Member Profile: Mike Smith - Everybody Walks By Anna Sojourner

Name Mike Smith
Age 39
Occupation Executive Director, Walk SF, and Engineer, Nextbus
Neighborhood South of Market
Member since 1994
Moving society "Transportation issues transcend so many things. It's not just about getting from one place to another, it's about being there in the first place." Photo by Nancy Botkin
What got you into activism? I see so many things that can be changed if people just work on them. We have a nice, dense city, and it's completely overrun with cars. I thought, 'What can we do here? Bike lanes? Bike parking?' But then I realized that it doesn't have much to do with bicycles! What we really want is a place where everybody can get around, whether it's by bikes or walking. Pedestrian activism is what's really needed. Everybody walks, yet there was no group to represent the pedestrian before.

Why do pedestrians need representation? Everybody is a pedestrian, yet they don't necessarily see themselves as a pedestrian, and they don't always vocalize as a pedestrian. What we're doing is providing a voice for people. Now pedestrians are going to show up at City Hall. They're going to see that the Supervisors and City Hall do the right thing. That's going to last for years. It was absolutely the right time in San Francisco for a pedestrian movement.

You took time off work to change careers and dedicated yourself to activism for a full year. What skills did you pick up as a full-time activist? I learned how to organize people, and how you have to always have a coalition of groups. It doesn't matter how good your idea is, it doesn't matter if you have a lot of time, what you really need to do is get a lot of people on your side. That really helped with the sidewalk parking issue.

What have been some of your successes? Sidewalk parking - so many people were upset about it, but there was no common voice. No one was leading the effort to get cars off the sidewalk so people can walk on them again. And now the Mayor has actually signed legislation to increase the fine for parking on the sidewalk dramatically. Another thing that's really big is just trying to promote the idea that pedestrians are important, and that a walkable community is important. Before, you heard about all these [pedestrians] dying, and people said 'Well, that's living in San FranciscoŅit's dangerous.' And now the perception has completely changed. The newspapers cover it. They cover pedestrian injuries; when the quarterly report comes out, they talk about the huge numbers of people who get hit by cars. The politicians have to talk about pedestrian improvements. They're not always doing the right thing, but they're talking about it.

So they acknowledge that it's a systematic problem? Yes, and that they have to spend money on it, and that it's a big quality of life issue. There's so much effort spent by the city promoting driving. There's always money for the streets, streetlights, parking, and things like that. But there hasn't been a lot of money spent on pedestrians. A lot of drivers are upset about how dangerous it is to drive. If you can make it safer for pedestrians, you're also making it safer for car drivers, and that's something people really appreciate.

With homeless people on the street, people literally going hungry, why does bike and pedestrian activism matter? Well, we always have to make sure that other issues are being addressed, too, like homelessness, housing, and health care. But transportation affects the whole fabric of life. Energy issues are really big these days, but how you get your energy doesn't affect how you interact with your neighbors, and it doesn't affect what kind of exercise you get, or whether you're going to come home safely or not, or get hit by a car. Transportation issues transcend so many things. It's not just about getting from one place to another, it's about being there in the first place.