Cars vs. Bikes: The Battle for Polk Street

Categories: bikes

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If you have both a car and a vested interest in actually being able to park it somewhere, it's possible you're feeling a little put upon these days.

Indeed, such that San Francisco's War on Cars exists (and don't worry, it doesn't), the last week has seen major developments on three of its fronts.

The onslaught began at Market and Dolores. By approval of the Planning Commission late last week, that intersection is soon to be "bulbed-out." That means more sidewalk, more greenery, more walkable, sittable, and hang-outable plaza space where multimodal urbanites can lock up their bikes, tie up their dogs, and munch on their kale chips outside the Whole Foods which will soon occupy that corner.

That also means -- you guessed it-- one less lane to drive in on either side of the street.

Just down the hill, the battle continues. Earlier this week, the SFMTA published its latest attempt to bring some order to the chronically unparkable and double-parker-plagued Northeast Mission, just in time for the construction of a new park -- and the removal of an old parking lot. The upshot of the proposal (being debated at John O'Connell High School as I write this): introduce meters and residential parking permits and encourage people to get to-and-from the Mission by other transportation means.

But to witness what is being decried as the most wanton assault upon citywide car-dom, turn to Polk Street.

This is where the SFMTA has proposed a series of possible design plans to make that commercial corridor more friendly for pedestrians, bikes, and buses.

Put another way, this is the most brazen manifestation of "the radical agenda of the SFMTA" which, in cahoots with the Bicycle Coalition, is plotting to remove 20 blocks of curbside parking from a street that is economically dependent on curbside parking.

That's the characterization of the plan according to the Save Polk Street Coalition, a pro-parking alliance of merchants and residents from around the neighborhood. Members of the coalition turned out en masse last Monday at a community meeting to register their displeasure.

And it was registered. In the aftermath of that meeting, it has since been reported that the SFMTA is (ahem) backpedalling on the entire proposal.

So what, it might be worthwhile to ask, was so objectionable about the SFMTA's pitch in the first place?

Last December, the agency published four possible design concepts to be considered separately over four sections of the street. These suggested scenarios ran the gamut from the cyclist's full monty (totally separated bike lanes dashed in glorious green from Civic Center to the crest of Russian Hill with plenty of bike corrals and parklets along the way) to something a bit more scaled back.

What is impossible to argue is that each of the scenarios would have constituted a significant improvement for those getting around that neighborhood on two wheels or two feet. The certain aesthetic improvements aside, any of the proposed design changes would have reduced the rate of pedestrian and cyclist traffic collisions on that street (about two per month, combined, between 2006 and 2011).

But what is also impossible to argue is that SFMTA's idea of an improved Polk Street is a Polk Street with fewer parked cars hugging the curb. In every scenario envisioned, street parking is significantly curtailed (though, it's worth pointing at, never completely purged).

What that would mean, the folks from the Coalition insist, is certain economic doom for the neighborhood. "We welcome customers to the area regardless of how they arrive but know that many people come by car," says the group's website. And the ease with which a would-be customer can park in front of a particular restaurant or grocery store is, they argue, a deciding factor in whether that customer decides to go there.

No doubt, there are certain circumstances when this is true. Consider this comment left on the Coalition's website: "How would I carry dog food if I cannot park near the Pet store[?] How about carrying groceries[?]...Not to mention my senior friends who will be inconvenienced and limited."

Fair enough. Though I perform most of my commuting, errand-running, and all-purpose getting about town upon a bike, not everyone is in the position to do the same -- even if they wanted to. And though I don't have a car, I do recognize that the elimination of parking spaces (in this case, up to 17 percent of all of the parking in the area being considered within a block on either side of Polk) is not cost-free.

But likewise, the SFMTA's improvement plan is not totally devoid of economic benefit.

And yet, as reported in the Examiner on Wednesday evening: "[The Bicycle Coalition] maintains that these improvements, such as dedicated bike lanes, would boost business. That idea was laughed at during the meeting."

That response is puzzling for a number of reasons. For one, it has been shown over and over and over and over again, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that increasing bike traffic in a neighborhood can be a boon for local businesses.

