Climate fight is a street fight



Prolonged warm-weather droughts seem a normal part of California life, but the intensity of drought impacts — shrinking snowpack, intense wildfires, crop failures, and the devastation of wildlife habitat and fisheries — is likely accentuated by global warming.

So it’s not enough to simply save water. In this drought, our sense of urgency about global warming should be ramped up. The science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, respected scientists like James Hansen, and even the World Bank (historically no friend to radical ecologists) all stress that droughts will get worse unless greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next decade.

The science is clear. If we are to avoid a disastrous future of ecological upheaval, violence, and forced mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people (many of whom produce the least amount of carbon emissions) then we must dramatically reduce emissions now, and we must do it in a globally fair and equitable way. And to be fair and equitable, we must reduce driving. Here’s why.

Globally, transportation is the fastest growing sector of greenhouse emissions, owing in large measure to the expansion of global automobility. Presently 500 million passenger cars are in use (approximately one-third of them in the United States), but by 2030, this figure is expected to reach 1 billion worldwide.

This increase in automobility will contribute substantially to the “trillionth ton” of cumulative carbon emissions, which is an emissions threshold signaling global climate catastrophe. Today we are more than halfway there (556 billion tons). At current rates of consumption, including America’s ownership of 800 cars and trucks per 1,000 persons, we hit the trillionth ton in 28 years.

To avoid this, we must keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground. Because the United States is disproportionately responsible for at least 27 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions since industrialization, and has a disproportionate number of cars compared to the rest of the world, we in the United States have a particular responsibility to keep carbon in the ground.

If China, which has produced 10 percent of global emissions so far, had the same per capita car ownership rate as the United States, there would be over 500 million more cars, doubling the current worldwide rate. This would be madness. It would be worse than building the Keystone pipeline, which is what Hansen called “game over” for the global climate because it’s a spigot into the sticky, tarlike oils in Alberta which, if fully tapped, would be a carbon time bomb.

Ask yourself this: If China (and possibly India) successfully copy American-style driving, how much tar sands would that require? What kind of world would that look like? And if Americans (and especially environmentalists) expect the global middle class in China and India to stand aside while we keep on driving, that is stark, crass, and inequitable.

Many well-meaning environmentalists and progressives think that driving a Prius or buying an electric car will be adequate in mitigating this conundrum. They must reconsider. There is no “green” car when a global middle class replicates American driving patterns.

If the world’s fleet of gasoline-powered automobiles magically shifts to electric, hydrogen fuel cells, or biofuels, the change will draw resources away from industrial, residential, and food systems, or it will have to involve an entirely new layer of energy production (more tar sands). Massive quantities of coal and petroleum will be needed to scale-up to wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear, and other arrays of energy, as well as for all the new “clean cars.”

Are environmentalists still planning to drive around the Bay Area while waiting for this magic? I sure hope not.

In these global warming days, with drought on everyone’s mind, we must avoid wasting precious water washing cars, and we must reallocate street space with fewer cars in mind. A critical piece of the puzzle is to prioritize public transit and bicycles over automobiles by building exclusive transit and bicycle lanes, remove the lanes and curbside parking available to cars, install signal prioritization for transit and bicycles at intersections, queue-jumping so that transit can bypasses traffic stalled at intersections, restrictions on turns for automobiles, and transit stop improvements including bus stop bulb-outs and amenities.

Reconfigured streets must furthermore exclude car-oriented land uses like more off-street parking in the 92,000 new housing units projected for San Francisco by Plan Bay Area. These units, whatever size or income, should be completely car-free. And this must include removal of existing parking beneath homes, replacing garages with housing and returning the privatized curb cut to the public.



In many respects, the Haight Street corridor is a model for the kind of global warming mitigation strategy the rest of America should follow. The corridor has high density, transit dependent, and car-free households (over 30 percent in the Upper Haight and almost 50 percent in the Lower Haight/Hayes Valley) It has several walkable neighborhood commercial districts, as well as several hundred units of new housing (some of which are below market rate) under construction in Hayes Valley. Almost 25,000 passengers take the Haight buses (6-Parnassus and 71-Haight Noriega) daily, making it one of the busiest combined transit corridors in the city.

But the buses are crowded and often stuck in traffic, so the SFMTA has plans to improve service by increasing frequency, converting more of the existing route into faster “limited” service whereby some buses stop only at key points and removing the “jog” at Laguna and Page which adds delay to the inbound buses.

As I’ve written before, the Muni staff has a good plan known as the Transit Effectiveness Project, with a modest reallocation of street space for higher transit reliability, attracting more ridership, and potentially enabling San Franciscans to conveniently reduce driving to half of all trips by 2018 (it was at 62 percent in 2012). But on both ends of Haight Street, the city has fumbled. While not a disaster, hopefully Muni can learn some lessons and tweak the plans.

On the eastern end, Muni will shift buses off Page Street, converting a short segment of Haight back to two-way. The new two-way Haight includes a transit-only lane between Laguna and Gough/Market streets, which will dramatically improve travel times and reliability. Part of it will enable buses to bypass queues of cars making the right turn from Haight onto Octavia.

Where this scheme falls short is in the plans to simply give former bus stops on Page to private cars for parking. A more progressive plan would instead use the space to help make room for needed bicycle improvements on Page between Laguna and Market. Nearby are multiple housing construction sites where curbside parking has been temporarily removed — such as at the 55 Laguna site. The city has a great opportunity to innovate with transit-first policies at all of these construction sites.

Instead of turning space over to private cars when construction concludes, the city could instead build more bus lanes, pedestrian space, curbside car sharing, and bicycle space. The city could also return some of the space to parking, but only in exchange for parking removal upstream, such as at Haight and Fillmore, where bus stop improvements are sorely needed.

Throughout the city, there are block-by-block opportunities like these, where the city can help the climate instead of giving away parking. As the city discontinues bus stops and sees more housing construction, the policy should be to use curbside space for bicycles, pedestrians, or curbside car share — not simply giving it away to private car parking.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Haight, the city has also fumbled in proposing to reroute the 6-Parnassus, an important electric trolley bus line, off the Frederick-Cole-Parnassus segment. Bus riders in the Upper Haight are incensed. At a recent public meeting, a crowd of 90 people balked at the cut. Muni planners defended the proposal, arguing that ridership is low in the hilly segment above, and that a less productive segment would be shifted to the more crowded Haight Street.

This might seem logical but it may also be shortsighted, especially since the existing segment has overhead trolley wires. Drought notwithstanding, the electric trolley buses are the greenest motorized mobility in San Francisco, propelled by hydroelectricity from Hetch Hetchy.

Taking a longer and more progressive view, it might be useful to think of the debate over the 6-Parnassus this way: If the city is hoping to wean motorists from their cars by achieving the laudable goal of having 30 percent of all trips in the city by transit (up from 17 percent today), cutting service, even in relatively low ridership routes, is counterproductive. It raises the question: Is the ridership level low because the service was poor to begin with, including such irritating factors as less frequency, less reliability, or fewer hours of service? What would ridership levels look like if these less-crowded routes had high frequency, all-day and late-night service with high reliability?

Moreover, what would demand for these routes look like if parking were substantially reduced throughout the city while car-travel lanes were removed, creating space for bicycle lanes and transit lanes? Or what if there were a regional gasoline tax, a congestion charge, or other measures that priced automobility closer to its real social cost, thus producing higher demand for transit?

Surely, reducing the footprint of transit service, however inefficient that service might seem now, is not creating a template necessary for carrying 1.4 million daily passengers in the future, which is what it would take to reach significant emissions reduction goals and 30 percent mode share. Removing segments like the 6-Parnassus on Frederick will only make it harder to rebuild and accomplish that goal. And for political expediency it will also make it harder for Mayor Ed Lee to sell his transportation funding ballot proposals to progressive voters in November.

Muni planners ought to ditch the proposal to reroute the 6-Parnassus, and instead focus on maximizing improved reliability and transit efficiency on the other end of Haight Street by removing parking and prioritizing transit and bicycling on Haight and Page respectively.

Thinking globally about climate change means acting locally, on the streets of San Francisco.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a professor at San Francisco State University’s Department of Geography and Environment.


Broken bodies, broken lives


Motorists driving for rideshare companies have struck and also killed pedestrians in San Francisco, even since state regulations were adopted to make these new transportation businesses safer and more accountable to the public.

Four months after the new rules were created, lawsuits from these incidents reveal that the new regulations contain gaping holes that continue to place passengers, pedestrians, and even drivers at risk.

One recent local story actually started in 2004 in Florida’s Monroe County. A vehicle sped down the Overseas highway at over 100mph. Ever seen the movie The Fast and the Furious? It was like that.

In the Florida heat, the car blazed by palm trees and an ocean view, hell bent for Miami. It accelerated as it took a curve, swerving around two vehicles going half its speed. Brazenly passing a traffic control device, the car cut off one more vehicle, then another, and another. Still barreling over 100mph, the driver swerved across the double yellow lines, forcing an oncoming vehicle to veer off the highway.

A traffic snarl put an end to the thrill ride. According to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office incident report, which the Guardian obtained through a records request, driver Syed Muzzafar was accompanied by his wife and three children during his death-defying drive. He told the police officer, “This was just a dumb thing to do. I know I’m wrong.”

Muzzafar was booked for reckless driving. Nine years later, he would be booked again in San Francisco for hitting a family as they crossed the street in the Tenderloin.

On New Year’s Eve 2013, picking up fares for the tech company Uber, Muzzafar’s car struck young Sofia Liu, her mother, Huan Kuang, and brother, Anthony Liu. Six-year-old Sofia did not survive. Her family filed a wrongful death suit against Uber on Jan. 27, and will be represented by attorney Christopher Dolan.

Uber is part of an emerging cast of companies commonly known as rideshares, now legally called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). The gist of how they operate is this: the company’s mobile app connects a driver with a customer, much like a taxi dispatch. Only a few years old, the TNCs initially operated in a wild west, devoid of regulation. But the California Public Utilities Commission passed rules for TNCs in September with the aim of protecting pedestrians, passengers, and drivers in collisions.

Uber, formed in 2009, has drivers in over 50 cities worldwide and an estimated worth of just over $3 billion, according to leaked evaluations. But Uber may still be in need of a version 2.0.

The death of the young Sofia Liu, killed by a driver already arrested for reckless driving, shows the state still has a long way to go on the road to regulating rideshares.



The night Muzzafar struck the Liu family, he was ferrying customers using the Uber app — but the company disavowed responsibility for the incident.

“We thank law enforcement for the quick release of information,” Uber wrote in a blog post the day after Sofia Liu died. “We can confirm that the driver in question was a partner of Uber and that we have deactivated his Uber account. The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident.”

