Business owners and residents on San Francisco's Polk Street see cyclists as typically culpable in accidents with cars, scoff at the notion of global warming, and are strongly opposed to the SFMTA's suggestions for improving their neighborhood.
This was the tone of a public meeting organized by the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association at the Old First Presbyterian church, Monday night March 18th.
SFMTA chief, Ed Reiskin, said, "Our main goal for this work is to make it safer for people bike, walk and drive on Polk Street."
The Middle Polk Neighborhood Association has aligned itself with a movement called Save Polk Street, which has opposed the SFMTA plan in a poster campaign.
MPNA chair Dawn Trennert repeatedly had to appeal to Save Polk Street supporters in the crowd to show respect for pro SFMTA speakers. Mr. Reiskin was loudly booed and shut down while attempting to outline his plan for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements along the stretch of Polk Street from Union Street in the north to McAllister in the south.
At issue is the part of the proposal that suggests reducing car parking space along Polk Street. Some merchants believe this will reduce their customers, while some residents believe the plan will impede their access to the street.
The SFMTA as well as some informed residents of the area pointed to several studies that suggest exactly the opposite.
Supervisor David Chiu, representing District 3, attended the meeting and reminded the assembly that the Polk Street corridor has, over an extended period of time, suffered a higher rate of collisions between people driving cars and those traveling by foot and on bicycles.
According to City accident figures, the southern portion from Sacramento to McAllister Streets is part of the 7% of San Francisco streets that have more than half of the city's most severe pedestrian collisions.
Howard Schindler, the owner of Nick's Crispy Taco's on Polk Street was loudly applauded after stating that while he was concerned about the accidents, he sees cyclists as responsible for many of them. "Bicyclists don't pay full attention, they don't make complete stops," he said. Mr. Schindler suggested that the SFMTA plan would create a bicycle freeway, in which case he said, "Put them on Van Ness Avenue."
"It was embarrassing," said local resident Sue Hosking after the meeting. She had gone with the intention of outlining a compromise solution that includes both separated bike lanes and re-opening parking garages in the streets just off Polk. "I didn't feel like I could speak, that crowd was too hostile," she said and added, "They can't have it both ways. Saying they are concerned about safety yet insisting on continuing these unsafe road traffic conditions just doesn't work."
Ms. Hosking sees that resident parking and some of the business-related traffic create unsafe road conditions. "People cruising around looking for parking spots, they're not looking out for pedestrians or cyclists. Often they make right turns without looking, and sometimes they perform high speed U-turns to get to a spot that's just opening up. And double-parking outside restaurants seems standard. The parking valets are a real concern, and there are lots of them."
Another local resident, Peter Riswold, 67, walked out in disgust after one resident was booed for suggesting that global warming is an issue that could be addressed by driving less and increasing use of public transport, walking and bicycling. "I was going to speak, but there was no point. It reminded me of a Tea Party town hall meeting in there," said Mr. Riswold, "Not one of those business owners came up with a constructive suggestion."
Although the SFMTA says it has been talking with Polk Street businesses since September 2012, no alternatives or intelligent visions for improved safety or coping with the fast-growing city population were offered by the merchants or the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association.
Some of the loudest boos were reserved for a resident who suggested that in changing times businesses that cannot innovate and adapt to changing socio-economic conditions won't survive.
Another resident, Pamela, 46, an architect and San Francisco native said she thinks these businesses are living in the past and are unrealistic about the future. "They want it to be how it was in the 1970s when the population was down, but the city is growing again and we can't all own our own car and drive everywhere in it. If that's the lifestyle they want they should go to Texas where there is plenty of space. If you keep adding cars to this city it won't be long until there's gridlock."
With an influx of 150,000 residents projected for San Francisco in the next 20 years, a population growth rate not seen since the period 1930-1950, the SFMTA has targeted walking, cycling and public transit as high priority transportation modes in order to avoid street-clogging congestion, as well as improved safety and air quality.
An observer at the meeting was Bert Hill, chairman of San Francisco's Bicycle Advisory Committee, which advises the mayor's office on cycling policy and works closely with the SFMTA. Mr. Hill was not surprised by the hostility of the crowd. "This is typical. We all hate to see changes that we don't control. Things will calm down but (the proposals) will have to go more slowly. We saw similar reactions out in the west of the city, on Sloat Boulevard and Portola," he said.
In a conversation the week prior to this stormy neighborhood meeting, the manager of Walgreens on Polk Street stood outside his store mid-week during business hours and said, "How many cyclists do you see compared to cars in this block? If people don't come here by car, who will come here? Where are all these cyclists?"
He noted that the majority of his customers arrive by foot, as did a floor supervisor at Trader Joes. "You see them walk out of the store, one bag in each hand," she said.
The point about mid-week car/bike traffic ratios was repeated by the owner of a used book store on Polk, a category of business that has been hit particularly hard by the growing popularity of internet commerce.
Cyclists say these are not forward-thinking views. Madeleine Savit, 61, another local resident, said, "You don't see so many cyclists using Polk Street now because it is too dangerous for all but the most adventurous people. I am outgoing and a very keen cyclist, but I lived here for six months before I summoned the courage to ride on Polk Street. If you make it a safe and inviting route for average people, the number of cyclists will dramatically increase. That is what has happened in other inner city areas around the world."
The outlook is not all gloom and doom for cyclists. An employee at the Crepe House on Polk Street said prior to the Monday meeting that replacing parking spots with a parklet in front of that business had resulted in a big increase in weekend customers, while two of the Polk Street businesses represented at the meeting, Terrasol and Good Vibrations, said they were willing to support the SFMTA plan. Until these businesses can persuade more of their neighbors, people using Polk Street will continue to endure the perils of this traffic-heavy route.
A group named Folks For Polk has formed a petition in support of the SFMTA plan, it is available at www.change.org/petitions/mayor-edwin-lee-supervisors-david-chiu-and-jane...
Another meeting, hosted by the Community Leadership Alliance, at which the SFMTA will again discuss the Polk Street proposals, is scheduled for Tuesday March 26, at the Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Latino Room A, 4-5:30 p.m.