Photo from Portland's recent ciclovia by Steven T. Jones
It's not easy to create carfree spaces in automobile-obsessed California, even temporary ones, as Mayor Gavin Newsom is starting to learn. His proposal to create a carfree "ciclovia" along the Embarcadero from Bayview to Chinatown was already scaled back from his original proposal of three consecutive Sundays in August to the recently approved plan for four-hour events on Aug. 31 and Sept. 14.
Merchant groups from Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf lost their minds, screaming with fears of lost business even though motorists will still be able to access their tourist traps by car, and they'll be joined by thousands of people pedaling, walking and skating past their businesses during prime breakfast and lunch hours. And now members of the Board of Supervisors have added their voices to this shrill chorus.
I knew there would be outrage, and there has been opposition in every city where it's been tried (and it's ultimately become popular everywhere it's been tried). Unfortunately, Newsom has a history of caving in to overentitled motorists. So the challenge now for Newsom -- and for all of us concerned about climate change, public health, and the promotion of sustainable forms of transportation -- is to do what's right in the face of fearful proponents of the status quo.
Because creating eight hours per year of carfree space along the San Francisco waterfront is the least we can do.
Newsom didn't come up with this idea all on his own, although he says he brought it back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where former London Mayor Ken Livingstone talked up the concept, which was pioneered in Bogota, Columbia. No, this was something already being pushed by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and other local groups, representatives of which attended the recent Towards Carfree Cities conference in Portland.
As Newsom's climate change director Wade Crowfoot explained to me, there was a broad coalition that has pushed this project, with lefty stalwarts Cheryl Brinkman and Susan King brought in to help with the outreach. "We've purposefully developed a broad coalition on this," Crowfoot said, noting that groups ranging from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to the SFBC have signed on.
Many of the lefties in that coalition were outraged this morning at reports that Sup. Ross Mirkarimi joined the Board of Supervisors effort to stop the events (or to delay them until after an economic impact study was done, which would kill the events for this year), but Mirkarimi told me that his name was included by mistake. "I'm actually not opposed. My name was added by mistake," he said. "This is a great idea, but the process has been horrible."
Mirkarimi said he agreed with Sup. Aaron Peskin, who is leading the opposition on behalf of the merchant groups in his district, that Newsom should have worked with the board on this idea and vetted it through groups such as the Small Business Commission. That's probably a fair point, and Newsom should be working more closely with the city's legislative body on many of his initiatives, particularly controversial ideas that seek to make San Francisco a more progressive city.
Yet this is an idea worth defending. As Gil Peñalosa, the father of ciclovias in Columbia, told me at the Portland conference, "There's always opposition to everything," particularly initiatives to challenge overentitled American motorists the way they must be challenged if we are to make real progress combating climate change and improving public health. But, he said, "At the end of the day, you were elected and you need to decide what’s best for the majority of the people.”
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