Bridge the Gap!

bikes_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth
As I climbed the steps out of the Lake Merritt BART station this morning I heard loud chanting. "Wow," I thought, "those bicyclists have really pulled out the troops!" But the demonstrators that greeted me across 8th Street in Oakland were pile drivers, iron workers, carpenters and other trades workers, chanting "Jobs for Oakland Now!" Not far from their boisterous demonstration in front of the main doors of the Joseph Brot Metro Center were a few cyclists showing their signs to passersby, "Bridge the Gap Now" "All the Way Across the Bay" and "Safety Path!" Across the street, Transform and Urban Habitat were also making their presence felt, opposing the Oakland Airport Connector that the building trades unionists were clamoring for.

Democracy in action, I suppose. Long-time bicycle advocates from the East Bay and San Francisco converged on this meeting, hoping to convince the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) to support using some of the new tolls ($5 on all bridges as of July 1, with $6 congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge during rush hour, and for the first time, a half-price toll for carpoolers) to fund a new west-span bicycle/pedestrian/maintenance/safety lane to make the bridge safer, and to finish the transbay route for bicyclists and pedestrians too, not just motorized vehicles. But that effort was bureaucratically sidetracked before this meeting even started.

bike_signs_5222.jpgSurrounding the MTC hearing room were bicycle advocates from around the region. Photo: Chris Carlsson.

The BATA's legal advice from a prior meeting was that they have no authority to allocate toll monies toward this new path, in spite of language in the law that allows for maintenance and safety improvements, which the new path unambiguously represents.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has asked for a second legal opinion from the State Legislative Counsel, which he said will take 2-3 months to get. Moreover, he followed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) chair's admonition to the assembled cycling advocates to save their comments for another time (since the question of funding and building a new west-span side path would not be addressed in this meeting), by stressing that the fight was no longer at BATA or the MTC but had moved to the state Legislature in Sacramento.

It's hardly a surprise that the MTC wanted to duck this issue and pass the buck to Sacramento. The 15-member MTC is a lopsided status-quo minded entity. That was revealed again today when San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, responding to several public commenters who were casual carpoolers and feared the new toll would wipe out the phenomenon, proposed the $2.50 carpool toll be reduced to $2.00. A roll-call vote went 13-3 against the proposal, only Daly, Tom Bates, and Bay Conservation and Development Commissioner Ann Halstedt voting for it.

One comment from an employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Control District pointed out that casual carpooling reduces congestion, saves money for those who do it, AND builds community, but the majority of the commissioners were not inclined to tinker with their staff's proposed new toll schedule. Nor did any of them choose to question the formula by which truckers have new tolls phased in over 3 years, denying the bridge budget $60 million according to their own calculations (recreational vehicle owners also showed up to challenge their being classified as trucks for purposes of bridge tolls, which will raise their bridge-crossing costs by 150%).

There is a long and charming local history of bicycle advocates who have pushed BART, Caltrain, the Golden Gate Bridge, and local bus systems for greater accommodation for bicycles and cyclists. It's a thankless, Sisyphean task, and we can all be thankful for those folks who have stuck with it.

That said, I've always been astonished at the eager sincerity a lot of people bring to these governmental processes. As far as I can tell the system is deeply broken. The inordinate emphasis, even at this very late date, on automobiles, freeways, "level of service," etc., seems to always trump common sense efforts to promote the incredibly modest beginnings of a new infrastructure. After all, there are state laws mandating major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. How is that going to be achieved without an alternative as obvious as a Bay Bridge bike path?

It was Jason Meggs and some stalwart friends a decade ago who rode bikes across the Bay Bridge to dramatize the absurdity of denying access to a central transportation artery. But most of the energy these days goes into attending these hearings with homemade signs, with earnest behind-the-scenes message making so as not to offend the commissioners, or become unseemly or too aggressive.

The urgency of altering how we live day to day gets quite lost in these processes. The moods of commissioners, the technical language in obscure appropriations bills, the muscle-bound lobbying strength of corporate behemoths, together become the focus of political action, rather than the terrain of our daily lives. I like the slogan "Bridge the Gap" just fine, but I couldn't help but feel that the real gap needing bridging at today's hearing was between the building trades workers out front clamoring for "jobs" and the bicycling advocates inside who were firmly but cautiously seeking support for a maintenance lane to be added to the west span.

I wondered if anyone had spoken with the building trades folks about supporting the bike/ped/etc. lane? Or has thought to propose a much broader alliance on local projects? (And what is it with union workers and their leaders that they always abdicate control over deciding what work is worth doing to those with the purse strings? Shouldn't workers be central deciders in how their work is employed in our communities?) What about a massive overhaul of local roads and bridges, adding Copenhagen-style bike lanes on every street and span? Think how much work that would be! Oh but we can't pay for it is the immediate rejoinder.

And if you accept the narrow constraints of institutional political reality as it is, then the argument is lost. But what about repealing Prop 13, at least as it applies to major corporations in California? What about ending the U.S. empire's military bases in over 100 countries around the world? Why is the U.S. spending as much on guns and bombs and death and mayhem as the rest of the world combined? Why did the federal government give away $1.5 trillion to the wealthiest owners of businesses instead of embarking on the much-promoted "Green New Deal" that if done honestly, might have provided resources for just this kind of drastic and dramatic reorganization and rebuilding of our urban physical infrastructure?

build_bikelane_to_reduce_congestion_5223.jpgCommon sense is trivialized and marginalized in the public process.

The west-span bike lane is a pipe dream for now. But by making it contingent on a massively expensive new lane being added to the existing bridge (and done under the design and control of the brazenly anti-bicycle Department of Highways, oops, I mean Caltrans), aren't we shooting ourselves in the foot?

A bike/ped/safety/maintenance lane could be put on the top deck of the Bay Bridge in two weeks if we had the political vision to do it. Here's how: Admit that traffic on the inbound west span rarely exceeds 30 mph and make that the new speed limit during rush hour. It's a pretty drive anyway, who cares if you have to go slower? And most of the time you can't get near 30 mph anyway, given the congested traffic. Narrow the five lanes from 12 feet to 10 feet, take the new 10 feet of space and barricade it with a cement railing. Voila! You have a bike/ped/safety/maintenance lane. The other five lanes are open during rush hour, but only 4 lanes are open the rest of the time, leaving a buffer lane next to the bike/etc. lane for additional safety. When traffic is light and only four lanes are open, the existing 50 mph speed limit can prevail... If we wanted to do it, we don't have to wait 3 months for a new legal opinion, and then another 2-plus years for another toll increase, and then 5-7 years for design and building of this new lane.

We could do it by March 1. Why not?