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How Public Q&A Sessions Can Obscure Support for Street Changes

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A snapshot of the proposals to improve N-Judah service at Ninth and Irving. See all of the proposals on the SFMTA website.

When it comes to gauging support for changes on our streets, it’s easy to get the impression at community meetings that a handful of vocal critics represent significant opposition. But as preliminary survey results from a recent Inner Sunset meeting on improvements for the N-Judah show, public forums can often be a poor reflection of the actual level of community support for re-allocating street space to improve transit, walking, and biking.

Attendees at the meeting on N-Judah improvements in the Inner Sunset two weeks ago. Photo: Greg Dewar/Twitter

At a meeting about the N-Judah two weeks ago, planners for the Transit Effectiveness Project fielded input on route adjustments and other measures to speed up Muni service, like transit bulbs, new transit-priority traffic signals, and stop consolidation.

Having attended most of the SFMTA’s community planning meetings over the past three years, I’ve noticed a strong pattern: While a handful of people may scream about project proposals in a public forum, that doesn’t mean they represent their neighbors.

During the Q&A portion of the N-Judah meeting, the usual dynamic played out. Complainers dominated. Fear of change seemed to permeate the room.

But in the survey filled out by people at the same meeting, most respondents supported the boldest proposals [PDF]. Actual public sentiment was in favor of change. The pro-reform contingent was just less vocal during the Q&A.

Not that planning decisions that make streets safer and improve service for thousands of transit riders should come down to a vote. But too often, city agencies cave to the loudest people in the room and water down proposals in a misguided bid to appease critics. The N-Judah meeting showed that the angry people may command the most attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re representative of public sentiment.

Take the Polk Street redesign, which the SFMTA watered down last year to appease merchants who fiercely oppose any removal of parking for protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. As it turns out, a recent survey of people who live, work and shop on Polk showed that safety for people walking and biking is a far greater concern than the supply of car storage.

So what were the survey numbers on the N-Judah improvements? According to 101 responses at the meeting:

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I’m Getting Married to the Girl I Met on Muni

Therese and I at Inner Sunset Sundays in 2011.

Six years ago today, I struck up a conversation with Therese as we walked through the fare gates into Powell Station to wait for the N-Judah. I’d seen her there before, since we both regularly took the train after our late-night retail shifts in Union Square through the holiday shopping season. Last weekend, while waiting for the N at the same place on nearly the same day, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. She still has the Muni transfer from the day we met (pictured right).

Obviously, we’re really excited, and I wanted to share it with our readers. But I also think our story is a testament to the social connections and opportunities that are fostered by using public transit, walking, and biking. Therese and I would have never met if we commuted by car.

Therese’s transfer from 2007.

In fact, one of the main reasons Therese and I both happened to move to SF from the Los Angeles area is because it’s a relatively easy place to live car-free. The chance for everyday social interactions while traveling is one of the greatest benefits of living in a walkable city. I’m sure you all can share countless stories of coincidental run-ins while making your way around on Muni or walking down the street.

A bit more introduction: Therese and I earned our degrees together at SF State, and today she still takes the N to her office job in SoMa. (She says she would take her bike, as she has to other jobs, but getting to South Beach is a bit far and feels pretty dangerous.) We share an Inner Sunset studio with our cat George (who is actually a girl).

That’s all for my little personal announcement. I also wanted to thank everyone who’s donated to keep Streetsblog going, both in our current fundraising drive and in the past few years. (And that reminds me – please give if you haven’t already!) Here’s to a bright new year ahead.

– Aaron

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Broadening Its Outreach, SFBC Helps Organize “Bike Build Convivios”

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Mission, an energetic crowd filled a room with about half a dozen bikes propped up on stands. Among the crowd was Juana Teresa Tello, who was there to get some pro bono guidance on how to fix up a two-wheeler that will help her get to work, to school, to the grocery store, and around San Francisco.

The SF Bicycle Coalition's Chema Hernández Gil (right) works with community groups to organize "Bike Build Convivios." Photo: Natalie Gee, Chinese Progressive Association

“It’s exciting. It’s me learning a skill, an interest, and getting a new mode of transportation around the city,” said Tello, who works as a community organizer with local social justice advocacy group POWER. “It’s a community-led process, where you’re recycling bikes, you’re learning to fix them yourself so we can do this on our own.”

“It’s a learning curve,” she added.

The event, called “Bicis del Pueblo” (“Bikes for the People”), was one of the new “Bike Build Convivios” organized by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and community organizations like People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER). At the second event last Sunday, several dozen people showed up at the Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics at Valencia and 16th Streets to learn how to fix up a bike and ride it safely.

