Debunking the Misinformation Propagated By “Save Polk Street”

It’s clear that the parking-obsessed, anti-bike lane merchants behind the “Save Polk Street” group have no interest in vetting information before making their case. Concrete facts certainly had no place in the fearmongering rhetoric spouted by street safety opponents at the March meeting they staged, encapsulated by Flipp store owner Dan Kowalski’s dishonest comparison of the Polk Street project to bike lanes on non-commercial streets in other cities.

Chris Provan speaking yesterday at a Board of Supervisors hearing on parking meters. Provan has blamed the existing Polk Street bike lanes for a decline in his business. Photo: SFGovTV

Meanwhile, proponents of safer streets report that arguments using empirical evidence have fallen on deaf ears with the anti-bike lane crowd.

At the March meeting, Chris Provan, a Russian Hill Bookstore manager wearing a “Save Polk St.” t-shirt, blamed the partial, door-zone bike lanes that replaced a traffic lane in 2000 — increasing bike traffic on Polk by as much 41 percent in the first ten months [PDF] — for causing a drop in his business in the subsequent years. Apparently, Provan still blames the bike lane (it couldn’t have been, say, the effect of the internet on retail book sales). Provan then argued that the status quo should be maintained because today, “people are coming here by droves, and there’s more of them than can find parking as it stands.” As the SFMTA found, 85 percent of those people are coming without a car.

Unsurprisingly, the Save Polk Street website’s FAQ page is rife with this kind of misinformation. It’s time to de-bunk some of the propaganda that’s being disseminated by the group’s leaders. Let’s start with this statement of theirs:

SAVE POLK ST. believes that bicycle, pedestrian and transit safety and aesthetic improvements can be achieved through alternatives that do not require the wholesale removal of more than half to all of the parking on Polk Street.

First, nothing the SFMTA has proposed would remove more than half of the parking on Polk. More importantly, what street safety opponents are really saying here is that they will not tolerate the safest options for Polk, because some parking would be removed. Retaining parking means that specific improvements — like sidewalk bulb-outs or protected bike lanes — cannot be implemented.

People who drove to Polk Street reported spending the most per trip compared to those who used other modes of transportation.

This is cherrypicking, pure and simple. Drivers did report spending more money per trip than other customers in an SFMTA survey, but the same survey also revealed that drivers made fewer trips per capita than customers who arrived by walking, biking, or transit. The upshot is that drivers spend less per week than customer who come to Polk by any other mode. Of course, when the Save Polk leaders don’t like the result of the survey, they dismiss it:

The SFMTA survey never asked people how much they spend per week on Polk Street. Was there a need for the SFMTA to manipulate its own data?

Sorry, folks — you can’t have it both ways by making your case with survey data, then discounting the same data with your next breath.

Ed Reiskin, Director of the SFMTA, has acknowledged that the loss of 15% patronage from people who drive to Polk Street could indeed pose a financial hardship to small businesses with small profit margins…

Restricting Polk Street to patronage from people who can walk, take public transit or bicycle to Polk Street will not increase business.

The way Save Polk phrases it, removing a sliver of parking to make the street a more attractive place to visit would prevent all 15 percent of people who currently drive to Polk from getting there at all, thus leading to a 15 percent drop in business. In reality, only 6 percent of the parking supply along the corridor (more than 5,000 spaces) is on Polk. With at least 94 percent of parking spaces within a block of Polk remaining, people will still be able to drive, park, and load to get to the street. Meanwhile, effective streetscape improvements will make it safer and more inviting to walk and bike to to Polk. As we’ve seen when similar projects are implemented on business corridors in SF and NYC, this typically draws more foot traffic.

Q: Won’t removal of parking increase business for Polk Street?

A: No. The SFMTA recently conducted a Polk Street Intercept Survey where people were asked the mode of transportation they used to get to Polk Street (car, bicycle, walk, public transit) and the amount of money they spent or intended to spend on Polk Street that day. The SFMTA claims that its survey shows that the removal of parking will increase business for Polk Street. It does not.

This makes it sound like the SFMTA wants to remove parking for the hell of it. Save Polk doesn’t like to mention the protected bike lanes, pedestrian safety upgrades, and expanded public space that would be created using the space reclaimed from car storage.

Additionally, the SFMTA never claimed “that its survey shows that the removal of parking will increase business for Polk Street.” One can infer from the data, however, that the notion that business on walkable, urban commercial streets like Polk depends on driving customers is unfounded, and that if some parking gives way to safety improvements, the sky won’t fall.

It’s important for city leaders and San Franciscans to understand that this is the kind of argument driving policy decisions to prioritize parking above public safety.

  • Arguing rationally with the irrational is an exericise in futility

  • GuestCommenter

    Sounds like they have a touch of the fear.

