Archive for the ‘Automobiles’ Category

Public Works…Works!

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

If you’ve read some of my old posts here, then you may have noticed that the only things which can cause me to swoon or to find religion are bike lanes. So it may not come as a shock that a bike lane is what has roused me from my blogging slumber.

I commute back and forth to Alameda by bike several times a week, and in late August, I was almost crushed by an SUV when it drifted into the bike lane (which is to say, drifted into me) rounding the curve on Kennedy Street as we approached the Park Street bridge. It’s not unusual to see automobiles take the curve too tightly and cross into the bike lane on that street, but usually drivers have the decency, and the awareness, to avoid doing it when a bicyclist is actually in the lane. Luckily, I was more alert than the driver, and was able to slow down to avoid getting knocked over as the SUV quickly transformed a 5-foot bike lane into a 4-foot, then 3-foot, then 2-foot, then 18-inch bike lane (at which point my shouts of “What are you doing?! Bike Lane!!” may have finally penetrated the thick shell of the SUV and the even thicker skull of the driver, who drifted back out of the bike lane and continued on her oblivious way).

All’s well that ends well, and as auto/bike conflicts go, this one was minor, but it reminded me of why some cyclists argue that old-fashioned, unseparated bike lanes like the ones on Kennedy Street are worse than having no bike lane at all: bike lanes created by simply striping off a 5-foot section of the roadway can give riders a false sense of security, without actually giving us any actual protection from plentiful hazards such as spaced-out drivers, illegally-parked cars, or opening car doors. Bike lanes may also implicitly give drivers permission to be oblivious or hostile to cyclists on streets without bike lanes, by unintentionally sending the message that bikes do not belong on the same roadways as other vehicles.

Those are debates for another day—personally, I prefer the inadequate, dangerous bike lanes which are prevalent in Oakland to not having any bike lanes at all. The bike lanes on Kennedy Street, however, were poor even by Oakland standards—some of the paint striping was so faded that one couldn’t see it at all, and the painted markings designating the shoulder as a bike lane were so worn away that the words “bike lane” were only legible if you already knew what it said and the icon of a bicyclist looked more like a unicyclist.

It’s no wonder that many drivers drifted into the bike lane as they rounded that curve! Kennedy Street bears a lot of the traffic heading from Oakland to Alameda, and is heavily used by trucks serving the nearby industrial areas. Kennedy Street also abuts two cement plants, so a lot of sand granules end up on that stretch of road, grinding away the paint as cars and trucks roll by. Combine those problems with the fact that the Kennedy Street bike lane has been around for years, and you have a recipe for a very degraded bike lane. Given that the Park Street bridge is one of the main access points for cyclists going to and from Alameda, Kennedy Street gets a lot of bike traffic, so the faded bike lanes going around the curves on Kennedy Street seemed particularly worrisome.

After my irritation with the SUV’s driver had subsided somewhat, I decided that instead of, say, slashing the SUV’s tires or firebombing an auto dealership, a more fruitful way to channel my anger might be trying to get the bike lanes repainted. That night I went to Oakland’s Department of Public Works website and reported the degraded bike lanes as an “Unsafe Condition.” I really had no idea whether anything would be done—while I did believe that the condition of the bike lanes on Kennedy Street created a hazardous condition with potentially fatal consequences, there are dangerous street conditions all over Oakland (potholes, etc.) and new bike lanes being added every year, so I wasn’t sure that re-striping an existing bike lane would be deemed a priority.

So when I rode to Alameda yesterday, I was pleased to see freshly painted lines and a new icon of a cyclist in the bike lane. I don’t know if they will also repaint the words “Bike Lane,” but the work done by yesterday evening is already a big improvement (my photo doesn’t do justice to how much more visible the new paint is, and they also repainted the bike lane on the opposite side of the street, which was even more faded):

It’s easy to become cynical about Oakland’s municipal services, since it sometimes seems that all one hears are rants about lazy, unhelpful, or incompetent (or worse!) city employees. And to be sure, many people have complained of ineffectual responses when they’ve reported problems to the Public Works Department, but the two times I have reported specific problems (the bike lane striping and a burnt couch which was blighting 12th Avenue early last year), the city has responded with alacrity. It’s nice to know that even with layoffs and furlough days and all its other problems, the city can still get some stuff right, at least some of the time.