Interest has been so intense the organizers have a hard time keeping up. “We actually don’t have enough bikes for everybody,” said Chema Hernández Gil, community organizer for the SFBC.

The SFBC and other organizations collect bikes that are donated or recovered by the police and unclaimed, and volunteer bike mechanics at the Convivios walk participants through the process of fixing it up, Hernández Gil explained. “We have these bicycles, we want to get them refurbished and into the hands of members of these community groups — people who need a way of getting from point A to point B, to work, to school,” he said.

Hernández Gil joined the SFBC last October as a bilingual community organizer to help bolster its efforts to reach out to Spanish-speaking residents. The Bike Build Convivios are one part of the organization’s campaign to create more programs in partnership with organizations in non-English-speaking communities. The SFBC also teaches bicycling classes and prints its Family Biking Guide in Spanish and Chinese, and the Convivios include an “Intro to Safe Biking” workshop in English and Spanish. Hernández Gil said the events will continue in the following months in neighborhoods including Civic Center, Excelsior, and Visitacion Valley.

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New Orleans Activist Embarks on 1600-Mile Bike Ride for the Gulf

Picture_7.jpgMalik Rahim says Americans need to change their lifestyles and move away from fossil fuel dependence.
The BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico provides a fitting backdrop for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29. Who better to connect the two disasters than longtime New Orleans community organizer Malik Rahim, who helped found Common Ground Relief in the aftermath of the 2005 catastrophe? Rahim, who calls himself a "novice cyclist but veteran activist," is tackling the 2010 spill with a 1600-mile bike ride along the Gulf and up the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuel dependence.

He originally planned to hit D.C. on September 22, the same day that Bike4Peace is bringing cyclists from all over the country there on World Carfree Day. But extreme heat has slowed the 62-year-old ex-Black Panther, and his arrival may be delayed. He aimed to ride 35 miles a day for 45 days but may take longer.

Numerous media reports have commented on how Gulf communities hit by the BP oil spill were just on the verge of finally recovering from Katrina. But few mention the historic responsibility of the oil and gas industry in the hurricane's destruction. Geography places New Orleans in danger from storms, but it took decisions that favor a petroleum-based transportation system to wreck the city's natural defenses, leaving it more vulnerable than nature intended.

Rahim is drawing attention to the role of wetlands in the Gulf. One reason Katrina so clobbered New Orleans was the damage that oil exploration and drilling had already done to the wetlands that used to buffer the mainland. Wetlands absorb the impact of a hurricane's storm surge like a sponge. The wall of water that produced most of Katrina's trail of wreckage reached almost 30 feet in places. Every square mile of wetlands reduces that storm surge by about a foot.

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“The Highway to Play a Vital Role in the Progress of Civilization”

Disney's Magic Highway USA is one of the more extraordinary examples of the myopic devotion to automobility and its infrastructure I've ever seen. It's probably also required viewing at the Reason Foundation and among Senator James Inhofe's staff in Washington DC.

"As in the past, the highway will continue to play a vital role in the progress of civilization," the narrator tells us. "It will be our magic carpet to new hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future."

If you don't have nine minutes to watch, I can tell you it proffers some choice gender-role limitations characteristic of the era and it predicts some of the more deleterious development patterns that would result from the completion of the Interstate Highway system, which had begun only two years before the film aired in 1958. Rather than the Le Corbusier-inspired decentralized urban centers depicted lovingly in the film, we've got Atlanta and Phoenix.

Magic Highway USA also predicts that highways of the future will automatically light up the roads at night and radiant heat in the asphalt will keep the surfaces dry through ice and snow. "When visibility is poor, our windshields become a radar screen," says the narrator. "Fog may be eliminated by 'dispelling devises' along the right-of-way."

And how about "preserving the beauty and candor of mountain travel" with the cantilevered roadways stapled to the side of Monument Valley sandstone monoliths?

The only mention of walking in this unfortunately familiar dystopia is a snide joke, when the narrator quips: "From his private parking space, Father will probably have to walk to his desk."

The animated film was directed by Ward Kimble, the Academy-Award Winning Disney animator who gave us Jiminy Cricket and many of the characters in Peter Pan and who worked on numerous Disney classics.  Ironically, Kimble was a collector of train ephemera and owned a 3-acre train track circuit on his property in San Gabriel, California, nicknamed the Grizzly Flats Railroad. He is even credited for inspiring the Disneyland Railroad at Disneyland.

