The SFBC Interview with Tom Ammiano
SF Board of Supervisors President
by Leah Shahum

SF’s President of the Board of Supervisors, Tom Ammiano, talks about his thoughts on Bike to Work Day, bicyclists’ growing political clout, and the future of biking in San Francisco. Recently, Supervisor Ammiano sponsored legislation for bike lanes on 5th Street and a study of transit-first Market Street improvements.

Do you plan to ride on Bike to Work Day on May 18th this year?
Absolutely. I always look forward to it. That’s how I met Dave Snyder (SFBC Executive Director). He followed me screaming all the way down Valencia Street. That showed me that we needed the striping [on Valencia], and I’ve been supportive ever since.

You have been, by far, one of the strongest supporters on the Board for better bicycle access and facilities. What are your reasons?
Well, obviously, air quality, and I think it adds to people’s quality of life in San Francisco. It’s good for your health. And we’re just a really crowded, congested city. The more we get people out of their cars the better for everyone — mentally and physically.

What kinds of changes have you seen over the years in the number of people riding bikes?
The bicycle community has become a potent political force. I think that they were scorned and ignored for many years and looked upon as hippies or renegades. Now, for better or for worse, we’ve moved into the middle class. It’s a rare politician who will not respond to the bicycle lobby or coalition.

How would you judge improvements for bikes over the years?
They’re slow. We are seeing bike stripings —Valencia Street is a good example — the introduction of things for debate — the 5th Street bike lanes, more money going toward bike facilities and bike racks and bike-friendly buildings. But we still have a long way to go.

Most recently, you proposed bike lanes on 5th Street, which the SFBC has been working for diligently, so far unsuccessfully. How’s the outlook?
We’re still in negotiations with the Department of Planning and Department of Parking and Traffic. No pun intended, but it’s an uphill fight, but we’re going to continue to slug away.

Some of the opposition on 5th Street (and on other proposed bike lanes downtown) have come from big businesses, such as the Union Square merchants. Do you think a day will come when the need for better bike conditions can contend with big business’ influence in SF?
They’re going to have to be brought along. They have some power, but I think this issue needs to have everyone at the table, and I think probably education will go a long way.

Do you think we’ll ever see Market Street closed for bike, bus, and pedestrian traffic only?
Market Street? Yes, when we have a new Board of Supervisors and a new Mayor.

On that note, what is your position on the rush to build more parking garages in SF, which invites more cars onto our congested streets and in our neighborhoods.
I’m not inclined to support them. When we move into district elections you may have a neighborhood that wants [a garage], and they may be able to get that accomplished. That’s democracy. But my feeling is that the less garages the better. But I understand the other side, too.

Many think the city neglects its "transit first" policy and its responsibility to encourage sustainable modes of transportation. Yet, the Director of Department of Parking and Traffic claims he is providing a "balanced" transportation system. How balanced is our transportation system today?
I think it’s unbalanced. Again, we have a long road to go. I think we’ve raised the sensitivity issue, but now our challenge is to implement.

What can we do to improve things?
There’s a charter amendment kicking around that really reiterates the transit-first policy and also comes up with some concrete ideas, and one of them is to merge the Dept. of Parking and Traffic with Muni. I like it. We might have to phase it in, but I like it.

Few people would dispute that improving biking, walking, and transit conditions will benefit everyone in the city, but we still have trouble convincing the powers-that-be to think long range on transportation issues. What do you advise?
I think bicyclists have formed a PAC — a political action committee — I thought that was very smart, because politicians listen to that. I think the media has been a great source for education and trying to correct misinformation — although sometimes they give misinformation. Getting involved in the electoral process. Attending meetings of the Planning Commission and Parking and Traffic Commission. Continuing to be a presence that is felt.

You have also been a strong supporter of pedestrians’ rights. What do you think of the new surge of pedestrian activism in SF? I’m loving it. We’re working on some very aggressive ideas about that. The legislation isn’t ready yet, but I think if we can get even half of that passed, it’ll be a safer city for pedestrians.