 

Safer Streets By Any Means Necessary?

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

I’d never noticed this sign at Market and 55th Street in Oakland until last week:

Additional safety improvements to Market Street have occurred since 1967, including bike lanes in each direction, but a reminder that even stop lights and bike lanes don’t eliminate the danger from reckless and absent-minded drivers is three blocks away at the corner of Market and 52nd, where a cyclist was killed a year ago by a driver crossing Market Street (reportedly the cyclist was in the bike lane and the driver was crossing Market Street):

Ghost Bike

When the Dog Bites. When the Bee Stings.

Friday, September 17th, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things: coffee, bikes, music, and the reclaiming of public space from the tyranny of the automobile. Imagine how delighted I was, then, to be able to take a picture of a coffee shop, a bike shop, a record shop, and a (temporary, alas) parklet installed on 40th Street in Oakland today as park of the annual Park(ing) Day takeover of curbside parking spots:

Coffee, Bikes, Music, Parklet.

I rode up to Berkeley today, so I swung by a few of these spots. I love the idea of Park(ing) Day, but I have to admit that seeing it in practice made me a bit sad. These parklets are sort of cute, but they were all surrounded today by the ugly, charmless streetscapes which pervade Oakland. Instead of being little oases of green, the seating areas in front of Subrosa (above) or Actual Cafe were unused at lunchtime until I plopped myself down and had my cappuccino or bagel or egg cream. Rather than giving me a small glimpse of how nice streets such as 40th or San Pablo could be someday, they just reminded me of how inhospitable to human beings those arterial streets are, and how dramatically they would need to change in order to feel like they were made for people instead of for cars.

Two other places I rode past which were supposedly participating in Park(ing) Day (Tip Top bikes in Temescal and Good Chemistry bakery on Grand) did not seem to have taken part after all, and Farley’s East on Grand, which looks like it had a great and well-used setup this morning, had moved everything up onto the sidewalk and given up the parking space to a car by the time I rode past in mid-afternoon. Given how low-density most parts of Oakland are, I have some real doubts about whether any amount of improved streetscaping or road diets or redevelopment or reclamation of public space will ever make it feel like a truly pedestrian-friendly city, except in small pockets here and there.

On a less pessimistic note, I was riding to Berkeley because I have wanted to check out Waterside Workshops in West Berkeley since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. It’s a non-profit which runs a boatbuilding workshop, a bike shop, and a cafe. They have local disadvantaged teens serve as interns, teaching them how to craft wooden boats, fix up old bikes for resale, and serve customers at the waterfront cafe. Obviously the main point is to instill good work habits, pride of workmanship, and collaborative and customer service skills, but who knows, boatbuilding and bike repair may end up being in demand if we start to run out of oil in the next few decades.

Waterside Workshops

It is very Berkeley, and very awesome. Sadly, it was also very closed today, due to a water outage caused by a nearby construction project. My visit will have to wait for another time, but I’ll probably take some photos and write about it more after I finally get to take a look around.

Under the Freeway and Through the Parking Lot, to Amtrak’s House We Go

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

If you want to walk from historic (and tourist-oriented) Old Town Sacramento to the train station, you are directed across a parking area, under two or three freeway ramps, and then through another parking lot. (The yellow sign says “TO AMTRAK STATION” and the sign on the parking lot booth behind it says “PAY HERE.” Indeed, we are paying dearly for the privileging of the automobile in the last century).

To Amtrak Station

(Ironically, this photo was taken about 50 feet from the entrance to the California State Railroad Museum.)

Pedestrian access from the direction of downtown and the capitol isn’t much better—you have to cross this wide boulevard designed to be a freeway feeder, and there’s only one crosswalk at one corner of one intersection. And of course there is a parking lot to traverse on this side of the building as well (the Amtrak station is the brick building visible behind the trees):

I don’t know why I’m continually surprised by all the little ways that American cities have been designed to accommodate cars at the expense of other modes of transportation, but I am. Maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky to spend most of my life in cities which retain a lot of their pre-automobile design. (In fairness to Sacramento, much of it seems like a fairly livable, walkable city, at least in the neighborhoods surrounding the city center, and its flat terrain makes riding a bike easy too.)

