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Posts from the Quality of Life Category


New Freeway Revolt Grips Guadalajara

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

While the world has gathered in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss again a shared approach to Climate Chaos, action is already being taken in countless communities. On a visit last week to Guadalajara, Mexico, more than a thousand miles west of the Climate Meeting, I had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant grassroots movement to block the construction of a new 23-kilometer elevated freeway through the heart of the city. Interestingly, this movement leans primarily on people who live along the proposed route of the freeway, but found crucial support and activism from Ciudad Para Todos (City For All), a three-year-old group of bicycle and transit activists who are Guadalajara’s most vocal opponents to the reign of the car.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

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Commentary: Sidewalk Sitting? No Way! Sidewalk Parking? Stay All Day!

One weighs 200 pounds or less, the other maybe two tons or more. One is involved in odd scuffles, the other in nearly 40,000 deaths nationwide each year. One is being targeted by the mayor and the press in San Francisco, the other sails under the radar.

Even as Mayor Gavin Newsom, SFPD Chief George Gascón, and the San Francisco Chronicle press for a new law that would punish sitting or lying on the sidewalk, drivers continue to park with impunity across the pedestrian pathway, with nary a word from Newsom or the editorialists at the Chron, notably recent suburban transplant C.W. Nevius, who’s devoted several columns to the perils of sitting and lying.

Though cloaking their campaign for the new law in concern for beleaguered pedestrians, who they say must now run a gauntlet of surly youth and their unleashed dogs along Haight Street, Newsom and Nevius have completely ignored the real threat to pedestrians of cars obstructing their path.

Nevius, in fact, has a history of blaming pedestrians for their own injuries. In a column last October that was sharply criticized on Streetsblog, he attributed San Francisco’s high rate of pedestrian deaths and injuries to spacey walkers not looking where they were going, ignoring data to the contrary that cited driver speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks as major factors.

Some opponents have suggested that the push for sit/lie is actually a campaign tactic to stir up conservative voters in the fall, when several supervisorial races could shift seats on the board away from progressives. This makes sense, but I also think concern for property values plays a large part in the push from some Haight neighbors, who have shelled out big bucks for their houses but don’t feel like they enjoy a posh enough environment so long as these undesirables are allowed to occupy public space.


Technology and Impotence

oil_spill_may_17_nasa.jpgNASA satellite image of Gulf oil spill, May 17, 2010.

The BP oil spill goes on. And on. We watch the oil on live web cam pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. And we watch. Political rage is muted, practical responses even more distant. What to do? How do we “take action” on something like this? How can individuals meaningfully respond to this catastrophe? Stop driving? Boycott one brand of gas? Stop buying things made of plastic? Let’s not flatter ourselves. A few folks I know are planning to go to a local ARCO gas station (owned by BP) to protest, which will surely be a big moment for the minimum wage employee in the cash booth, and probably an irritant to the half dozen or more motorists waiting to fill their cars.

The numbing impotence we feel is painfully calibrated to our inability to affect what’s happening. Consumer choices we might make will have zero impact on this disaster, and can’t shape the larger dynamics of a globe-spanning, multinational oil industry either. Just listen to Democracy Now on Friday morning to hear how Chevron has destroyed thousands of square miles of the Nigerian delta in its incessant exploitation of the oil there, or how the Ecuadoran Amazon too is covered in vast lakes of spilled oil.

The deeper questions about technology and science are far from our daily lives. The world we live in is embedded in complex networks of technological dependencies, which none of us have chosen freely. Nor do any of us have any way to participate directly in deciding what technologies we will use, how they will be deployed, what kind of social controls will be exerted over private interests who organize and run them for their own gain, etc. (supposedly the federal government regulates them in the public interest, but that is clearly false as shown YET AGAIN by this disaster). The basic direction of science is considered a product of objective research and development, when it has always been skewed to serve the interests of those who already have economic and political power. Public, democratic direction for science and technology is not only non-existent, we really don’t even discuss it as a possibility!



Say What?

cable_car_at_columbus_and_powell_7316.jpgThe vibrations and rumble of cable cars used to occur on many of San Francisco's streets.

We are often attracted to city life for the energy, the boisterousness, the noise. I am a city guy having lived all my life in cities (born in Brooklyn, Chicago until age 10, Oakland until 17, and San Francisco since I was 20). I often make the joke that "nature is trying to kill me," when one of my friends suggests we go camping. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a punk rock fan, and went to dozens of shows with ear-splitting volumes. I've been to plenty of other events through the years with overwhelming noise, from other concerts to major sports events, etc. Maybe that's why I have had a ringing in my ears for the last two years (tinnitus). And perhaps not surprisingly, I've become increasingly frustrated at the oft-overlooked urban problem of noise pollution.