But that’s a half-truth: Muzzafar was picking up passengers for Uber all night, but because he’d just dropped off a customer, he allegedly ceased being an Uber driver. With no passengers in the vehicle, Uber did not consider him “on the Uber system.”

If that sounds like a giant loophole, you’d be right — but it’s a legal one, for now.

The new CPUC regulations specify that TNCs must only provide liability insurance when drivers are “in service.” The Taxicab Paratransit Association of California is suing to modify those rules, saying the meaning of “in service” was never defined — and they allege this wording allows companies to disavow responsibility for a driver not carrying passengers at the moment of an accident.

This gaping loophole can also lead to insurance and liability consequences.

“I would guess that’s on the order of a $20 million liability case,” Christiane Hayashi, director of Taxi services at the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, said of Liu’s death. “The question is, who is going to pay for it?”

Muzzafar, and not Uber, may be on the fiscal hook, even though it’s unlikely he could cover the family’s medical and legal fees on his own.

Though much reporting has focused on TNC drivers’ lack of insurance, the collision that killed Sofia Liu on New Year’s Eve raises other questions as well. Just how did a driver with a reckless driving record manage to become a partner with Uber in the first place?

Checking out drivers

The recently drafted CPUC regulations require the TNCs to carry out background checks, a key element for safety. As it turns out, not all background checks are made equal.

Uber hired a private company called Hirease to conduct its checks, the Guardian learned in emails obtained from drivers. While Hirease requires Uber drivers to fill out a form with their personal information, taxi drivers who must register with the city’s transportation agency are screened with fingerprinting, Hayashi from the SFMTA told us.

The fingerprint checks make use of the FBI’s national criminal database, something a company like Hirease lacks access to (since it isn’t a government agency). We called the FBI’s background check department, based in West Virginia, to better understand the two methods.

We spoke to a rank and file employee, not a spokesperson, so he declined to give his name. The FBI employee spoke with a twang, and clearly laid out the problems.

The first snag with private background checks are false positives from common names (like John Smith) or stolen identities, he said.

Self-identification is also a problem. “If you’re a criminal, you’re not going to use your information,” the FBI employee said. “What if you were a lady and you were married six times, which name will you use for a background check? Bottom line, fingerprints are exclusive. Names are not.”

Another flaw is that while background checks performed for entities like the SFMTA make use of a federal database that dates back 100 years, California law doesn’t allow private background checks to go beyond seven years — and Muzzafar’s reckless driving arrest was nine years ago.

“Uber works with Hirease to conduct stringent background checks,” Uber spokesperson Andrew Noyes wrote to us via email. “This driver (Muzzafar) had a clean background check when he became an Uber partner.”

Hirease and Uber did what they legally could, but the summation of laws and regulations blinded Uber to Muzzafar’s background — and nothing in the new CPUC regulations would have prevented this. That may go a long way toward explaining how a man caught recklessly driving with his own family in the car in Florida was driving for Uber the night he allegedly struck and killed a child.

Importantly, California law does allow for a taxi driver to have one reckless driving incident, or one count of driving under the influence, on his or her record. But as Hayashi told us, stricter background checks make it easier for taxi companies to spot a red flag before making hiring decisions.

The relative insecurity of private background checks raises an unsettling question: How many others with reckless driving records or DUIs drive for TNC companies like Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft without the companies’ knowledge?

The results of a collision can be severe, as San Francisco’s tragic New Year’s eve incident demonstrates. But even those who survive are left with bills that Uber, allegedly, isn’t paying.



Last September, Jason Herrera and Nikolas Kolintzas summoned an Uber driver via smartphone, intending to hop from Valencia Street to the Marina district. Driver Bassim Elbatniji responded, and drove the pair down Octavia, where his Prius collided with a Camry.

Herrera suffered a concussion and was knocked unconscious. Kolintzas also suffered a concussion, and they both sustained injuries to their necks and backs, according to court documents.

But when the two sought financial assistance from Uber to cover their medical costs, Uber said it was the driver’s responsibility.

“As far as Uber’s concerned, their insurance isn’t providing any of this,” attorney Colleen Li told the Guardian. Li is representing Kolintzas and Herrera in their suit against Uber, which seeks damages to cover their medical bills, which reached “tens of thousands” of dollars, Li told us.

According to a policy published on Uber’s website, the company maintains a $1 million “per incident insurance policy applicable to ridesharing trips,” which is in keeping with requirements under the new CPUC regulations.

Nevertheless, Uber has not stepped up to cover damages in response to a lawsuit arising from a similar incident. Months ago, the Guardian reported on the case of an Uber driver who hit a fire hydrant, which flew through the air and struck Claire Fahrbach, a barista living in San Francisco (“Lawsuit over injury from airborne fire hydrant tests Uber’s insurance practices,” 8/8/13). She sustained lacerations to her body, a fracture in her lower leg, and multiple herniated discs, according to her lawsuit against Uber.

Her medical bills and injuries destroyed her dreams of living in San Francisco, and she moved home with her parents in North Carolina to recover. Her lawyer, Doug Atkinson, told us Uber still hasn’t paid for his client’s medical services.

“They’re still denying they have any liability for the driver,” he said. “They said they wouldn’t fight the CPUC ruling, but in our case they obviously are.”

But the hydrant also sprouted a geyser that flooded a nearby business, Rare Device, and the apartment building above it. “It was horrible. Our store flooded, we lost a bunch of inventory,” Rare Device’s owner, Giselle Gyalzen, told us.

Her insurance covered the damage, but she’s still trying to recover the deductible from Uber.

Uber directed the lawyers to its terms of service, which tell people up front that they won’t cover anything: “Uber under no circumstance accepts liability in connection with and/or arising from the transportation services provided by the Transportation Provider or any acts, action, behavior, conduct, and/or negligence on the part of the Transportation Provider.”

Meanwhile, the drivers also find themselves in a bind when it comes to obtaining insurance. Given the lack of clarity, state agencies have opted to alert TNC drivers that they’re going without a safety net.

On its website, the California Department of Insurance posted a notice warning, “TNCs are not required to have medical payments coverage, comprehensive, collision, uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage or other optional coverages.” It goes on to explain that TNCs’ liability policies aren’t required to cover bodily injury to the drivers, damages to the drivers’ cars, or damage and injuries caused by an uninsured or underinsured motorist.

And as the Guardian previously reported (“Driven to Take Risks,” 8/6/13), rideshare drivers don’t qualify for commercial insurance since their vehicles are registered as private automobiles, yet insurance companies won’t grant complete insurance coverage to TNC drivers since it’s considered an insufficient safeguard against risk.

Notably, limo drivers who also work for Uber (and get commercial insurance through those companies) don’t have this problem — just those using Uber or other rideshare apps as independent contractors. Taxi drivers are also eligible for commercial coverage.

Is there any way for an independent TNC driver to legally insure him/herself on the road? “Not that I’m aware of,” said Patrick Storm, a spokesperson for the Department of Insurance.



Paul Marron is an attorney for the Taxicab Paratransit Association of California, the group suing the CPUC to tighten up its regulations. In his view, a key test of the new CPUC regulations is whether they’re enforced — and with a bare bones staff, enforcement is likely to be anemic.

“The CPUC does not have the adequate resources to regulate (transportation) safety statewide,” he told us.

As a lawyer for taxi interests competing against rideshares, Marron obviously has skin in the game, so we looked at the numbers.

We compared the staff counts of the SFMTA, the CPUC, and for some perspective, the New York City Taxi Commission.

The SFMTA has 15 employees who oversee San Francisco’s 1,850 taxi cabs. That’s one staff person for every 123 cabs in the city. The NYC Taxi Commission’s staff of 569 oversees 94,500 taxis, town cars and similar liveries, according to their posted annual report. Though the numbers are greater than San Francisco, the ratio is similar: One staff person for every 166 vehicles.

Now for the CPUC. Though it is now tasked with overseeing “rideshare” TNC vehicles, the agency is also responsible for regulating limos and town cars statewide. Public documents obtained by the Guardian show it oversees 1,900 liveries in the Bay Area, and though there are no official numbers, there are an estimated 3,000 rideshare drivers in the city, according to data compiled by the San Francisco Cab Driver’s Association.

The CPUC has a staff of six based in San Francisco, responsible for overseeing an estimated 4,900 vehicles. That leaves the CPUC with one staffer for every 700 vehicles, a ratio wildly out of sync with other vehicle safety regulators.

Hayashi pleaded with the CPUC to allow cities to regulate rideshares on the local level, saying, “You don’t even have the resources to monitor this stuff.”

Sup. Eric Mar met repeatedly with the SFMTA over these concerns, and will hold a February hearing to get to the heart of the safety culture around San Francisco’s TNC rideshares.

CPUC spokesperson Christopher Chow defended its safety regulations and enforcement. “We can clarify or modify our TNC requirements, if needed, particularly the insurance requirements, as we see how the TNCs attempt to comply with the decision’s directives,” Chow wrote in an email. “If we believe there are any issues that should be addressed, we will take action.”

But as things stand, Claire Fahrbach, Giselle Gyalzen, Jason Herrera, Nikolas Kolintas and the family of Sofia Liu are all waiting for that action.

Reed Nelson contributed to this report.


Nickels and dimes… or transit for our times?


STREET FIGHT Much has been written about the so-called “Google buses” and San Francisco’s latest round of gentrification. It’s a horrible mess and the city’s trifling $1 charge per bus stop will do little to address the broader structural problem that these buses lay bare.

Ordinary people cannot ride them, nor do the people who clean and cook for the tech world. Like tour buses, they are clunky and inappropriate for many neighborhood streets. While they do substitute for some car trips, an ad hoc private transit system does not reflect the kind of thoughtful regional planning needed to truly reduce car use in the Bay Area.

But the controversy over the private commuter buses does show that there is great potential for a public regional express bus system. Consider that in 1980, 9 percent of commuters in San Francisco left the city every day to go to work. In 2010, outbound commuters approached 25 percent. Owing to regional political fragmentation, Muni cannot provide intercounty service and thus is not the travel mode of choice for many of these commuters. And although Caltrain and BART offer some regional service, the sprawling locations of suburban firms often make regional rail impractical or at the very least time-consuming owing to unavoidable multiple transfers to local buses.

So in noteworthy ways, the rise of private transit is an immediate reaction to poor regional transit connections. Yet rather than sidestepping failed regional planning by encouraging an inequitable, two-tiered, private system, we need to expand and regionalize the existing public bus systems. San Francisco’s mayor and Board of Supervisors have seats at the table of regional planning and ought to use the controversy over private buses as an opportunity to kickstart the implementation of a regional public bus system accessible to all.