Walk at Your Own Risk

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

It’s been a terrible week for pedestrians around here. On Tuesday alone, a woman was killed in an Oakland crosswalk by a hit and run driver, a woman crossing the street in San Francisco was killed by a city utility truck (she appears to have been in a crosswalk too), and yet another woman was critically injured by an SF Muni bus as she walked across a crosswalk. Then yesterday, two teenagers were hit by an SUV in Santa Rosa as they walked across a crosswalk, and one of them is critically injured.

Seriously, enough is enough! If it were swine flu or a defective Toyota part or al Qaeda which was causing this level of ongoing slaughter in the United States, then it would be considered a national crisis. When it’s stupid or reckless or inattentive drivers who are causing this mayhem, however, the problem is mostly dismissed with a shrug and the explanation that these are just “tragic accidents.”

I understand why these individual incidents don’t make big headlines. (The Oakland hit and run death was relegated to the “News Briefs” on page 6 of yesterday’s Oakland Tribune; homicides sometimes get the same treatment—when these tragedies become routine, then they no longer qualify as big news.) And I also understand, legally speaking, why drivers who hit pedestrians (or bicyclists) are rarely held responsible for their negligence—these are, after all, “just accidents,” as the police often say when they explain why no one is being charged in these cases. Despite what it may feel like when one is walking or biking around American cities these days, the overwhelming majority of automobile drivers do not actually want to hit anyone. And the fact that responsibility for all these pedestrian deaths and injuries is borne by a diffuse array of individual drivers, rather than a single entity like a car company or a terrorist group, makes it seem less like a systematic problem and more like a random set of unavoidable tragedies.

It is a systematic problem, however. I don’t know precisely what perverse set of historical developments got us where we are today, but the fact is that we as a society have taken most of our public space and turned it over to millions of absent-minded or distracted or careless people who are each controlling about a ton of fast-moving metal. In my opinion, this is completely insane. It’s no wonder that so few people walk anywhere in most parts of the country!

And not only have we turned over most of our urban public space to people in cars, but we then do a lousy job of ensuring that they drive responsibly. Any 16-year-old who can do a three point turn can get a license to kill—excuse me, I mean a license to drive. Drunk drivers, who are essentially broadcasting to the world the message that they do not really care if they take the life of another human being, are usually allowed to get behind the wheel a few months after getting a DUI—and we usually don’t even take their cars away, so these people who have already displayed a lack of concern for obeying the law and for other people’s safety can easily get behind the wheel and drive to their favorite bar again, suspended license be damned.

It’s not just pedestrians and bicyclists who are in danger from this absurd set of circumstances—we just happen to be the most vulnerable, since we aren’t ensconced in protective metal cages ourselves. Roughly 40,000 Americans die in car crashes every year, and many, perhaps most, of those crashes would not occur if drivers simply slowed down a little bit and watched where they were going. I don’t believe that most automobile drivers are more indifferent to human life than other people, but they just happen to be piloting very dangerous, fast-moving objects with minimal training. (Auden wrote that “indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” but if he had spent a few hours riding a bike around a modern American city, he might have changed his mind about that.)

It’s about time that politicians (aided by the police, prosecutors, etc.) undertook a serious effort to make people realize that recklessly endangering the lives of other people will not be tolerated anymore. Even baby steps would be a nice start, such as aggressively ticketing all the oblivious drivers who blithely cruise through intersections while people are in crosswalks, forcing the walkers to jump back to the curb—if the risk of killing pedestrians isn’t enough to make drivers pay attention, then maybe a few moving violations will start to do the trick.

Going Back to College for Some Lessons on Livable Space

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

I went up to Berkeley on Tuesday to remind myself of how the other half lives, and as I rode through the UC campus, I was reminded of something that came up in the comments on one of my earlier posts: college campuses are among the few places where pedestrians, bicyclists and low-speed motorized vehicles mix freely in “shared space” in the United States, and they offer prime examples of how mixed-use, unsegregated roads and paths can be safely used by slow-moving cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchairs, skateboards—whatever—as long as everyone is paying attention.

