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Posts from the "Car Culture" Category

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Car-Free Lombard Street, Filled With People, is KPIX’s Vision of “Chaos”

KPIX reporter Brian Webb, live at ground zero, with car-free mayhem in the background. Image: CBS-KPIX

Last weekend, San Francisco’s world-famous crooked block of Lombard Street saw most of its car traffic disappear as part of a month-long trial, opening the street up for people. The SFMTA’s goal is to eliminate the gridlock caused by tourist drivers who queue up for blocks to cruise down the street.

To KPIX, SF’s CBS affiliate, however, this scene was nothing but “chaos,” a move that clearly “backfired” by filling the street with people:

Tourists found a way around Lombard Street’s first weekend closure by walking straight through it. Lombard’s been turned into a pedestrian path. Closing the crookedest street in the world to tourists was supposed to give residents a break, and some privacy. Instead, they got chaos.

Thank the heavens we have reporter Brian Webb to expose the atrocity of tourists walking down the middle of Lombard, without fear of cars. To hear it from Webb, these folks are all out-of-control mavericks exploiting a loophole. A really big loophole.

Whether this sort of asinine reporting can be attributed to Webb’s inability to understand the purpose of the project, or a newsroom desperate to concoct a controversial narrative to drive ratings, we may never know.

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“Closing” Lombard Street: The Language of Taking Cars For Granted

Crooked Lombard Street is being partially closed to cars, and mainly opened to people. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the headlines. Photo: SFMTA

A peculiar thing tends to happen when we talk about streets and transportation: We don’t talk about cars. Seriously — listen to conversations, read news headlines, and you’ll start to notice that even when cars are the main subject, people will, consciously or unconsciously, fail to explicitly mention them.

This phenomenon was particularly apparent to me this week, with media coverage of the SFMTA’s proposed (and subsequently approved) trial to restrict cars on world-famous crooked Lombard Street. The headlines started pouring out hours after I broke the story with this headline: “SFMTA considers restricting cars on crooked Lombard Street.”

Clearly, cars are the key subject of this proposal. It will restrict car access on two blocks, and nothing else. Non-”local” drivers will be banned for some hours on some days over a few weekends, but access for people not in cars — the vast majority of people on the crooked street — will actually be made safer and more enjoyable.

Yet from reading headlines found in other news sources around the country, you’d think the street is simply being closed to everyone. Cars are vaguely mentioned, if at all, while the whole “temporary trials on some afternoons” thing often gets washed over, with Lombard deemed simply and totally “closed.” Here are a few typical examples:

  • Washington Post: “San Francisco to close off iconic Lombard Street to tourists”
  • USA Today: “S.F. to temporarily close ‘world’s crookedest street’”
  • SF Chronicle: “Lombard Street to close on 4 busy weekends this summer”

Put simply, unfettered access by cars is equated with “access.” If one cannot drive there, one cannot go there. And as those important distinctions are blurred, we lose sight of what we deem important uses of our streets.

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Free Parking Forever: Motorhead Group Wants to “Restore Balance” in SF

Won’t somebody think of the cars? Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

The vast majority of San Francisco’s street space is devoted primarily to moving and storing cars, and most of that curbside parking for private automobiles is given away for free. Most of the city’s street infrastructure is not paid for by fees related to driving, so it is disproportionately bankrolled by those who don’t drive, through general taxes. By any objective measure, the state of affairs on San Francisco’s streets is heavily tilted toward cars and designed to incur minimal personal cost to drivers.

At least, that goes for those of us here in the reality-based community. Then there’s the alternate reality espoused by one group, calling itself the “Free the Streets Coalition,” who believe the city’s streets are too unfriendly to cars. The “coalition” of undisclosed size has filed a ballot initiative with the city seeking to “restore transportation balance in San Francisco.” Chief among the group’s proposals is permanently enshrining existing free parking hours, prohibiting new parking meters except by petition, and encouraging the creation of new parking garages.

The group has only released the names of three organizers — Jason Clark, who ran on the Republican ticket for State Assembly in 2012; Claire Zvanski, the former president of the Health Service System Board; and David Looman, a political consultant.

These folks don’t see the SFMTA Board’s recent reversion of Sunday parking metering at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee as a sign of how motorist entitlement already holds sway at City Hall. Instead, they see the fact that the policy was instituted in the first place as a sign that motorists are a persecuted group. The status quo of free parking giveaways cannot be impinged upon — not even a bit.

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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

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Chevy: What Better Way to Explore the Divisadero “Microhood” Than by Car?

