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Cars Are People Too

An auto-loving gadfly trolls the cycling city.

 

As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.

Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud

 

David Looman is not afraid to call the bike lobby a cult. Or “full of themselves.” Or any number of other epithets. “I mean, they really do think they’re saving the fucking world,” he says, practically spitting. “No, you’re not. You’re just getting to work.” As one of three official proponents of the campaign to “Restore Transportation Balance”—otherwise known as Proposition L, which would advise (but not force) the SFMTA to adopt a more car-friendly policy—he is paid for his vitriol. But talk to him for more than a couple of minutes, and it becomes clear that Looman—a registered Democrat and an experienced San Francisco political consultant—takes extracurricular pleasure in slinging this particular mud. As he tells it, he got the gig in the first place because his colleagues in the field of Democratic Party consulting were “drinking the bike lobby Kool-Aid.”

Not he, Looman says, standing on the front stoop of his Bernal Heights apartment building on a Friday morning in September. A telephone pole on the corner is affixed—illegally, he notes—with signs paid for by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the 10,000-member biking advocacy group, calling on voters to “Stop the Gridlock” and vote no on Prop. L. As we look down the hill toward the Bayview, Looman waves his arms, points to the driveways on his block, and methodically explains why each of his neighbors needs a car to survive in San Francisco.

Their reasons are good enough, and almost comically San Franciscan: One of the neighbors fixes Victorians for a living and needs to haul around a truckload of tools. Another is a prominent environmental activist who works late and would be left in the cold if she tried to take Muni home after midnight. One is the head of Parks and Recreation in San Mateo. “She’s not gonna bike to work in San Mateo,” Looman says. The lone home on the block without a car is painted all black and accented with hand-painted tile. “As you might guess,” Looman says with an audible exhale, “those are artists.”

The rhetoric of Looman’s campaign is shot through with concern for the working class: “Proposition L seeks to allow families, workers, seniors, and the disabled the right to move around in San Francisco,” reads the “Facts & Myths” section of the campaign website. Its supporters claim that gridlock in the city is the result of the SFMTA’s “radical agenda,” which “replaced traffic lanes with bike freeways”—the group’s choice language for the miles of bike lanes added in the past several years. They position car owners as a bullied minority, even though the agency’s own data show that 79 percent of households in San Francisco own or lease a car. They point to endorsements from the local police officers’ and firefighters’ unions, arguing that more bike lanes make the city less safe in an emergency. They’re fond of using terms like “safe” and “inclusive” to describe their vision for the city’s streets.

If passed, Prop. L would put in place a declaration that the city should adopt a number of car-friendly measures, including making all parking meters free on Sundays, evenings, and city-recognized holidays, and asking that the city get approval from a majority of neighbors and merchants before introducing variable-pricing parking meters in a neighborhood. In addition to imploring city planners to “achieve safer, smoother flowing streets,” the proposition would ask the SFMTA to set aside a portion of parking revenue and motorists’ fees to build and operate new neighborhood parking garages, essentially obligating the city to devote more public space to the storage of private vehicles.

All of this, however, is purely advisory, and the proposition is, ultimately, unlikely to alter the city’s increasingly two-wheel-friendly philosophy. “It’s just a policy statement,” Looman explains. Perhaps more worrying for him is the campaign’s serious image problem—much of it tied to Napster cofounder Sean Parker, who stirred up a storm cloud of class rage when he made a $49,000 contribution to the cause. Since his medieval-themed, Little Mermaid–referencing fantasy wedding in Big Sur made headlines last year, Parker has not exactly been viewed as a friend of Everyman (or of the planet, for that matter). When news of his donation broke in July, it made for easy headlines about billionaire playboys and established a new political battle over “motorists’ rights” in San Francisco—a concept that might seem as ridiculous as hiring Ken Fulk to redecorate a redwood grove for the weekend.

I ask Looman why a purportedly data- and results-driven entrepreneur like Sean Parker would take an interest in an admittedly toothless proposition that will only make him an enemy of one of the more ardent and connected interest groups—bikers—in San Francisco. According to Looman, Parker’s spokesperson told the campaign that he sees vehicle fees and variable-pricing parking meters as “a tax on working people.”

More likely, however, Parker—like so many people who attempt to drive in San Francisco—was simply fed up with the hassle of getting from Point A to Point B in this town. But that is just conjecture: Repeated attempts to reach Parker were met with a mix of enthusiasm and indifference from his handlers until our email chain eventually broke down. In any case, Looman would prefer that the debate not focus on Parker’s motives: “He has probably forgotten he made that contribution,” he says with a shrug.

As we wrap up our conversation and I head for the bus, Looman makes sure to offer some Muni tips: “I don’t know where you’re going,” he says as I hit the sidewalk, “but my advice would be to take the 24 to the J-Church. And stay off Mission Street!”

 

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