Category Archives: Cycling

SF Critical Mass Visits Fell St. Arco Protest

By the way, I’m wearing the facemask and keffiyah to protect against all that pollution on Fell St.– any resemblance to an anarchist is purely coincidental.

Plug the Holes or We Won’t Go

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zIxlsDZOmM]

We will return to the Arco station every week to peacefully block the Fell St. entrances until BP plugs the holes in the Gulf and until the City plugs the dangerous driveways on Fell and makes it safe for people to live less oil dependent lives.

Fridays 5:30pm-8:30pm Fell and Divisadero San Francisco

Special thanks to Janel Sterbentz for producing this video- if the BABC won’t put her talents to use then we certainly will!

Full text of speech available here.

A Sad Chapter in Bay Area Bicycle Advocacy

I am truly speechless.   It turns out that Janel Sterbentz, one of the organizers of last Friday’s protest at the Fell/ Divisadero Arco station, and whose “Women who Ride” interview for the Bike NOPA blog was suppressed because she said that “cars leave destruction and unpleasantness in their path” has been forced to resign from her position as Bike to Work Day Coordinator at the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition (BABC), following SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell’s condemnation of her comments made on this blog as well as her role helping to organize Friday’s protest.

Many months ago, after being nearly knocked off her bike in front of the Arco station on Fell St.,  Janel asked the SFBC what was being done to improve safety along this critical thoroughfare.   Marc told her that she should “take on a Fell street campaign because the SFBC ‘doesn’t have time’ to work on it.”

So she takes it on as a volunteer.  After a year of rallying the neighborhood associations, speaking with the SFMTA and working with the SFBC, the city came up with a proposal and brought it before transportation engineers at a public hearing.  Several residents in the neighborhood voiced their disapproval of removing a few parking spaces to make a left turn lane and the proposal was stalled. The SFMTA came back a month later with a watered down plan for a 7am to 7pm tow zone- a half measure that will not come close to fixing the dangerous condition at the Arco station.

Someone please explain to me why it is acceptable to sacrifice the safety of thousands of vulnerable road users every day so a handful of people can continue to enjoy city-subsidized free private vehicle storage along the public right of way.  I just don’t get it.

So, seeing that the system had totally failed, Janel plans to help mobilize a protest last Friday that captures widespread media attention and galvanizes the support of motorists and cyclists alike to finally close the dangerous gas station entrances on Fell, and what does she get?  Fired from her bicycle advocacy job.   You heard me right.

The SFBC in earlier days engaged in direct action, guarding the crossing at Masonic and Fell

Now you might say- well the bicycle coalitions don’t want to be associated with a direct action protest.   But hold on just a second.  It wasn’t too long ago that the SFBC coordinated a series of direct actions in the Panhandle with their volunteer crossing guard program (started by yours truly when I was Program Director) that put pressure on the city and now- even though the intersection at Masonic and the Panhandle isn’t perfect- we do have a dedicated phase for non-motorized traffic.  It seems that the new SFBC staff has a very short memory.

Now, I don’t expect the bike coalitions to participate in every protest (even though the public would never have known who Janel was employed by) but I do expect them not to undermine grassroots efforts by their members and off-duty employees to draw attention to one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the city for bicyclists.

As program director at the SFBC for almost three years, I understand the importance of public image.  But this latest incident is a disturbing example of the coalition actually going against their base- acting in a way that undermines the very cause they are meant to be promoting.  This is one of a series of recent events that is raising concern about the Coalition amongst longtime members.

Janel’s general comments several weeks ago on my blog about environmental organizations are absolutely right on:

“@onthelevel: I agree, a sentiment often develops that the organizations who speak for and represent the movement are on top of the issues and are working in our best interest. That they know what they are doing so we don’t need to get involved unless we are told what to do……”

These comments- made as a private individual- were seized upon by SFBC Program Manager Marc Caswell, who immediately sent an e-mail to Andrew Casteel, Executive Director of the BABC, essentially suggesting that Andrew reassess whether Janel should continue working at the BABC:

“As BABC Board, I’m a bit concerned by Janel’s public comments criticizing, ostensibly, the SFBC.  While I can understand the frustration regarding not having comments published– and don’t really care to get involved in that discussion– the later blog comment by Janel is a direct criticism of not only an allied organization, but a member organization(!) of BABC.”

Marc goes on to say:

“Of course, anyone is free to say what they want– but, as a BABC staff person, comments and public statements criticizing allies isn’t a positive way to move the movement forward.  And comments like this do, in fact, reflect upon the employer.”

Nowhere did Janel indicate that she was talking about any specific organization.   But that didn’t stop Marc (who is also on the board of the BABC) from leaping to the conclusion that she was referring to the SFBC.