The marketers at Chevy totally have this urban millennial thing nailed down. The car manufacturer sponsored this promotional video for a Divisadero Microhood Art Walk held last week, along with the website The Bold Italic.

In this virtual tour of the microhood, local business owner Erin Fong gets into one of Chevy’s electric Volts, driving an entire five blocks from the east side of Alamo Square to Divisadero. The drive is shown in a time lapse from the windshield. (Not shown: the hunt for a parking space.)

If the video leaves you puzzled and thinking, “That makes no sense whatsoever,” you’re not alone. Watching a video about driving is the complete antithesis of actually getting immersed in a microhood, an activity for which walking might be the best mode of transport. Perhaps that’s why the event is called an art walk.

Apparently, this campaign to market cars to urban millennials is no isolated incident. It’s part of General Motors’ Drive the District campaign, targeting major cities around the country, including Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, Portland, and Washington, D.C.. It’s certainly no coincidence that these cities are both seeing an influx of young people, and also making it easier to get around without a car.

Perhaps Chevy doesn’t know how out of touch they appear, trying to sell cars to young folks in one of America’s most walkable neighborhoods. As this generation loses interest in owning and driving cars, auto industry advertising only seems to become more clueless.

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The New “CityTarget” at Geary and Masonic: Driving Is Encouraged

Photos: Jesse Enlund

Do Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue need more car traffic? The marketers of the newly-opened “CityTarget” store seem to think so.

The mailers announcing the opening of the supposedly urban-style store (clearly, it’s more like the downtown Metreon store than the suburban, parking-locked store in Serramonte) advertise the fact that it offers free parking — three times, in fact. This comes after Target emphasized to neighbors at community meetings in 2010 that it would encourage “alternative transportation.”

Granted, they did include a picture of a fixed-gear road bicycle with some unsecured stuff placed on its front rack, though it’s unclear if the bike is supposed to be a product or a mode of transport. There’s also a bench with some books and coffee cup on it that could, theoretically, represent a bus stop.

But even if Target doesn’t want to be too explicit about suggesting that its customers take a bike or bus, or provide a visual reminder of what its 650-space parking lot actually looks like in an urban setting, the company makes its message perfectly clear: “CityTarget” has free parking.

H/T Jesse Enlund

Streetsblog SF will be off until Tuesday.

Image: Target via Bike NoPa

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Victims Share Tales of SFPD Anti-Bike Bias and Hostility at City Hall

At the scene of this 2009 crash where a driver made an illegal turn and hit a woman on a bicycle, an SFPD officer told Streetsblog’s Bryan Goebel that he thought all San Franciscans who ride bikes should be moved to Treasure Island. Photo: Bryan Goebel

When Sarah Harling was hospitalized by a minivan driver who made a left turn into her at a stop sign intersection, she says the SFPD officer who filed the police report included a fabricated statement from her claiming that she “approached the stop sign without stopping.”

Sarah Harling. Image: SFGovTV

Harling said she tried to submit a response to the numerous “factual errors” in the police report, but an officer at SFPD’s Richmond Station “raised his voice to lecture me about how traffic laws apply to cyclists too, how he’d never let his children ride bikes in the city, and then told me repeatedly, ‘I’m not telling you you can’t leave this here, but you just need to understand that sometimes things get lost.’”

“I left the station in tears,” she said.

Harling later hired an attorney, who collected witness statements and a photo, which showed the driver to be at fault and led the driver’s insurance company to settle for his or her maximum amount of coverage available.

“To say that the San Francisco Police Department failed to investigate my crash is not quite accurate. Rather, they refused to. Repeatedly,” said Harling. “I got the message, again and again, that because I had been riding my bicycle, it was my fault.”

Harling was one of dozens of bicycle riders who shared stories of hostile encounters with San Francisco police at a hearing held by a Board of Supervisors committee last week, testifying to what appears to be an anti-bike bias among many officers when it comes to investigating conflicts and crashes between people driving and biking.

“It’s not everyone in the force, but there is a systemic problem among police department officers when it comes to treating people fairly and equally who are biking and walking,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “We have regular accounts of people who are treated, at best, unprofessionally, and at worst, unjustly.”

The hearing comes after the fumbled investigation of the death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a truck driver at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August. SFPD investigators apparently didn’t bother to ask nearby businesses if they had surveillance footage of the crash, though an SFBC staffer found it within 10 minutes. After seeing the  footage, SFPD found the truck driver at fault. Although the SFPD has said it submitted the case to the district attorney to examine for charges, the current status of the case is unclear.