Indeed, the fact that all those modes of transportation are forced to coexist on the paths and roads of a campus such as Cal’s is what causes everyone to pay more attention, creating places where people can get where they are going at whatever pace they choose, with almost no conflict or inconvenience. It’s part of what makes a nice college campus feel so utopian compared to your average city street. In most cities, the majority of public space is devoted to moving or parked cars, with pedestrians segregated onto narrow strips of concrete on either side and cyclists uneasily mixed in with the cars (uneasily because many drivers perceive the roadway as “their” turf, and see slower-moving bicycles as obtrusive obstacles). On a college campus, the pedestrian tends to be the privileged one, while cyclists are expected to proceed with caution and automobiles are heavily restricted. Shuttle buses, utility trucks or other motorized vehicles that share the pathways have no choice but to travel at safe speeds and yield to pedestrians.

Another principle of the shared space philosophy that I was reminded of is the importance of making the space truly shared. Even a subtle division of the space by painting a strip on a path and telling walkers and bikers to stay on opposite sides of the line can have unintended consequences, especially if there is a limited amount of space, causing people to stray from “their” territory. The lovely path over the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, is divided into a bike lane and a walking lane, and back when I used to commute over the bridge by bike, the division of the space seemed to cause as many problems as it solved—inevitably, pedestrians would cross the dividing line and enter the bicycle side, either because they wanted to pass a group of slower pedestrians, or because they wanted to pose for a photo next to the opposite railing, or because they just hadn’t noticed that the path was divided into a ped lane and a bike lane. Cyclists would be irritated by the incursion into “their” space, so they would angrily swerve around the pedestrians at high speed, often having to cross into the pedestrian lane, which would cause other pedestrians to feel threatened by having a high-speed cyclists suddenly invading “their” space. The number of conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians may be reduced, but the unpleasantness of those conflicts when they do occur is greatly increased.

Given the fairly narrow path on the Brooklyn Bridge, the large number of pedestrians who walk across the bridge at certain times, and the desire of commuting cyclists to be able to ride at high speeds across the long bridge, that path may not actually be a great candidate for truly shared space, but it does demonstrate that dividing space so that each mode of transportation has its own territory doesn’t eliminate all conflicts—it might reduce their number, but when conflicts do arise, they may not be as smoothly negotiated as they are on, say, the paths of the UC Berkeley campus.

There is some effort to keep bicyclists off of some Berkeley campus areas, but in my opinion, it’s a good thing that those rules are so widely ignored—if bikes stayed on the paths that are marked as bicycle routes, then I think there would be worse conflicts between walkers and bikers at those places where they need to interact. As it is now, bicyclists tend to ride among pedestrians nearly everywhere on campus whether they are supposed to or not, and everyone seems to negotiate their way around each other just fine, because walkers and bikers alike are very alert to the possibility of encountering a faster or slower traveler at any time.

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A Site for Sore Eyes (and Sore Bicycle Rims) on Lakeshore Ave.

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Some people’s thoughts bend toward the numinous when they see a crude outline of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cloud, or in a piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. Others of us worship differently, and feel the presence of grace when we come across a crude outline of a bicyclist indicating the imminent birth of a bike lane, like this one I photographed yesterday on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland:

Lakeshore Bike Lane

I haven’t been so excited about seeing a bike lane since I saw the protected 9th Avenue bike lane in Manhattan (complete with its own bicycle traffic signals) in August, or the lovely bike lane at the eastern end of Alameda in April. What makes this latest bike lane special isn’t its design—it looks to be a standard 5-foot paint job between the car traffic lane and the car parking lane—but rather its location, and the contrast with what was there before. Lakeshore Avenue alongside Lake Merritt has long been a truly awful road on which to ride a bicycle, which is unfortunate for me because my bicycle is my primary mode of transportation and Lakeshore is the most direct way from my apartment to most points north or west of here.

Lakeshore was terrible to bike on for many reasons: the pavement was pitted and rough; there was almost no room to squeeze between the car traffic and the parked cars; drivers went too fast around Lakeshore’s many curves; the heavy recreational use of Lakeside Park means that a lot of people are getting in and out of their parked cars, increasing the likelihood of being doored; and after dark the road was not particularly well lit. If you took all the most dangerous aspects of riding a bike in a city and put them together in one street, you might end up with something resembling Lakeshore Avenue in its former incarnation. I would sometimes take a less direct route home, especially after dark, in order to avoid having to bike on Lakeshore.

