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Posts from the Transition Category


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!



StreetUtopia North Beach

view_se_from_russian_hill_towards_tel_hill_and_downtown_5090.jpgView southeast across North Beach from Russian Hill.

StreetUtopia is a new community organizing effort centered in North Beach. Launched by Hank Hyena and Phil Millenbah at an inaugural event in early January, they drew upwards of 150 people to an empty historic storefront at 1 Columbus Avenue, where they showed Streetfilms, had a small art exhibit, and conducted a survey of the folks who turned out. Hank Hyena explained his motivation in terms of European cities which are often greener, more bike-friendly, and with more pedestrian-centers than US cities. Along with several other parents of children at Yick Wo Public School, including co-instigator Phil Millenbah, a San Leandro city planner, they staged an inspiring evening of art, film, and conversation.

The questionnaire they handed out at the event started with a brief paragraph, assuming that we are on the cusp of a carbon-constrained transition to a future with far less cars:

The “modern” era brought television, automobiles and other technological changes. As part of this cultural transformation to the modern era and to support automobile use, society built millions of miles of paved roadway as both streets in urban areas and as highways connecting urban areas. The “postmodern” world is carbon constrained and the focus of transport is bus or rail and the old the roadway infrastructure is not needed in the same capacity. What should be done with the old infrastructure?

Then it asked a series of questions about whether or not Columbus Avenue should be closed to cars, if there should be “flex-streets,” if Washington Square should have a fountain, and what kinds of mixed-uses North Beach streets should have if cars weren’t the only priority?

Subsequently, I interviewed both Phil and Hank about StreetUtopia and their organizing, which you can read after the jump:



Sign on, Root in, Branch Out

two_way_bike_traffic_Scott_1033.jpgImagine the Wiggle as fully green bikeway, with agriculture and an open creek instead of cars!

He skirted Market Pond and made his way up to the Wiggle. Passing through a green arching gate he rolled along next to a long aging wall that had seen better days. On the other side of the wall used to be some kind of warehouse or big store. Now it was a grassy knoll sloping down to Market Pond.

On the crumbling 110-meter long wall was an old mural from the late 20th century. A clever mural within the mural showed the city, starting from a pre-deluge downtown full of cars and bikes and heading past itself to show Hayes River turning into a path to the west to the beach where a huge snake became a bicycle tire track. The mural was considered a civic treasure from the time before and a lot of trouble had been taken to save it after successive quakes and major storms.

At the end of the wall he went over the rushing creek and the high-arching Sans Souci Bridge, steering clear of oncoming cyclists. The veloway followed the winding course of the Hayes River, willow and laurel trees studding the banks, along with impatiens and lupine bushes. Many spots along the creek were open to the surrounding homes, mostly old Victorians that had elegantly stood along this waterway since it had been buried in cement culverts long ago. The lush gardens that filled the small valley gave off a wild variety of sweet and organic smells in the moonlight.

--from After the Deluge, A Novel of Post-Economic San Francisco (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004)

I wrote that passage in my novel a few years ago, set in San Francisco 150 years in the future. Imagine my pleasure when I found out that an ornamental portal to the Wiggle is the first project envisioned by some activists along our much-loved route. A week ago I sat down on the Wiggle at Bean There Café with Morgan Fitzgibbons, one of the instigators behind the new Wigg Party, whose mission is to have the folks who live and ride and eat along this route “become the leading community in America in the transformation to sustainability.” Recognizing what more and more people are coming to grips with, that we’re on the cusp of a dramatic change in how we live in cities, and on earth, the Wigglers want to lead the way, taking action one community at a time, anchored in place. Given the high mobility and transience of so many young San Franciscans, a focus on a local neighborhood as a site of transformation is immediately encouraging.


Paying for a More Comfortable Transit Ride

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we bring you some reflections on commuter comfort from network member Cap’n Transit.
As he points out in a post called "Many Segments of the Population Are
Too Old for This Shit," a lot of people are put off of certain modes of
transit because of the perception — and often the reality — that they
are crowded and uncomfortable (yes, New York subway, we’re looking at

He points out that higher-priced transit
alternatives, such as commuter rail, can prevent at least some of that
group from opting for the perceived superiority of the automobile:

6855305_b1a936b9a9_m.jpgNot everyone wants to put up with this. Photo by Shira Golding via Flickr.

live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are
times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in
25 minutes (if I’m near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the
commuter rail lines don’t stop in very many places and they don’t all
have convenient schedules, but when it works out it’s great.

[another] option: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were
specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving
the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and
articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a
seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes.
I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get
anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses.
For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able
to spread out. Even when I didn’t, the seats were wide enough that I
could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a
minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the
evenings, I think half the bus was snoring. Read more…


Things Are Heating Up!

cm_june09_naked_cyclists_start_0079.jpgNew Bike Plan! Let's Get Naked and Celebrate! Critical Mass San Francisco, June 2009.

I was glad to see “We Are the World” on the ridiculously inadequate Climate Change bill that finally emerged from the corrupt U.S. Congress. Sadly, the bill could only emerge with the support of a number of mainstream environmental lobbyists in DC, who clearly have sold out to get something, anything, in the direction of addressing the climate catastrophe. Here in San Francisco there’s an inordinate amount of enthusiasm for the Bike Plan getting okayed by part of the city government, even though it’s still under an injunction, and even when that finally gets lifted, it’ll take three years to finish this Plan, one which will have relatively little effect on this car-dominated city. In some strange way the Climate Bill and the Bike Plan are eerily similar: sources of great pride to those who believe in incremental change, “the best we can do in the current political climate” to political realists, but falling way short, sorely disproportionate to the actual needs they ostensibly address. (An article in the UK Guardian Weekly June 5-11 edition “Climate Change Creates New ‘Global Battlefield’” quotes a new report from Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum that there are already 300,000 deaths a year due to the warming climate, and 300 million people have already been affected!)

I’m not saying anything that most people can’t readily see if we pause from our daily frenzy long enough to think about the bigger picture. I’ll go out on a limb (barely) and say here and now that the Climate Catastrophe conference scheduled for Copenhagen, Denmark in December will fail to do anything meaningful. It’s not hard to predict, since even with a 60-vote Democratic (comedian-reinforced) Majority in the U.S. Senate, there’s no chance of a treaty being ratified that addresses the structure of the U.S. economy or the geographic arrangement of our dwellings, our transit infrastructure, or our energy use. And yet, this is simply what is necessary to have ANY CHANCE AT ALL of averting catastrophic ecological and economic collapse… funny to think that things are that stark, and hard to see if we don’t stop and look, but there it is.