For example, something like AC Transit’s Transbay routes should be extended through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, perhaps operated by BART or Caltrain as part of the next iteration of Plan Bay Area. This network would use reallocated express lanes on 101 and I-280 and use transit priority lanes on arterials like 19th Avenue in San Francisco and El Camino Real in San Mateo. Regional property assessments on the corporations and developers, in part already possible within the existing BART district (one should be created for Caltrain), could be used to fund such a system. Congestion charging on 101 and I-280 should also be deployed and those funds used for electrifying Caltrain and developing the parallel and complementary regional bus system.

Of course there will be opposition to a regional public bus system as there already is to progressive regional planning. Transit-connected, walkable communities in the South Bay, for example, have been made all but illegal by decades of conservative middle and upper class, anti-density, anti-tax homeowners in suburban localities. As recently as last year, this Tea Party-style conservative politics dampened Plan Bay Area, resulting in a weak regional housing plan with an underfunded and lackluster transit vision. This conservative approach stifles our collective sense of what is possible and the fear-mongering has rendered regional planners virtually impotent. Yet it can and must be overcome.

Some progressives may find it convenient (and in some cases justifiable) to target tech workers right now, but they could also direct energy into shaping the next round of Plan Bay Area. Remember that Plan Bay Area is a living document, a work in progress. The current version of the plan, weak on transit funding, has been subdued by a loud, irrational mob of Tea Party cranks bent on sabotaging anything that hints of progressive ideas. Plan Bay Area is also stifled by a regional business class that wants to keep the status quo and that is comfortable with the neoliberal model of private transit.

So while a smattering of dedicated and hard-working progressive transit activists showed up and attempted to shape Plan Bay Area last year, in the coming years the plan needs a broader progressive movement — including transit, housing, social justice, and environmental activists — to demand a more visionary regional transportation plan that connects all of the Bay Area. I am hopeful that this would not only steer regional planning in a progressive direction, but many of the tech workers who are now on the private buses would gladly join in the cause.



Speaking of hopeful, last month the SFMTA reported that Sunday metering, implemented last January, is a resounding success. Switching-on the meters doubled parking availability on Sundays, which is invariably what small businesses, most of which are open on Sunday, want to see.

Sunday meters increased the number of cars using city-owned garages and decreased the time cars circled in search of parking from an average of four minutes to two — de-cluttering streets in commercial districts. While this might seem like a boon to drivers, it also means less pollution, safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, less delay for Muni, and a much needed enhancement of revenue for operating public transit.

So it is mystifying that such success would be ignored by Mayor Ed Lee, who instead has proposed to discontinue Sunday metering. This is doubly confusing because, based on existing travel behavior to many commercial districts, 25 percent of people arrived by driving, while 31 percent took transit and 25 percent walked. So what the mayor is effectively saying to the pedestrian and transit-using majority is you matter little. What does matter is the few whining motorists who called him to complain about being “nickel and dimed.”

The mayor talks a good game when saying he is truly concerned about pedestrian and cyclist safety, and insisting that he wants to fix Muni. But gutting a reliable source of operating funds and pandering to car drivers who will dangerously circle for parking is inconsistent.

Lee says money isn’t an issue because his proposed General Obligation bond (which must be approved by voters) will patch the lost revenue from Sunday metering. But the GO bond will incur further debt and only fund existing capital needs, while parking meters provide a debt-free steady revenue stream for Muni. It’s also slightly misleading because the bond would not cover Muni operations, while revenue from Sunday metering does pay for operations.

The mayor’s pandering also put the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has been working out parking management and Muni finance, on the spot. Ultimately, it has to vote to preserve or scrap Sunday metering in the coming months. Now the directors have to decide if they support transit-first or the mayor’s pandering.

Unfortunately, when it comes to parking policy, the way that the Board of Supervisors has behaved lately suggests it will either jump on the mayor’s bandwagon and pander to motorists or cower in silence as good public policy is trashed. Not a good situation at City Hall, where transit riders seem to be routinely thrown under the bus by the political establishment.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.

Protect pedestrians


More than 50 public commenters spoke at the Jan. 16 joint Police Commission and Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee meeting, and all sounded one message loud and clear: Drivers can maim and kill pedestrians with near impunity in San Francisco, and that must end.

"I’m here very simply to urge you to end the carnage on our streets," said Natalie Burdick of the nonprofit Walk SF. "These crimes cost the city millions annually, and untold value in terms of squandered human capital."

Pedestrian deaths reached a high last year, with 21 killed in traffic collisions. Sup. Eric Mar highlighted the lack of funding in Mayor Ed Lee’s Pedestrian Strategy, which has a funding gap of $5-18 million. But SFPD’s failure to cite motorists was the main criticism.

"The fact is these statistics have been consistent that two-thirds of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the driver," Sup. Scott Wiener said at the outset of the meeting. "It’s the fact of the situation."

Safety Scramble


On New Year’s Eve, six-year-old Sofia Liu was struck and killed when a driver using the Uber rideshare app allegedly failed to yield to her and her family as they progressed through a crosswalk. The girl’s mother and brother survived, but their tear-stained faces were soon all over news networks in heartbreaking reports of their loss. No less sad, 86-year-old Zhen Guang Ng was struck and killed that same night by a driver who allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign in the Crocker-Amazon district. These incidents aren’t isolated.

In 2012, 16 pedestrians were killed in vehicle collisions in San Francisco. That number jumped to 21 in 2013, according to the SFPD, and the new year has brought new collisions and more pedestrian deaths.

Already, the SFPD and other city agencies are scrambling for political cover, and advocacy groups are rushing in to call for changes they say will save lives. On Jan. 16, myriad groups will try to sell their version of safer city streets at a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee and the city’s Police Commission.

As the debate continues to unfold, the road to pedestrian safety looks to be bumpy, and the first pitfall may be the Police Department itself.


At the Jan. 8 Police Commission hearing, the SFPD played defense.

A host of groups were calling out the cops: Cabbies wanted more enforcement against rideshare drivers, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition wanted more incident tracking. Nobody seemed happy with the current state of affairs around pedestrian safety.

Cmdr. Mikail Ali, tall and broad shouldered, approached the podium to give what amounted to the SFPD’s rebuttal. His presentation boiled down to this: Fewer cops equals fewer traffic citations, and fewer citations are dangerous.

“We did see a decrease in traffic citations issued last year,” Ali said. On the screens around the room, he displayed a chart showing two sloping red lines, one representing police staffing levels and another representing total citations. The charts showed a drop of 127 officers, and 20,000 fewer traffic citations, 2012-2013.

All told, the SFPD had 1,644 officers and issued 87,629 traffic citations last year.

But the idea that bringing on more cops is the only effective strategy for pedestrian safety seemed out of sync with a different aspect of Ali’s presentation, in which he conveyed a plan to “Focus on Five.”

Under that plan, police station captains are urged to boost traffic enforcement around the five intersections in their districts that have been identified as most dangerous. Though Ali said the approach was showing progress, the SFPD has yet to release data on how this enforcement approach has played out.

“Right now we don’t have full transparency into their reporting,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy nonprofit. “We do have data showing they are issuing citations. What we don’t know yet … is has there been an increase in citations from Focus on Five?”

To be fair, it’s a new program, but data is key to many efforts geared toward improving pedestrian safety. The SFPD’s data shows that Focus on Five represents 22 percent of their citations, but it’s still unknown where they occurred and what incidents spurred the citations.

The Bike Coalition also wants more enforcement data from the SFPD.

“We’re hearing a lot of incidents go unreported,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition. Incidents that normally don’t get written up, like an accident that only results in a bruise or a scrape, are just as important to record, she said, because thorough reports can help identify problem intersections. “Without solid, good accounting to show where things are happening, we’re not going to necessarily see change,” she said.

But that would require a cultural shift in the SFPD, Shahum said. For now, the police seem as interested in blaming the pedestrians as they do the drivers.

Victim blaming

The first shots fired by the SFPD on pedestrian safety amounted to a public relations gaffe.

“YOU’VE BEEN HIT BY A CAR! … It’s little comfort to know you had the right of way, while you recover from serious injury in the hospital,” reads an SFPD flyer, the message typed next to a picture of a chalk outline on pavement. “Distracted walking is one BIG reason pedestrians get hit by vehicles,” it continues. To emphasize the point, the chalk outline is wearing headphones connected to an iPhone.

Streetsblog San Francisco reporter Aaron Bialick, in his article about the flyers, responded to them thusly: “The SFPD has gone off the deep end with this one, folks.”

His response is understandable. With a choice of two perpetrators, one walking across the street, and another behind the wheel of a two-ton steel killing machine, one would think the latter would be the obvious target. Shahum thinks the problem goes deeper than bad messaging, saying the SFPD’s enforcement is skewed.

“We’ve seen some officers not knowing people’s rights when walking or biking. We’ve seen ‘blame the pedestrians’ from police, in the media,” she said. “We’re hearing things like ‘you should’ve been riding on the sidewalk,’ [showing] a really basic lack of understanding” about regulations cyclists must adhere to.

This issue came to a head when Sgt. Richard Ernst pulled up to a streetside memorial for cyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who died in a fatal collision last August, to lecture those gathered on bicycle safety.

As Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones noted in his article at the time, “apparently Ernst didn’t stop at denouncing Le Moullac for causing her own death, in front of people who are still mourning that death. Shahum said Ernst also blamed the other two bicyclist deaths in SF this year on the cyclists, and on ‘you people’ in the SFBC for not teaching cyclists how to avoid cars.”

Still, Shahum sees potential for change. “This is the area where I think we’re seeing the most promises from them,” she said.

At the Police Commission meeting, Ali noted the challenges police face when assessing traffic collisions. Training officers in the methods to deduce how a collision occurred is no easy task.

“It requires a high degree of science,” Ali said. “Geometry, physics, basic mathematics. Its not just about getting facts from people, but making conclusions from physical evidence.”

Chief Greg Suhr expressed confidence that the new recruits to come out of the academy were abreast of the latest techniques, and commissioners said they may use the need for traffic enforcement as a call to the mayor to help bring more officers into the SFPD’s ranks.

Enforcement and police culture are just some ways pedestrian safety needs to be addressed. Walk SF, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the SFPD all will present their cases at the joint meeting on Thu/16. But as many of them would note, many of these promises have been made before.

Slow momentum

“We’re going to re-engineer streets around at least five schools and two areas that have the highest levels of concentration of senior injuries every year,” Mayor Ed Lee said at a press conference, responding to pedestrian deaths that rocked San Francisco.

