Alex Jacobs

Transforming traffic analysis



GREEN CITY A court injunction against new bicycle projects in San Francisco (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07) could get lifted next year, thanks to environmental studies released Nov. 26 and headed to the Board of Supervisors next month. But it’s a subtle, technical change in how city officials analyze traffic impacts that could have a more far-reaching implications.

It’s called Level of Service Reform and it would change the triggering mechanism for when projects need to conduct full-blown environmental impact reports, an expensive and time-consuming requirement that led to the three-year bike project injunction. And LOS reform has been rattling around the city bureaucracy long before the Guardian wrote about it two-and-a-half years ago ("The slow lane," 5/17/06).

"It’s either wonderful that I started working on this in 2002, or it’s embarrassing," Rachel Hiatt of the San Francisco Transportation Authority told a Nov. 19 meeting of TransForm (formerly the Transportation and Land Use Coalition) on the subject.

The California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 requires EIRs for projects with potentially significant environmental impacts, as is the case when the level of service (LOS) at an intersection could be changed. LOS is measured by the amount of time it takes a car to pass through a given area. The time consumed by the car is often referred to as control delay. Measured by grades A through F, control delay per motor vehicle times of up to 30 seconds (E grade) are acceptable in San Francisco.

Designating sections of certain busy streets to accommodate a bike lane would affect the control delay, thereby earning the area a lower LOS grade. Since cars now essentially have priority over alternative forms of transportation, many potential bike lanes have been stranded by the LOS standard.

City officials are working to replace the LOS measure with a new one based on auto trips generated (ATG), using 1 ATG as the threshold for an EIR. Projects that generate no car trips will not be seen as having any environmental impact, thereby moving through the approval process quicker and cheaper.

"LOS needs to be taken out of the picture," Hiatt said.

The argument for LOS replacement is not solely about the need to accommodate other transit modes, but about lowering costs and making government more efficient. Hiatt outlined other problems with the current measure as the failure to accurately gauge environmental impact, failure to reflect the city’s "transit-first" policy priorities, and an inefficient CEQA review process.

Development advisor Mike Yarne of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development said that if the city wants to topple LOS, the Transit Authority has a case to make. "What the TA needs to show is that ATG is a more effective proxy to calculate environmental harm," Yarne said.

The city is also considering instituting a mitigation fee to be paid by project sponsors to compensate for environmental impact. Proceeds from the fee will be used to enhance all existing modes of transit, pedestrian safety, and could even include planting trees.

"The fee will go toward making people move faster," Yarne said.

Yarne admits that it could be a little difficult to make both changes at once. San Francisco will be the first city in California to create a mitigation fee, so other cities are taking notes.

"It would be quite an accomplishment if we could make it happen. It’s never been done," explained Yarne, noting that most cities have come to recognize that CEQA does not work well in urban areas. "The irony of ironies is the stopping of the bike plan."

Last week the TA released a Draft Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco Bicycle Plan. With almost 900 days since the last new bike lane was constructed, the new bike plan will allow a roughly 75 percent increase to the current network..

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum expressed hope in the potential of the new EIR, slated to be approved this spring, after which the plan will be finalized and the city can go back to court to try to get the injunction lifted.

"The draft EIR is definitely a big step toward completion, but more needs to be done," she said. "The ridiculous exercise of slowing the bike plan down is a great case for why we need environmental review reform."

Green and black


GREEN CITY The 2008 San Francisco Green Festival, held Nov. 14-16 at the Concourse Exhibition Center, is a well-established environmentalist event that featured more 1,000 vendors and was overseen by 1,600 volunteers, all united in promoting a greener future.

Yet the event’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, along with Van Jones of the Oakland-based Green Jobs for All and San Francisco-based Muslim minister the Rev. Christopher Muhammad, all conveyed an expanded definition of environmentalism that emphasized social justice and concerns specific to African American communities.

The idea behind this fusion of black and green is that our traditional view of environmentalism, with its focus on the health of ecosystems, needs to be expanded to social systems as well. In that context, Muhammad’s long fight against Lennar Corp.’s reckless approach to developing Bayview-Hunters Point (see "Question of intent," 11/28/07), in which his Muhammad University of Islam was exposed to toxic asbestos dust, takes on new dimensions.

As the first speaker of the day Nov. 15, Muhammad’s speech was geared toward local issues of concern. Muhammad continued to shed light on the "environmental racism" taking place in the Bay Area communities of Bayview-Hunters Point, North Richmond, and West Oakland, referring to the injustice as San Francisco’s "dirty little secret." Environmental racism ranges from citing polluting industries in poor communities of color to inequities in who has access to healthy food and preventive medical care.

Muhammed brought to light the issue of San Francisco’s declining middle class and minority populations, citing rising crime rates and housing costs as culprits. He also commended the Green Festival for bringing people together to hear about an expanded scope for environmentalism. "It’s a place where people can come and be informed about issues that impact them that have historically been left out in terms of this whole [green] movement," Muhammed said.

The last scheduled speaker of the day was prominent social critic and Princeton professor Cornel West, author of the new book Hope on a Tightrope (Hay House). Muhammad has worked with West in the past and praised him as a fellow advocate for social justice: "I’ve met with him on a number of occasions and worked with him on various projects. He’s an ally."

West stressed the importance of addressing social justice by saying, "There’s a need to target [environmental racism]. You need a coalition in order to bring hard pressure to bear, so it can become more of a national issue."

In many ways, the people are showing signs of resistance to change, as with the passage of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California, a result he calls "catastrophic." Still, he said, now, after a historic presidential election, is the moment to begin the transition. "It’s the end of an era. Thirty years of a country sleepwalking is over," West proclaimed to the cheering crowd.

