Two events dominated this past week - the Scope of Work presentation and our trip to San Francisco on Friday. We now better understand how the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) operate and what their needs are. At the same time, we have new questions about how to include equity, how to reach out to locals, and what format the map should be in. We will meet this Sunday to discuss additional research and field work needs. Later this week, we will also email Janice with the data we want from the SFMTA, call her with updates, and potentially meet with the Geospatial Center staff to discuss the map.
What We Observed and Learned
Overall, the consensus on our Scope of Work was to consider San Francisco’s diversity and unique context. For instance, language barriers might prevent Cantonese and Spanish speakers from engaging with bicycle projects and advocacy. Moreover, existing lifestyles are not always conducive to bicycling. Deland’s project on Broadway Street revealed that bicycling is a low priority for Chinatown residents. How can we account for these established preferences? Moreover, San Francisco is diverse socioeconomically. SFBC advocacy member Charles explained the need to tweak messaging when speaking to luxury condo owners versus single-room occupancy residents. This raises a crucial question: are bike, pedestrian, and transit resources being fairly distributed across the City’s cultural and socioeconomic groups? Low stress bicycling… for whom? Beyond equity, we must consider other non-infrastructure concerns, such as the hilly topography and windy weather. Additional suggestions included the using the Census Bureau’s “OnTheMap” service for traffic data, examining the purpose of bikeability metrics, and changing the metric’s name to be more intuitive or striking. Janice echoed the need to consider a range of issues in her email, commenting that we could consider adding land use, demographics, and danger hotspots to the Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) metric.
An important element of our trip was experiencing San Francisco bicycling firsthand. A number of highlights stood out during our bike tour with Janice, as well as our trips to and from the Caltrain station. For instance, pavement quality along Townsend Street was a surprisingly important issue. The reason for the poor pavement was that Townsend is an “unaccepted street”, so the City leaves maintenance to nearby property owners. We also passed through San Francisco’s latest protected intersection, which was a joy to ride. However, because many other parts of our journey were exposed to traffic, the overall trip was stressful. This emphasizes the point that a bicycle trip is only as comfortable as its most stressful link, as well as the need for an extensive and well-connected network. During our trip with Janice, we encountered windy conditions and steep hills, both of which are elements of bikeability we should consider. Finally, the way back to the Caltrain station was quite scary. We took a route under the freeway, where there were no bike lanes at all for a long stretch. This highlights the need for wayfinding that can direct people to areas with better infrastructure.
In our meetings with the SFBC and the SFMTA, we gained critical knowledge about how the two groups work. One of the SFBC advocacy team’s main functions is to keep track of infrastructure projects across the City. This need could shape how we create our map and our report. The second major function is to engage with members. In fact, most of Charles' activities that day involved meeting over coffee with Coalition members, spreading awareness about projects and asking them to participate in advocacy. Meanwhile, the SFMTA's main role as the handlers of transportation infrastructure money is to prioritize projects based on limited funding and to implement an overall strategy. This means that their decision-making tools are highly advanced, using both quantitative metrics like LTS, the high injury network, and connectivity as well as public input from meetings. We found out that LTS is in fact just one small part of the range of tools they use. In fact, Jamie called it "a blunt tool".
Critical Analysis/Moving Forward
This week, we gained valuable insights into bicycle advocacy and infrastructure from our trip, readings, and feedback. Firstly, we found there are a variety of barriers to improving bikeability, often because the intentions of policies and laws differ from implementation. For example, CEQA was intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but in San Francisco was used to block all new bicycle infrastructure in the City for four years. This could, however, indicate a need for better preparation and accountability on the part of bike advocates and planners and the need to ensure people informed about the project beforehand. This is an important part of advocacy work. Additionally, we found that San Francisco’s Open Data policy does not actually mean all data is available. Most of the SFMTA’s data is actually not accessible, and making that data available would take time and effort that the Agency does not necessarily have. The lack of open and useable data on bicycling could impact citizens’ and government’s ability to analyze progress. Finally, just because San Francisco has a resolution to reach a 20% bicycle mode share by 2020 does not mean there is enough funding to achieve that. In fact, the 2013-2018 Bicycle Strategy acknowledges a significant funding gap in achieving 20% mode share.
Additionally, we learned that city governance is a messy and not always transparent process, and much of it involves mediating the relationship between citizens and government. From the SFMTA meeting, Jamie Parks told us that gathering feedback from citizens is difficult, and that efforts to create public online forums have devolved into bickering. Mr. Parks argued that meeting face-to-face with people at public meetings is usually the best way to obtain feedback. On the flip side, disseminating government information to citizens is not easy. In addition to the barriers to maintaining open data, many of the SFMTA’s decision-making processes were unknown to us before we actually met with them. Though the Agency has an elaborate, computerized process for narrowing down future projects based on LTS, high injury networks, corridor studies, cost, connectivity, and demand, we did not know about this until the meeting.
Nonprofit work is also about relationships - and it often means sitting in the complicated zone between citizens and government. The advocacy team’s two main roles - spreading awareness of bike projects and mobilizing the public to push for better projects - are related to the back and forth between these two groups. Being in this zone can lead to tension. Prior to our visit, the SFBC was engaging in a Twitter war with @SF311, a government agency, for blocking a bike path despite the protests of a person trying to bike through. The SFMTA was mistakenly tagged in this heated argument, angering some planners in the Agency. The SFBC is in a unique position for a nonprofit because it on good terms with the City government. The Coalition maneuver deftly in order to balance the demands of members and their relationship with the City. After the Twitter argument calmed down, they issued a quiet tweet apologizing to the SFMTA.
Equity considerations were another important theme. How does bikeability fit into broader issues of gentrification, homelessness, equity? Charles and Julia of the SFBC consider their work to be part of much broader and interrelated issues of local governance, equity, and public space. However, there are sometimes conflicts. For example, homeless encampments block bike lanes at the Hairball, leading to a sensitive situation that the SFBC is unwilling to step into. What does this issue reveal about the broader complications with bicycle advocacy?
The feedback we obtained will inform our project going forward. In terms of researching bikeability metrics, we now know that we will not necessarily replace LTS. If we decide not to replace it, we should at least suggest additions or tweaks to it, which can include equity and diversity, non-infrastructure concerns, hotspot and intersection analysis, local participation, and the high injury network. Moreover, now we better understand how the SFBC works, so we could potentially mold our work to better fit that. For example, they might use LTS to keep the SFMTA accountable. Right now, they usually use the high injury network to identify priorities. Creating a map that lets them track project progress and summarize past changes could be helpful, especially if it is layered with demographics, injury, land use, and participation tools. We also better understand our position relative to understanding hotspots and intersection safety, as well as researching equity concerns and find better ways for engaging with the public.