No, this wasn’t after the New Year’s Eve fatalities. It was last April, when the mayor trumpeted an ambitious program to make the strets of San Francisco safer.

The San Francisco Pedestrian Strategy identifies 44 miles of the city’s most dangerous streets and intersections in need of upgrades. The goal was to improve five miles of city streets a year, with bulb outs (for better pedestrian visibility), raised crosswalks, new crossing signals, new traffic lights, and narrowing lanes.

One of the high priority intersections identified for improvements was Polk and Ellis — where Sofia Liu was killed on New Year’s Eve.


A map of high priority corridors — the most dangerous streets for pedestrians in San Francisco.

That intersection hasn’t yet seen upgrades under the Pedestrian Strategy, Burdick of Walk SF told us.

“Any one or combination of the safety benefits of bulb-outs (or other improvements) could definitely have been the difference between life and death for Sofia,” she said. Walk SF works with city agencies to try to make sure these changes are happening, but she says the city hasn’t been transparent about the effort.

“We know there’s been some progress, but we don’t yet know if we’re doing enough each year to account for getting something done,” she said.

To get a sense of the city’s progress on this front, the Guardian contacted the Planning Department, which referred us to the Municipal Transportation Agency. The MTA did not respond before press time.

“That’s another thing at the hearing with the board (and Police Commission) we’ll be pushing,” Burdick said. “For engineering enforcement work to happen, it’s got to be paid for.”

According to public records outlining the city’s Pedestrian Strategy, the plan needs $65 million a year to hit proposed targets. The lion’s share, more than half, would go toward infrastructure improvements.

Burdick called that amount into question, saying the city had only allocated $17 million. A Pedestrian Strategy report confirmed that the program faces a $5-18 million a year funding gap.

Enforcement, a culture of victim blaming and inadequate funding all pose major challenges to pedestrian safety in San Francisco. Hopefully the joint Board of Supervisors and Police Commission meeting will finally result in some answers.

The joint Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee and Police Commission meeting will be held Thursday, Jan. 16, at 5pm, Room 250.


Protect pedestrians, crack down on red light runners


It’s good to see City Hall finally focusing on pedestrian safety in San Francisco, where the streets are more dangerous than ever for their most vulnerable users, with the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by motorists spiking last year.

Better streetscape design is part of the solution, and the advocacy group WalkSF will be holding the latest in its series of focus groups this Saturday seeking solutions to the problem. It is working with city agencies on a program called WalkFirst to address the issue.

But there’s another solution that’s even more obvious and immediate, and Sup. Scott Wiener hit on it at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting when he said (according to the Examiner), “It’s remarkable how little traffic enforcement we have…I’ve never been in a place with less traffic enforcement than in this city.”

Actually, it isn’t that the San Francisco Police Department doesn’t do traffic enforcement, as we learned this fall when officers pulled over dozens of cyclists slowly cruising through stop signs on the Wiggle. The problem is that SFPD ignores the most obvious and dangerous violations: motorists running red lights and otherwise driving recklessly.

Everyday on my commute home up Market Street, I see at least three anxious drivers running red lights. Everyday! This morning, on my way to work, a driver ran a red light right in front of an SFPD cruiser, and that officer ignored it. These drivers are speeding up within reach of pedestrians, who often wrongly assume green means they are safe to cross.

So drivers need to take a breath and realize the seconds they save isn’t worth the risk they’re taking with other people’s lives. And the SFPD needs to ticket more of these drivers and start sending the message that such selfishness won’t be tolerated.  

Driving us crazy


STREET FIGHT Parking reform is one of the most radically important elements of making San Francisco a more livable and equitable city.

In this geographically constrained city, parking consumes millions of square feet of space that could be used for housing, especially affordable housing in secondary units. Curbside parking in the public right of way impedes plans to make Muni more reliable for hundreds of thousands of transit riders. Parking in new housing and commercial developments generates more car trips on our already congested and polluted streets, slowing Muni further while bullying bicyclists and menacing pedestrians.

Fundamentally, parking is a privatization of the commons, whereby driveway curb cuts and on-street parking hog the public right-of-way in the name of private car storage. The greater public good — such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing public safety through bike lanes, wider sidewalks, public green spaces, and transit-first policies — is subsumed to narrow private interests. These are among the many reasons why, for over a decade, parking reform has been a key part of progressive transportation policy.

Yet lately, it has been disappointing to watch progressives, especially on the Board of Supervisors, retreat from that stance. In Potrero Hill and North Mission, a vitriolic reaction has slowed rollout of nationally acclaimed SF Park, which raises revenue for Muni and is a proven sustainable transportation tool. Yet there are murmurings that some progressive supervisors might seek an intervention and placate motorists who believe the public right-of-way is theirs.

On Polk Street, some loud merchants and residents went ballistic when the city and bicycle advocates proposed removing curbside parking to accommodate bicycles. The city, weary of Tea Party-like mobs, ran the other way, tail-between-legs. Progressive supervisors seem to have gone along with the cave-in.

Along Geary, planning for a desperately needed bus rapid transit project drags on. And on. And on. And on. The lollygagging includes bending over backward to placate some drivers who might be slightly inconvenienced by improvements for 50,000 daily bus riders.

One thing that is remarkably disturbing about this backpedaling is that, in an ostensibly progressive city by many measures (civil rights, tolerance, environmentalism), the counterattack is steeped in conservative ideology. That is, conservatives believe that government should require ample and cheap parking, whether in new housing or on the street. This conservative ideology, shared by many car drivers and merchants — and even by some self-professed progressives — is steeped in the idea people still need cars. This despite the evidence that cars are extremely destructive to our environment, socially inequitable, and only seem essential because of poor planning decisions, not human nature.

Progressive backpedaling has become more confusing with the recent debate over 8 Washington, defeated at the polls Nov. 5, and on the same day of a convoluted Board of Supervisors hearing on a proposed car-free housing development at 1050 Valencia. Both of these projects highlight the muddled inconsistency emerging among progressive supervisors.

Enough has been written about how 8 Washington was a symbolic battle for the soul of San Francisco. But during the campaigns, the lack of attention to parking was curious. Notably, progressive-leaning transportation organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and Transform sat out the election despite the project’s excessive 327 underground parking spaces, which violated hard-fought progressive planning efforts to make the waterfront livable. The Council of Community Housing Organizations also sat it out, despite benefitting from the progressive parking policies that 8 Washington violated. It appears that despite their transit-first rhetoric, progressives made a tactical calculation to keep parking out of the campaign.

The progressive victory came with a Faustian bargain which involved ignoring parking. To ensure 8 Washington was defeated, conservative voters were folded into the opposition. Groups like Eastern Neighborhoods United Front (ENUF), the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and the Republican Party came out against 8 Washington and yet, ironically, all are opponents of progressive parking reform.

Moving forward, whatever happens at the 8 Washington site must include progressive parking policies. Don’t expect this from the unimaginative leadership at the Port, which speciously demanded the excessive parking. Don’t expect it from the developer, who steadfastly insists that the rich must have parking. And don’t expect conservatives to latch on to a waterfront scheme that is both publicly accessible and genuinely transit-oriented. It is progressives who will need to muster political will for a zero-parking project at the waterfront and set the tone for consensus among the other factions in the waterfront debate.

Meanwhile on the same day 8 Washington went down, 1050 Valencia barely made it out of a tortuous Board of Supervisors hearing in which progressives seemed to be the antagonists. As the first car-free market-rate housing proposal on Valencia under progressive parking reforms, this 12-unit mixed use building seemed an obvious win for progressives. It would be a walkable, bicycle-friendly urban infill mixed-use project with on-site affordable housing, all of which the city needs more of.

Yet since 2010, when the project first went to the Planning Commission, conservative rhetoric has been deployed to stop the project. Significantly, the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association objected to the transit-oriented characterization of the project. It claimed that the 14 Mission and 49 Mission/Van Ness are filthy, crime-ridden, and unreliable and so 1050 Valencia must have parking.

Unlike progressives, who also decry shortfalls with Muni but propose solutions, the Liberty Hill opponents offered only secession from public transit, insisting on driving in secure armored cocoons instead of addressing Muni reliability, and they also expect free or cheap parking in the public right of way.

You would think that progressives at the Board of Supervisors would see through this thinly veiled bigotry against the 14 and 49 buses. But instead, four self-professed progressive supervisors — John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar — voted against 1050 Valencia.

They may argue that they were more concerned about the neighboring Marsh Theater, which has concerns about construction noise (and also parking). The noise issue can be worked out, and why the progressive supervisors did not work this out in advance is a mystery. But if you watch the hearing closely, the Marsh basically opposed the development — period — and thus a modest car-free development that included affordable housing at an appropriate location. And so did four progressive supervisors. It’s baffling.

At the end of the day, 1050 Valencia moved forward, barely. But it can still be stopped at the upcoming Board of Appeals hearing. Meanwhile, it’s time for progressives to make a frontal response to the Muni-bashing coming out of Liberty Hill.

The SFMTA is offering a bold and ambitious proposal for these buses on Mission between 13th and Cesar Chavez. This includes a transit-only lane, restricting automobile traffic, rearranging loading zones, and removing curbside parking so that 46,000 daily 14 and 49 passengers have better reliability and less crowding.

This plan will make life easier for San Franciscans who rely on these buses, but will require progressive supervisors to openly and sincerely advocate for removal of on-street parking, to support SF Park, and push for car-free housing development in the Mission, rather than knee-jerk posturing for a few political points in future elections. Progressives, stop screwing around.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.

NYT asks, “Is it okay to kill cyclists?”


It was great to read the provocative opinion piece about cycling in San Francisco in yesterday’s The New York Times’ Sunday Review (“Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”), which amplified recent reporting and editorial messages from the Bay Guardian.

Kudos especially to the writer of that headline, which crystallizes the issue beautifully. San Francisco and other cities have essentially sanctioned violence against cyclists by refusing to issue citations against negligent motorists who kill and seriously injure cyclists. (It’s a sadly similar story with pedestrians, as a Bay Citizen investigation found last year).

“There is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene,” wrote Daniel Duane, a San Franciscan who now says he’s too scared to ride local roadways.

San Francisco will never get anywhere close to its official goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips being by bicycle by 2020 if the San Francisco Police Department focuses more on harassing cyclists running stop signs than it does on citing motorists that are actually responsible for most car versus cyclist collisions (according to a study cited in the article).

The reasoning for going easy on drivers who kill cyclists and pedestrians has been the assumption that juries won’t convict because “accidents happen” and we all need to keep driving, right? But that societal attitude causes problems ranging for needless death to global warming, and it only begins to change with good think-pieces like the New York Times piece.    