He warned everyone not to believe that change will come overnight, reminding the crowd that it is ultimately up to us to push the change that we so desperately crave. "It’s not just about one messianic figure on his way to the White House," West said.

Green energy is the future of this country, West said, and one of the many ways we can foster positive change. The potential to lift up communities of color as part of the transition to new energy sources has been a big focus for Van Jones of Oakland’s Green for All, who spoke Nov. 16 about his new book, The Green Collar Economy (HarperCollins). He said we must "invent and invest our way" out of our current "gray economy" and into the new "green economy."

West also said the American people are still coming to understand the nature of the problems we face. "America has grown old, we’ve grown wealthy, but we have yet to grow up." But he ended his speech on an upbeat note, saying this age of conservation and greater awareness will create what Sly Stone called the "age of everyday people."

This year’s Green Festival exposed attendees to nontraditional environmental problems that pollute our social environment. The take-away from this new focus was that "going green" involves more than just driving a hybrid car and shifting to compact fluorescent lights — it means truly transforming our communities.

Reviving radicalism



As the country’s economic, environmental, and political systems teeter on the brink of collapse, several Bay Area groups are reviving calls for radical solutions. And some are drawing parallels to the spirited political activity of 40 years ago.

“In my opinion, 1968 was the beginning of a process, an awakening of the questioning of social movements,” Andrej Grubacic, a globalization lecturer at ZMedia Institute and the University of San Francisco, told the Guardian.

The Great Rehearsal was a week of events from Sept. 17-25 that centered on the many protests, actions, and events of the 1960s and ’70s that are paralleled today. The event alluded to an ongoing struggle for alternatives to the failing institutions that are hurting the average American.

“Neoliberalism is this sort of clinching of the system. It is the last gasp of a dying system,” Katherine Wallerstein, executive director of the nonprofit Global Commons, told us. Wallerstein believes that deregulation is to blame for many of our economic woes, such as the housing crisis, job loss, and a volatile market.

Other recent events such as the Radical Women conference in San Francisco have highlighted the systemic causes of our economic turmoil, saying we should bail out people not banks, cancel student debt, and end home foreclosures. They went on to suggest that the bailout was just a form of jubilee for the rich.

Radical Women member Linda Averill announced at the conference that “if unions don’t take the offense now, we’re going to lose it all.” She went on to advocate mobilizing the labor movement, stating that we must band together against those sustaining the system. Other revolutionaries went even further, calling to abolish the capitalist system. RW member Toni Mendicino said the system of profit is inherently greedy and that reguutf8g it isn’t enough — we must get rid of it.

The Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) is a radical student-run organization focused on solving global climate change. Many of the initiatives taken by SEAC deal with less mainstream environmental concerns, including combating coal power and promoting clean water. These previously ignored problems are pumping new life into the environmental movement. Brian Kelly, former Students for a Democratic Society organizer who now does organizing work for SEAC, told us, “The problem is the fucked-up system. (We need to) carve out a decent life through an alternative to capitalism.”

John Cronan, an organizer for the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, advocates Participatory Economics (Parecon) as an alternative to capitalism. He highlighted Parecon’s values as a solidarity-based system that abolishes the market and replaces it with participatory planning. Parecon, he says, will take into account the social costs that goods and services create; something commonly ignored in today’s capitalist system, a system many claim perpetuates the environmental crisis.

“Climate change is highlighting the system flaws,” Kelly said. He went on to place the environment and climate change as the highest priority in the upcoming presidential election, proposing green technology as the answer to the economic turmoil and global climate change taking place. The Power Vote program, he told us, supports the investment in green technologies by politicians and citizens.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has pushed local governments in many rural farming communities to create ordinances claiming nature as an entity that should have more political and legal prominence than property. These ordinances aim to curb pollution and provide communities with a safeguard against corporate influence.

Through similar efforts, grassroots organizations have managed to stop 59 coal-fired power plants in 2007 by persuading courts not to grant permits for the plants. This is one of many steps to contest the environmental degradation taking place.

“I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience,” said Al Gore, calling for people to rise up against the construction of new coal plants, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in March.

Gore’s call to action has prompted many activists to battle corporations and self-interested government. “The current economic and political systems are out of whack with human and democratic values,” Kelly said. “The system is exposing itself.” According to many, the system is shifting dangerously close to totalitarianism.

There’s even been a resurgence of the old Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program), an FBI-run spying and political sabotage program that was responsible for the arrests of 13 Black Panthers in 1973 in connection with the 1971 murder of a San Francisco police officer. The men were subjected to torture techniques similar to those used at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The 13 Panthers were acquitted for lack of evidence and the case was closed. However, in 2005, with the help of the USA Patriot Act, the case was reopened and eight of the Panthers were re-arrested. John Bowman, one of the detained, announced to the press, “The same people who tried to kill me in 1973 are the same people who are here today trying to destroy me.” Former Panther Richard Brown warned audiences at the Great Rehearsal that the Patriot Act has given the government the ability to profile any ethnic group or organization, past and present, as terrorists.

“The Patriot Act was passed in the name of protecting us and our democracy. But it limits us,” Cronan said. Groups like New SDS have incorporated working against the Patriot Act through their antiwar work, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has consistently battled against the act.

Even the Communists are back. Earlier this month, the Revolutionary Communist Party held a demonstration in San Francisco, telling the small crowd, “The world today cries out for radical, fundamental change.”

Many radical groups see opportunity in the current moment. Grubacic told us that, “The future belongs to the ones creating it in the present.” *