From ANWR to SF

Pub date May 23, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION For more than a decade, the oil industry and environmentalists have fought over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

At the same time, polarizing debate has raged in San Francisco over automobiles in Golden Gate Park, with the proposed car-free Saturday on JFK Drive as the latest iteration.

While ANWR is a long way from San Francisco, that fight has a lot in common with the debate over car-free Saturdays. Both the ANWR and car-free Saturday debates include an enormous expenditure of political capital to confront or defend a lifestyle based on unlimited use of personal cars. And while Gavin Newsom’s veto of car-free Saturday legislation tells us a lot about our ambitious mayor, it also gives us a lens into what he might be like as a future US Senator voting on ANWR drilling.

In ANWR, the debate is whether wilderness should be opened to drilling in order to wean the nation from foreign oil and to save American motorists from inconvenient gas price increases. In short, it is about accommodating a way of life centered on unlimited personal car use — instead of reducing our need for oil by switching to compact urbanism, mass transit, walking, and bicycling.

In Golden Gate Park, the debate centers on a way of life based on unfettered free parking and high-speed "cut-thru" streets like JFK Drive, versus a way of life that reduces car dependency and celebrates urbanism and nature at the same time. While the city and its mayor promote a green image, a small group of wealthy interests maintain that cars simply have to be a central part of our lives and a primary means of transportation, particularly in cities. Moreover, they envision the car-free Saturdays as a dangerous step toward other citywide proposals, such as reducing the space for cars on the streets to prioritize mass transit and bicycles, or perhaps restricting cars on Market Street. Those are the real stakes in this debate.

Like forbidding drilling in ANWR, restricting cars in parts of Golden Gate Park would symbolize a victory for a specific vision centered on reducing the role of automobiles in everyday life.

It is difficult to know how Gavin Newsom would vote on ANWR if he were elected to the US Senate — a position for which he is no doubt being groomed — upon the retirement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But in light of his veto of car-free Saturdays, it is worth pondering that with this veto Newsom reveals he could be persuaded to come down on the wrong side in one of America’s most controversial environmental debates, and support drilling in Alaska.

Imagine that 10 years from now, oil prices and global conflict over oil have intensified. A delusional motoring public in California demands relief from its senator (who as mayor did very little to truthfully address problems of automobile dependency in San Francisco). Republicans will be pointing at the offshore oil in California, and Newsom, a Democrat having just been elected to replace the retired Feinstein, will be challenged to provide relief. Would Newsom, out of desperation, support drilling in ANWR to avoid drilling in California?

Actions speak louder than words, and what Newsom has done this week is to set San Francisco up for another decade of automobile dependency without offering any viable alternative. SFBG

Jason Henderson

Jason Henderson is an assistant professor of geography at San Francisco State University.