  • BS

    I mean, I wish they were right and that bike lanes would sink their businesses. People who give so little fucks about the common good should not own thriving businesses. They do, but they shouldn’t. Let them whittle away and crawl back to suburbia.

  • Dave Moore

    Could you explain why you think that private parking spots should count in the total number? You used to call it out separately but this time it’s rolled into the total. They don’t seem to apply because the argument is being made about shoppers traveling to visit the street, and few if any of these spots would be available to them. I’m not sure about the others. Are they all street and paid spots that are available to a shopper?

  • Eastlakerider

    Since I live car-free I have more $ to spend since I’m not paying for insurance, gas, and all the other trappings of car ownership. I don’t have a survey to cite. Just my own bank account. Some of these business owners lose sight of that.

  • Dave

    Great articles on Polk St. Aaron! I wonder if there is anything that would help the merchants to get on board in exchange for the bike lane? Maybe more 15-min green parking, smart meters etc. to make more of the parking available to shoppers? Or maybe put the northbound bike lane on Larkin and south on Polk? It will be really sad if they just repave the street with no ped improvements and the same sharrow section.

  • Sprague

    Great suggestions, Dave. I’m not adequately familiar with the topography of Larkin Street but from what I recall its grade is similar to Polk’s. If so, that seems like a reasonable suggestion (and compromise) to accommodate both cyclist safety as well as the concerns of some vocal merchants.

  • Nick Bonnell

    Aaron, I think you might be wrong regarding the Russian Hill manager part at the beginning of the article.
    Russian Hill Books is a couple of blocks from the bike lanes that start up at Union. I just can’t remember if those lanes were striped when they took out the third traffic lane. Removing the third traffic lane is what the bookstore manager talked about in that March meeting. I agree the internet probably did more to hurt the business than the removal of the third traffic lane. (Sigh. The other bookstores and all the record stores are gone from Polk.)
    After the March meeting I was scared any changes wouldn’t happen. After Tuesday, I’m optimistic. And in the long haul, buffered bike lanes will happen.

  • Here in Eagle Rock our Chamber of Commerce just voted against improving safety on our main street. Sigh… The worst part? The bike lane haters here are citing the Polk backlash as “movement” of people fighting back against bike lanes (“even in San Francisco” they say).

  • Dexter

    Larkin Street’s topography is different from Polk Street north of Broadway. It rises up moderately between Broadway and Union and flat between Union and Chestnut, but then follows a blind steep left turn down Francisco. Larkin doesn’t reappear until north of Bay Street.

  • Anonymous

    How’s this for a compromise – reduce Polk Street to a single motor vehicle travel lane that goes southbound only (one way) to make enough width for two-way buffered bike lanes, leave a good chunk of parking alone (with removals for bulbouts and red zones), and change the northbound 19-Polk bus so that it does not leave Larkin at Geary but travels on up to Francisco before getting onto Polk to get to Aquatic Park? Seems like a win-win to me. Much better than this “you’re old and stupid” or “we know more about your customers than you do – just look at this shitty SFMTA survey, it’s flawless” 🙂

  • 40yearneighbor

    Retention of the #19 Polk bus is important to merchants as well as transit riders. From the bus windows, Muni riders can view businesses for future shopping. The #19 can take me to Aquatic Park, the Public Library or to other transit lines

  • Anonymous

    Ugh. Reminds me of the “men’s rights” movement.

  • Anonymous

    There is a one-way option (look on the MTA’s website).

    Speaking personally, making Polk one-way is a bad idea. We have way too many one-way streets already. Take a stroll down any one-way street. Is it pleasant? Would you want to shop along it?

  • Anonymous

    Can you link me to the SINGLE LANE one-way travel plan? When I say SINGLE LANE I mean 11′ (or whatever the standard is) for moving cars, and the rest of the precious width used for other stuff.

  • Sprague

    Larkin Street may very well not be a good option at all. The SFMTA has almost certainly vetted the various options. A safer north-south bikeway is needed in the vicinity of Polk Street; perhaps this is (or ought to be) a component of CPMC’s new hospital’s traffic mitigation strategy.

  • Anonymous

    Winston Churchill observed “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth can get it’s pants on”. That said, isn’t the point of representative government to take testimony, and discover the facts? Why is it that in San Francisco as in Washington, a few loud sensationalists seem to be more effective than all the facts and scientific observation combined? Why even bother with hearings at all if the loudest group is going to prevail?

  • Anonymous

    You have a point regarding a single, narrow lane, and I didn’t mean to be glib in my comment above. However I still don’t like one-way streets– they disrupt the street grid in a way that collects traffic (and might speed it up).

    We’ve been moving in the right direction lately with Eddy and Ellis. But we still have a lot of one-way streets and I’d hesitate to add another.