At the memorial and rally held for Le Moullac, immediately after which the SFBC found the footage, SFPD Sergeant Richard Ernst parked his cruiser in the Folsom bike lane to make a point that the onus is on bicycle riders to pass to the left of right-turning cars. Ernst declared all three victims who have been killed this year to be at fault, including 48-year-old Diana Sullivan, who was sitting stopped at a red light at King and Third Streets in March when a trucker ran her over.

Such stories are reported regularly by victims who say officers have automatically assumed they were at fault in crashes, made false claims about bicycling and traffic laws, and even made threats. In one such story reported by Streetsblog in March 2012, a couple bicycling on Oak Street along the Wiggle (before the existing bike lane was installed) was harassed by a driver who injured one of the victims. The officer who responded at the scene threatened to throw the bleeding victim in jail for “vandalizing the vehicle.”

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Posted on Masonic: Hilarious Send-Up of Cars-First Vitriol

This flyer was seen posted along Masonic Avenue this weekend. Scan by Jen Houghton via Uppercasing. Click to enlarge.

Along Masonic Avenue this weekend, an anonymous safe streets advocate found a creative way to call out the absurd behavior of neighbors who showed up way too late in the game to oppose a redesign of the street in a bid to save car parking.

The satirical flyers, reported today by Uppercasing, pretty much sum up a lot of the vitriolic, baseless rhetoric typically heard when proposals to make streets safer and more livable threaten to take space from cars.

Photo: Noah Brezel

A few choice selections:

Despite a number of crashes, deaths and accidents, this street is TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY SAFE! Shout down and talk over anyone who disagrees with you and your made up FACTS!

A FLOOD of frustrated drivers whose trip now takes 5 minutes and 15 seconds instead of just 5 minutes will go on a KILLING SPREE!!! YOU MAY BE THEIR NEXT VICTIM!!! LIKE SUDDEN IMPACT! YOU WILL BE IMPACTED! ALL DAY EVERY DAY! Analogous to what happens when a speeding automobile strikes you when you are crossing the road.

Do you have your own anecdote about a cyclist being rude? Present it as DATA! Did a pedestrian hold you up for five seconds? Were you MAD that YOU had to WAIT? Tell the area representatives! Raise your voice! Shout at them! Get screechy! So the SFMTA has “engineers” who hold “Masters Degrees” and “Professional Certificates” — do not be fooled! YOUR IDEAS ABOUT TRAFFIC ENGINEERING ARE JUST AS GOOD AS THEIRS!

And we must conclude with this deliciously hilarious call to action:

DEMAND ANSWERS! STORM THEIR OFFICES! FLOOD THEIR SWITCHBOARDS!!! ORDER THEM PIZZAS THEY DON’T WANT!!!

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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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Do We Treat Our Cars Better Than We Treat Ourselves?

Running Saturday morning errands, you may have found yourself in traffic, only to realize you’re stuck behind a line of vehicles inching into a car wash. Each month, nearly half of all American car owners head into one of the nation’s estimated 100,000 car washes to bathe their vehicles in some loving suds.

Some people show more love for their cars than they do for their families. Photo: Guide to Detailing

“Then there are those—and I love these people—” says Mark Curtis, CEO of the Splash Car Wash chain, who visit weekly, core customers “who truly care for their cars” and “see them and their upkeep as a reflection of themselves, and have it as part of their regular routine.” This ardent minority keeps alive the cliché that we Americans love our cars, an oversimplification that fails to capture our divergent, ambivalent, evolving feelings about them. Still, on the whole, we may treat our vehicles better than we treat ourselves.

Take a gander at how much cash and credit we lavish on them. On the household level, transportation accounts for one out of every six dollars Americans spend, the crushing majority of which goes to owning and operating cars. (By contrast, families who use public transportation and own one less car can save up to $8,400 a year, according to APTA). Only housing accounts for a bigger chunk of our budgets; we fork out less for food.

It’s especially illuminating to look at spending “per capita”—that is, how much we spend per person and per vehicle in our household. Though we spend more than twice as much to fuel each body in our home with food than we do to fuel each vehicle in our garage with gasoline, there are several measures by which we treat our cars nearly as well or better than we treat ourselves—and our families.

The average American spends nearly as many dollars annually on the health and well-being of each vehicle—$2,536 for repairs, maintenance, and insurance—as we spend on each humanoid member of the family, whose allocation for healthcare and insurance is $2,747. That’s just $18 more a month preventing and treating disease than repairing dings and replacing tires. The amount we dedicate to buying and financing each car is triple what we spend educating each family member. In other words, we pour three times as much into our depreciating assets than we invest in our own, and our children’s, futures.

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