Democratizing the streets - Page 2

Streets of San Francisco: An unprecedented political consensus on rethinking roadways is belied by nasty clashes over how to pay for it

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The number of SF cyclists has doubled in recent years even as a court injunction has prevented the creation of new bike lanes
AYANA IVERY AND CIELLE TAAFFE GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MATT REAMER

"I think we are at a tipping point. All these little things have been percolating," said San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association director Gabriel Metcalf, listing examples such as the creative reuse of San Francisco street space by Rebar and other groups (see "Seizing space," 11/18/09), experiments in New York and other cities to convert traffic lanes to bicycle and pedestrian spaces, a new generation of more forward-thinking traffic engineers and planning professionals working in government, and more aggressive advocacy work by the SFBC, SPUR, and other groups.

"I think it's all starting to coalesce," Metcalf said. "Go to 17th and Valencia [streets] and feel what it's like to have a sidewalk that's wide enough to be comfortable. Or go ride in the physically separated bike lane on Market Street. Or take your kids to the playground at Hayes Green that used to be a freeway ramp."

Politically, this is a rare area of almost universal agreement. "This is an issue where this mayor and this board have been very aligned," Metcalf said. Winnicker, Newsom's spokesperson, agreed: "The mayor and the board do see this issue very similarly."

Mirkarimi, a progressive who chairs the Transportation Authority, also agreed that this new way of looking at the streets has been a bright spot in board-mayoral relations. "It is evolving and developing, and that's a very good thing," Mirkarimi said.

Both Winnicker and Mirkarimi separately singled out the improvements on Divisidero Street — where the median and sidewalks have been planted with trees and vegetation and some street parking spaces have been turned into designated bicycle parking and outdoor seating — as an example of the new approach.

"It really is a microcosm of an evolving consciousness," Mirkarimi said of the strip.

Sunday Streets, a series of events when the streets are closed to cars and blossom with life, is an initiative proposed by SFBC and Livable City that has been championed by Newsom and supported by the board as it overcame initial opposition from the business community and some car drivers.

"There is a growing synergy toward connecting the movements that deal with repurposing space that has been used primarily for automobiles," Sunday Streets coordinator Susan King told us.

Newsom has cast the greening initiatives as simply common sense uses of space and low-cost ways of improving the city. "A lot of what the mayor and the board have disagreements on, some of that is ideological," Winnicker said. "But streets, parks, medians, and green spaces, they are not ideological."

Maybe not, but where the rubber is starting to meet the road is on how to fund this shift, particularly when it comes to transit services that aren't cheap — and to Newsom's seemingly ideological aversion to new taxes or charges on motorists.

"We're completely aligned when it comes to the Bike Plan and testing different things as far as our streets, but that all changes with the MTA budget," said board President David Chiu, who is leading the charge to reject the budget because of its deep Muni service cuts. "Progressives are focused on the plight of everyday people who can't afford to drive and park a car and have to rely on Muni. So it's a question of on whose back will you balance the MTA budget."

 

WHOSE STREETS?

The MTA governs San Francisco's streets, from deciding how their space is allocated to who pays for their upkeep. The agency runs Muni, sets and administers parking policies, regulates taxis, approves bicycle-related improvements, and tries to protect pedestrians.

So when the mayoral-appointed MTA Board of Directors last month approved a budget that cuts Muni service by 10 percent without sharing the pain with motorists or pursuing significant new revenue sources — in defiance of pleas by the public and progressive supervisors over the last 18 months — it triggered a real street fight.

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