  • How are we doing parking on both sides with a one way, and a two way buffered lane…

  • Anonymous

    I think the big risks with one-way streets are demonstrated near my home in the South of Market District. You have one-way on long uninterrupted blocks, and you give drivers a chance to accelerate well beyond the 25 MPH speed limit. When you have 3-4 lanes on those one way roads to take away the need to slow down when making turns at intersections, well, that’s why lots bicyclists and walkers get seriously injured or die in SoMa.

    I think the relatively short blocks covered by Polk Street mean that it might help slow cars down for a bit more to help keep other users of the road safe.

    If you have to go to Larkin to go northbound on the 19 bus and go to Polk to go southbound (until it gets to Eddy anyway) seems manageable if that frees up the width of the street to make most stakeholders happy with the design for Polk. In SoMa, you have to walk way more than one block to get to a local service bus (I treat the AC Transit, SamTrans, and the Avenues/Treasure Island MUNI buses as if they’re “INTERNATIONAL” service when my neighbors and I just want “DOMESTIC,” but we have to walk 1/2 a mile from Main Street and Harrison to get some “DOMESTIC” service in the form of the 12-Folsom).

  • Anonymous

    I’ll let the traffic engineers figure that out. I’d assume the design would be sidewalk>buffered southbound bike lane (that crosses a bulb out at the intersections)> Parking/bus/red zones>travel lane (South bound)>Parking/red zones>buffered northbound bike lane (that crosses a bulb out at the intersections)>sidewalk. However, if you could separate the 2-way bike lanes with some space to avoid handlebars bumping from opposite directions, maybe the bike lanes both sit on the far-east side of Polk Street and left turns by cars get banned at most intersections.

    Jackson Street around Leavenworth and Hyde has the one-way westbound single lane with street parking on both sides to get some of the picture (photo).

    Are the intersections on Polk still going to be 4-way stops? I’ll leave that to traffic engineers.

    RIding the 19-Polk bus back to SoMa from Aquatic Park today, we were delayed by 4 double-parked cars and at least one car trying to do a mid-block U-Turn from northbound to southbound to grab an open meter parking spot.
    I’d hope a single travel lane only going southbound would put a stop to those delays to the 19 bus on Polk southbound.

    Having walked up to where Larkin rolls over to Jackson, I’m not too sure a MUNI bus can make that turn … so the northbound 19 bus may have to come on over to Polk Street prior to Jackson.

    Anyway, it may be too late to find a compromise as much vitriol that’s been slung between the interested stakeholders. I understand grant money to pay for this stuff has a June 30th deadline, and MUNI, being its own fiefdom that like most City departments, doesn’t really know how to play well with others (even within its own agency), would take well more than a month or so to accept moving their northbound 19 bus line route to stay on Larkin instead of making the turn at Geary.

  • Mario Tanev

    I also hate one-way streets, but a single-lane one-way street could be quite nice. The tiny one-way streets in the French Quarter in New Orleans are quite calm and charming. As long as the bicycle/transit grid is not disturbed, I don’t mind.

  • Anonymous

    Testimony was taken and the fact learned was this–the local community rejects protected bike lanes on Polk Street. And can you blame them, really? The experts are asking them to give up something tangible–parking spaces–for a promise that things will be the same as they ever were if not better. That might not have been the case if the project had been broken into phases and implemented more slowly over time and if the merchants had been brought in earlier. But no, the SFMTA acted with its usual imperial overreach and encountered fierce opposition as a result, just as it did with the parking meter plan in the Mission. When will they ever learn?

  • NoeValleyJim

    I moved around a lot when I was a kid and I am small of frame, so I occasionally was the subject of bullying. One thing I learned was that if you picked the biggest tormentor and punched him in the nose, everyone quickly learned to leave you alone.

  • Dave Moore

    When both sides are bullies it turns into a brawl.

  • Ah yes, that old tactic. At the Noe Valley meetings, the opponents were walking around during the City’s speakers presentation, interrupting, sticking cameras in the face of the speaker, and finally Supervisor Dufty had to intervene and say “if I have to call the police to a town hall in Noe Valley we’ll definitely make the news”. When the opponents got up for their talk, the people supporting the project shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

    Therefore – “both sides are bullies”.

  • Dave Moore

    You can’t believe that cyclists have never acted in an aggressive and / or bullying manor can you? I wasn’t at this specific meeting but I was at the Page Street circles one years ago and there was no shortage of screaming, accusations of wanting people to die or the earth to explode or whatever else they claimed would happen if someone drove a car. And this board is riddled with the same sort of rhetoric, on both sides.

  • You tell me

    FYI – this video was uploaded by one of the people who was doing the screaming – that person was *proud* of their behavior.