Marc also took issue with the fact that Janel helped organize the successful protest last Friday.   Note that the SFBC has not breathed a word about the oil spill or why people should ride a bike in response to it in almost two months.  A month ago, a number of people (including Marc) were invited by e-mail to take part in planning this protest.  However, the SFBC refused to take part, instead choosing to target Janel for her role in organizing peaceful action at a location where cyclists’ lives are daily put at risk and only half-measures have been supported by the Board of Supervisors.

Marc continues in his e-mail to Andrew:

“Beyond that smaller concern, I’ve been CC’ed on the email threads about the Fell Street Arco station protest in the coming month—and I’ve noticed that Janel is the *creator* of the event on Facebook…. as a Board member of the organization, my top job is to ‘ensure the health’ of the organization– and I think these recent public actions are undermining that.  I’m not sure what we can do to fix it– but I want to at least express my concern as BABC Board with you both as staff.  I’d welcome any further discussion on this topic and am available if you need me.“

Andrew’s response to Marc was:

“Janel has not run any of those blog posts or events by me for approval”

As if he controls every activity a part-time employee engages in outside of work.  I’m sorry but that is the logic of the corporation, not of a grassroots bicycle advocacy organization.

So to try and put all of this into some perspective, you have Janel Sterbentz- a passionate and productive employee of the BABC- forced to resign because:

a)     She made a general comment about the state of environmental organizations on a blog.

b)    She helped to organize a protest against the Gulf Oil Spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history and against the continued obstruction of one of the most important bike lanes in San Francisco.

c)     She made a (very reasonable and timely) documentary about the need for a bike path on the west span of the Bay Bridge and gave it to Senator Boxer’s aid at the National Bike Summit as an individual constituent and got flack from her boss who said it was not appropriate to share the video without approval from her superiors in the California Bicycle Delegation.

It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a committed activist such as Sterbentz is terminated from her official role in bicycle advocacy for speaking out against car culture.   And all that much worse because it came from a fellow colleague.   This is not what I pay my membership dues for. And though I don’t relish criticizing my friends at the SFBC, I do strongly suggest that if people are disturbed by this series of events, that they express their discontent to the acting ED Renee Rivera and the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition Board.

The region’s bicycle coalitions need to seriously check themselves about this incident.  There’s a real world out here and people are getting hurt by car dependence.   Silence is no longer an option.

Fell St. ARCO Closed For Total Rethink

What an incredible, inspiring protest yesterday in San Francisco.   Truly in awe at the raw energy from the neighborhood residents who have clearly had enough of this dangerous and awful situation that the city has failed to correct- where cars lined up for cheap (BP) gas obstruct the only level east west bike lane in the city, forcing cyclists directly into speeding traffic.   It would be hilariously ironic if it weren’t so tragically awful.  We got a ton of media responding to our press release, including all the local TV stations, SF Weekly, the Guardian, Streetsblog, Indymedia, SF Gate, KPFA (starting at 13:50), Pirate Radio, and others.   Video will be up here shortly in the next couple of days.

People are discussing coming back and shutting the entrances every week until the holes are plugged- both the one in the Gulf, and the entrances on Fell St. that drive the fear of cycling and demand for oil.  Updates will be posted here.

Here is a copy of my speech yesterday, with the help of El Arbol, Fossil Fool‘s amazing pedal powered mobile sound system:

Thank you to everyone who showed up today, and to those who spread the word and made this happen.  This was truly a grassroots effort, not organized by any official non-profit organization, just a few of us from the neighborhood concerned about the way things are going.

We have succeeded in (at least temporarily) shutting down a toxic business that threatens the neighborhood, threatens the Gulf, and ultimately threatens the world.   The presence of this Arco station endangers cyclists on Fell St. and finances a criminally negligent corporation.

Before we go any further, let’s have a moment of silence to remember the victims of this terrible catastrophe.  The eleven men who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon and their families.  The millions of Gulf residents- both human and wild who are suffering as we speak.

As we remember these victims, let’s not forget the other victims of car culture- those motorists who do not have viable alternatives to driving alone, and whose health is suffering as a result.  People on bikes, on foot, and in cars who have been seriously injured or killed by cars- over 1.2 million of us throughout the world every year.

Let’s not forget all those elderly people living out the last of their days in isolation because their streets- streets like Oak and Fell have become nothing more than traffic sewers.

We must remember all those children growing up deprived of any connection to the natural world, surrounded by speeding steel and asphalt, getting to know the world only from the backseat of a car.