Lakeshore Bike Lane

So the brand new pavement, the reduced number of car lanes from 4 to 2 (which will hopefully reduce speeding) and the new bike lane really do come as a revelation. I knew that bike lanes were included in the master plan for the park and roadways around the lake, but I had also heard some recent speculation from people in the neighborhood that bike lanes were not going to be painted on Lakeshore after all, because there wouldn’t be enough room between the parking lane and the car traffic lane. I’m glad to see that those rumors were unfounded, and we are definitely getting our bike lanes after all.

I’ve been pretty down on Oakland lately, for reasons that I can’t entirely pinpoint, but the privileged status of the automobile here is certainly one factor. The danger posed to vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists from automobiles (which are all too often controlled by reckless, oblivious, or downright angry people) was tragically brought home two weeks ago when an 11-year-old girl in East Oakland was killed by a hit and run driver as she walked across a crosswalk from a bus stop to her school at 8 o’clock in the morning (as far as I know the killer still has not been identified). I’ve written plenty before about the importance of making the world safe for pedestrians and cyclists (including schoolchildren). The resurrection of Lakeshore Ave.,with its new pedestrian islands in the median, its bike lanes, and a reduction in its number of car lanes, should be a model for other parts of the city (like, say, lower Park Boulevard, perhaps?).

Traffic Calming on Park Boulevard Today

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I wrote in January about some of the problems with lower Park Boulevard, my neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. One big problem I noted is that cars treat it like a speedway instead of a city street, which makes it pretty scary for pedestrians and bicyclists, and therefore diminishes its potential as a thriving urban street (the closure of the Parkway Theater in March—temporary, we still hope—doesn’t help either). I also pointed out that Oakland, unlike some neighboring cities such as Alameda, does not seem to enforce traffic laws very forcefully. (I’m being charitable here; I almost never see drivers pulled over for speeding or other reckless behavior in Oakland, unless the traffic stop is done as a pretext for checking out a “suspicious” person.)

So I was interested to see more than half a dozen officers near the corner of Park and 5th Avenue this morning, clocking drivers with a radar gun and pulling over the speeders.

No Speeding!

I don’t know whether they were issuing full tickets or just warnings (maybe it depended on how fast the driver was going), and I don’t know what long-term effects these operations have, but I was at least happy to see that someone was aware of the problem. I told one of the officers that in addition to speeding, another big problem on that stretch of road is that drivers almost never stop for people at crosswalks. I was going to ask whether anything specific had prompted today’s operation, but unsurprisingly, the officer didn’t seem very eager to stand around chatting. (He seemed about as interested in my thoughts on crosswalks as cops usually are when I share my opinions with them, which is to say not at all interested—but it never hurts to try, right?)

I can imagine that some people might think it’s a waste of resources to have 8 or 10 Oakland police officers conducting an anti-speeding sting in a relatively quiet part of the city, since the OPD is chronically understaffed and has more serious crimes than speeding to worry about, but personally, my only small complaint about this sting is that it was happening in mid-morning, instead of two hours earlier—I had biked down that exact same stretch of Park at 8:30 this morning, and I literally had to pull over to the side of the road because there were so many cars driving so fast, and I didn’t feel safe “sharing the road” with them. Oh, well: better late than never.

An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

If You Build Community, They Will Come (a corollary: If You Raze It, They Will Leave)

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

They came on foot, on scooters and on skateboards. They came on scraper bikes and fixies and longtails. They came in strollers and buses and, yes, some of them came in cars. However they got there, a lot of people came out to enjoy the Lakefest held on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday and Sunday:

Lakefest 2009

I wouldn’t normally post anything about a street festival that was mostly indistinguishable from all the other street festivals which are held on summer weekends across the country (a closed street, booths with crafts or T-shirts or massages or information about local organizations, food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs in front of the local restaurants and cafes, music stages, inflatable bouncy houses and slides for children—you know the routine). What most interested me about this festival, however, was the counterpoint it provided to an event that had happened two days before and a block away.

Closing for Business

The owner of the Grand Lake Theater, Allen Michaan, who is still fuming about the changes to parking meter rates and hours that I wrote about two weeks ago, held a meeting at the theater to discuss how businesses should respond to the increases. He proposes a local business closure all day on Thursday (Aug. 6th) in order to protest the new meter rules. He is also gathering signatures for a petition to recall City Councilmembers unless they rescind the higher rates and hours.