But beyond the issue of the bike lanes, the SFMTA plan also proposes the extension of sidewalks, the expansion of intersections, and the addition of parklets and bike corrals and plenty of boxed greenery. Is it really so laughably absurd to suggest that converting what is now an unsafe, narrow-sidewalked shopping street into an open, accessible, green corridor might be good for business? Even if that means that some of the driving customers will have to walk the rest of the way from Clay?

At the very least, this seems like a legitimate debate. Hardly something, that is, worth going to war over.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.




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21 comments
monstro
monstro

85% of shoppers on Polk walk, take transit or ride bicycles. Why should city policy be dominated by the 15%?

evan.goldin
evan.goldin

I live within 5 blocks of Polk, and I rarely go. Why? It's definitely not because it's not easy to drive there. It's because the sidewalks lack the space and vibrancy of Valencia Street, and I don't bike there because I worry for my life when I do. It's so close, but I feel more comfortable walking to (gah) Union Square because it's so much more pedestrian friendly. I don't understand these merchants. I would go to your business MORE if Polk weren't just a permanently traffic clogged street, and it would be a much more pleasant place. Just this weekend I walked to Bell Tower, and found myself wanting to come back more often. I don't see why trying to make it more pleasant for more people is such a bad thing. Cars have Van Ness, Larking, Hyde and Leavenworth! Gough! Franklin! Let pedestrians and bikers have one damn street.

John
John

How about a pure pedestrian zone a la Stroget st in Copenhagen? I believe this would be the single best thing for the street and the city.

Jan Blum
Jan Blum

I thought this was a balanced (THANK YOU) article, just for a change of pace, but the commenters are pretty much the same old same old; personally vindictive, off point, yelpers, and anecdotal. We could use a lot of work in the online "reply" department.

ThomasBlatter
ThomasBlatter

Howard Epstein wrote, "Anyone who thinks San Francisco hasn't declared war on the automobile isn't paying attention or is delusional. "

You are the deluded one mister. It is the automobile drivers that have for over 100 years declared war on bicyclist and pedestrians. If you would take the time to look at the statistics you will learn that how many people cars kill and maim each year. Do bikes kill?

HowardEpstein
HowardEpstein

Mr. Christopher should stay in Oakland.  Anyone who thinks San Francisco hasn't declared war on the automobile isn't paying attention or is delusional.  The undeniable fact is that the SFMTA, along with the members of the Anarchist On Two Wheels Coalition, who believe that traffic laws and common rules of etiquette do not apply to them, have a radical agenda of  riding The City of cars.   You see it over and over with more meters everywhere at very high prices, sky-high parking tickets, elimination of parking for "parklets," addition of bike lanes where not needed, etc, etc, etc.  

sebraleaves
sebraleaves topcommenter

The author did a good job of summing up the list of recent attacks against cars and drivers. The question is, who runs the city and for how long? Right now the Bicycle Coalition is getting paid to design the streets with taxpayer money, using the taxpayer dollars to hire lobbies and buy  power in Sacramento and Washington, and at City Hall. What are the taxpayers going to do about it.

I agree with "termionationshock. Garages are a solution to the parking problem. Why there are so many empty parking garages all over town. There are 7 in Mission Bay near the light rail on Third Street that could alleviate a lot of the commuter needs. We need park and ride Muni hubs so people can drive to a place to park and get on a bus or BART to go to their final destination. Why is that not a part of the plan? Why is that not one of the SFMTA's parking tools? Why are parking garages being shut down instead of opened up?

As someone said at the NE Mission SFMTA meeting last night, "follow the money."

terminationshok
terminationshok

As an SF resident, I greatly appreciate the bike lane network here. It is also relatively easy to drive and find parking. Try visiting other similar sized cities and see how it compares. Adding bike lanes is a safety solution. People can live or die by the decision to add bike lanes. I don't think parking is a life or death issue.  Urban residents from the younger generation prefer to use other methods of transportation than cars, and this is only going to increase as time goes on. Cyclists and pedestrians aren't a vocal minority anymore, and it would be a mistake to treat them as such.

A street is public property that takes up vast amounts of the urban landscape. It is intended for people to use for transportation. It's rather silly for that contiguous space along a travel corridor to be used for storage of private property on public land. Instead, I think the city should remove street parking and provide lots and garages wherever possible. This is whether it's to add bike lanes, or more car lanes.

