Saturday, January 24, 2009

Strange Encounters

Life is full of bizarre coincidences, and below I describe one that is a few years old. It is doubtful that it has any meaning other than being something unusual that should inspire people to reexamine the events that would unfold a few weeks later – and to reexamine everything that led up to those events.

Sometime in the mid- to late 1990s I was headed for a walk in the woods that are featured here, in search of an early American road. (Most of this forest has since been cut down to make way for a subdivision.) I had to walk up the street from my aunt’s home, maybe 200 yards, and down the driveway, and past a recently constructed “farm house,” which is really just another subdivision home with more land than most. The family that lives in this house had two dogs at that time, Max and Lily. When I was parallel to the house, Max left the patio where he had been guarding the home and charged me, followed by the gentle Lily. Max growled and barked and bared his teeth inches away from me until one of the subdivision daughters came out and called Max and Lily in. I think I turned around and returned to the farm at that point.

The homeowner, X, drove by me in one of his farm vehicles later that morning as I was walking down the street and kindly stopped and asked me if Max had bitten me. No, he hadn’t, I said. But a few years later, Max bit my aunt’s neighbor, M, someone whom Max should have known well, and Max, apparently to the great sorrow of X, was put down.

And then in mid-August 2001, knowing that Max was gone, I headed out for another walk in these woods, again in search of the signs of the early American road. This time I made it into the woods. I don’t recall whether or not I found indications of the old road, as my memory of that day has been overshadowed by everything that followed in subsequent weeks.

When I emerged from the corner of the woods featured in the photograph, I immediately caught site of a large dog that was perhaps part collie. I was alarmed, but soon saw a man standing a few feet away behind the dog, and called out to the man and asked him to please hold his dog. He assured me his dog would not bite, and in fact, we got into a conversation, and he told me he was training his dog in search and rescue. He may also have told me that he had come from central Massachusetts, but perhaps X told me that. I no longer recall.

To me there was nothing unusual about that explanation. X, who is deceased, was known for sharing his land – I knew then that there was a community of people from Southeast Asia who had been displaced to the Lowell area by the turmoil in Southeast Asia who had taken up gardening, at X’s invitation, on part of his land. But the next morning, X stopped into my aunt’s kitchen to chat, and when I told him my story about my experience, he said that the dog I had encountered was a “cadaver” dog. My aunt later explained that X just had a morose sense of humor.

Yet X, who was an American Airlines employee, was probably among the first to die on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I’m not one of those people who necessarily think that terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside job because I don’t know enough. But here is what I’m pretty sure is accurate: the terrorist attacks of 9-11 allowed some very disreputable, malevolent people to expand their power and intensify an already dangerously imperialistic, undemocratic, and environmentally destructive national course.

And I don’t think it’s enough to just celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama ...

... and throw shoes at replicas of George W. Bush and consider ourselves done with the past eight years.

Because we aren’t talking about eight years. We need to start a self-examination that goes back to the Trail of Tears, the Second Removal, Polk’s War, the Spanish-American War, and right up through to the Carter Doctrine and beyond. But these topics are for future blog entries.

The Good News and the Bad News

Here's the -- tentatively -- good news:

New CEQA Guidelines Expected to Shift Transportation Priorities

Here's the bad news:

Oberstar: Mass Transit Got the Shaft to Make Room For Tax Cuts
"The reason for the reduction in overall funding -- we took money out of Amtrak ..."

Say it ain't so, Joe.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The City Chicken

This is Joni holding an egg. She and I have recently gotten to know each other through our volunteer activities -- we've been tabling across from each other at different events for a couple of years now. She is originally from Upstate New York, but she and her husband have been living in their house in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco for 35 years now. For 30 of those years, she has been keeping chickens for their eggs. She now has four chickens. She gets her chickens and organic chicken feed from a place in Half Moon Bay. I guess she drives to Half Moon Bay -- but otherwise she rides her bicycle all over the city. In this photograph, you can see the enclosure that she and her husband have created for their chickens.

Long before it was fashionable, Joni and her husband installed solar panels on the roof of their house. They also practice solar drying -- hanging their laundry on a clothesline to dry instead of using a dryer.

Much of San Francisco is considered too cold and foggy for hot weather plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and corn. But they grow all three of those food plants in their backyard garden on the sunny east side of San Francisco. Their chickens have the run of the garden, and, just like my aunt's chickens, they produce eggs with brilliant orange yolks.

When Joni and her husband first moved in, there was nothing in their yard, but their neighbor had two baby plum trees, and they transplanted them to their own yard. The trees are now full-grown and producing fruit, and they have strung up a hammock between them. From other plants, they also harvest Gravenstein and Golden Delicious apples, Meyer lemons, pineapple guavas, and labor intensive gingko nuts.

