Street fighters

Pub date January 14, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


StreetsBlog ( isn’t your average blog, but rather a well-funded institution that helped promote and propel a major transformation that has taken place on New York City streets since the site was founded in 2006, sparking rapid and substantial improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In the process, StreetsBlog — which is part of the Livable Streets Network, along with StreetFilms and the StreetsWiki, started by urban cyclist Mark Gordon, founder of the popular file-sharing site LimeWire — developed a loyal following among alternative transportation planners and advocates in cities across the United States.

"There was nothing like it," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "They put out these inspiring images and really helped people envision better streets."

So when a group of about two dozen of these Bay Area transportation geeks made the trek up to Portland, Ore. last summer for the Towards Carfree Cities International Conference (see "Towards Carfree Cities: wrap-up," Guardian Politics blog), one of their secret goals was to try to lure StreetsBlog to San Francisco.

What began with a long, beer-soaked meeting at a Portland brewpub has turned into substantial new voice in the local media and transportation landscape since StreetsBlog San Francisco ( launched at the start of this year.

"All this really came together in Portland during the Carfree conference," said Aaron Naparstek, executive editor of the three StreetsBlogs (SF, NYC, and Los Angeles) and executive producer of the LivableStreets Network. "The No. 1 reason we decided to open up SF StreetsBlog is because so many people were asking us to do it, particularly from the bike activist community. Most important, we also had a guy with money asking us to do it — [San Francisco bicyclist] Jonathan Weiner … There’s a vibrant activist community that thinks we can be useful and there are people willing to fund the work."

It also dovetailed nicely with the organization’s push to influence the quadrennial federal transportation bill reauthorization that Congress will consider later this year, which environmentalists hope will shift money away from freeway projects. "There was a sense that now is the time to build a nationwide movement," Naparstek said. "The freeway lobby guys are very organized and embedded in all the state [departments of transportation] and it’s tough to counter that. We want to use the Internet to foment a national movement."

StreetsBlog SF has two full-time staffers, editor Bryan Goebel, a San Francisco-based journalist who worked for KCBS) and reporters Matthew Roth, part of the team that started StreetsBlog in New York. StreetsBlog also pays as a contributor longtime local author and activist Chris Carlsson, who was part of the SF crew in Portland.

"I think they have an opportunity to bring close attention to the texture of life on the streets, something print journalism doesn’t do very well," Carlsson said. "It’s about reinhabiting city life."

Shahum said she’s thrilled at the arrival of StreetsBlog, which she says will help local leaders envision a less car-dependent city: "We as advocates are not always so good at helping people visualize what something better looks like."

And that, says Naparstek, is his network’s main strength. "We’ve actually had a lot of success in New York moving these livable streets models forward and we have a lot of best practices to share," he said, noting their network of 175 bloggers in cities around the country and world.

With Mayor Gavin Newsom’s penchant for "best practices"; San Francisco’s experimentation with innovative ideas like market-based parking pricing, congestion fees, Muni reform, and creation of carfree ciclovias; and the imperatives of climate change and the end of the age of oil, activists say this is the ideal time and place the arrival of StreetsBlog.

"There is an interesting convergence of issues that has made it bigger than it might have been," Roth said.

"And in San Francisco, who’s covering these issue besides the Guardian? There is a big need for this," Goebel added. "From a journalists’ point of view, we need to call people on their inconsistencies and not just let leaders govern by press release, which Mayor Gavin Newsom has a tendency to do."