Why cyclists need police understanding, not crackdowns

Kelly O’Mara granted permission to re-post her op-ed on the interplay between bikes and law enforcement. If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, it rings true.

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Earlier this summer, a number of local police jurisdictions had big crackdowns on cyclists. It was supposed to be a targeted enforcement on lawbreakers on two wheels. Some police departments even focused just on cyclists for a couple weekends.

For a number of reasons — the targeting of a specific segment of the population and the ongoing hostilities towards a group of people on the road who are more vulnerable than others — this really seemed wrong.

I wrote an op-ed about it at the time, which was supposed to run in the paper. But, there were some disagreements.

So, I’m posting it here:

We have a lot of laws. We have laws about not driving while holding pets. We have laws about crossing the street in crosswalks. We even have laws banning smoking at bus stops, which are widely ignored.

What laws we choose to prioritize or actively enforce reflect our choices as a community. While immigrating to the U.S. without proper paperwork may be illegal, regular raids in Marin would likely cause an outcry against the ugly racism inherent in those enforcement policies.

When multiple police agencies in the county make it a public priority to target cyclists, it reflects no different an ugly bias.

It has been argued that Fairfax, San Anselmo, and Sausalito’s decisions to crackdown on cyclists doesn’t target cyclists but only lawbreakers. If that were true, then it would have been publicly announced as a crackdown on all traffic infractions. In fact, it was just the opposite. San Anselmo’s traffic enforcement division focused solely on cyclists one weekend. Evidently, leaving drivers free to do whatever they wanted.

Yes, I bike. I also drive. I even walk.

And, I understand how annoying a group of cyclists racing through town can be. But, the obsessive focus on cyclists coming to a complete stop at every sign, even if no one’s around, is a red herring issue.

We continue to insist on ‘separate but equal’ treatment, repeating that bikes must follow the exact same rules as cars, instead of acknowledging they are different vehicles with different expectations. Truly following the exact same rules on a bike would get you killed and hold up a lot of traffic. Let’s not lose sight of the intent of our laws: to make roads safer for everyone.

There are around 700 cyclist deaths every year. There are over 50,000 injuries. Yes, some of those accidents are caused by cyclists not stopping at stop signs. But, most are caused by simple misunderstandings between cyclists and drivers or by a lack of awareness or by blatant hostility that leaves someone blacked out after a hit-and-run.

Most accidents are caused by an attitude that treats a segment of the population as second-class citizens and targets them based on how they look.

Nearly every cyclist, particularly if they wear spandex, has been sworn at, called names, forced off the road, or been in a crash because a driver didn’t see them or didn’t think they deserved to be there – as if driving to ride a stationary bike at the gym is somehow more worthwhile. Hit-and-run accidents in West Marin are not uncommon and, often, the police either can’t or won’t do anything. Many cyclists who find themselves in the hospital are then faced with another battle that, to the best of my knowledge, has never ended with a driver being charged with anything in Marin.

I hear over and over that cyclists are arrogant and entitled. But, many are just frustrated.

When our police make it a priority to target cyclists they teach the community that it’s ok to target cyclists. When it becomes official policy to go after a segment of the population, it implicitly condones hatred of that segment. In this case, that makes drivers more likely to view cyclists as an annoyance and more likely to take an attitude that puts those cyclists in harm’s way – cyclists who now, more than ever, feel they will not have the support of the very people who are sworn to protect them.

When our police agencies make it a priority to target just cyclists, instead of everyone who make the roads unsafe, it makes the road a dangerous place.

This post originally appeared on Kelly’s blog about just about everything, Almost as Good as TV. She is a freelance writer living in Marin County.