Now I am not pointing the finger or blaming those who drive cars- for many years I was one of them, and occasionally still am.   Drivers are as much victims of this inhumane system as the rest of us.

Somehow, we need to rethink our cities as safe and pleasant habitats for human beings.   The fact that they are NOT is an indication that something has gone deeply awry with our culture.

These days, cars are supposedly such a part of our lives that we are not allowed to question their dominance.   But when California’s cars are the number one source of carbon emissions.  When our cars are the number one killer of our children.   When our thirst for oil drives the kind of disaster we are seeing in the Gulf, I think we need to begin to ask questions.  These realities point to the fact that we are dangerously, hopelessly addicted to our motor vehicles.

We now know that over ONE MILLION gallons of toxic crude are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day.  An Exxon Valdez of oil every 8-10 days.

The most advanced technology humans have is INCAPABLE of stopping what our technology has unleashed.

Just as if we continue to emit more than 5 BILLION tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere every year we will be incapable of closing the Pandora’s box we have opened.

The oil companies and the government have reassured us they have the situation under control.  They say “TRUST US” we know what we’re doing.  Well you know what?   We DON’T trust you anymore.

If the United States government, controlled by multinational energy giants- continues to undermine climate justice on an international level and endanger the future of life on this planet for selfish, short term profits, there will be social unrest like we have never before seen in this country.   It may be next week.   It may be in 20 years.  But I cannot accept that the people in this country will accept the sacrifice of this planet without a fight.

From individual citizens reporting what is happening in the Gulf, we know that BP IS STILL IN CHARGE, despite what Obama says.  BP defies the EPA,  pumping tons of chemical dispersant into the sea, not to reduce the environmental damage but to hide the extent of the spill from the public- to keep the damage UNDERWATER away from the lens of the media.

According to the New York Times, BP is ordering the US Coast Guard and local police forces to keep the media away from areas filled with dead and dying wildlife, bagging the bodies and stashing them out of view the same way we do with the bodies of civilian casualties in Iraq.

Today in San Francisco, we say NO.  WE WILL NO LONGER BE SILENT IN THE FACE OF THESE BRAZEN ATTACKS ON OUR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT.

Today, we bear witness to the connection between unsafe cycling conditions and our own fatal dependence on fossil fuels for transportation.

Future generations will learn about how our society treated people who opted out of car culture- how we continue to design streets that cause deaths and injuries of vulnerable road users- just to maximize traffic flow.   Streets that scare people into lives of inactivity and oil dependence, and they will recoil in horror.

In response to the mentally ill man who mowed down four innocent people on bicycle the other day, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition tells us that “OUR STREETS ARE SAFE.”  Well you know what? THEY ARE NOT SAFE.   And they are very rarely pleasant.   Riding a bike in the city could be paradise.   But right now, for most of us it is a scary experience.

Instead of giving us tired old platitudes, they could have used this horrific incident to condemn the countless acts of intimidation of people on bicycles throughout the city every day, people who use cars as deadly weapons to threaten vulnerable road users, revving their engines like a predatory animal.   Incidents that the San Francisco Police Department responds to only with a nod and a wink.

Our fossil fuel dependent society is neither advanced nor civilized.   All the luxuries and unrestrained mobility that we take for granted are an historical anomaly made possible by a finite supply of cheap oil.

We are literally being kept alive by large multinational corporations like BP and Safeway.   When the cheap oil runs out as it inevitably will, our civilization will collapse as surely as those human civilizations of the past have done.

BUT TODAY WE STAND UP TOGETHER AND REJECT THAT FATE.   We know that another world is possible.  A future of humans living in a reciprocal relationship with nature, not an exploitative one where we take and take and take.

A future where health and the environment are prioritized over profit.  A future with networks of safe green routes for walking and cycling, lined with trees and plants, connecting the whole city, the whole bay area.  Where clean, quiet, and frequent public transit connects cities.

Where we have leisure time to spend with our families and friends and we are no longer forced to waste our lives under fluorescent lights at jobs we hate just to keep ourselves and our families alive and feed our cars.

A sane world where we can feed OURSELVES without resorting to factory farms, tortured animals, poisoned fields, and genetically modified crops.

A world where we are reconnected to our fellow human beings and to the natural world.

Money is NOT REAL.  It is a construct- ultimately only paper and metal.  What IS real are plants, human beings, and other animals.

The love between a mother and her child.   That is real.  We must build a new world based on that, or we will end up destroying this beautiful planet and the living beings who inhabit it.

If any good can come out of this catastrophic situation in the Gulf, it can be an OPPORTUNITY for people to come together and start building a better world, the way we have built up this little green park here today.

