Thursday, September 29, 2011

BIKE NOPA Takes A Break -- Book Deadline Prompts Shift

Dr. Marie Equi, 1872-1952 Oregon Historical Society #23491

Dear Readers,

The time has come for a break and to shift more time to another passion: completing a biography begun a few years ago.

I started BIKE NOPA more than two years ago to increase awareness in the North Panhandle about the feasibility of bicycling for everyday transportation. Part of my impetus resulted from the initial hesitation of neighborhood leaders to endorse more bike lanes through NOPA in 2009. (In that case it was lanes for McAllister and Masonic -- proposals that were later dropped from the city's bike plan). I thought neighbors were perhaps unaware of how many cyclists live in NOPA and need safe routes for travel or of the diversity of neighborhood riders.

I started a gradual campaign, taking notice of the streets around us and profiling the cyclists who live next door or nearby. I launched the series Women on Wheels and Dads on Bikes. I interviewed older and younger riders, professionals and entrepreneurs, women as well as men, marathon riders and crosstown commuters.

I never expected that NOPA would generate so much content. With just 30 or so square blocks, this is a small neighborhood. But bordered by four vehicle-dominated thoroughfares -- Fell, Oak, Divisadero and Masonic -- and sporting an essential link in the city's cross-town bike travel, NOPA's realities reflected many of the top questions San Franciscans face about how to use our public spaces.

In two years NOPA has seen a slew of developments that led to dozens of stories here:
  • a partial re-design of Divisadero that revitalized the corridor
  • a successful push-back of city plans for freeway-style signs (SFgo) on Fell and Oak
  • a surge of advocacy for a safer approach to Divisadero on the Wiggle bike route
  • the launch of the first neighborhood-based block party all about bikes (BIKE THE BLOCK in September 2009)
  • start-up of the first neighborhood-based monthly bicycling group, NOPA VELO
  • the arrival of Sunday Streets to NOPA in September 2010
  • a push for a safer Masonic for all road users, a grass-roots campaign that few expected to succeed until last May when the plan cleared a public hearing
  • an effort to reclaim Panhandle Park as a destination for neighbors and visitors, one that deserves capital improvements and better stewardship
  • a vision to transform Fell and Oak between Scott and Baker (and then beyond to Stanyan) for safer transportation with new separated bike routes
Everyday journalism requires a huge amount of time. To get the story right, to earn the trust of public officials and advocates, and to help push an agenda of enhanced livability demand a responsibility I take seriously. For this work I think it's essential to develop a voice and a point of view -- one that readers approach with confidence whether they agree or not. I've really enjoyed the challenge.

Now I'm shifting my time to the story of Dr. Marie Equi, a woman of conscience and conviction who never let social or political norms keep her from the pursuit of her passions. She worked in New Bedford textile mills as a teenager in the 1880s, fled to Central Oregon a decade later to homestead with her female companion, managed to scandalize a rural outpost by horse-whipping a local minister in the streets, studied for medical school in San Francisco and became one of Oregon's early woman physicians. She kept her ties to the Bay Area and joined a doctor train from Portland in April 1906 to help earthquake-stricken San Franciscans, earning her a medal from the U.S. Army. (Her homestead companion had married and settled her family in one of NOPA's landmark houses along Fell).

Marie became publicly identified as a lesbian in Portland after her passionate affair with a young heiress led to front-page stories of a family dispute over her new companion's inheritance. From the personal to the political, Marie engaged the times. The public tumult of the early 20th century led Marie on a course from hearty progressivism to staunch anarchism. She championed the rights of the underpaid and the unemployed, of women in need of birth control information. In labor disputes, she often wrestled with cops and refused to follow court orders. She developed a reputation. The birth control advocate Margaret Sanger once wrote that Marie was "a rebellious soul -- generous, kind, brave but so radical in her thinking that she was almost an outcast in Portland."

Marie objected to the capitalistic motives that led the U.S. to enter World War One, and for this she was tried by the government as a subversive and sentenced to three years at San Quentin prison. Through all this, Marie remained so devoted to her profession that friends referred to her simply as "Doc."

How could I not want to tell the full story of Marie's life and times? She died in Portland in 1952, but 60 years later her struggle to be politically active, romantically involved, and fully engaged in her profession is spot-on relevant to many of us today.

My deadline approaches (please don't ask when). I'm fortunate to have a wonderful editor at Oregon State University Press. She is a huge supporter of my bike advocacy. (OSU Press published "Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities" by Jeff Mapes). But she'd also like to get the story of Marie Equi on the market.

I'm not abandoning BIKE NOPA. There are stories I'm too committed to following, like the implementation of the Masonic Re-design. I'm sticking with it until San Franciscans can stroll and bike and live along a transformed corridor made more livable for all.

I have been blessed with great readers and sources, allies and friends while writing BIKE NOPA. I hope you all know how much your interest and support have meant to me. One request: as I pursue greater dialogue with my keyboard and monitor, please do suggest coffee breaks and lunches. (The isolated nature of writing bugs me).

