Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Riding with David Chiu

One or maybe two times per week I ride the 42 miles from home to work with SF2G, a group of long-distance bike commuters which began with Google employees but has branched out to employees of other high-tech companies on the San Francisco Bay peninsula. Really there's no way I would be able to tolerate my commute if I had to take the train back and forth five days per week (or drive even one day per week). And the nice thing about riding is after a good ride in I feel fantastic: full of energy and alert all day. It's great; if it wasn't that riding got me into work on the latish side, around 9:30 am, I'd do it more.

John Murphy's been an SF2G regular for longer than I have. This year he's had the audacity to ask three candidates for San Francisco mayor to join us at the start of the ride, typically 6:30 am in Ritual Roasters on Valencia Street. San Francisco is a city of around 800 thousand people; surely mayoral candidates have better things to do with their mornings than meet with 30 or so tech-heads. We're so lost in the noise it's a joke to even think they'd get up so early to show up in a Mission coffee house and ride their bikes directly opposite the direction to their work. John's obviously insane.

But the insane thing is that all three candidates he asked: John Avalos, Dennis Herrera, and finally David Chiu agreed. I unfortunately couldn't make Avalos and Herrera, but there was no way I was going to miss Chiu. And I didn't.

David Chiu is very cool because he doesn't own a car. He gets around the city by bus, by car share, and most of all by bike. That shared experience establishes a certain bond: a feeling of common perspective which gives the hope that things which are important to me will also be important to him. The car fosters a social view which is very self-obsessed, the "through the windshield" view where one is surrounded not by people but by machines, machines which are threatening your life, property, and mobility. They are machines which even hostile to you and should be feared, hated, and defeated. On the other hand when cyclists encounter each other there's no shell, no engine, There may still be competition but without hatred. There's still the threat from cars, but it's a shared threat, us against them, rather than us against each other. Cycling is a much, much more human mode of transport.

I got to Ritual right on time. As is customary with the ride, I brought my bike inside, greeted the early arrivals, and sat down. No David Chiu yet. Another David, a ride regular who works at Oracle near the half-way point of my commute, was commenting that there didn't seem to be any real issues in this campaign. No issues? I launched into a long speech about what I thought there were issues which were absolutely critical to the future of the city, namely the unsustainable increase in the size of city government (3% of those who live here work for the city, and once someone is hired it is very difficult to fire them), not to mention the transportation issues which affected each of us.

This rant was interrupted by the announcement that Mr. Chiu had arrived.

And there he was. He was clearly the best dressed one of those present, whose number had grown substantially since I'd sit down. The place was packed. There was some hesistation as Chiu wasn't sure what the plan was, but John told him there was no plan and David could just do what he wanted. So David presented a brief discussion of his philosophy, then invited questions.

Chiu addresses some of the crowd (more arrived later). Scott Crosby photo

Public transit was a popular target, in particular MUNI which runs the bus and intra-city rail service in San Francisco. MUNI is a mess, with a terrible on-time record, buses simply not going out when mechanical problems or driver absenteeism (around 15%, more or less) gets in the way, convoluted routes, and lumbering vehicles which are lucky to average faster than a moderate jogging pace across the city. San Francisco has clearly worse public transit than any city of its size or greater on the East coast, and probably worse than any city of its size or greater outside the United States. It's just terrible.

But Chiu understands that and while every candidate claims to put a priority on MUNI reform, Chiu seems to sincerely care about the matter. After all, he uses the bus himself. It's in his own self-interest.

At 7 sharp, a member of our crew announced it was time to leave. So we unstacked our bikes, headed outside, and rode off in the dim twilight.

Riding on his girlfriend's bike (his had been vandalized). Scott Crosby photo

John led the way. Normally SF2G takes one of two routes when riding along the flatter "Bayway" route. The traditional route is over Bernal Heights via the "Cortland Hurl", a short moderately steep climb typically taken at a caffeinated pace. The other route is the "express" route from Potrero Ave to Bayshore. This involves a wild ride through a pothole-strewn interchange with traffic merging from the right via a high-speed off-ramp. It's not for the timid.

But John wanted to take what should be the preferred route: Cesar Chavez to 3rd Street. It's also the most direct route to the 22nd Street Caltrain station. The sitting mayor, Ed Lee, had canned a community-agreed-upon plan to remove a vehicle lane from relatively uncongested Cesar Chaves to make room or bike lanes. Too much pressure from trucking companies seemed to be the reason, and given Lee's potentially shady record of alleged campaign contribution laundering, you can't help but wonder if there could have been something extra in the handshake which opened that meeting. Chavez is a mess. And John wanted to make sure Chiu saw that.

The ride was fun. Chiu rode well, and John and David Crosby, arguably the leader (if there's one) of the SF2G group, got in some quality discussion time. Most of the rest of us just hovered around, riding our bikes at the modest pace. David could have zipped along faster, I suspected. He seemed pretty comfortable.

Finally we reached 3rd Street, where our commute would take us south, while David's took him north. Everyone seemed in a good mood, as the ride had cracked our shells of cynicism about politicians, their motivations, and their sincerity. David certainly seemed like a good guy who wanted to do a good job for the city he lived in.


Marti said...

"San Francisco has clearly worse public transit than any city of its size or greater on the East coast, and probably worse than any city of its size or greater outside the United States."

You've obviously not visited southern California.

djconnel said...

I have, and Southern California is neither on the east coast nor outside the United States.