It's important to consider the nature of the street before introducing changes. An area with coffee shops, book stores, entertainment, and shopping will indeed benefit from bike lanes, large sidewalks, and parklets. Businesses are competing heavily for space in places that have these. Grocery stores, doctors offices, and hardware shops can benefit from street parking. Choose the part of your community that has the former to provide safe passage for people who travel by bike, and they might stop there more often and support the local businesses.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

Right. City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition know what's good for small businesses and the neighborhoods better than those business owners and their neighbors do. There is in fact an anti-car war going on in SF, led by the Coalition and its many enablers in City Hall.

The city has done these "improvements"---taking away street parking to make bike lanes---on Ocean Avenue, upper Market Street, and 17th Street, all against the protests of small businesses in these neighborhoods. The Fell/Oak bike lanes eliminated 100 parking spaces in a neighborhood---my neighborhood---where street parking is scarce to make cyclists "comfortable" riding on the Panhandle. City Hall and the Coalition's next big project will be eliminating 167 parking spaces on Masonic Avenue to make bike lanes.

Why doesn't the MTA publish a detailed account of the alleged safety problem on Polk Street? Reiskin mentioned some numbers the other day, but no intersections on Polk made the list of dangerous intersections in the city's latest collision report. Where are the accidents on Polk happening and who's responsible? If there really is a safety problem there, the city's argument would be more convincing if they supplied some detail to support the claim.

Rob Anderson

citydad
citydad

You live in Oakland, dude.  Until you move to San Francisco, you really shouldn't opine on whether street designs favoring cyclists really improve the quality of life for The City's residents and businesses.  Fact is, many of these bike "improvements" are not such great ideas for most of the City's residents.  Oh, they're terrific if you are young, fit, active and with plenty of free time, but most people who live here don't live that lifestyle.    If you actually lived here, you might spend time with people in your neighborhood but outside your peer group and gain a broader perspective.


Oh and just wait until the MTA tries to implement the bike plan on the west side of town.  Reiskin will be lucky to keep his skin, let alone his job.

SFNY
SFNY

@HowardEpstein lol @ "undeniable fact". 

Please share the road, mister. Automobiles are not a scaleable transportation solution. I'm sorry you don't like bikes, but we don't have enough room to all have cars. Public policy is about doing the most good for the most people, and that very clearly means supporting the growth of cycling in San Francisco. Many cyclists need to learn some manners, but cycling is still the lowest cost-highest impact transportation in a city with a broken MUNI system and increasing population density. Share the road.

monstro
monstro

@sebraleaves You must be new here right? Do you remember the Central Freeway wars? The majority of San Franciscans are not in favor of wider streets and more parking. How many times do you have to lose before you realize that?

monstro
monstro

@rmajora Hey this is the Rob Anderson who got 5% of the vote when he ran for the Board of Supervisors isn't it! 95% of San Francisco does not agree with you, when are you going to realize that fact?

monstro
monstro

@citydad I am 48, with 2 kids and use a bicycle as my primary means of transportation. I also work at a startup and my wife works at a bank. Your nonsense might convince yourself but it is simply not even close to the truth.

RobSF
RobSF

@citydad"Fact is, many of these bike 'improvements' are not such great ideas for most of the City's residents."

Many of the "improvements" are bad for everyone.  The corner "bulb-outs" put pedestrians too close to the traffic lanes and force cyclists into choke-points with cars.  I hate riding down any street with blub outs.

RobSF
RobSF

@FreshAir @sebraleaves Yes, but at a disproportionate rate.  The city is planning to spend $200 million over the next five years on bicycle improvements when they account for only 3.5% of daily trips in the city.  I ride my bike to work, and even I'm against that kind of madness.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@monstro @rmajora 

You'd like to change the subject from Polk Street to me. The Bicycle Plan has never been on the ballot because City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition are afraid that city voters would reject it. While we're at it, why not put Critical Mass on the ballot, too? And the Polk Street "improvements"? Back in 2004, the city allowed residents of Page Street to vote on the traffic circles, which they rejected. Can't take that chance again.

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