“Suspicious package” found at Union Square did not contain a bomb

Police closed off Union Square this afternoon, Thu/17, while the San Francisco Police Department’s bomb squad investigated the contents of a “suspicious package” located there just before noon.

At 1:49 pm, police sent an update, saying: “The suspicious package at Union Square has been secured. There was no merit to a hazardous device. Streets are being reopened.”

The package was discovered on the Stockton Street side of Union Square, police spokesperson Albie Esparza said as he stood behind a police line. The officer found it independently rather than in response to a tip, Esparza said, and made the decision to notify the bomb squad.

Esparza declined to offer more details about the package, but explained, “The bomb squad has special devices that can examine packages to see the contents.”

Police tape had been strung across all surrounding streets, Muni buses were being re-routed, and a shelter-in-place was put into effect for people inside surrounding buildings.

All around the area, pedestrians walked up to the police line to ask what was going on, and many expressed disappointment that they would be unable to get to their hair appointments or go shopping at Nieman Marcus. They texted loved ones to say there was a bomb threat. Even Frank Chu was on the scene, holding his signature sign. Helicopters circled overhead and fire trucks were parked inside the closed-off area.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Esparza said, noting that bomb threats happen from time to time. “We don’t want to have a tragedy just because of complacency.”



Cyclists testify to SFPD bias as supervisors call for reforms


The cyclists of San Francisco were angry. Sup. Jane Kim was skeptical. Sup. Scott Wiener was unconvinced. Sup. Eric Mar said bikers were “pissed.” Deputy Chief of Police Mike Biel said he was too, but his anger could have just as easily been attributed to the 35 minutes he spent at the stand, acting as a whipping post for frustrations with the SFPD, as it could be to the department’s mistreatment of San Francisco cyclists.

Either way, the cyclists ruled the day.

During Thursday’s (10/3) Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee, Sup. David Campos called for a joint Board of Supervisors-Police Commission hearing regarding SFPD investigation protocol for bike accidents, but no immediate timetable has been set for the matter.

Without Police Chief Greg Suhr in attendance — his chiefly presence was required “reading to the children,” as Biel noted multiple times — Biel was left to stand solo in front of both frustrated supervisors and an incensed public.

At one point, following a particularly ambiguous response from Biel regarding accident checklists, Wiener asked bluntly, “Do you think there’s enough traffic cops in San Francisco? I don’t see bike cops, personally.”

To which Biel responded, “I’d like to see more.”

In fact, there was little defense on the part of Biel — and by extension, the Police Department — when it came to the seemingly lax (at best, malicious at worst) approach the SFPD has taken toward bike accidents in the past four years.

He even echoed Mar’s “pissed” comment, saying, “I was pissed too,” in regards to both what Mar called the “supposed investigation” of the Aug. 14 death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac and the flippant attitude some in the department had taken towards cyclists in the days and weeks following. But he also stated that he didn’t think there was a negative bias in the SFPD.

The board’s decision to continue the conversation was bolstered by nearly 40 often-horrific testimonials regarding police treatment of cyclists in the City. And nearly all the stories could make the average person cring with the frustration, anger, and outrage they had the power to illicit.

Leah Shahum, executive director for the San Francisco Bike Coalition, told a story of a woman who was unable to make it to the hearing due to the injuries sustained in an April accident.

The woman, whom she didn’t identify, was biking in Golden Gate Park with her husband and son — the son was on the back of the woman’s bike — when she was hit from behind by a car, while she was stopped in the designated bike lane.

Witnesses stated that the driver was at fault. Her husband said the same thing. The police insisted on questioning the two of them more about their helmet usage — “which they were wearing,” according to Shahum — than they did about the actual events of the accident. Incidentally, adults aren’t required to wear bike helmets in California.

Robin Levitt, a Hayes Valley resident, talked about the strange “culture of blaming the victim” that has seemingly been propagated in the City, and how “in Germany, it’s immediately assumed that the vehicle is at fault, so drivers are safer.”

(And for what it’s worth, when Biel denied that same sentiment’s existence earlier with the committee, supervisors didn’t seem too convinced either. Mar even asked Biel, “Is there a bias or blame-the-victim attitude in the San Francisco Police Department?” which Biel promptly denied.)

And then there was Edward Hasbrouk, a former professional cyclist who has “never owned a motor vehicle.” He was biking home from work one evening when his progress in a Valencia Street bike line was impeded by a double-parked car in line for a valet service.

(Wiener has called for increased police enforcement of laws against double-parking. During today’s (Tues/8) Board of Supervisors meeting, he asked Mayor Ed Lee to support the effort, noting that SFPD rarely issues tickets to double-parkers despite “its impacts on traffic, Muni, cycling, and pedestrians.”)

Hasbrouk said that after a somewhat heated back-and-forth between the valet drivers, he flagged down a police officer to help him resolve the dispute, but the officer instead made Hasbrouk “carry [his] bicycle to the sidewalk.” Hasbrouk then said, “What would I have to do to get you to ticket these cars double-parked?” That comment got him arrested for felony vandalism, according to Hasbrouk. Expunging the arrest cost him nearly $3,000 and a night in jail.

But given the SFPD’s lack of pragmatism when it comes to investigating these accidents (for instance, Biel said SFPD doesn’t require a continuing education for officers assigned to traffic enforcement, despite what Shahum says are complex issues surrounding a rapidly growing population of cyclists), and it’s boorish behavior following the Le Moullac tragedy in August, it’s high time for change.

And a joint hearing could be just the place to start.

Supervisors examine anti-cyclist bias at SFPD


The Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee held a high-profile and well-attended hearing Oct. 3 to examine how the San Francisco Police Department investigates motorist versus bicyclist collisions. Sup. Jane Kim called the hearing following revelations about shoddy police work and anti-cyclist bias in the Aug. 14 death of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac.

Dozens of cyclists told horror stories of being hit by cars and then treated badly by police, which routinely absolves motorists of responsibility even in cases where they are clearly at fault.

Deputy Police Chief Mike Biel admitted some shortcomings in their investigations and promised to do better, and he apologized for the absence of Police Chief Greg Suhr and Sgt. Richard Ernst, who showed up at an Aug. 21 memorial event for Le Moullac to make inaccurate and insensitive comments criticizing cyclists. Kim had requested testimony from both men. Sup. David Campos pledged to hold another hearing on the issue, this time at a rare joint hearing of the Board of Supervisors and Police Commission.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum urged the SFPD to, “Focus limited traffic enforcement resources on known dangerous intersections and known dangerous behaviors.” (Read Shahum’s op-ed on the hearing.)

Concerns about selective enforcement and anti-cyclist bias by the SFPD were heightened in the week before the hearing when officers started enforcement stings focused on stop sign-running cyclists riding the Wiggle, one of the city’s most popular and heavily traveled bike routes.

Among those stopped and given a written warning — one of 534 written warnings and 16 citations the SFPD reported giving out to cyclists in September — was Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones, whose Oct. 1 blog post on whether SFPD should strictly enforce laws requiring cyclist to completely stop at stop signs was the most commented post of the last week.

Shahum told us that the Bike Coalition has done education campaigns urging cyclists to yield to pedestrians on the Wiggle, but that none of the seven intersections on the Wiggle meet the SFPD’s own stated goals of focusing enforcement on the five most dangerous intersections in each police district. “When you look at the data on the Wiggle,” Shahum said, “it’s not a high collision area.”

SFPD targets bikes before hearing on its anti-cyclist bias


As it prepares for this Thursday’s Board of Supervisors hearing examining allegations that its officers are biased against bicyclists, the San Francisco Police Department has quietly started enforcement stings focused on cyclists riding the Wiggle, one of the city’s most popular and heavily traveled bike routes.

I was among a series of cyclists stopped by one of two motorcycle cops on Saturday night as they stood on Waller Street waiting for cyclists to make that left turn off of Steiner, the first in a series of five turns known as the Wiggle, a key bike route connecting the east and west sides of town.

The sting operation — a term that Officer R. Scott, who stopped me, denied, although that’s clearly what it was — was like shooting fish in a barrel for these guys, given that thousands of cyclists a day roll through the stop signs on the Wiggle on their way to work, school, or errands.

Since being pulled over, I’ve heard this was part of several recent enforcement actions targeting cyclists on the Wiggle, supposedly driven by neighborhood complaints. Although Scott took down my driver’s license information, entered my information into the system, and issued me a citation — lecturing me along the way, and getting an earful from me in response — he waited to the end to tell me it was only a warning (actually, it was his partner who said that he should give me a ticket rather than a warning because of how I was expressing myself, but Scott said it was too late).

I’ve asked the SFPD a series of questions about the reasons for and goals of this stepped-up enforcement against cyclists, as well as about the timing, stats, and other information. I’ll update this post if and when I get a response.

For conservative law-and-order types, it probably doesn’t seem like there’s much to discuss here. Cyclists run stop signs, that’s against the law, end of story. But if San Francisco is going to continue to encourage people to ride bikes — with all the societal benefits that brings — it needs to take a more realistic and progressive approach to this issue.   

The California Vehicle Code Section 22450(a), which I was accused of violating, doesn’t distinguish between cars and bikes when it states, “The driver of any vehicle approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection shall stop at a limit line, if marked, otherwise before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection.”

Unlike the traffic laws in Idaho, which do have different standards for bikes and cars and where my approach of yielding but not stopping would have been legal, California has traffic laws that are hopelessly mired in another age, before global warming, air pollution, traffic gridlock, skyrocketing automobile fatalities, and other factors caused society to rediscover and embrace bikes as a beneficial mode of everyday transportation.

And when state or federal laws have lagged behind public opinion and behaviors, San Francisco has often been at the forefront of radical reform, as we have done on immigration, marijuana, civil liberties, rent control, marriage equality, and other issues where we have refused to go along with an unjust or unrealistic status quo.

How we get around, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect for the reasonable choices that we make, belongs on that list. The number of cyclists on the streets of San Francisco has surged in recent years, and it’s the official policy of the city to favor that mode over the automobile and to work toward the goal of having 20 percent of all trips be by bicycle by the year 2020.

That probably won’t happen without many more bike lanes — and it definitely won’t happen if bicyclists are expected to stop at every stop sign. Momentum matters on bikes and they become a far less appealing mode of transportation if we’re forced to come to a complete stop at every intersection, an unrealistic approach that impedes the smooth flow of not just cyclists, but motorists, Muni, and pedestrians as well.

Sup. Jane Kim called the hearing on how the SFPD handles cyclists — which is scheduled for this Thurday at 10am before the board’s Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee — after the Guardian helped expose some truly appalling anti-cyclist bias by the SFPD.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum said that cyclists will call for better training and investigations of traffic collisions involving bikes, as well as a shift in how the SFPD polices the streets. She said her message will be, “Focus limited traffic enforcement resources on known dangerous intersections and known dangerous behaviors.”

