A recent story in the L.A. Times about San Francisco’s efforts to make Polk Street more bike-friendly illustrates how many in the media just don’t get it when it comes to modern urban street design and transportation.
Ostensibly, the article reported on a neighborhood meeting to discuss replacing of an estimated 170 on-street parking spaces on Polk with bike lanes and parklets (pictured above) that has some business owners and local motorists fearing the end of the world. The meeting was apparently dominated by opponents of the plan, and some of those in attendance who support the plan said they felt too intimidated to speak. The article noted that supporters who spoke were often booed or “met with disdain.” The reporter, Maria LaGanga, appears to have sought the views of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition director Leah Shahum, which were included in her story. But there was much else in the story that reflects a subtle and pervasive anti-bike bias in the reporting.
First, LaGanga went out of her way to mention the killing of a pedestrian by a reckless bicyclist in San Francisco last year (the cyclist was recently charged with felony vehicular manslaughter), while mentioning only in passing, and much later in the story, that a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car an average of once a month on Polk Street. In so doing she virtually ignores the regular carnage caused by cars, and plays up an isolated incident involving a bicyclist a year earlier. She also buried the fact that the plan would leave untouched 2,100 on-street parking spots within a block of Polk, a fact which would have put the near-hysterical opposition of motorists in a very different light had it been mentioned at the beginning of the story. As readers of this blog may remember, it’s not the first time this Times reporter has done a hit piece on San Francisco’s emerging bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
Drivers of 2,000-lb vehicles with hundreds of horsepower are portrayed as the weaker, aggrieved party that is “under attack,” while bicyclists who want safe space over a small portion of the roadway are portrayed as the aggressors. She describes the plan as literally “jeopardizing the vital north-south corridor” between the city’s Civic Center and the bay. Who knew that bike lanes could “jeopardize” and entire street? While LaGanga amplifies the fears of some local businesses that the plan is a “commerce killer,” she makes no effort to inform readers that complete streets makeovers such as the one contemplated for Polk have revitalized struggling business districts in numerous places where they’ve been tried.
The online version is even worse for playing up a phony “bikes vs. cars” trope and the online headline actually repeats the idiotic idea that this will make Polk some sort of “freeway for bikes,” in the words of one opponent. The plan would actually reduce traffic speeds, provide safe road space for pedestrians and bikes, while the parklets would provide more space for people to hang out, shop, and socialize. Precisely the atmosphere that would attract more commercial activity. Hardly a “freeway for bikes” or a “commerce killer.” Yet these irrational fears get played as headlines in the Times.
The problem of media bias is largely a reflection of a deeply-ingrained car culture that is so ubiquitous that it is rarely questioned. Mobility, in this context, means getting behind the wheel of a car. Exchanging curbside car parking (on one street) for parklets and bike lanes that enable people to enjoy the neighborhood at a slower pace thus gets transmogrified into an imaginary “war on cars.” Moreover, as with most complete streets plans, this one leaves a significant portion of lateral roadway space for cars, bike lanes notwithstanding.
LaGanga might have used the meeting to probe the assumptions behind conflicts over road space such as that on Polk. She might have explored the evolving idea that streets are for pedestrians, transit, and bikes (as well as cars), rather than adopting the assumption that motorists have a right to monopolize all road space. The fact that none of the opponents offer any alternative ideas for how cities might improve road safety, reduce automobile congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the continued degradation of public space for more automobile parking, also deserves consideration in any reporting of the story.
Since the LA Times has assigned Maria LaGanga to its transportation beat in San Francisco, perhaps it’s time for her to commute by bike and/or public transportation once a week in the interest of fair reporting. I’m not saying she’s got to give up her car, but it’s clear that she’s got little or no knowledge about issues facing urban cyclists or modern transportation policy beyond the automobile.
C’mon Ms. LaGanga, rent a bike, strap on a helmet, and take a ride on Polk Street without a bike lane at rush hour. You’ll get a whole different perspective on the whole “bikes vs. cars” thing.