The plum trees also provide something else -- wood for their wood burning stove in their kitchen. Out of concern for the dangers of releasing particulates into the air, they only burn wood when it is raining. The mosaic in back of the stove is by Joni.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rally to Save the Market Street Bike Lane

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bicyclists gather at the intersection of Market Street and the Central Freeway in San Francisco to rally against the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) plan to remove the bike lane and force bicyclists to merge with vehicle traffic.

California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano encourages participants to throw their bike shoes at members of the MTA commission.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum would like there to be as many police officers enforcing traffic laws to protect bicyclists as there were police officers keeping a watchful eye on the rally.

Bicyclists Marc Salomon, Pi Ra, and Matt add to the gathering of people in support of improving the bicycle lane instead of removing it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Grass Fed and Free Range

Cows in the mist, November 2008

Country Chickens
As part of my grandmother’s effort to live closer to the land, she got hens and roosters, began raising chickens, and started collecting their eggs and selling them to customers who wanted truly farm fresh eggs. This was at least a decade before the term “free range” became popular. Knowing full well that eggs have probably been the single most easily collected condensed source of nutrition since the dawn of humanity and our hunter/gatherer days, she also ate an egg every day, insisting that their nutritional value trumped any concerns others might have about cholesterol.

My aunt has carried on that practice, though I don’t think she has any roosters, which can be loud and vicious. The last time I visited her, she served me some eggs one morning for breakfast. Even though I have been going to the farm and consuming eggs there for years, for the first time I noticed the brilliance of the orange yolks. My aunt said that color was from the carotene in the grass and other plants that her free-range chickens are able to forage. To the left, chickens gather at the feet of members of my extended family on Thanksgiving day, 2008.

My aunt and her husband are also raising grass fed beef cattle. They now have four full-grown miniature Black Anguses and one Black Angus calf – with more on the way. My aunt studied carefully before she chose these cows (officially hers are Wyndham cows – a variation of the Black Angus), known because of the quality of their meat, their small size, and their gentle dispositions. The cattle spend nights in the basement of the barn, and then graze a section of the pasture by day. My aunt carefully cordons off different sections using an electric wire so that no part of the field is over grazed.

The cows above had been eying me warily from within the barn and would not initially come out. But the second they saw my aunt pick up a stake and move the electric wire, they emerged from the basement at a trot, eager to go at the fresh grass. (July 2008)

On Thanksgiving day 2008, my cousin's daughter and my nephew enjoy the chicken coup and fresh eggs. Below, my aunt emerges from the fenced off area that encloses the chicken coup, a place safe from coyotes, raccoons, and other predators, in July 2008.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Going Backward

A bicyclist travels down the Market Street bike lane in San Francisco at the Entrance to the Central Freeway

Transit Reform, Parking Regulation

and Emissions Reductions
PROPOSITION A, November 6, 2007

Shall the Municipal Transportation Agency be provided greater governing authority, and additional funding, and be required to develop a Climate Action Plan, and shall the City not increase the maximum number of parking spaces allowed for new private development projects unless approved by a super-majority of the Board?
Regulating Parking Spaces
PROPOSITION H, November 6, 2007

Shall the Planning Code be changed to increase the number of parking spaces that developers are permitted to build and ease restrictions on building ne
w parking spaces for residential and non-residential buildings?

San Francisco sustainable living activists rallied around one local ballot measure and against another local ballot measure in the fall of 2007. We were for Proposition A (top) and against Proposition H (second from top). Both were transportation and land-use related measures. Proposition A has some good elements for city residents and some that were perhaps not so good upon reflection. But it was also a charter amendment, and it had a clause in it that, if the measure passed, would trump Prop. H if Prop. H passed.

For anyone concerned about the financial livability of the city -- and the environmental health of the planet -- Prop. H was an over-the-top bad idea. Prop. H was promoted by Gap founder Donald Fisher (who doesn't even live in SF) and Webcor, a construction company. They wanted to remove restrictions on building garages for two reasons: 1) because residential buildings with garage spaces, in this already inflated city, rent or sell for more; and 2) because they thought commercial garages would increase the profit margins of the big chain stores and hoteliers in downtown San Francisco. But had H passed, congestion and housing costs would have increased. It didn't pass.

But A passed, and because it passed, the role of our elected members of the Board of Supervisors in a lot of transportation-related matters was minimized or eliminated. Traffic engineering and transit-related decisions are now primarily in the hands of professionals at the agency and Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) commissioners, who are not elected. In some ways, that's good -- after all, we do not want politicians dictating to scientists about the impact of greenhouse gases on the climate or how to prevent the spread of HIV.

