Cutting Through the Red Tape

Thoughts on Mode Shift

November 30, 2015

By Anna Garfink, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow

When I was 12, I became a bicycle commuter. I biked to and from my middle school each day, a simple two-mile, mostly flat ride that I loved to hate. It was the best option at the time to get me to school, but on most cold days I definitely longed for a nice, warm vehicle to drive me to school. Fast forward five years, and by senior year of high school I was biking everywhere – to friends’ houses and to jobs, to places inside my tiny town and to places far from it. Sure, I had a driver’s license, but I loved and cherished the freedom that I felt only a bicycle could give.

When I went to college in Los Angeles, it seemed my biking days were over. LA simply doesn’t have the biking infrastructure or culture that the Bay Area has, and my college campus was small (and hilly) enough that walking sufficed to get me around. I never bought or had regular access to a vehicle while I was in Los Angeles, but the car culture there was overwhelming to the point that I had almost entirely forgotten about my days as a bicycle enthusiast, and I found myself longing for a car.

That was until, of course, I actually drove around LA a bit and realized how horrifically crappy it is to sit in traffic for 45 minutes and only move maybe five miles. Why?? Why do people continually choose single-occupancy vehicles over public transit, over biking, over walking – when it is clear that it is actually one of the least pleasant ways to get from point A to point B?

Turns out, there are quite a few answers to this question, and these answers touch on deeply-set social equity issues that I’ll save for my next blog post. The answer I’m going to focus on here, and that has been at the forefront of my mind since being exposed to San Francisco’s Vision Zero initiative, is this: society worships cars. Like, truly, we worship them. We devote massive amounts of our public space to them (think about how much land our streets, our parking lots, and our freeways take up, when they could be used for something else). All this, despite the fact that cars kill people. People actually lose their lives because cars exist, and because many of the human beings who drive them think that driving is a fundamental right that trumps all other road users’ rights to the road.

When you think about driving with this frame of mind, as I have been lately, our car obsession seems quite odd. After all, cars have only been around since the turn of the 20th century, while people have been biking since the turn of the 19th century, and walking since the dawn of humanity. So, why in the world do cars get all this preferential treatment?

It would take a massive paradigm shift to start thinking in a different way. To let go of our dearly-held belief that cars are the best form of transportation.* But, for the rest of us, while we keep that in mind, we should start to think about whether it might be worth it to shift to a new travel mode. Kids on bikes going to school (i.e., me at age 12) shouldn’t have to be extraordinarily careful when sharing the road, and citizens crossing the street shouldn’t have to fear they’ll be hit by someone making a sly right-on-red. Cars and their very human drivers should be held accountable for street safety, and drivers should definitely start to question their driving entitlement.

Consider this pilot proposal by the SFMTA to close portions of Powell St. to vehicle traffic. That seems crazy, right? The article primarily focuses on drivers who choose driving when other modes of transportation are not only a feasible option for them, but may actually be the better option. I recognize that there are many folks in the Bay Area for whom driving is the only/best form of transportation, and for whom biking/walking places would be a luxury.

But could you imagine, a street without cars – what’s even the point?! Well, turns out that there are many purposes for a street besides as a space for cars, and I’m looking forward to seeing more streets become re-purposed for new, pedestrian/cyclist friendly uses.

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