And she said the bicyclists on the Wiggle just don’t meet those criteria. “When you look at the data on the Wiggle, it’s not a high collision area,” Shahum said, confirming reports that the SFPD has done bicycle stings on the Wiggle on at least two days in the last week.

Shahum acknowledges that there are sometimes conflicts and that bicyclists aren’t angels, noting that the SFBC has recently done events on the Wiggle encouraging bicyclists to ride carefully and yield to pedestrians and motorists when they have the right-of-way.

But she that Police Chief Greg Suhr has repeatedly called for each police district to “focus on five,” using traffic data to target the five most dangerous intersections in each district. As she said, “We’re asking the police to live up to have they’ve said, over and over.”

As for changing state law to adopt Idaho’s bike standards, Shahum said that the difficult, multi-year effort just to get a weak bike buffer law recently signed into law shows that’s probably not realistic. But here in San Francisco, there’s much more we can do to encourage safer cycling and road sharing.

Van Ness BRT moves forward, slowly, despite the need for rapid reforms


San Francisco today inched closer to finally creating a modern bus rapid transit system on Van Ness Avenue, nine years after it was officially proposed, although as we reported in last week’s paper, the city is still about five years away from actually completing it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors today approved the project’s Environmental Impact Report, following up its approval last week by the San Francisco Transportation Authority, which has the same makeup as the Board of Supervisors.

Next, the $126 million project heads to the Federal Transportation Authority for approval of its environmental documents, after which it heads into a design phase and comes back for its project-level approvals, giving its motorist critics plenty of time to make mischief and undermine it.

In last week’s debut Street Fight column, Jason Henderson made equity arguments about how a project that will speed up Muni for tens of thousands of riders, and that it’s moving forward over the objections to losing 105 parking spaces, sparking an explosion of caustic comments.

In prepared comments about today’s vote, SFMTA head Ed Reiskin said, “The Van Ness BRT project will transform Van Ness for Muni drivers and for pedestrians, making travel a much more pleasant, safe, and efficient experience.” In his column, Henderson also added the descriptor “dignified,” which should be another goal on an underfunded system that is now busting at its seams.  

As much as motorists love to complain about government, or the “bike lobby,” or other perceived enemies of their convenience, San Francisco should be doing more to create pleasant, safe, efficient, and dignified service to the growing population that relies on Muni.

That will mean some more sacrifices by motorists, it will mean finally asking businesses to help pay for Muni improvements with a downtown transit assessment district (instead of moving in the opposite direction by expanding corporate welfare giveaways), and it will mean finally getting serious about improving the system, rapidly, rather than the nearly 15 years it is taking for this common sense improvement.


On its fifth anniversary, Sunday Streets offers a lesson in urban experimentation


It’s hard to believe that Sunday Streets — San Francisco’s version of the ciclovia, or temporary closure of streets to cars as a way of opening up more urban space for pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, performers, and loungers — is five years old. It’s even harder to believe that this family-friendly event was once controversial, especially feared by the businesses that now clamor to hold them in their neighborhoods.

But it was, and that’s a great reminder that ideas that disrupt the status quo and seem quite radical and unsettling can embody just what The City needs to feel like, well, a city, a place with people mix and mingle and get to know one another in the streets, strips that can become important social spaces and not simply conduits for cars.

“Sunday Streets provides the opportunity for recreation and activity in neighborhoods all across San Francisco,” Sunday Streets Director Susan King of Livable City told us. “Each community it’s in is helped with health and economic benefits and the easing of community cohesion.”

This Tuesday, Sept. 17, the folks from Sunday Streets will be hosting a fundraiser and celebration at Cityview, atop the Metreon, in honor of the hard work that has been put into various Sunday Streets events around the city throughout the years. The event will feature speeches, snacks, an open bar, a raffle, live entertainment, and other hoopla.

Among those being honored at the event will Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who as mayor worked with alternative transportation activists from Livable City (the event’s main sponsor), the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and other groups — including a large contingent that attended the first ciclovia in the US, in Portland, during the Toward Carfree Cites conference in 2008 (which we at the Guardian covered) — to create Sunday Streets.

At the time, the business-friendly Newsom stood up to opposition from merchants in Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39, and both progressive and conservative supervisors looking for a way to tweak the mayor, to help become one of the first cities in the US adopt the ciclovia model that had been pioneered in Bogota, Columbia, and which has now spread to cities around the world.
“We really have to thank former Mayor Gavin Newsom for instigating Sunday Streets,” King said. “Without him, Sunday Streets in San Francisco wouldn’t exist.”

First hosted in the late summer of 2008, King has overseen Sunday Streets since its inception, hustling up fiscal sponsors and volunteer support like a whirling dervish the whole time. 

“There’s so much that goes into Sunday Streets,” King said. “I had no idea that it would get to where it is now.”

The anniversary event costs $50 and lasts from to 6 to 10 p.m. Proceeds will go to future Sunday Streets events.

This year there have been Sunday Streets in a handful of neighborhoods, making appearances in the Embarcadero, Mission, Bayview, Great Highway, Tenderloin, and Western Addition. There are two more Sunday Streets scheduled this year in the Excelsior (Sept. 29) and the Richmond (Oct. 27) districts.


A bridge so far


By Steven T. Jones

Pedaling onto the Bay Bridge over the weekend, I was suspended between our industrial past and sleek present. But my ride into the future was abruptly stopped just before I reached the island.

All the experts say we should all just be happy with the world’s longest bike and pedestrian pier, and it certainly is a wondrous thing to behold, this spacious and beautiful two-mile path that pasted big grins on the dozens of faces that I rode past on its sunny first Friday in operation.

But just as the duality of riding between the old Bay Bridge and the new invoked myriad metaphors, so too did the fact that my fellow taxpayers and I just spent $6.4 billion on a bridge from Oakland to San Francisco built almost exclusively for the private automobile.

Is this the future we’ve embraced? Are global warming, economic equity, and collective responsibility such distant abstractions that we can fill this beautiful new bridge with people sitting alone in expensive, deadly, polluting, space-hogging machines?

I looked into their work-weary eyes as I rode my bicycle out from Oakland with a few of my friends during rush hour, on a path wide enough to facilitate conversations among a pair of cyclists in each direction and strolling pedestrians, six abreast. It was lovely, like we had finally arrived in the civilized, people-powered present that we Guardianistas have been working toward for decades.

And then it ended, a vivid reminder that we’re not there yet.



The past is blocking our progress, literally and metaphorically, at least for now.

The old Bay Bridge stands between the stubbed-off end of the new bike/pedestrian path and its intended touchdown spot on natural Yerba Buena Island, the conjoined twin of the artificial Treasure Island, where developers dream of building high-rise condo towers buffered against the rising sea.

Officials tell the Guardian that the path will likely be completed in early 2015, after the old bridge comes down. Then, we’ll be able to ride our bikes onto the island and cruise our way to the west side, with its beautiful views of our beloved city, San Francisco, shimmering just out of reach.

Next month, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will release its latest study of how to complete the ride/walk, examining the placement of pathways balanced on either side of the Bay Bridge’s western span, their added weight compensated for with lighter decks for the cars, all at a cost approaching a billion bucks, with a capital B.

“Everything about this is going to be hard,” MTC spokesperson John Goodwin told me when I asked about allowing cyclists and pedestrians onto the Bay Bridge’s western span, citing an array of engineering, financial, and political obstacles.

“It’s a 10-year project even if a local billionaire decides to put up the money,” Goodwin said, noting that there is no public funding identified for the project except for maybe raising automobile tolls again, which would be a tough sell to voters for a bike and pedestrian project. “It’s an uphill climb and I’m not sure it will ever reach its intended goal.”

But completing this journey is really only as difficult as we make it. Just ask local activist/author Chris Carlsson, who says that he and some of his buddies could fix the problem in a day for a few thousand dollars. All we need to do it take the righthand lane, install some barriers, done.

“The bridge is more malleable than people treat it as and we need to have this discussion publicly,” Carlsson, a founder of Critical Mass and author of Nowtopia, told us. “Let’s solve this problem today. The idea that they would open this bridge without completing this path is insulting.”

To Carlsson and others of his radical ilk, this is an equity issue, and the opening of a car-only bridge is symbolic of our societal myopia. To believers in the automotive status quo, the idea of giving up one of five traffic lanes for the final, two-mile-long descent into San Francisco makes their heads explode.

“That’s just wildly unrealistic,” Goodwin said of Carlsson’s idea, even instituted on a temporary basis, noting that the Bay Bridge handles more than 270,000 cars per day, by far the busiest state-run bridge in California.

To many modern minds, automobiles are essential to our personal freedom and economic vitality — bikes are toys, public transit is for the poor, walking is what you do in your neighborhood or on the treadmill at the gym — but San Francisco is a voter-approved “transit-first” city that supposedly gives each of these modes priority over cars.

“The idea that the five lanes of automobile traffic is inviolable is ridiculous,” Carlsson said, calling it a relic from the days before the freeway revolts of the 1950s and ’60s, when San Franciscans rejected the conception of The City as just another stop along the fast and efficient interstate highway system.

In fact, it was that cars-first vision — before it was rejected by a populist revolt — that helped lead officials to remove the passenger trains that operated on the lower decks of this New Deal/WPA bridge for its first 17 years of life, turning the whole Bay Bridge over to cars, trucks, and the occasional bus.

The era of unfettered automobility had begun, and the idea that capitalism/industrialism and the health of our world might someday, somehow come into conflict with one another also seemed wildly unrealistic.



The Bay Bridge was my bridge growing up in the East Bay, our link to the big city that I traversed while safely cocooned in the backseat of my parents’ car, windows up, car filled with what we’d later call secondhand smoke, buffered against the wilds of West Oakland as we launched over the bay.

Today, my perspective has changed and so has my access through the old industrial waterfront, which has been opened up to all by a pair of new paths leading bikers and hikers to the bridge, both short rides from the West Oakland BART station.

One starts on Maritime Street, near the Port of Oakland and the remnants of the old railyard on what the Realtors have started calling Oakland Point; the other starts on Shellmound Street right across from Ikea, best accessed from West Oakland along 40th Street, where crews were in the process of placing tall cones to protect the bike lane as we rode past.

After the trails merge, it proceeds past the yards for the government agencies set up to serve the motoring public: CalTrans and its freeway maintenance facilities, and the California Highway Patrol, which has doubled its local bicycle brigade (which had worked just the Golden Gate Bridge) to police the new path.