Of course, with no walking or any other unnecessary physical activity, the characters in the film turn out to be far too hale and trim. The people of this future should probably look more like those from this recent Disney animated film:

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Bicycle Music Festival: Pedal Powered Tunes and Some Exercise, Too

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With everyone under the sun boasting their carbon reduction initiatives, including laughable entries by oil giants like Chevron and ExxonMobile, it's nice to see an event that walks the walk, or pedals the pedals, as it were.

The Bicycle Music Festival is an all-day musical event tomorrow that runs entirely on human power. The sound system is powered by several people riding bicycles connected to a generator. As long as there are pedalers, there's a party.

Event organizer Paul Freedman, a.k.a Fossil Fool of Rock the Bike, emphasized that the bicycle is really only a tool in project; the primary goal is having fun with one's community.

"It's about the power of music to inspire people to make change. It emphasizes the positive message and not the guilt trip. The main message, though, is to get to know your neighbors. There is a community movement in this country that is bigger than the bicycle movement but includes biking. It's one amazing tool to tap into community, but it's only one tool."

Over the course of the day, Freedman expect upwards of 2000 people to take part, either dancing at the stationary locations in Golden Gate Park in the morning and Dolores Park in the afternoon, or riding along the two one-hour mobile concerts.  For the mobile events, Freedman and Rock the Bike have built a bicycle towed stage.

The morning event starts at at 9:30 am at Marx Meadow in Golden Gate Park near the 25th Avenue and Fulton entrance. The Dolores Park concert kicks off at 2:30 pm, with a roving show in between the two park events. Get more route and band lineup information here.

See more photos and watch a video of last year's event after the jump.

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Using Software to Find Walkable Neighborhoods and Live Car Free

Transit_Tree.jpgThe Bay Area's public transportation circulatory system.  Click for larger view
Though David Brooks might argue in his New York Times column that Americans want to live in small towns and suburban dreamscapes, the fact is more and more of us live in metropolitan areas, and discussions about what we want should have to do more with the context of those metropolitan areas.  Brooks should be looking at the quality of the public spaces where people live, and the walkability and ease of transit in those neighborhoods.

Front Seat, a civic software company based in Seattle, developed Walk Score to help people identify neighborhoods that range from totally car-dependent to walkers' paradises.  Not content to rest on the substantial press accolades they received on their launch, the company has been coupling their tools with real estate websites to pair a home with a walk score so that prospective home buyers can see how walkable a neighborhood is at the point of sale.  When the real estate site Zillow added Walk Scores to every house listing three days ago, 7.5 million monthly visitors got a clearer vision of the quality of their prospective neighborhoods.

Matt Learner, Front Seat's head of technology, said that their goal was to encourage a potential home buyer to consider neighborhoods that are mixed-use, transit oriented, and dense.  "We're trying to get it in front of people when they're looking for a place to live and give them tools to help them choose more walkable neighborhoods."

Building on the walkability concept, the next generation of Walk Score software will seek to provide more sophisticated tools for analyzing neighborhoods.  "What's exciting is the convergence of transit data and software geeks," said Lerner.  "At Front Seat we're trying to make the interface much easier for people who aren't transit geeks like us."

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Paradise LOSt (Part III): California’s Revolutionary Plan to Overhaul Transportation Analysis

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Transportation consultants and planners associated with the San Francisco Transportation Authority's (TA) ATG working group sent excited bursts of email to each other earlier this month about a new development coming from the state Office of Planning and Research (OPR), the body responsible for writing and amending the CEQA guidelines related to transportation and traffic.  The OPR had adopted much of the spirit of the working group's recommendations and proposed an amendment (PDF) to CEQA guidelines that de-emphasized LOS and indicated that it would be much better to use measures for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reductions such as ATG.

"How on earth did this happen?  Did we actually have an impact?" someone involved asked in one of the emails.  This same commenter related a chain of events wherein representatives from the TA and consultants had been up to Sacramento to lobby the OPR only weeks before the amendment was adopted and had been given no indication by staff that a change so momentous was in the offing.

The specific changes to the CEQA Environmental Checklist for transportation also call for the elimination of parking supply as an environmental factor of CEQA and focus attention on the desirability of reducing VMT (PDF).

Said Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson Nygaard Consulting:
What I like about OPR's wording is that it maintains the traffic section that everyone expects to see, but gives a very different analysis.  With vehicle trips rather than congestion as the potential impact, one would not ever be able to widen a road to reduce the impact.  Widening the road would increase the impact by inducing more vehicle trips!  To reduce the impact, one needs to reduce the number of vehicle trips at the source.

