December 31st, 2010

View of Bolinas

Bolinas

View of Bolinas

Bolinas

South Park in San Francisco

South Park

South Park in San Francisco

South Park

When we look in the mirror that reflects the world we live in, there’s a blind spot – we can’t see the cars.

We’ve gotten so used to cars dominating our streets and landscape that in many respects, we don’t see how much they affect our everyday experience.

Even in a ‘progressive’ place like Bolinas, CA, a beach town north of San Francisco where the locals tear down road signs that direct traffic towards their town, the main street is sadly an oversized asphalt parking lot. The width of the grey street dwarfs any other element. One must wade through (or just not see?) a mess of cars in order to experience their ‘unspoiled’ town. Cars have carved such an uncontested place in our landscape that just imagining them not there takes a real effort. In fact, the act of imagining a car free downtown Bolinas might take more energy than parking a couple blocks off the main drag. This isn’t Mideast Peace we’re talking about. The problem is the car has us all hypnotized into thinking it has to be, deserves to be, there. It doesn’t, does it?

I notice this hypnosis everyday outside our store in the progressive South Park neighborhood. Many visitors to South Park are captivated by the European charm of our neighborhood with a beautiful park nestled between vibrant eateries, residential buildings, and storefronts.

Yet an eye level survey, from almost any angle in South Park, will reveal that cars take up most of the visual space. It’s hard to even see the architecture or the people in the park. The sidewalk is pinched to a point where you can fit in one petite café table, barely. There is not enough space for legal bike racks, so there are none. None. Except the ones in our no cars allowed driveway.

We inch our way sideways between tightly fitted car bumpers when we walk into the park. I guess we can take a little comfort in the fact that we’re turning sideways to slide between Prius’s rather than SUV’s? Often we just don’t see what’s in front of our noses (or pressed against our thighs). Like many cities, San Francisco has a long way to being “progressive’ with respect to transportation and community design. But as a city we’re moving in the right direction with more parklets and efforts to redesign our streetscape, like Great Streets.

Yet despite all the smaller, progressive efforts to reclaim our public spaces, our broader public policy (also subject to a blind spot) stumbles along as if cars, asphalt, and pollution are invisible inevitabilities. Two recent examples are the Gulf oil spill and the recent Caldecott Tunnel in our East Bay. We blame and demonize BP but completely fail to see that it is we who create the demand for the product that they screwed up trying to get for us. In the case of the Caldecott Tunnel, we are spending $420 million taxpayer dollars to encourage more cars to pile into the already heavily congested East Bay and Bay Bridge traffic snarl. Effective mass transit and a higher tax on oil would get us part way to a solution.

We’re certainly not anti-car. In fact, some of us at PUBLIC own a car and ride a bicycle. But we at PUBLIC bicycle as our first transportation option in the city because it’s faster and more convenient – and more fun – than driving a car. We think the most livable cities will create the infrastructure to make bicycling the de facto, faster, convenient, and safer option for getting around. And we think the healthiest and most vibrant cities will be the ones moving away from the car-centric land-use policies of the past several decades.

Research indicates that 40% of all trips are less than two miles from home and 82% of trips, five miles or less, are made by car. Imagine if more people who are now driving to their neighborhood store, school, or to work switched over to bicycles?

What to do? Self-righteousness makes us feel a little better for a few minutes, but it gets us nowhere. If all politics are local, I guess we’ll begin in South Park. At the very least, we’ll try to get some bike racks there for starters and maybe paint them some bright colors that can be glimpsed occasionally through the cars. Ideas welcome.

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