“Best job in the world,” a smiling Officer Sean Wilkenfeld told me as he arrived at the end of the Bay Bridge path, where a couple dozen people stood watching the new Bay Bridge and the old, which took on a ghostly feel as we hovered next to its newfound lifelessness.

Personally, I really like the new Bay Bridge, with its elegant modern architecture and unobstructed bay views. But some of the friends and strangers that I chatted up there at the end of the line disagreed, singing the praises of the old, industrial, seismically unsound original.

“The new bridge is beautiful, but in some ways I like the old bridge better because you can see its functionality,” Joel Fajans, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, told me.

Conversation among the cyclists turned to our beautiful new path and its untimely end. “What a dream come true to have a bike path on the Bay Bridge. I already wrote to my representatives about completing the route to San Francisco,” said Kurt Vogler, a 47-year-old environmental consultant from Oakland who rode the bridge with Fajans.

That was the phrase that everyone used, this notion of completion, conveying the sense that we’re somehow stuck between where we were and where we should be, suspended between the old and the new, waiting to catch up.

“I think it’s beautiful. It’s an engineering marvel, a miracle,” Garris Shipon, a engineer from Berkeley, said halfway through his bike ride on the Bay Bridge. “I’m glad they launched with a bike path at all, and I hope they finish it because I’d love to ride all the way across.”




The San Francisco-Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges were built at the same time, started in 1933. But the Bay Bridge — the industrial, utilitarian bridge connecting The City to its biggest, most diverse nearby population centers — was done first. The tall, pretty one — with its Art Deco flourishes and tourist appeal — took longer.

On its opening day, the Golden Gate Bridge was filled with pedestrians, while the Bay Bridge hosted its first traffic jam as it was unveiled, “with every auto owner in the Bay Region, seemingly, trying to crowd his machine onto the great bridge,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

It’s been the same story ever since, with cyclists and walkers crowding onto the Golden Gate daily, salty winds howling through their hair, while travelers on the Bay are caged behind steel and glass.

But not anymore. In fact, it’s far more pleasant to ride on the Bay than the Golden Gate, where the bike path is narrow and cluttered. Now, it’s the golden one that seems to belong to another age, with the Bay Bridge designed to be personally experienced.

“It’s really a spectacular excursion,” Renee Rivera, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, told me. “I was taken by surprise by what fun it is to be on a bike on that bridge.”

But the stirring sensation of riding or walking the Bay Bridge only accentuates its main shortcoming; at least the noisy, harrowing Golden Gate Bridge goes all the way across.

“We just spent $6 billion on that,” Fajans said, gesturing to the new Bay Bridge, “and you’re saying we can’t spend a little more to complete the bike lane? That’s not fair.”

Goodwin and others say that motorists paid for the new Bay Bridge with their tolls, but Fajans calls bullshit, noting that BART passengers pay more than drivers for a round trip across the bay without buying exclusive access in the future.

In this age of austerity, with government funding for transportation projects drying up and people reluctant to raise their own tolls or taxes, it’s hard to do what’s needed. That’s one reason cycling advocates take what they can get, such as an expensive western span proposal with one of two paths reserved for maintenance vehicles to smooth the automotive flow.

“If we have to sell it to the public to increase tolls, we’ll have to show that it benefits everyone,” Rivera said.

Completing this path, somehow, is a top priority for the cyclists.

“It was a little tough to get people’s attention on the western span for the last couple years, but now is the time,” Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told us.

Neither director seems willing to embrace Carlsson’s radical approach of simply seizing a lane.

“Like Chris, we feel strongly about equity on the bridge,” Rivera said. “At the same time, it needs to function smoothly as a bridge and I would be concerned about it bottlenecking at Treasure Island.”

Carlsson rejects the neoliberal approach of begging for scraps as we ride into a future that simply can’t continue to be dominated by automobiles. He says the Bay Pier must not rest there for another decade.

“Both bike coalitions have a resistance to appearing anti-car,” Carlsson says, “so they aren’t willing to say the obvious thing.”

Carlsson talks about the Bay Bridge as part of the free Shaping San Francisco lecture series at 7:30pm, Sept. 11, Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics, 518 Valencia, SF.










Kim calls for hearing on how SFPD investigates cyclist fatalities UPDATED


UPDATED In the wake of revelations of shoddy and insensitive police work related to the Aug. 14 death of 24-year-old bicyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a commercial truck driver who turned right across her path as she rode in a bike lane on Folsom Street at 6th Street, Sup. Jane Kim today called for a hearing on how the SFPD investigates cyclist fatalities.

The issue has lit up the Bay Guardian website with hundreds of reader comments after we wrote a series of blog posts and our “Anti-cyclist bias must stop” editorial, including our revelation that the SFPD failed to seek surveillance video of the crash even as its Sgt. Richard Ernst showed up at an Aug. 21 memorial to Le Moullac to denigrate cyclists and make unfounded statements about the fatal collision.

Police Chief Greg Suhr later apologized for Ernst’s behavior and the flawed investigation and said that surveillance video unearthed by cycling activists led to the conclusion by a police investigation that the driver who killed Le Moullac was at fault, according to Bay City News and SF Appeal, which also reported on Kim’s call for a hearing.

As we reported, motorists are rarely cited in collisions with cyclists or pedestrians, even when there’s a fatality involved and the motorist didn’t have the right-of-way, which appears to the case in Le Moullac’s death. The District Attorney’s Office, which did not immediately return a call from the Guardian, is considering whether to bring criminal charges in the case.

UPDATE: We just heard from DA’s Office spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman, who said, “The San Francisco Police Department has delivered a preliminary investigative package and we are in the process of reviewing it to determine what additional investigation is necessary.”

UPDATE 9/5 5pm: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum says she welcomes Kim’s hearings, which are long overdue. “We’re really thankful to Jane for bringing this forward,” Shahum told the Guardian, saying she hopes the hearing results in changes to how the SFPD investigates cyclist fatalilties. “We want to make sure there is ongoing accountability.”

She also said the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has indicated to SFBC that it is working on near-term and long-term improvements on both Folsom and Howard streets, where cyclists in bike lanes must regularly contend to drivers cutting them off. The city does seem committed to a significant pilot of better bikeways there.”

Meanwhile, as the San Francisco Examiner reported today, Le Moullac’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against the driver who killed her, Gilberto Oriheaula Alcantar, as well as the company that he was driving for, Daylight Foods Inc., alleging that he was negligent in driving too fast and failing to pulled into the bike lane before making a right turn from Folsom onto 6th Street.

Alerts: September 4 – 10, 2013



Dems feeling blue Trace Bar, W San Francisco Hotel, 181 Third St, SF. 7-9pm, $40. RSVP. Join the San Francisco Young Democrats for a swanky soiree, the Ball in Blue. SFYD is a passionate group of young people, ages 18 to 35, working to promote the interests of San Franciscans 35 and under. Comprising one of the largest clubs in SF, the group is made up of young professionals, students, legislative staff members, and organizers invested in San Francisco. For more information, send an email to


Memorial for Absolute Empress I de San Francisco Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, SF. 11am. Legendary San Francisco drag queen Jose Julio Sarria, aka The Widow Norton, died Aug. 19, and his memorial is sure to be packed with followers mourning the loss. Sarria, who was performing in drag in North Beach in the 1950s and 60s, became the first out gay person to run for San Francisco supervisor in 1961. Immediately following the memorial, Sarria will be interred in his final resting place, beside famed 19th Century San Francsican Emperor Joshua Norton, whose Colma gravesite Sarria led annual pilgrimages to. Cemetary services will be followed by a reception at San Francisco’s The Lookout.


POWERful Bayview 2145 Keith Street, SF. 1:30-4:30pm, free. RSVP. People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) is hosting an office warming at its new space in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhood. This is an opportunity to view POWER’s new space, meet the neighbors, and learn about upcoming campaigns. For years, POWER’s Bayview Organizing Project (BVOP) has sought to aid low-income residents and workers in shaping decisions that are made on issues ranging from affordable housing to environmental justice, all within the context of a ferocious attempts to gentrify the community.


Sunday Streets Western Addition Fillmore from Geary to Fulton; Fulton from Fillmore to Baker, SF. 11am-4pm, free. In partnership with Livable City and the City of San Francisco, Sunday Streets opens up main thoroughfares to pedestrians, cyclists and community members. The Western Addition edition will feature a climbing wall, SF Skate Club exhibit, and a project of re-imagining Fulton Street that will tap community imagination to create a lightweight model of the street, six feet long by 30 inches wide, capturing the street’s historical topography and urban form.


Anti-cyclist bias must stop


EDITORIAL The streets of San Francisco can be dangerous enough for their most vulnerable users — pedestrians and bicyclists — without the aggressive, insensitive, and judgmental attitudes that have recently been expressed toward those who choose to get around this city by bike.

The Guardian’s Politics blog exploded with caustic comments last week after a pair of reports related to the death of bicyclist Amelie Le Moullac. Among the worst of these blame-the-victim attitudes was expressed by SFPD Sgt. Richard Ernst, who showed up Aug. 21 at an event at the site where Le Moullac died to lecture those mourning her death and make a series of unfounded, irrelevant, and thoughtless accusations (for details, see “Shit Happened”).

These attitudes have no place in a civilized debate over how we share the roadways of this city, and they are particularly reprehensible coming from someone in a position of public trust and authority, validating the dangerous view that violence is an acceptable response to bicyclists who don’t obey traffic laws to the letter.

Compounding the anti-cyclist bias of the SFPD and other police agencies — which routinely fail to cite motorists even when their inattention or negligence results in the loss of life — is the revelation that SFPD misrepresented its efforts to seek video surveillance of the collision, which activists easily found from a neighboring business.

We call on the SFPD to fully investigate Le Moullac’s death, two similar cyclist fatalities earlier this year, and the actions of Ernst, who clearly abused his authority and misrepresented the results of an open investigation in order to make political points against a class of road users that he doesn’t like or understand, needlessly creating a safety hazard in the process. Perhaps temporary reassignment to bike patrol would give Ernst a clearer perspective on the entire community that he’s supposed to be protecting and serving.

The city should also do a public outreach campaign to improve the awareness and safety of all road users, particularly targeting commercial truck drivers, who have now fatally run over three bicyclists this year. The weight and poor driver visibility of these vehicles make them particularly dangerous, and they must drive them in a cautious and predictable manner. The city should also have clearer road markings to encourage safe merging at problematic intersections like Folsom and Sixth streets.

We all need to learn to safely share this city’s roadways, which starts with simply slowing down and paying attention. To focus exclusively on the behavior of cyclists is like blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt. Those with the most power to kill or maim need to be held accountable when they blow through red lights or drive unpredictably, and that should be a higher priority for the SFPD than to piously lecture those mourning a tragic death.