Curious about Marie Equi, the "stormy petrel of the Pacific Northwest"? Here's some of what I've written about her:
For Lesbian To The Rescue: Marie Equi and the Oregon Doctor Train, a slide and lecture first presented in San Francisco for the 2006 earthquake centennial, expect a repeat on April 18th of 2012.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Masonic Avenue Redesign Fading As A City Priority

Bryan Goebel, editor of Streetsblog, and Michael Helquist

Image: SF Planning Department's City Design Group

On Bike to Work Day last May, Mayor Ed Lee told Streetsblog that he would look into speeding up funding for a sorely needed redesign of Masonic Avenue, one of San Francisco's most notorious arterial streets. The project seemed to be a priority for him, especially in the wake of two high-profile collisions that took the lives of Nils Yannick Linke and James Hudson.

“It’s very deserving of attention, particularly when it comes to pedestrian safety," Lee told Streetsblog on May 12.

“It’s time we take back Masonic Boulevard,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proclaimed that same day at the Bike to Work press conference on the steps of City Hall. "It’s time that we actually step up the city’s game in making sure that Masonic is safe for bicyclists and pedestrians."

Now, nearly four months after the Masonic redesign was approved at an SFMTA engineering hearing, the plan is plodding its way through the vast city bureaucracy, its funding is uncertain and it is in danger of winding up on the shelf like so many other good projects unless City Hall puts some political muscle behind it.

The project hit a snag recently when the SFMTA was denied a $700,000 grant from Caltrans to pay for the design costs. A $41,000 request to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) is expected to be approved by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority soon. But a funding source for the biggest chunk, $18 million for construction, has still not been identified.

"The SFMTA is working with the Department of Public Works to refine the design cost estimate, and will apply to another funding source for design funds. A funding request made for construction funds is still pending. Meanwhile, other construction funding sources are being evaluated," said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose.

That doesn't sound particularly hopeful.

Advocates who have been pushing for a safer Masonic for more than seven years now have widespread neighborhood support for the redesign, which would dramatically re-engineer the street, adding a landscaped median, bus bulbs, a 6-foot wide raised cycletrack and other amenities to benefit pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders.

Just a few years ago a safer, more livable Masonic was a project that pedestrian, transit, and bicycling advocates – along with city officials -- wanted to see implemented, but few thought possible. At first Masonic was part of the citywide bike plan that the SFMTA is now implementing, but the vital north-south corridor was dropped from the proposal, partly because it seemed unlikely to get broad public support. Yet nearby residents have surprised city officials with significant backing for a transformed street.

As early as 2008 more than 500 Masonic Avenue neighbors petitioned the city for a traffic corridor that worked better for all users. They ranked a dozen priorities to increase safety, traffic flow and improve the appearance of the street. The grass-roots group Fix Masonic rallied neighborhood associations, parents of kids at nearby schools, and district supervisors to support the plan. Together with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and other advocacy groups, Fix Masonic helped secure funding for a feasibility and design study. By June of 2010 the SFMTA started a series of three community meetings to get public input and support for a revitalized Masonic, employing many of the traffic calming strategies proposed two years earlier. By October of last year, Masonic project manager Javad Mirabdal described the Masonic design as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Although some westside residents preferred a less ambitious version for a changed corridor, the majority who participated in SFMTA and neighborhood association surveys preferred the Complete Streets option known as the Boulevard.

If implemented, the Masonic proposal could transform city neighborhoods, ensure a safer, more attractive means of transportation for all users, improve environmental impacts along the corridor, and boost property values and city revenue. The re-design of Masonic could reflect a determination by the city to step up to a higher level of livability in San Francisco.

It's time for Mayor Lee, and others at City Hall, to put their words into action, and for new Director Ed Reiskin to use the visionary and political skills that got him the job at the SFMTA to ensure that the Masonic Avenue redesign gets implemented soon instead of it getting mired in city bureaucracy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summertime Weather Swells Turnout for NOPA's Sunday Streets

This time the weather was perfect -- sunny, warm and only a slight breeze -- for Sunday Streets in the Western Addition, NOPA, Alamo Square and the Fillmore. Today thousands of neighbors and friends from all over San Francisco gathered on several blocks open to walking, biking, games, painting, live music, dancing and claiming a sofa seat in the middle of the street.

Thanks to the organizers -- the amazing Livable City with Sunday Streets director Susan King, program coordinator Beth Byrne, the hundreds of volunteers with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and collaboration with the SF Municipal Transportation Agency -- for an amazing event where everyone could enjoy public spaces and envision a safer, more equitable way to share our streets.

For views of Summer Streets in NOPA 2010, check here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sunday Streets Returns to NOPA: Block-by-Block Route & Programs

Only once a year can you see nine blocks of NOPA like this -- streets wide open for walking, biking, painting, live music, kids events, dancing, more live music, bike rental and repair, hanging out with neighbors in the middle of the street and much more.

This Sunday, September 11, Sunday Streets returns with hopes for even better weather than last year's drizzly debut. From 11am to 4pm blocks of Central, Grove, Baker, and Fulton will be free of vehicles. Check out the info here (pdf) about the route and all the events in NOPA and to east in Alamo Square and the Fillmore.

Advisory for those with vehicles: don't park on any of the nine blocks along the route through NOPA after 11pm Saturday night. Cars will be towed.