Power is not taken- it is given.  And if the powers that be will not face up to their historic responsibility to quickly wean us off fossil fuels, we will have to STOP GIVING THEM OUR POWER.

We solved this longstanding neighborhood problem here ourselves.  We didn’t ask the government to do it for us.   We didn’t give money to a non-profit to lobby for us.   WE JUST WENT OUT AND DID IT OURSELVES.

It really IS that easy.

TOP KILL: SHUT DOWN BP/ ARCO IN SF THIS FRIDAY

Is your car REALLY worth this?

This is a protest I’m helping to organize with some friends.  If you are in the Bay Area, come join us this Friday.  And SPREAD THE WORD.  Link to Facebook page here.

TOP KILL: PARTY TO SHUT DOWN BP/ ARCO IN SF

DON’T BOYCOTT BP- BOYCOTT ALL OIL

Friday, June 11th 5:30pm Arco station Fell and Divisadero

Are you as frustrated as we are about the ecological crisis in the Gulf?  Watching powerless as oil coats countless birds and marine mammals- who did nothing to deserve the pain and suffering that is being inflicted on them by big oil.    When it comes down to it, the corporations responsible for this mess care as much about wildlife as they do about you and I.

Even with the best minds and technology on the planet, humans are powerless to cap what has been unleashed.  And we will be similarly helpless in the face of a planet warming dangerously out of control.

All anyone can do in response to such a horrific situation is to plant the seeds that might lead to a better future.  This is a call out for people to plant those seeds in San Francisco on June 11th.

In San Francisco, the cheap oil at the Arco station (owned by BP) has been luring drivers for years, creating long queues of cars that obstruct the Fell St. bicycle lane, the only level cross town bicycle route, endangering people who have chosen a more benign method of transportation.  On Friday, we will turn a hostile place into a safe green pocket park.  But we need your help!

Bring along a potted plant, old tires, a tree, a bench- anything to create a green and safe space where now cyclists fight for their survival every day.

The corporation cares as much for the suffering of the birds of Louisiana as it does about the cyclist who faces injury or death having to swerve around cars lined up for cheap gas in the bike lane.  On Friday we will stand with the pelicans, turtles, and dolphins being hurt by the spill, realizing that if we fail to stop our fossil fuelled nightmare, that we will not be far behind them.

The corporations are the criminals, but we are the addicts that perpetuate the damage. It’s time to shut down BP here in San Francisco and send a message to the government, the corporations and well-meaning people who don’t even realize they are addicted to oil.

Enough is enough.

DON’T BOYCOTT BP.  BOYCOTT ALL OIL COMPANIES!

NO MORE SPILLS. NO MORE CLIMATE DAMAGE.

ALL YOU ABLE BODIED PEOPLE RIDE A FREAKIN BIKE ALREADY.

Women who Ride: The “Lost” Interview with Janel Sterbentz

Janel Sterbentz, not afraid to be outspoken about the negative impacts of motorized traffic on our quality of life

While Bike NOPA declined to publish the following interview with Janel Sterbentz, on account of the fact that she dared to mention how unpleasant, stinky and dangerous cars are, On the Level is happy to publish Janel’s words.  As you know if you are a regular reader, On the Level is not afraid of coming out of the closet with our opposition to the automobile.  If you are a woman cyclist, please submit your answers to these questions and On the Level will post your words here.   Even if you are in love with cars and think they have really improved our cities, please send us your answers to these questions and we will be happy to publish all points of view.

1.  What kind of cyclist are you?
Bold  |   carefree  |    Aggressive |  racer   |   foot down at stop signs   |   careful   | ETC -

Fast yet cautious. When I ride I prepare for all the possible directions motorists, pedestrians or other cyclists will take, it is like I am always picturing in my mind three seconds ahead in the future. I bike like I am invisible because many times cyclists are invisible to motorists who have limited visibility or are distracted in so many ways. I thrive on being so aware of my environment, I am most present and in the moment when cycling. I also feel hyper-connected to all the street life around me. Always wear a helmet and flashing front and back lights.
2.  Do you bike frequently and for what purpose?

I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.

3.  What measures could be taken in San Francisco to get more women, including teenage girls, to cycle?

I think some women feel cycling is too dangerous and aggressive, especially biking in fast traffic and over uneven pavement. They may feel like it is not feminine, especially if they think they won’t be able to wear dresses, high heels, and purses; or that it will mess up their hair and make them sweaty. I think these concerns can be overcome by showing women the best routes to take, saying it is ok to bike slowly and on a more upright bike. When you compare figures in the US where only 1/3 of the bicycle commuter population are women versus The Netherlands or Copenhagen where it is more like half, you can see that when there are separated paths on safer routes more women, children and elderly bike.