  • Anonymous

    Another example of neighbors getting upset because city bureaucrats and those who know how to play the system are trying to pull one over on everybody else. Rule #1 of project management is get buy-in from all stakeholders. Until the self-styled cognoscenti wrap their heads around that proposition their grand plans will come to naught.

  • p_chazz found a thesaurus! run for the hills…

  • NoeValleyJim

    You have a point there: this is classic zero sum negotiating, I honestly don’t think that there can be anything but a brawl. But I am more than willing to let other’s try to find a better way out.

    In the end, if the merchants really want to fight, I think we can give them one. I doubt they are as strong as they imagine they are, or that we as as weak as they somehow seem to believe.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I really don’t think that accusations of people wanting to die crosses over into bullying. It is mostly still a free country and making an ass of yourself in public is Constitutionally protected.

    Shouting down people who are attempting to make a point at a public meeting designed to gather input from the public definitely does cross it. Don’t you think?

  • Jamison Wieser

    I just don’t understand this mentality so many merchants have: sure, bike and pedestrian improvments would draw more potential customers, likely one’s with more disposable incomewithout the burdensome cost of car ownership, but instead they want to drive all these people away for the much fewer who drive.

    And with only 15% arriving by car, it seems those who drive largely drive elsewhere to shop. Maybe its just me, but if I ran a shop I’d want to make money from it.

  • Maybe we’re falling into the same trap economists fall into – sometimes not all actors in an economy act rational in terms of optimizing financial profit.

  • Dave Moore

    I’d love to see data on whether cyclists have more disposable income than drivers overall. I could easily see it going either way. There will be some who choose to cycle and don’t have the burden of a car. There will be some who can’t afford a car and are forced to cycle. I have no idea what the makeup is in SF.

    I know there was a poll as part of this work but it looked unreliable as everyone answering had a vested interest in the outcome.

  • Ryan Brady

    What field is your degree in, that you feel so justified in dismissing a methodology that has been used multiple times before the Polk street study?

  • Anonymous

    I think a better way of looking at that is that cyclists have more disposable income than they would have if they were drivers. I don’t think it necessarily matters that one group is “wealthier” than the other, because they’re both people not necessarily static “groups.”

    I think what’s more important or relevant to this discussion is the way mode choice affects spending habits, if I decide to walk instead of bike, where I end up eating or shopping changes. Likewise if I drive (generally using citycarshare) it’s for a very specific researched purchase. I’m not going to cruz down a neighborhood street looking for a place to eat the way I would walking or biking. So for a neighborhood street with a commercial corridor I would think that even if all the cars were Bentleys, local customers who walk and bike would still be spending more money there.

  • Anonymous

    Also, in regards to this specific project I think you hit the nail on the head of why better bike infrastructure is a necessity for San Francisco and Polk street: “There will be some who can’t afford a car and are forced to cycle.” Especially in the Polk corridor where the majority of people do not own a car, it’s ridiculous to privilege car travel and storage over the safety of people walking and on bikes (and transit). Whether or not people who choose not to drive have more money to spend, they deserve to be able to travel safely and their lives are more important than the convenience of drivers who may or may not be wealthy.

    The polk street debate should not be framed by “who has more income, let’s cater to them” it should be framed in terms of safety of the community.

  • It turns out the chamber of commerce does not represent the 50 businesses that have come out in favor of bike lanes on our main street in Eagle Rock.

    Also, some of the businesses that came out in opposition to bike lanes were apparently told that they would lose parking when this has never been proposed. Opposition lying about the amount of parking that’ll be lost? What a concept!

  • Ryan Brady

    Yes! Especially since there is no viable alternative for bicycles.

  • The email list for SF2G has a couple thousand people on it, who ride bikes. Of course they are probably all poor since most of them work for Google.

    And in this point is another situation where the concept that the cyclist demographic skews younger plays against your assertion. Younger people pretty much dispose of all of their income, when I got older I started using a big chunk of my income to maintain a house 200 miles away from San Francisco, and now I am using a big chunk to pay for schools.

    Regardless, if you have a car you are using a good chunk of disposable dollars on transportation that cyclists might not be.

  • nick bonnell

    I’m curious what would be a good way to implement pedestrian and bicycle improvements over time? I’ve thought about this too and am not being sarcastic.
    As someone who live within three blocks of lower POlk and use Polk regularly, I would like to find some common ground. I use Polk all the time and would love to see pedestrian and bicycle improvements along the whole corridor. Removing the third lane many years ago was a start, where and when do we go from there?

  • why not put the bike lanes on Larkin St? It is not quite as flat, but much quieter, wider and could more easily sacrifice a lane if necessary for bikes.

  • 94103er

    Really? Don’t you have anything better to do than come onto 10-day-old posts and leave ad-hominem insults for public officials who aren’t even reading this?


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