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Paradise LOSt (Part II): Turning Automobility on Its Head

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One of the unintended consequences of San Francisco’s bicycle injunction, which Rob Anderson and fellow NIMBYs will likely rue for some time to come, is the arduous thought and labor that advocates and professional planners have invested in doing away with LOS all together.  

Two arguments in the debate over LOS have emerged. One calls for abandoning LOS but replacing it with a metric that prioritizes transit, cycling, and walking before cars, assuming that three decades of legal precedent would require some replacement metric. Another argues for walking away from LOS entirely, given that it is merely a convention and not a law.

Shortly after releasing the report on LOS deficiencies, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) convened a strategic working group in the spring of 2004 comprised of the Planning Department’s Office of Major Environmental Assessment (MEA), the MTA, user advocacy group representatives, and industry practitioners.  The working group developed a replacement for LOS analysis that became known as auto trip generation, or ATG (PDF).

ATG avoids intersection-specific analysis, instead evaluating new developments based on the number of car trips they would add to the aggregate traffic picture and assessing a transit mitigation fee based on the total number of additional trips.  The working group debated for some over the threshold number of trips that would trigger the mitigation.  Given that San Francisco is lined on three sides by water and is essentially built out to capacity, any new development that adds vehicle trips to the matrix will have an impact on overall traffic, so the threshold they decided on is one trip.

As Rachel Hiatt, senior transportation planner for the TA, reported at Transportation Research Board in 2005 (PDF):
The Transit First policy of the City Charter recognizes that some short-term auto congestion is a predictable and unavoidable consequence of implementing Transit First policies, since mode shift will occur gradually as the transit, bicycle and pedestrian networks are improved. A measure of auto delay – auto LOS – is inconsistent with the Transit First policy for this reason. A measure of auto trips generated, in contrast, recognizes that adding additional automobile trips to San Francisco streets is environmentally undesirable, while allowing for automobile congestion impacts that may result from improving the city’s networks for transit, walking, and cycling.

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Paradise LOSt (Part I): How Long Will the City Keep Us Stuck in Our Cars?

Editor's note: Today we begin Part I of our occasional series on LOS reform.

Bus_in_traffic.jpgTraffic engineers are reluctant to give exclusive lanes to buses (or bikes) for fear of the impact on cars

The Pseudo-Science of LOS

There's a dirty little secret you should know about San Francisco: It's engineered first and foremost for automobility and will never be able to shed this bias if the traffic engineers are in the driver's seat wielding their traffic analysis tools like bibles. As long as the city continues prioritizing the use of transportation analysis known as Level of Service (LOS), you might as well burn our Transit First policy for warmth.

On the one hand, LOS is a very simple and blunt metric for understanding the speed that vehicles can move about the city. LOS measures the amount of vehicular delay at an intersection, with A through F grades assigned to increased delay. This measurement is taken during the peak 15 minutes of evening rush hour and if an intersection slips from LOS D to LOS E, traffic managers will try to mitigate the impact, which usually means widening the road, shrinking the sidewalks, removing crosswalks, softening turning angles, and adjusting signal timing to speed the movement of vehicles.

LOS_Graph.jpgLOS delay from Highway Capacity Manual
LOS analysis seems like science, free from political or ideological considerations, the perfect traffic-engineering tool to rationalize our cities, but the methodology behind it is far from precise. As Jason Henderson, professor of geography at San Francisco State University, said at a recent presentation, LOS is a very poor tool methodologically. In the early years of its development, the "science" was merely traffic engineers assuming what made motorists uncomfortable. He cited the fact that LOS F used to represent a delay of more than 60 seconds, but that in the 2000 Highway Capacity Manual it was revised to 80 seconds. And motorist behavior studies since have shown that inconvenience with delay can depend on numerous factors and differ dramatically between drivers.

Yet the result of relying on this poor methodology to shape the growth of cities has a profound affect on the politics of human mobility, privileging the movement of vehicles before the movement of anything else. Quite simply, LOS analysis has given us Phoenix and Atlanta, congestion and ever-longer commutes, and a whole host of ills that accompany reliance on the inefficient use of street space for our cars.

"I've been doing transit analyses in California for 20 years," said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation and land use consulting firm. "In my practice the single greatest promoter of sprawl and the single greatest obstacle to transit oriented development (TOD) and infill development is the transportation analysis conventions under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, LOS."

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