Tragedies remind us to pay attention and share the roads


A pair of tragic news items involving bicyclists in San Francisco — one cyclist a victim, another a perpetrator — illustrates the need for all of us to slow down, pay attention, and safely and respectfully share the roadways of this crowded city.

The victim of yesterday’s fatal collision between a truck and bicyclist at Folsom and 6th Streets — in which the motorist turned right across the path of cyclist in a bike lane, but was inexplicably yet not surprisingly not cited by police — was today revealed to be 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old cyclist Chris Bucchere was today sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and three years probation after pleading guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter after last year trying to beat a red light at Castro and Market streets and fatally striking elderly pedestrian Sutchi Hui.

“Motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists must share the road in a responsible way because there are dire consequences when traffic laws are disregarded,” District Attorney George Gascon said today after Bucchere’s sentencing.

Both of these incidents were sad for all concerned, and they should remind us to be responsible and attentive travelers, a lesson that we could all use. Everyday on my bike commute home, I see motorists running red lights or darting heedlessly around obstacles, risking people’s lives to save seconds of their days; cyclists impatiently edging their way past pedestrians; and pedestrians stepping out into traffic without looking around them, often because they’re absorbed by their smartphones.

We’re all guilty of bad behavior on the roadways at times, myself included, so I’m not going to presume to stereotype any particular group of road users (I’ll leave that to the trolls). But when we hear about terrible tragedies like these, it’s good to take a moment to reflect on our own behavior and do what we can to civilly share our civic spaces, particularly when wielding the deadly weapons of a fast-moving bicycle or an automobile moving at any speed.  

The time is now to fix Muni


EDITORIAL San Franciscans love to bash Muni, but this city would be a gridlocked nightmare without it. Despite its many flaws, Muni does a pretty good job at getting people around the city, particularly for a system that has been plagued by chronic underfunding and which is at capacity during peak hours.

Yet in a growing city that has ambitions to grow even faster — pushed by regional motivators such as Plan Bay Area and pulled by the grand designs of powerful capitalists and their neoliberal political enablers — Muni is well on the way to earning all the scorn that critics can heap on it and becoming the self-fulfilling prophecy of dystopian dysfunction.

Into this critical moment comes the city’s Transit Effectiveness Project and its promise to reduce travel times by 20 percent on busy corridors and to improve reliability and service to underserved areas such as the Excelsior. The TEP’s 793-page environmental impact report dropped on the city with a barely noticed thud last month, and it will be the subject of an informational hearing at the Planning Commission this week (Thu/15) and a series of community hearings in the weeks that follow, with public comments due into the Planning Department by Sept. 17.

So now is the time to get serious about addressing long-simmering conflicts between the Muni’s needs and the desires of private automobile drivers, which are often in conflict on roadways where they’re forced to share space. And on a deeper level, this city must resolve the conflict between the need to substantially increase investment in vital public infrastructure and the destructive fantasies of anti-government ideologues who want a functional city but don’t want to pay for it or be inconvenienced.

Only then can we really delve into the devilish details of the TEP, with tough-to-resolve conflicts between reducing stops to speed service and the needs of the elderly and disabled, whether to limit cycling in certain stretches, how to slow traffic and limit parking without triggering motorist backlash, and how to quickly expand capacity again after you’ve improved the system and encouraged more people to use it.

But these are solvable problems if San Franciscans of all stripes acknowledge the realities of a growing city with a finite capacity to accommodate cars and an infinite need to improve Muni and the safety of pedestrians, laudable goals of the TEP and its new EIR, which is designed to smooth the way for many transit improvement projects to come.

We won’t get there by pandering to people who are pissed off about efforts to regulate street parking in their neighborhoods (and we certainly won’t get there if certain supervisors now making rumblings about taking parking regulation back from the SFMTA get their way). It’s time to truly become the transit-first city we claim to be, and that process starts now.


Lawsuit over injury from airborne fire hydrant tests Uber’s insurance practices


Uber’s policy on insuring its drivers will soon be taken for a test drive, as the company that runs the mobile app-based ride requesting service and a driver were served with a court summons last week from a woman severely injured after a crash near a San Francisco intersection.

Those insurances policies were said to meet brand new regulatory requirements on rideshare services introduced by the California Public Utilities Commission on July 30, which was meant to solve the longtime regulatory battle between rideshare services and local governments.

The plaintiff in the suit, Claire Farhbach, was a bystander, not a customer, and that unique twist in the injury suit has experts from the taxi industry waiting to see if Uber will step up to the plate to pay for Farhbach’s injuries, or if Uber will leave driver Djamol Gafurov on the hook for the bill.

Fahrbach was walking up Divisadero street near Hayes at quarter of midnight March 12 when Gafurov’s black town car, operating as a private taxi, collided with another car on Divisadero while turning left. One of the cars then collided with a fire hydrant, and in the words of the civil suit, “this impact caused the fire hydrant to be violently sheared from its base and propelled through the air a number of feet northbound…when the fire hydrant struck (Farhbach) with a tremendous amount of force.”

The hydrant flew 81 feet from its original position, according to the police report.

The suit notes that Fahrbach sustained lacerations to her body, a fracture in her lower leg, and multiple herniated discs that “more likely than not will require surgical intervention in her future.”

Gafurov’s private taxi was operating as a “partner” of Uber, which is how the company defines its relationship to the network of drivers on its website. No private taxis or drivers are considered to be employees of Uber, as the company has repeatedly maintained. Uber provides software that lets passengers connect with drivers, like a digital dispatch, and the ridesharing service then takes a cut of the fare.

The image above is a modified police report from the fire hydrant incident, with numbers added: 1) site of the initial collision 2) where the vehicle hit the fire hydrant 3) where the hydrant hit Farhbach.

Yet that distinction has made their insurance liabilities nebulous, and local officials have taken notice. Officials at SFO last week started arresting rideshare operators in and around the airport, and the SFMTA, which regulates taxis, also considers them a problem.

The San Francisco Airport Commission and the SFMTA submitted concerns to the California Public Utilities Commission, charging that a “lack of adequate liability insurance, criminal background checks, driver training and regular vehicle inspections all decrease public safety, and although some [transportation network companies] represent that they do all of the above, the Airport Commission is asking for regulatory verification.” according to a CPUC report. “The SFMTA asserts that TNCs have a negative effect on public safety because of a lack of regulatory oversight.”

Cab drivers have long been regulated by the state, and these agencies contend that not only are rideshare companies like Uber dangerous, but the lack of insurance can be financially ruinous to pedestrians and drivers alike.

“Because it’s a pedestrian suing, that opens up a whole can of worms, and Uber may try to put the liability on the driver,” said Trevor Johnson, director of the San Francisco Cab Driver’s Association. A former cabbie himself, he’s been on both sides of that sort of litigation, as well as in legal actions with tech companies like Uber.

Johnson is not confident the driver will be covered by his own insurance plan, because in its current pseudo-taxi company state, many insurers consider you not quite a taxi but not a private driver, putting these tech-cabbies in an awkward limbo.

“He may be left with a big judgment, and his insurance may opt to not cover him because he’s with Uber,” he said.

This is backed up in our current issue of the Guardian, where Lyft driver Josh Wolf wrote from personal experience that it is difficult for Lyft drivers to obtain full insurance coverage for their vehicles.

A rideshare driver criticized Uber in a letter he wrote to the Guardian after reading that article. “I work for a limo company, I’m fully insured, the car is fully insured, but Uber takes absolutely no responsibility for its drivers,” the driver, who wanted to be identified as “Zark,” told us. He said he feared joining the ranks of self-employed cabbies, who often are under-insured. “[Uber] holds their customers in really high regard, but they don’t hold their drivers in any regard.”

Uber maintains that the drivers, and their actions, are not their responsibility.

In response to a query about the lawsuit, Uber spokesperson Andrew Noyes stated repeatedly that drivers are not employees of the rideshare company.

“Our legal team took a look at the files you sent. This is not an ‘Uber’ driver, they’re not employed by us. They’re employed by their licensed and insured limousine company,” he said. “The important thing is that theres no characterization of a driver as a driver at Uber.”

But Gafurov, the driver named in the accident, isn’t actually employed by a limo company.

Gafurov declined to speak to the Guardian, but after some digging, a disgruntled bystander, angry with Gafurov, found that he is self-employed and registered with the CPUC as the “Limo Car Service Corporation.”

Gafurov was driving with liability insurance, his CPUC registration shows — but he not did not have excess liability insurance, which would be needed to cover extraordinary damage caused by the flying fire hydrant. The gaping hole left by the hydrant spilled water out onto all the surrounding businesses, causing intense damage, and everyone affected is seeking compensation.

Fahrbach’s lawyer, Doug Atkinson, told us the cost of the accident will be enormous.

Notably, few independent drivers have excess liability insurance.

“A lot of carriers don’t have it, because it’s expensive,” Johnson told us. “This is a case for the excess insurance, as it stands right now with that much damage and that many people after him, unless Uber steps in and helps him save the day this driver is going to be in the hole for the next 20 years.” He added, “This guy’s life is over.”

Atkinson is hopeful that getting Uber to pay that insurance won’t be a hard sell. “I’m not looking for some protracted legal battle, I want to see a company that will do the right thing, who’s saying ‘I’m revolutionizing cab driving.’”

In order to persuade the CPUC of its viability during the regulatory proceeding, Uber told them it has the very excess liability insurance that Gafurov needs, in excess of $5 million, according to CPUC documentation from an April workshop.

But having that insurance in place is different from using it to cover damages when needed. According to Uber’s partner agreement with its drivers, “Uber and/or its licensors shall not be liable for any loss, damage or injury which may be incurred” by a driver.

Asked if Uber will help Farhbach pay her medical bill, Noyes responded, “You’re writing about a specific case and I don’t think I can say much more. A professionally licensed driver is protected by their company, it’s not really my issue to weigh in on.”

Meanwhile, Fahrbach isn’t doing very well at all, she wrote in an email. Her injuries forced her to leave her two jobs in San Francisco, one at a farmer’s market and another at a cafe, and she moved back in with her family in North Carolina to recover.

“My recovery has been a slow steady process laced with many ups and downs,” she said. “Having been immobile for the better part of three months has had an everlasting effect on my physical state. I will most likely be dealing with spinal problems for the rest of my life, but have tried to remain positive and grateful for the progress I have made.”

Fahrbach said she doesn’t have the money to cover her medical bills out-of-pocket, and this frightens her. “Frankly, if there is insufficient insurance to cover my injuries and losses, my financial future will be dismal.”