Contending with cars, at the polls and on vacation

Bike touring is a fun and eco-friendly vacation option that state policies could better facilitate.

STREET FIGHT San Francisco's politics of mobility devolved into a cesspit this summer. Beginning with Mayor Ed Lee's retreat on Sunday parking meters, purportedly to garner support for his transportation bond and vehicle license fee proposals, Lee's bait and switch ultimately backfired.

Rather than nudge the city's transit finance debate in a sensible, progressive direction, confusion and duplicity by the mayor and some supervisors over parking policy has instead empowered a Tea Party-like faction that's placed a backwards initiative on the November ballot.

This Restore Transportation Balance Initiative (Proposition L) is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's got nothing to do with balance, but would instead seek to substitute a "cars-first" policy for the city's longstanding "transit-first" paradigm. Although only an advisory measure, its main effect would be to provide the mayor and supervisors more cover to do nothing except shrug and kick the can of sustainable transportation policy down the road.

This is exactly what the car-firsters want, just as Republicans in Congress have thwarted President Obama's agenda for mitigating climate change. These local drivers hope to stall efforts to make San Francisco more pedestrian-friendly, block Muni improvements, and make sure bicycles don't slow them down or get in the way of unfettered, gluttonous free parking for private cars on public streets.

In that vein, the Restore Balance crowd has lifted a script from the infamous Koch brothers, securing finances from a Facebook billionaire (Sean Parker funded the measure's signature-gathering effort) and speaking about transportation policy in a manner reminiscent of climate change deniers. Any bike lane, parking management effort, or Muni improvement is, in their eyes, out of balance with a city that should be betrothed solely to cars.

Meanwhile, as Muni fares went up this summer without any objection from mayor "nickel-and-dime," a ballot measure put forth by Sup. Scott Wiener joins the crowded field as Proposition B. His proposal would devote more General Fund monies to Muni operations, but it's unclear what impact this might have on other important city programs like housing or social services.

It's a good thing City Hall went on summer recess, because we'll all need some time to sift through all this muck.



Speaking of vacations, let's talk about the good, bad, and ugly of car-free vacationing using Amtrak and a bicycle. I recently took Amtrak's Coast Starlight north from Oakland to Portland, with my touring bicycle in tow. In Portland, I surveyed some of the bicycle and transit infrastructure before a 950-mile bike tour back to San Francisco along the Oregon and California coasts.

The Coast Starlight is a relaxing way to travel up to Portland. It has comfortable and roomy seating with outlets for plugging in phones or other devices, and the views of Mt. Hood and Oregon's verdant forests and valleys are breathtaking. Most importantly, taking the train from Oakland to Portland produces far fewer carbon emissions than flying or driving the same distance.

A flight to Portland produces 14 times the carbon emissions compared to the train. Driving up I-5 in a new car with decent fuel economy produces 26 times the emissions of the train. This is an incredible difference that must be factored into national transportation policies, and it does not include the full life cycle assessment of each mode, such as petroleum extraction, manufacturing vehicles, waste disposal, infrastructure (concrete is a huge CO2 emitter), and so on. While carpooling might reduce per capita driving emissions, traveling with friends or family on Amtrak reduces them even further.

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