Stuart Matthews at June 11, 2010 Arco protest Photo: Michael Helquist
When 70 demonstrators gathered on Fell Street near the Arco service station June 11th, the protest organizers announced they would return to the site every Friday during the evening commute until the Gulf oil spill was capped and the Arco curb cuts were removed to permit a safer Fell Street bike lane. The group stuck to its vow: last Friday was the 12th weekly protest. The number of advocates have ranged from a dozen to one hundred, with a core group of six or seven. Their direct street action has been a mix of sign-carrying, chants, music, and, occasionally, more in-your-face taunts to motorists who push through the protesters to get to the gas pumps. SFPD monitors the protest, attempts to keep the entry open, and sometimes arrests those who refuse to move from the Arco driveway. The grassroots group has now organized itself as Fix Fell.
The BP oil spill appears to be stopped -- even as the damage continues -- and the Municipal Transportation Agency has installed a number of traffic calming measures along the troubled block of Fell between Scott and Divisadero streets. The MTA removed parking spots from 7am to 7pm to create a curbside queue for motorists awaiting their turn at the gas pumps, painted the city's second green bike lane on the block, added a "Don't Block Sidewalk or Bike Lane" sign, re-timed signal lights to reduce speeding on Fell, and established a left-turn only lane onto Divisadero.
Stuart Matthews has helped organize the weekly protests at Arco for the past three months. He was also arrested and jailed for blocking access to the station. His commitment is neither easy nor convenient: Matthews is an IT professional who juggles job and family responsibilities with his advocacy. BIKE NOPA spoke with Matthews last Friday afternoon, just before he headed out to Fell Street once again.
BIKE NOPA: The oil spill has been capped and the city has made several traffic changes to make this block safer for people biking and walking. Why does Fix Fell continue to protest each week?
Matthews: From day one, the new changes on the street have not been doing the job. There may be a difference, but in an any ten-minute period during rush hour, the bike lane is being blocked by motorists waiting for gas. But it's not just about that street and not just about a clear bike lane -- we need to get off the oil.
BIKE NOPA: Other than closing the Arco entry and exit, what else do you want for this block?
Matthews: From the start, we've been encouraging a complete re-design of the street. The whole street needs to be fixed. We'd like to see a complete re-engineering with a priority on safety rather than on the speed of motor vehicles. We hope to see a physically separated two-way bike lane on Fell. The bike network shouldn't be just for the young and adventurous to use.
BIKE NOPA: During the past three months of protests, Fix Fell appears to have adopted more mainstream positions with references like those you just mentioned to "separated bikeways" and biking safe enough for people "8 to 80." Is that the case?
Matthews: There could be some evolution of the group, but the core of the message is the same. We've felt compelled to identify the problem and to suggest solutions to the problem, but we're not traffic engineers, we're not experts in the field. We're advocates for the street to be re-thought and re-engineered. Our job is to keep the pressure on the city.
BIKE NOPA: City staff have conjectured that the Arco owner will likely sue the city if the curb cuts are removed. They suggest that the strongest position for the city will be to undertake every other possible measure to reduce a public health hazard at the site before removing the permit for the driveways. Do you think that position is valid and reflects the incremental changes made to this block?
Matthews: We know they have a process, and they've got to do it the way they've got to do it. But we're going to keep the pressure on.
BIKE NOPA: If the Fell Street entry and exit is closed, the only access to Arco will be from Divisadero, a street usually crammed with cars. If motorists seeking cheap gas block a traffic lane on Divisadero, the #24 Muni bus will also be slowed. Will Fix Fell's demand for curb cut removals on Fell result in a transit problem around the corner?
Matthews: It's not a given that the Arco station should be in the city at all. I don't think we should assume that that station should stay open. We understand these aren't trivial problems, but they need to be worked on. There are other gas stations that do or could cause problems too: the station to the west of Arco on Fell and another on Oak at Divisadero.
BIKE NOPA: On August 20th Fix Fell added music and talks to its protest. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, just returned from an environmental conference in Uruguay, stopped by the event and told the group that he would gather city officials in a room and not let anyone leave until a solution was in place for Fell/Arco. Have you heard anything more about the city moving on this issue?
Matthews: Another (Fix Fell) organizer, Josh Hart, is the one mostly in contact with Ross. I don't think we've heard of any movement there yet.
BIKE NOPA: Fix Fell members have criticized the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) for not using its political muscle to help close the Arco ingress and egress. Some members charged that SFBC was not recognizing the many other individuals and groups working to improve safety on Fell.
Renee Rivera, acting director of SFBC, told Streetsblog that SFBC members have reported positive effects from the Fell changes. She emphasized that SFBC is primarily focused now on developing separated bikeways to link all areas of the city. SFBC acknowledged that the organization's tactics are sometimes different from those of other groups, like Fix Fell, even if they share many of the same goals. SFBC leaders also reaffirmed the contributions from several neighborhood associations and individuals who urged adoption of the traffic calming measures on Fell. Have these remarks improved the relations between the two groups?
Matthews: SFBC's recent comments that shared the credit for work on Fell with other groups and individuals were helpful. Maybe not for everyone but for some. I support most of what SFBC is doing, but I also think it's helpful to have a more radical organization pushing to get things done.
BIKE NOPA: It seems unlikely that the city will take immediate action at Arco, especially while an impact study about the curbside queue and the bike lane is underway. How much longer will Fix Fell keep at its protests?
Matthews: We're going to keep the pressure on. We'll continue to be there every Friday.
For more on the Fell/Arco situation, see the following:
- BIKE NOPA's two dozen stories on traffic calming measures at the site (search Fell Arco)
- Streetsblog coverage of calls to close the curb-cuts and of the Aug. 20 protest with video
- Fix Fell's website and an account of a member's arrest and jail time Aug. 20
- SFBC article on the Fell bike lane and its push for a safer bikeway