, that attitude seems to be on the decline.

More importantly, ridership keeps escalating. But that doesn't necessarily imply a triumph of progressive values. As S.F. changes its relationship with the car, there's a danger that more bike- and pedestrian friendly improvements will become synonymous with gentrification, Henderson says.

“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.

Ensuring “livability for all” means making the city's improved amenities more affordable and accessible. And we can start, says Henderson, with Muni.

“We can't have a truly progressive cycling city unless we really make ours a world class transit system. They're complementary.”

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