Closing for Business

I couldn’t help but be struck by the difference between these two events. In one case, you had a festival that closed a busy street to car traffic and reduced the amount of parking in the neighborhood (because the many parking spots on Lakeshore Ave were rendered unavailable), yet people showed up in droves nonetheless, to hang out, to eat, to drink, to buy, to watch and to listen. In the other case, you had some local business owners who are raising so much hell about the “parking crisis” that they may end up losing even more customers.

Lakefest 2009

How might their behavior cause them to lose customers? Three possible ways that I can see: First, residents who might have been willing to pay a bit more for parking are now basically being told by Michaan and a few other vocal merchants that it makes more economic sense to drive to a distant suburb to see a movie or visit a restaurant, because they will save a few dollars on parking (a dubious proposition, in my opinion, once you factor in the “value” of one’s time and the cost of fuel). I can’t help but wonder if any people have avoided coming to the area because they have seen Michaan or another business owner on TV talking about how the city of Oakland is going to “mug” and “extort” them if they try to park in this neighborhood. Second, organizing the business closure on Thursday will bring attention to the issue as they hope, but it will probably also piss off a lot of customers, who may well blame the business owners instead of the City Council if they come here to do some shopping and discover that their favorite stores have voluntarily closed for the day. This reminds me of a kid on a schoolyard who gets upset and takes his ball and goes home—he might succeed in punishing the other kids, but he also punishes himself. Third, turning this issue into World War III garners support from those who agree with them, but it also alienates the Oakland residents who disagree with them on the issue, or who at the very least think that their tactics are misguided and divisive (some commenters on local blogs are already saying they will start avoiding the businesses that are leading this campaign).

I won’t get too much into the merits of the debate, since I pretty much said everything I have to say in my earlier post. (I didn’t expect to write a second post about parking in as many weeks, especially since I don’t even own a car myself.) My personal opinion is that whatever pocketbook pain drivers experience now is literally small change compared to how expensive driving will soon become (the chief economist of the International Energy Agency is now warning that we will soon face oil shortages which will put our economy and way of life in even greater peril than they are now, a view of peak oil that was widely dismissed as a fringe theory just a few years ago). For better or worse, many people will have to start driving less because it will become so expensive, and it will probably be a difficult transition, but my general feeling is that the process will be much less painful in the long run if we start encouraging a change in behavior now instead of waiting for external circumstances to force the issue.

Given that likely future, combined with Oakland’s desperate need for more revenue in the present, I am inclined to support meter rates which will raise revenue, will reduce the amount of time drivers spend circling the block looking for a spot, and will encourage people to start walking, biking, and riding the bus for more of their routine trips. That said, if the effect on our neighborhood’s businesses is as dramatic as the merchants claim, then I am not necessarily opposed to changing the current meter rules. Maybe a compromise of $1.75 instead of the new $2 or the old $1.50? Maybe a return to $1.50, but keeping the extended hours? Maybe allowing cars to stay in spots for more than 2 hours at a time? Maybe different prices at peak times versus offpeak times? I don’t know, but whatever the right balance is, it should be guided by statistics and rational debate, not anecdotes, counterproductive media campaigns, and recall threats.

In other words, even if it’s true that local business has fallen by more than 30% due to the meter changes, and even if it’s true that the City Council should rescind or alter the new meter rules, I still don’t think that the combative reaction of Michaan and others is a productive approach to this particular issue. It has certainly succeeded in getting attention to the issue: the Tribune and the Chronicle have published several articles each on the subject, and the issue has been all over TV and the internet too. The crowds at Lakefest suggest to me, however, that angry business owners would have been better off brainstorming about creative ways to entice people to our neighborhood and building an even stronger sense of community, rather than banding together to accuse elected officials of “municipal muggings” and “extortion.” Do these people look like they are being mugged or extorted?