4.  Have any of your friendships or relationships begun with cycling? Fun anecdotes you can tell us about?
I have to say, nearly all my friends are cyclists and don’t own cars. Some of my best friendships resulted from being in a bike dance group The Derailleurs (http://derailleurs.wordpress.com/). I always meet great people helping out with local bicycle coalitions.
5.  I shock others when I cycle by
Politely telling people who are parked in the bike lane that this is a space I need, otherwise I am forced into fast moving traffic.
6.  I tell other women who want to start cycling:

Get together with a friend who bikes, or if you don’t know anyone who bikes, volunteer at your local bicycle coalition, there are so many friendly cyclists who are eager to have others to bike around with. Bike to Work Day May 13th is a great time to start biking (http://www.youcanbikethere.com/). SFBC has commuter convoys where groups meet up and bike the best route to work (http://www.sfbike.org/?commuterconvoy). They also have street skills and bike maintenance classes. Bike in Golden Gate Park on JFK Drive on the weekends when the street is closed to cars to get used to it.

The Subtle Censorship That Defines Acceptable Discourse

People suffer when the horrors of our transport system are obscured by well meaning activists

A friend of mine- Janel Sterbentz- recently volunteered to be featured on the San Francisco based Bike NOPA blog in their “Women who Bike” series.   She submitted her responses to the questions, but the editor of Bike NOPA, Michael Helquist (also the winner of the SF Bike Coalition’s 2010 Golden Wheel Award), didn’t like her answer to question number 2, and requested that she change it if the piece was to be published.

This was the question:
2.  How often do you bike and what for?
And this was her answer:

“I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.”

She declined to remove the offending paragraph and now her interview won’t be published as a result.

When viewpoints like Janel’s are intentionally kept out of public discourse, it does a major disservice to the political debate around our transport policies.   First, it allows people who habitually drive to continue to insulate themselves from the very real impacts of their mode choice on other people, particularly vulnerable road users.   Second, erasing voices like this one leaves the impression that if you are irritated by the noise, air pollution and danger caused by car traffic then you are somehow unusual, marginalized, or radical in some way.  A fear of marginalizing oneself actually helps perpetuate that marginalization.

The reality is that millions of regular people around the world- people who drive, cycle, walk, take the bus, or whatever- are irritated and their quality of life is diminished by transport policies that make car traffic- not human life or the environment- the primary consideration.

It’s no surprise that people wrongly believe that they are alone in these feelings or that there is no recourse within acceptable political debate to resolve them, when even bicycle advocates are afraid to reflect the truth about the environmental and social devastation caused by motor vehicle dependence.

The bicycle is wonderful for what it is (a liberating, fun, and healthy vehicle for the masses), but it is also wonderful for what it is not (a car) .  As the bicycle increases in popularity and organizations that promote its use gain political clout, they should not fail to remind people of the facts of car and fossil fuel dependence in some misplaced politeness or reluctance to confront.  Yes we need carrots- they are sweet, succulent, and attractive.  And god knows the bike is that.  But we also need the sticks of reality to wake people up who have been driven to excess by an insane, motorized world.

This is what the editor of Bike NOPA- Michael Helquist- told On the Level when reached for comment:

“I felt that a few of the comments made in this one submission were a bit doctrinaire and negative (with descriptions of the “carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians and bicyclists” and the “destruction” that comes with driving), and these were not a good fit for the series. As I mentioned to Janel Sterbentz today if I was interviewing her about larger transportation issues, about hazards that accompany biking, and the serious impacts of people relying solely on individual automobiles when other options are feasible, then her comments would certainly fit the context as reflecting her personal opinion.

I’m sure this wasn’t the way it was consciously intended, but effectively what Michael is saying is that he wanted to run a happy-go-lucky series about smiling women on bikes.  Forget that there are often complex reasons why women ride, or that women suffer disproportionately from car culture or that cycling itself might be a deeply political statement against the pain and destruction caused by cars.  When those issues arise, they are too often erased from the record because they might make people feel uncomfortable.  This is not an isolated incident, but a reflection of the larger dilution and creeping corporatization of the cycling movement and society at large.

We didn’t make smoking socially unacceptable by tip-toeing around the feelings of nicotine addicts- we showed them diseased lungs and confronted them with the scientific research.  What makes those who purport to seek social change in the transport arena so afraid of leveraging the growing body of evidence of the catastrophe of car addiction in order to change behavior?

Put simply, individuals are not going to make the right decisions about their transport habits or support sensible transport policies if they don’t have the facts.   And where are they going to get those facts if they aren’t disseminated by bike advocates and organizations dedicated to sustainable transportation?