Recently I found myself on vacation in Madison, Wisconsin walking along a tree-lined sidewalk looking at bumper stickers: "If you think education is expensive; try ignorance"; "Feingold for Senator"; "War Is Not the Answer"; "US out of Iraq"; "Not my president". In over an hour I didn't see a single Bush-Cheney bumper sticker.
Later that night, with a long journey home, and no car, bike, or taxis roving about, I remembered another thing about this small city: while progressive in many ways (good public schools, racial tolerance, numerous parks and green space, a relatively narrow income gap), the public transportation system is not ambitious enough to get most people out of their cars. The buses typically adhere to their schedule, but do not run often, especially at night. If you somehow miss your bus, a 30-minute wait minimum is just about guaranteed.
A couple years back a rail line was proposed to broaden the options, but the idea has been put on ice because of the short-term cost and a general feeling among much of the public that the rail line wouldn't catch on, a feeling that tends to reinforce itself.
I've never owned a car but I agree that waiting half an hour for a bus seems pretty ridiculous in this day and age. I live in an urban area that is considered among the handful of most forward-thinking cities in the US, where we share in certain Western European "luxuries": free health clinics, tasteful architecture, appreciation of the arts, eco-awareness, and an official transit-first transportation policy.
I arrived in San Francisco at the height of the Clinton Boom, during a gold rush unlike any since 1849, with a high-tech job market humming like mad, circulating billions of greenbacks, and yet the public transportation system was definitively mediocre throughout the bulk of the city off of the single subway line. The common electric bus sketch of the time featured a few people at a bus stop, a group that soon became 10 large, then 15, and so on who were eventually crammed elbow-to-elbow on a long, comically uncomfortable ride as the bus lurched around like a beached whale. The rail lines weren't much better. The ocean-bound N Judah line broke down so often that on more than one occasion passengers demanded to be let out during a "technical difficulties" halt in mid-tunnel so that they wouldn't have to wait any longer. It got so bad that the plump and ruddy, decidedly unathletic middle-aged man who sat next to me at work walked the four miles every morning because he knew he'd never be late if he left home early enough.
Blessed with a bounteous surplus, Mayor Willie Brown increased transportation spending, which created a brief but noticeable improvement, just in time for his reelection campaign in 1999.
But since 2002 A.C., the second Bush recession and Republican service cuts at the federal level have brought us back to square one. Faced with balancing the budget by raising fees for parking, registration, and traffic violations for those who drive by choice, or putting the burden on the backs of the less affluent transit ridership, San Francisco's corporate mayors reliably push the latter. In 2005, transit riders face further route cuts and increases in transit fare, and other than main thoroughfares during rush hour, one has no idea if and when a bus/train will cross their path.
This was very frustrating at first, when I had reasonable expectations, but once I got hip to the transportation system that marches to no drummer, I saw my best options at non-rush times as walking along a transit line in hopes of seeing a bus or train, dumping a ten spot on a taxi ride, or pulling out a book and waiting. Over time I've reluctantly made peace with this system, in no small part because I don't want to buy an automobile that I don't really need.
Further up the economic ladder folks tend to be less flexible. An acquaintance of mine recently received a promotion at work, and discovered that everyone in his new department drove, though few of them had children or pets or any serious obligations after work. Riding the bus along Market Street at rush hour, one sees long streams of single-occupancy vehicles, though it's one of the only times all day that the transportation system is at full bore.
There are other answers. Imagine, if you will, a form of transportation that costs as little as $50 (used, on Craigslist) and keeps the blood flowing. It involves little maintenance, no insurance, no parking fees, no time looking for parking spots, and no need to get up early to move your wheels. Better yet, there's no consumption of oil, thus no toxic emissions, thus no contribution to pollution and its byproducts (ugly skylines, respiratory ailments, increased healthcare costs) or global warming. By being physically active you do your own part to stave off the diobesity epidemic, and best of all, by shirking oil, you do your own little part to not contribute to the deaths of innocent civilians in the Mideast (and any Americans who die when foreign interventions boomerang).
With all of these benefits, one might think that bike riding would be encouraged, as it is in Amsterdam and other civilized places on the planet. Yet, right-wing polemics notwithstanding, San Francisco is every bit a part of America, where driving is seen as an entitlement. A quick glance at the local major media on the issue of bikes v. cars provides a sadly clear reflection of the national dialog. To the extent that long-term transportation/local land use issues get any coverage at all, the San Francisco Chronicle reliably sides with the forces of short-term thinking (drivers, developers) over the long-term thinkers (environmentalists/bicyclists, neighborhood preservationists), making consumption for consumption's sake seem more reasonable than conservation for sustainability's sake. The letters to the editor page is heavily weighted toward driver complaints about outlaw bike messengers who (gasp) don't always follow traffic laws to a T. Rare are inclusions of day-in-the life bike messenger letters about cell-phone-toting drivers who fail to look both ways, cut bicycles off, crowd the curb or an intersection, run red lights to the very end, or double park in bike lanes.
A small handful of bike lanes have been added over the past few years, but otherwise little has changed: other than late at night, main thoroughfares tend to be narrow so that the biker has to ride in the cramped spot between moving vehicles and parked cars, while hoping that those getting out of parked cars on the driver side won't open their doors at the wrong moment. Much of the Northeastern quadrant of the city, including downtown, can be dangerous for bikers, as there are no bike lanes, and little space. Many bikers just avoid downtown's main thoroughfare, Market Street, or ride slowly along whatever space they can find between traffic and the curb, or walk their bikes down the wide sidewalks.
Some years back there was a plan to close Market Street to traffic, as a way of unclogging Market and redirecting traffic away from the central public transportation route while beautifying downtown, but Mayor Willie Brown let the plan die due to lack of fundraising incentive and a fear of voter backlash among the well-heeled.
Golden Gate Park has met a similar fate. Though the park is one of the few remote riding sanctuaries in the city, the two main roads are clogged with cars every weekend. Opposed by both corporate dailies, measures to close off small sections of the Northern of the two roads on Saturday have been narrowly defeated at the ballot box, leaving just one patch of 12 blocks of 50 car-free on Sundays only, until 6 PM. The measure is not quite dead, if at some future date more than 50% of voters choose clean quiet and serene over sparing oneself the five minute walk from a parking spot on the perimeter of the park.
No matter what else happens, bikers will get their moment in court once a month as far as the eye can see. On the last Friday of each month hundreds of bikers take part in Critical Mass, a peaceful protest of bikers who ride down Market Street's central thoroughfare, which runs directly through downtown around 6 PM. The event kicks off with a long procession of hoots and hollers in an ode to the most clean, healthy, sustainable form of transportation. Though the grungy army of tattooed-and-earringed hordes are dominated by the force of fast-moving metal the rest of the month, inevitably plenty of self-centered drivers lay on their horns in anger at the five minute wait as the parade goes through. Many of the bikers just laugh at a sense of entitlement rendered helpless. The way gas prices are headed, some of those horn-honkers are bound to be two-wheeling it soon themselves.