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End-Week Links: Closure

Drake's Bay Oyster Company

Drake’s Bay Oyster Company by Neil Hunt, on Flickr

Marin Lesser and Greater

  • Shut down the farm: The Drake’s Bay Oyster Company has been ordered to close by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The heated debate (video) over whether the West Marin oyster farm could continue to operate in a designated wilderness area has not yet come quite to the end, as the company has already filed suit. (Marinscope, KQED, Pt. Reyes Light)
  • Marin keeps getting older: Marin is indeed getting older, households are getting smaller, and homes keep getting more expensive, at least according to the latest numbers from the US Census Bureau. (IJ)
  • Toward a sub-par Transbay: The downtown railway extension for Caltrain and California HSR is poorly designed and inadequate for the needs of the two systems. Unfortunately, the needed changes are European best practices, something American planners generally aren’t comfortable with. (Caltrain-HSR)
  • Affordable housing through luxury housing: Housing becomes unaffordable when luxury buyers start looking for deals in poorer neighborhoods. In downtown Brooklyn, opposition to luxury development has meant more gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods, driving up prices for everyone else. (Bloomberg)
  • There are some new mayors in town: Towns and cities in Marin got around to choosing their mayors this week: Diane Furst in Corte Madera; Andrew Berman in Mill Valley; Pat Eklund in Novato; Dan Hillmer in Larkspur; and John Reed in Fairfax. (IJ, Patch)
  • Don’t walk in LA either: Half of all crashes in Los Angeles are hit-and-runs, and the LAPD isn’t doing much about it, saying their more concerned with “crimes against a person”. Try telling the family of someone killed by a driver they don’t count as a “person”. (Atlantic) Relatedly, Atherton police aren’t filing charges against a speeding driver who struck and injured two women in a crosswalk despite the fact that he was found to be at fault. (Almanac)
  • Travel back in time, today!: Remember how broke Bakersfield is? Yeah, Caltrans still wants to demolish a neighborhood for a new freeway right next to an existing one. It’s like the 1960s never stopped. (Stop and Move)
  • Bikers buy less more often: As it turns out, bicyclists spend more than drivers, just not all at once. In general, drivers tend to be purpose-oriented, but riding a bike lends itself to more frequent shopping stops while going someplace. In other words, to build a better retail base, build a better biking culture. (Atlantic)
  • And…: Larkspur’s Draft Station Area Plan is out, and it looks pretty good at first glance. (City of Larkspur) … A few kinks and minimal confusion welcomes the newer, hopefully better, Napa VINE system. (NVR) … BART will survey riders about whether to charge for parking based on demand. (SFist) … It might not be such a bad thing to keep the 2/3 requirement for transit taxes. (Systemic Failure) … More luxury apartments are coming to Corte Madera, resurrecting the Madera Vista development. (TCT)

The Toll

Barbara Rothwell was killed and four people were injured this week.

  • Barbara Rothwell drove her car off the road in Bolinas, killing herself. Her seven-year-old son, a passenger at the time, was spared injury and walked a half-mile to find help. Barbara was 48. (Patch)
  • No charges will be filed against Adam Bigham, a driver who was involved in the July death of cyclist Ruben Hernandez, 37, in Santa Rosa. Prosecutors believe there isn’t enough evidence to convict Bigham of manslaughter. (PD)
  • Marin injuries: A driver on the Golden Gate Bridge swerved into oncoming traffic, causing a crash that sent two other drivers to the hospital with minor injuries. (IJ)
  • Sonoma injuries: A driver injured herself and a passenger by crashing her car into an oncoming driver in Petaluma. (PD)

Got a tip? Want to write an article? Email us at theGreaterMarin [at] gmail.com or send a tweet to @theGreaterMarin.

Grady Ranch Is All Wrong

A great place for some infill development. Photo by Skywalker Properties.

A great place for some infill development. Photo by Skywalker Properties.

George Lucas’s great foray into affordable housing is wrong for Marin, wrong for affordable housing, and wrong for the people that would live there. The Grady Ranch development plan needs to be scrapped.

After the collapse of LucasFilm’s Grady Ranch studio proposal, then-owner George Lucas promised to build affordable housing on the site instead. Many observers, including me, saw it as payback to the Lucas Valley anti-development crowd that killed the studio project, but few thought George was serious.

Yet Lucas and his partners at the Marin Community Foundation are charging ahead with 200-300 units of affordable housing anyway. While it does present an opportunity to build affordable homes, the site couldn’t be worse.

Grady Ranch is located out on Lucas Valley Road, far from any downtown, commercial center, or regular transit line. It’s right at the edge of the North San Rafael sprawl line – a car-oriented area even where it’s already built up.

Lucas Valley Road itself is essentially a limited-access rural highway, with cars speeding along at 50 miles per hour. There’s no development on the south side, and the north side only has entrances to the neighborhoods. No buildings actually front the road. Yet, it’s the only access to the Highway 101 transit trunk line, to nearly any commercial or shopping areas, or between neighborhoods.

Development here would be bad by any measure. Car-centric sprawl fills our roads with more traffic, generates more demand for parking, and forces residents to play Russian roulette every time they want to get milk. It takes retail activity away from our town centers, weakening the unique Marin character embodied in downtowns.

The infrastructure, too, is inefficient. Grady Ranch would need to be covered by police service, fire service, sewage, water, electricity, and some modicum of transit, but those costs are based on geography, not population. Serving a square mile with 300 homes is a lot more expensive per home than a square mile with 1,000.

Yet the fact that this will be affordable housing makes the project even more egregious. Driving is expensive, with depreciation, gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking costs all eating up scads of money. On a population level, you can add in the cost of pollution, as well as injuries and deaths in crashes. A home in Grady Ranch would be affordable, but the cost of actually living there would be quite high.