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Detroit Residents Press EPA for Stronger Air Pollution Monitoring

In Washington, "grassroots lobbying" is more often associated with industry-funded issue campaigns than ground-up local advocacy. But residents of Detroit's industrial southwest neighborhoods took the term back to its roots on Friday, getting a personal visit from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials after a groundswell of complaints about decaying air quality.

sm_DSC01515.JPGCyclists in southwest Detroit. (Photo: Detroit Synergy)
From the Detroit Free Press' report:
Environmental Protection Agency officials watched intently Friday as a computer that measures air pollution on the spot showed spikes around industrial plants in southwest Detroit. ...

Next to the plants in the 48217 ZIP code and nearby areas are whole neighborhoods boxed in by oil recycling plants, asphalt makers, a steel plant, a stinky composting yard, a salt factory and an expanding oil refinery.

"This is what we live with," said [Jayne] Mounce, who lives near Marathon's oil refinery and petroleum terminals.

This week, Mounce said she had taken her own air samples with the help of national environmental monitoring group Global Community Monitor and found lead-laden dust, which could come from a steel mill nearby. A few months ago, similar sampling found a dangerous chemical in the air -- methyl ethyl ketone, a gas that can cause numbness, tremors and gait problems.

The story notes that EPA officials have "fewer than 50 air monitors" in the entire state of Michigan, where the industrial base has shrunk in recent years but remains a prime economic mover -- and generator of air pollution. Nonetheless, the Detroit residents' plea for stronger air quality standards is an unusual sight compared with the more common practice of localities seeking more lax rules or more time to comply with EPA pollution limits.

Methyl ethyl ketone, the gas found in local air sampling, is commonly found in manufacturing plant emissions as well as specific products such as industrial glue and the exhaust of cars and trucks, according to the Centers for Disease Control's toxic substances registry. In 2005 it was removed from the list of hazardous air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act after a federal appeals court ruling that endorsed the move.

Tea Partying and Beanbagging on Shotwell

tea_kettle_6475.jpg24th and Shotwell Tea Party

The citywide Stand Against Sit Lie campaign Saturday March 27 was a big success by all accounts. The website claims over 100 events took place on San Francisco sidewalks, and over 1000 people participated. That doesn’t sound overwhelming at first glance, but if you recall that this began as a brainstorm in a bar just a couple of weeks ago, and relied heavily on Facebook and personal networking, it is an impressive beginning.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, Police Chief George Gascón, and the S.F. Chronicle suburban-values attack-dog C.W. Nevius have been drumming up an Astroturf grassroots effort to criminalize sitting on sidewalks. The focus has been the Haight-Ashbury, where there are actual homeowners who have been contributing their energy to this effort. The joke at our 24th and Shotwell sit-in was that these same upscale homeowners in the Haight have been trying for over 30 years to “clean up” Haight Street. They had an organization for a while in the 1980s called RAD (Residents Against Druggies) and you could reliably buy pot or acid by looking for them, and then seeking the cluster of dealers who trailed them around the neighborhood!

Anyway, these folks, egged on by the powers-that-be, are clamoring for a new law to give police carte blanche to evict anyone they want to from the neighborhood’s sidewalks. The proposed ordinance is drawn very broadly, allowing for police to accost anyone on any sidewalk in the city and fine them and, if there’s a second offense, have them jailed for 30 days. This is being promoted as a means to enhance public safety, despite the fact that there are already laws against blocking sidewalks and aggressive panhandling. It’s unclear what purpose this new ordinance is supposed to fulfill, other than a new tool of arbitrary power for the police to use against “undesirable” populations.


Planning and Public Life

Lily_Alley_Union_Project_9639.jpgOn Linden Alley the "Union Project" held a public fair last year, just one of dozens of ways San Franciscans are taking public roads for uses beyond merely housing private cars.

San Franciscans, like residents of most big cities, are in a continuous process of reshaping public spaces. There are pilot programs for new ways to use Market Street, for pocket parks in areas covered with underutilized asphalt, for Sunday Streets closures, for opening sidewalks to “green sewers,” and even some tentative efforts to launch more public art and/or urban agriculture in empty lots. All of these experiments are welcome departures from the long-simmering biases favoring the total unquestioned domination of private automobiles over public space.

Behind most of the experiments are deeper ideas of an improved life, what some people are quick to dismiss as “utopian.” The anti-utopians apparently consider change impractical or threatening, or have accepted the close-minded meme of the past few decades that any kind of “social engineering,” or public planning to improve human interaction, is inherently totalitarian. This mentality is rooted in a presumption that the way things are is always good enough, or that even if they aren’t, humans are so inherently corrupt or power-mad that any effort to improve things can only make it worse. The dark chapters of mid-20th century totalitarianism (now being regularly conflated to the present by Murdoch’s pompous blowhards) are somehow supposed to be examples of why trying to make life better is impossible. The American Way of Life, with all its poverty, racism, militaristic imperialism, shallow materialism, et al, is somehow the best we can hope for, and anyone who doesn’t accept that at face value is at best a dupe of some future dictator.