Lakefest 2009

Positive efforts to draw people to the Grand Lake area wouldn’t preclude also making an effort to change the meter rules, but rants, threats, closing of businesses, and demonization of councilmembers don’t seem like constructive ways to encourage people to come to our neighborhood. (One also wonders where these local business owners were when it was being debated by the City Council several months ago—one blog post on the topic attracted 47 comments back in early June, so it’s not as if some people weren’t aware of the possible changes to come. Perhaps if these business owners were more engaged with the local decision-making process, we wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess to begin with.)

This neighborhood has a lot going for it, and I think most people in Oakland appreciate the advantages that a neighborhood like Grand Lake has over a mall with free parking in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill (two cities cited by Michaan as being “successful” because they have free parking). How about a campaign to remind people of the unique character and businesses in this neighborhood, and more special events to draw people to the area, instead of a divisive feud with the City Council and a publicity campaign that may serve to drive away even more customers? Has Allen Michaan pointed out even once in his media interviews that, as the Grand Lake Theater’s own website advertises, there is a free city-owned parking lot across the street from his theater where people can park for 4 hours at a stretch, or that his theater is one of the few in the Bay Area where an adult ticket still costs less than $10, at least a buck less per ticket than most theaters in neighboring communities? That is the kind of information that he should be spreading far and wide in the media, in order to encourage people to come enjoy his beautiful theater and other nearby businesses, but instead he seems so absorbed in his own righteous indignation that he cannot do anything except focus on the negative and lash out at the City Council—actions that seem likely to exacerbate whatever ill effects the new meter rules are having on his business.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

Happiness on Two Wheels

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s been a while since I waxed rhapsodic about riding a bike, and now that summer is upon us, this is probably as good a time as ever to sing the praises of the two-wheeled commute. We cycling evangelists are sometimes considered strident and holier-than-thou about our choice of transportation. I suppose that’s unavoidable, since it’s self-evident that we are morally and ethically superior to our fellow human beings in every way. Whatever the merits of our self-righteousness, however, lecturing and scolding can be counterproductive when one is trying to spread the good word to benighted souls, and our emphasis on the environmental, financial and geopolitical benefits of burning up less petroleum can give the impression that riding a bike is a difficult sacrifice, a hardship that must be endured for altruistic reasons.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, so I want to dwell a bit on another benefit of getting around by bicycle which is sometimes given short shrift: the psychological benefit. I’ve thought about this in the past, but it was clarified for me during last month’s Bike to Work day. I usually don’t observe Bike to Work Day in any special way, since I bike to work every day anyway, but for some reason I got into the spirit of it this year, so I woke up early to join a loose peleton (which included my city council rep) from the Grand Lake Theater to City Hall, where they were serving a free pancake breakfast to bike commuters in the plaza out front. I then picked up a free Arizmendi scone at an “energizer station” next to Lake Merritt, then a free cup of coffee at Fruitvale BART station, and by the time I got to work I was as happy as a clam.

Now, I’m a real sucker for free food and drink, but it wasn’t only the free stuff that put me in a good mood. It was also noticing that all the other people riding their bikes to work that day, some of them presumably for the first time, had smiles on their faces. How often do you see car drivers smiling as they commute to work? Almost never! Instead you see a lot of stressed-out grimaces and furrowed brows. It occurred to me that people on bikes tend to look pretty happy as they cruise around town, and will often give a friendly wave to each other as they pass. People in cars, on the other hand, generally look tense and anxious in the gnarl and snarl of rush hour traffic. Sure, some of the friendliness among cyclists is probably just the camaraderie that comes with encountering a kindred spirit, but I am convinced that the cheerfulness of many bike commuters can also be attributed to the salutary psychological effects of riding a bike instead of driving by car.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve always tended to be in a better mood upon arrival to work after getting there by bike. When I used to drive a car most of the time, I would occasionally ride to work if my car was in the shop, and while I’d be annoyed about have to leave the house earlier, I would arrive feeling refreshed and chipper. Thinking back to when I lived in New York, I remember when I started riding my bike from Brooklyn to Times Square sometimes, instead of taking the subway every day. The trip took the same amount of time, but when I rode the bike, I would be more alert and cheerful when I arrived, whereas I would still be groggy and grumpy on the days when I took the subway. What’s amazing is that even though I was aware of the correlation between biking to work and feeling good once I got there, I still used to drive my car, because it was “more convenient” and would “save time” (as if time can actually be saved, rather than just spent in more or less rewarding ways). What folly! It wasn’t until my car was totaled that I was able to fully recognize that it was more a curse than a convenience.