But in this case, it's not so clear that removing the role of our elected officials is such a good idea: the San Francisco intersection of our major thoroughfare, Market Street, with on and off ramps to one of our few freeways, the Central Freeway at Octavia Street, is a nightmare for pedestrians and especially bicyclists. There is a dedicated eastbound bicycle lane on Market Street at this intersection, and it is illegal for people driving east on Market Street to turn right onto the freeway on ramp out of concern for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of collisions between eastbound bicyclists and eastbound vehicles whose drivers are making illegal right hand turns onto the freeway. In response, prior to the passage of Prop. A when our elected local representatives still had to approve every MTA traffic design decision, the MTA put up physical barriers, including a concrete island, to prevent drivers from making illegal right hand turns.

Because collisions still happen -- though at a lower rate -- the MTA is now considering removing the bicycle lane and the physical barriers, and forcing bicyclists to merge with car traffic on Market Street. Needless to say, bicyclists, including me, are not happy about this. But what recourse do we have?

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is organizing a rally at the intersection from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. on the morning of Friday, January 16, and is also urging people to contact Mayor Gavin Newsom at, City Attorney Dennis Herrera at, and Nat Ford at

Monday, January 12, 2009

299 Valencia Street

The following is an item on the January 13, 2009 San Francisco Board of Supervisors agenda for anytime after 4 pm.

It's relevant because it's about a residential development at 299 Valencia in which the developer requested -- and was granted unanimously by members of the San Francisco Planning Commission -- a CU, or conditional use permit, to exceed the allowable parking.

The project at 299 Valencia is in a dense, transit-rich part of San Francisco. Our city is also governed by a "transit-first" clause in our charter. In particular, it states, "Parking policies for areas well served by public transit shall be designed to encourage travel by public transit and alternative transportation."

By right, the developer can include one parking space for every two units in the project. That's a significant improvement over the one-to-one that developers have been accustomed to. But this particular developer went to the San Francisco Planning Commission and asked to be able to provide more than the allowable .5:1 parking.

That's not good. For one thing, parking adds to the cost of residential units, driving up the cost of housing, in a city where housing prices are already inflated beyond reason. For another thing, if the developer gets his or her way, congestion will worsen, buses will slow down, and pedestrians and bicyclists will be in greater danger. And the ecological demise of the planet will accelerate. Besides, the development at 299 Valencia is part of a planning area, Market and Octavia, that has been under consideration for nine years. And while not everyone is satisfied with the final plan, community activists worked hard to reduce the amount of parking that developers would be able to include in future projects. Now that the planning process is more or less complete, to allow a developer early on in the development process to get a CU to increase the allowable parking sets a very bad precedent indeed.

But neighbors and activists have gotten busy. They have appealed the Planning Commission decision to the Board of Supervisors and plan to coalesce in the Board of Supervisors chamber on Tuesday afternoon (Room 250, City Hall, SF, CA), and testify in favor of the appeal. If all goes well tomorrow, that's where I plan to be also.

8. 081420
[Public Hearing - Conditional Use Appeal for 299 Valencia Street]
Hearing of persons interested in or objecting to the decision of the Planning Commission by its Motion No. 17739 dated November 6, 2008, relating to the approval of a Conditional Use Authorization (Case No. 2006.0432CV), under Planning Code Sections 121.1, 151.1 and 303 to allow a large-lot mixed-use development providing up to 25 off-street residential parking spaces and 2 car share spaces in an NCT-3 (Moderate-Scale Neighborhood Commercial Transit District) Zoning District and a 50-X Height and Bulk District on property located at 299 Valencia Street, Lot 014 in Assessor's Block No. 3532. (Filed by Jason Henderson on behalf of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and subscribed by Supervisors Peskin, Ammiano, Maxwell, Daly and Mirkarimi; District 6.)
12/9/2008, CONTINUED. The President inquired as to whether any member of the public wished to address the Board. Continued January 6, 2009.
1/6/2009, CONTINUED. The president inquired as to whether any member of the public wished to address the Board. Jason Henderson, appellant Silvia Johnson Continued to January 13, 2009.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Road to Be Taken?

Illinois, the Land of Ethanol?

It’s January 11, Barack Obama’s inauguration is a little more than a week away, and we are beginning to see how things are shaping up for his administration.

I live in San Francisco, a dense, expensive community, and think that almost all issues come down, eventually, to land use and transportation – how we develop as a city, who gets to live here based on the cost of living, and how we get from Point A to Point B. I think that’s it in a nutshell for the nation (and the world) as well – where we live and work and how we get from one place to another. And all those issues relate to energy – the energy that it takes to till the land and grow crops, the energy it takes to transport crops and other goods, the energy it takes to live in a suburb versus the energy it takes to live in a dense community, and so on.