For those of us concerned with transit planning, or urban planning more broadly, this politico-cultural baggage comes with the territory. It shapes the discussion before it starts, and so a lot of folks have learned to think small, so as not to fan the flames of fear.



Standing Up to Sit-Lie

Hashbury_60s_hippie_on_haight.jpgHippies and punks have been sitting on Haight Street for almost a half century. Will they soon be criminals? (Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, via

As San Francisco moves closer to a decision on a new sit-lie ordinance that proponents say would facilitate the SFPD's clearing of unsavory elements off of sidewalks in neighborhoods like the Haight, resistance is building, and several organizers have called for a day of sidewalk action on Saturday March 27, from 10 am to 5 pm. I sat down recently with Nate Miller, one of the people who decided that they weren’t going to watch the City succumb to yet another pandering campaign of fear mongering without standing up to say no.

The sit-lie campaign has been orchestrated from behind the scenes for the past few months, trying to appear as a spontaneous grassroots effort by residents of the Haight-Ashbury. But as Miller tells it, there is strong evidence of coordination between “grassroots activists,” the Chronicle’s resident suburban attack dog C.W. Nevius, Mayor Newsom and Chief of Police Gascon. Together, they are using the decades-long presence of impoverished and annoying “gutter punks” on Haight Street to push a law criminalizing anyone who is sitting or lying on a sidewalk anywhere in San Francisco. Gabriel Haaland wrote an intelligent editorial in last week's Bay Guardian calling for a new approach to actual conflicts (greatly exaggerated in this case), rather than expanding the definition of so-called criminal behavior.

Here’s Nate in his own words: 


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D.C., VA, MD to Apply for Federal Aid as Snow Eats Into Transport Budgets

4348010010_e4fdbe6a68.jpgThe scene in D.C. this
week. (Photo: thisisbossi via Flickr)

D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are set to apply for federal disaster aid
to offset the costs of cleanup from this month’s record-breaking
mid-Atlantic blizzards, according to the Washington
reports today. But the so-called Snowpocalypse could dent more
than just worker
— already crunched transportation budgets are also
on  the line.

In Virginia, new Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) warned
before yesterday’s second round of storms that the state would have to
use part of its road maintenance and repair budget to pay for highway
plowing and extra police duty.

Virginia had already
$893 million from its long-term transportation budget in its
most recent round of belt-tightening, bringing the state’s total cuts
to $4.6 billion … or the
of running six years of transportation programs with
five years of funding.

Maryland, among the first states to set up a dedicated transportation
trust fund
, is not in as dire of a budget situation as its southern
neighbor. Yet budget analysts in the legislature are
for about $60 million a year to be taken from that trust
fund to cover Maryland’s general budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, the state transportation secretary acknowledged
if snow removal costs grow too burdensome this year, spending
on capital projects (such as the proposed new Red Line transit system) may
need to be diverted.

Finally, though the capital’s $6.2 million snow-clearing budget was
already exhausted by a massive Christmas-week blizzard, D.C.’s
transportation department has offered few details on where any extra
funds would come from. A "reprogram" of
money from other accounts has been mentioned, but city officials appear
to be putting their hopes in a successful appeal for assistance from

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a longtime supporter
D.C.’s Metro transit system, summed up the region’s sense of
urgency this way in a statement to the Post:

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White House Pitches $400M for Healthier Neighborhood Food Outlets

The connection between walkable development and grocery shopping may not seem immediately apparent — until you consider studies conducted
in cities from Austin to Seattle that showed the share of trips taken
by foot or by transit rises as local food outlets move closer to
residential areas.

White House budget envisions a new investment in urban farmers markets’
such as this one, which served D.C.’s low-income Anacostia area for two
years. (Photo: DC Food for All)

Even in transit-rich New York, a highly touted new Costco is laying off employees as shoppers avoid its not-too-walkable location. On the flip side, farmers’ markets are seeing new growth and serving more lower-income shoppers in Milwaukee, Oakland, and other areas.

Now the White House is getting in on the action, with $400 million included in
its fiscal year 2011 budget to support development of new food outlets
in urban communities where the nearest grocery store is often a
half-mile or more away — the neighborhoods that policymakers call "food deserts."

The White House proposal is modeled after a Pennsylvania effort that has steered more
than $57 million in grants and loans to develop 74 local food markets
in lower-income areas of the state. The Obama administration’s version
would be anchored by $250 million in New Market Tax Credits, which give
developers incentive to launch new projects in economically distressed

While the $400 million budget plan is not being
directed through the U.S. DOT, it could have a significant upside for
urban transportation officials looking to improve access to transit and
create new opportunities for walkability.