So I can sympathize with the stressed-out commuters in their cars, because I used to be one of them. My usual route to work now takes me over and alongside Interstate 880, but in the past I used to join the unhappy masses on 880, and the experiences couldn’t be more different. I used to be just another agitated driver strapped down to my seat, tailgating slower drivers out of frustration (to the point where I once rear-ended a Camry that stopped short in front of me), and changing lanes obsessively in hopes of gaining a few seconds’ advantage. I now quite literally rise above all that, and every time I glance down at the people in their cars, I remember how miserable I used to be driving down that same stretch of road.

I-880

Nowadays I pass over that unsightly ribbon of stress and ride along the waterfront instead, which is why I end up taking so many pictures from that area. Instead of having to stare at bumpers, asphalt and concrete, I get to look at boats, buildings, parks, water and the occasional piece of art. Instead of being subject to the vagaries of traffic, I can ride happily along at whatever pace I choose, enjoying the scenery, breathing in the relatively fresh air coming off the water, and probably feeling the effects of exercise-produced endorphins.

Another reason that riding a bike improves one’s sense of well-being is that one feels far more connected to the places one is passing through. (In this, it resembles evolution’s ideal innovation in human transportation—that is, walking.) Even if one avoids the freeways in a car, the physical separation between a driver and his surroundings means that one often doesn’t care, or even notice, whether the streetscape is pretty or ugly, or whether a neighborhood is alive or dead. The effects of that alienation from the surrounding environment may be hard to measure, but I believe that it has real consequences for one’s state of mind. Even a description of my route to work conjures a comforting sense of place: instead of getting to work via “Interstate 880,” I now get there via Brooklyn Basin, Embarcadero Cove, Union Point, and Jingletown. Have any freeways ever had such evocative names? Not all of my ride to work is beautiful, but none of it is dull.

Port of Oakland

Even the decaying vestiges of the area’s industrial glory days are fairly picturesque:

Dock of the Bay

What’s most remarkable to me when I compare riding to work and driving to work is how driving a car can dramatically change one’s relationship with other people. You can take a generally calm and easygoing person—for example, me—and put him behind the wheel of a car, and he is suddenly transformed into a kind of sociopathic monster, who sees other drivers as the enemy, sees pedestrians and bicyclists as irritating obstructions, and is willing to put lives—his own and others’—at risk by running a red light, or swerving around a blind corner, or cutting off someone else on the gamble that you won’t both pull a reckless move at precisely the same moment. And for what? To shave a couple of minutes from one’s commute? Agitation and anxiety are a high price to pay for that small amount of “saved” time.

I don’t know precisely what psychological mechanism is at work, but there really seems to be something about being inside a metal box, separated from the rest of humanity by a barrier of glass and steel, which encourages anti-social behavior. I can still feel the change in mindset occur on the rare occasions when I get behind the wheel of a car, and I need to remind myself to breathe deep and relax—and to stop for those bothersome pedestrians at crosswalks. We like to think that some people are nice and some people are assholes, but the truth is that most people can be both at different times; context, circumstance, and the expectations of others can have a huge impact on one’s behavior. I really think there’s something about getting behind the wheel that can often make normal people act like psychopaths.

Of course some bicyclists also ride recklessly and selfishly, and I can attest from personal experience that being on a bike doesn’t make one immune to road rage. Just as a lot of car drivers are very responsible and considerate, a lot of bike riders are jerks (it’s worth noting, however, that a jerk on a bike is extremely unlikely to maim or kill anyone). And riding a bike does have its drawbacks, such as arriving to one’s destination sweaty, and the danger inherent in sharing roads with heavy metal objects moving at high speeds. (That last issue is why it’s so important to design streets that feel safe to ride a bicycle on—there are a lot of people who would enjoy getting around by bike, but who are reluctant to do it because they simply don’t feel safe riding in traffic.)

When it comes to fostering peace of mind and mental health, I doubt any mode of transportation will ever beat walking, but when getting someplace by two feet is impractical, the two wheels of a bicycle are the next best thing. Exercise, fresh air, independence, and none of the stress that comes with stop and go traffic, or waiting for a late bus, or crowding into a subway car: what’s not to love?