The nonprofit aspect of the project would mean no taxes could be raised to cover its infrastructure and services. Building affordable housing in a mixed area means they’re covered by preexisting services. Though usage is more intense, there is typically enough spare capacity to take on more residents. Building something beyond current development means new infrastructure and services need to be built specifically for that project but without any existing residents to pay for it. It would be a massive and ongoing drain on county coffers.

This is the worst possible place for affordable housing. Grady Ranch, if it’s not going to be a film studio, needs to remain as open space. An affordable housing project out at the exurban edge of Marin cannot be affordable because car-centric development is fundamentally unaffordable.

I respect the efforts of George Lucas and Marin Community Foundation to find a place for the low-income to live, but Grady Ranch is not it. Lucas and MCF need to look at urban infill sites and focus on building up in those areas that are transit-accessible and walkable, places that are actually affordable. Replicating the discredited drive-‘til-you-qualify dynamic in Marin is not the answer; it’s just recreating the problem.

Tam Junction Isn’t Going Anywhere

There is a lot of heartburn around Tam Junction. Development, they say, is coming, development that will be ruinous to the neighborhood and anyone who moves into new homes. What’s actually going on? As it turns out, a whole lot less than imagined.

Background

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction is a 20-acre commercial strip wedged between Tam Valley and Almonte. It used to be the junction of the Interurban’s Mill Valley Line and their main lines to Central Marin, hence the name. Now, it’s the intersection of Highway 1 (aka Shoreline Highway) and Almonte Boulevard, and getting through there is suitably difficult.

Though I haven’t been able to corroborate the grade, Sustainable TamAlmonte says the intersection has a Level of Service grade of F, meaning it’s over-capacity. There’s a push in Caltrans and among neighbors to make the whole area more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, which should take some pressure off the roads, but overall it is just a difficult intersection to traverse.

Tam Junction itself is built on flat, muddy soil, the kind that’s prone to liquefaction during an earthquake. Safe building standards, then, requires some serious reinforcement to bedrock. It’s a dusty, ugly, and semi-industrial bit of the county surrounded by some absolutely stunning scenery and some fairly charming homes.

The zoning for the strip is commercial, but it allows an FAR of 0.4, at most, and has a height limit of 30 feet. This means that it can only have 40 percent the square footage as the size of the lot – a 1000-square-foot lot could have only a 400-square-foot building, which itself can only be 30 feet tall. The northeast bit is part of the Baylands Corridor, a special protected area in the county’s General Plan that can’t be easily built upon.

What’s going on?

Tam Junction has been marked as a Project/Priority Development Area, also known as a PDA. This designation allows it to get additional funds for transportation infrastructure improvements, which it definitely needs. One Bay Area established the PDAs to help focus funding to areas that counties or cities deemed to be particularly worthwhile investments.

A common understanding is that a PDA designation is actually to focus housing development, but that’s not always the case. In essence, the purpose of a PDA is to align the transportation infrastructure with housing. That means either investing in housing development if the infrastructure is underutilized, or investing in infrastructure if what’s already there is over-capacity. Tam Junction falls mostly into the latter category.

I say “mostly” because the Marin’s state-mandated housing element points out six sites in Tam Junction that could be used for affordable housing development. These sites will in all likelihood never be developed: the high cost of construction in Tam Junction’s mud, not to mention the incredibly constrained building envelope, would scare away for-profit and non-profit developers alike. They’d be much more likely to invest in Sausalito, Miller Avenue, or San Rafael than in Tam Junction. The six sites point out the possibility of rezoning those areas to moderate densities but do not guarantee any development.

It’s important to point out that any development that would occur would not be out of character for area – 268-274 Shoreline Drive is a small strip of 30 unit-per-acre density, and Tam Junction already plays host to 30-foot-tall buildings.

Oppositional dissonance

In one sense, it’s a bit of a shame nothing would be built in the area. Sustainable TamAlmonte, a local group, strenuously opposes any residential development in the area while supporting any commercial development. Yet residents now can’t support more retail than is already there. If they could, someone would have taken over the psychic’s shop and opened something with a bit more pizzazz. The strip would need more residents to become a viable retail center. It can’t just become downtown Mill Valley because residents want it to be; it needs actual shoppers with actual money, and housing development would provide a way to do that without generating much traffic, as most new shoppers would be able to walk to their store of choice.

The other option would be to attract more shoppers from elsewhere in Marin, poaching some business from Sausalito and Mill Valley. Yet this option would attract even more traffic to the congested area, rendering it even more dangerous for residents walking, biking, driving, or simply living in the area. I hope Sustainable TamAlmonte isn’t suggesting this sort of development.

In sum, Tam Junction isn’t likely to change much more over the next decade than it has in the last decade. The barriers to development – namely mud and zoning – will make it difficult to do anything other than improve the existing infrastructure for existing residents and businesses. Given the harrowing testimonies of advocates at the last TAM meeting, that should be change enough.