I’m thrilled that we are getting rid of George W. Bush and his administration, but agree with my 10-year-old niece that Obama is a “mixed bag.” He is a product of the people – and their money – who got him to the White House. As such he’s being lobbied from all sides.

So how is Barack Obama approaching the issue of energy and its nexus with land use and transportation?

The only way we can tell, so far, is through his few pronouncements on the issue of energy and through his appointments.

During the last debate between Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain, Obama differentiated himself from environmentalists by coming out in support of “clean coal,” a term widely considered an oxymoron, especially since the December 22 Tennessee Valley coal ash spill. (A friend of mine who went to Denver for the DNC reported back that “clean coal” signs had been posted all over the city.)

And his appointments?

From the West

He has nominated Steven Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Steven Chu has been the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for some time now. A scientist/Green Party friend of mine who works at Lawrence Berkeley reacted positively to Chu’s selection, saying that at the time of Chu’s selection that he, Chu, was the only Obama nomination that he, my friend, liked so far.

So what’s good about Chu? Well for one thing, said my scientist friend, Chu rides a bicycle to work.

Wow. Anyone who rides a bicycle to work, especially someone that HIGH UP, gets beaucoup brownie points in my book. And the Wall Street Journal has sent up red warning flags about him because he is apparently on the record calling coal a nightmare, and advocating that American gas taxes be raised to the level of what European drivers pay. But he needs to proceed cautiously. He is already being courted by the coal industry.

From the Midwest

Obama has also nominated Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, to be the Secretary of Agriculture, and Ray LaHood, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, to be Secretary of Transportation. Well, what does the Secretary of Agriculture have to do with transportation, you ask? Ethanol, that’s what …

To many people, ethanol is just more snake oil, something that a few people can get rich of off and that will briefly extend delusions about western lifestyle – but at the expense of the soil, future generations, and current generations that depend on inexpensive corn for survival. The Organic Consumers Association, in response, has started an online petition to stop the appointment of Vilsack to the post of Secretary of Agriculture because of his support for the ethanol industry and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

Ray LaHood, on the other hand, is getting praise from some Illinois bicyclists who say that he’s been a great advocate for recreational bicyclists on trails and CMAQ (the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program). But San Francisco bicyclists naturally want to know what he thinks about bicycling on streets. LaHood also supports Amtrak, the federally run and subsidized passenger rail system, and has broken with other Republicans over funding Amtrak.

All over the country …

People want a slice of the next stimulus package pie, and in the case of transportation, there is competition between the highway and construction lobby on the one side and the advocates of public transportation and smart growth on the other side. Which way will Obama lean? If he takes seriously the warnings about global climate change, he should lean towards the advocates of public transportation and smart growth.

The climate connection

James Hansen, the climate scientist who heads the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and who has been openly critical of the Bush administration’s dismissal of concerns about global climate change, recently sent a letter to Barack and Michelle Obama urging them to take action on the climate. Hansen proposes, briefly:

1) A moratorium and phase out of coal plants that do not capture and sequester carbon dioxide;

2) A flat carbon tax that is collected at the wellhead or at the point of entry to the US, with distribution of 100 percent of the dividends to the public on a per-capita basis. This tax system rewards people who use less energy and penalizes those who use more; and,

3) A research and development program for "4th Generation nuclear power.”

I’m nervous about nuclear power, but one of the participants on the Car-Free Living listserv writes the following:

Fourth GNP can “burn” waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Thus 4th GNP could help solve the nuclear waste problem, which must be dealt with in any case. Because of this, a portion of the $25B that has been collected from utilities to deal with nuclear waste justifiably could be used to develop 4th generation reactors. [Hansen] stresses that this R&D program doesn't commit us to building such reactors, but rather to develop a working prototype, so we have a workable option in case renewables cannot be scaled up quickly enough to phase out coal-powered plants. He also says that coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration is a worthwhile R&D effort; it doesn't exist yet, but a workable prototype gives us additional options, including capturing carbon emissions from biofuel plants.

I’m certain Hansen is right about the need to confront global climate change and do so immediately, but I think I lean towards environmental justice superstar Van Jones, who recently said of carbon sequestration, “It sounds painful. You take the carbon and put it in big holes in the ground, and someone will just sit on it and hope it never comes out. It turns out, there aren’t that many big holes in the ground …” He then added, “And don’t let me get started on safe nuclear …”

Apparently public transportation and smart growth went unmentioned in Hansen's letter (, but I hope others can get the ears of the Obamas about these solutions to the climate crisis.

I took this photograph of an Illinois cornfield with silos in the background last summer from an Amtrak train, the California Zephyr, as we were traveling between Chicago and Denver. Again, the photograph only partially captures the beauty of the landscape.