Reclaiming Public Space – A Peak Experience

August 10, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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Above it all

If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you’ve no doubt seen the two dramatic hills that punctuate the city’s center known as Twin Peaks. Tourists flock to the vista offered by Christmas Tree Point on the northeast edge, but those in the know climb Eureka or Noe Peaks to get a 360 degree view of the Bay Area, the Golden Gate, and the Pacific Ocean.

Who should go to Twin Peaks? How should they get there? What activities should be available to them once they arrive?

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Primeval Past

Until recently, the answers to these questions were: tourists, bus/car, stare at the view from a concrete and stone terrace, or, if too windy, from behind a car windshield. Perhaps this isn’t surprising because when the road was first built up to Twin Peaks in the 1920’s, the area was remote enough from the rest of the city that driving seemed the only way to get there. Gradually, though, the city encroached on Twin Peaks until now there are just 64 acres of open space left up there full of coastal scrub and grassland, home to brush-nesting birds, rabbits, coyotes and the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. In fact, Twin Peaks is likely the only part of San Francisco that looks the way it did five hundred and even a thousand years ago. Primeval San Francisco, if you will.

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Hike the loop

It turns out that locals like to go to Twin Peaks, too. It turns out that for some locals (like me) it is the largest substantial swath of green space within walking distance. It turns out Twin Peaks is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a proposed 550 mile continuous loop circling the San Francisco Bay, 367 miles of which are currently open to hikers.

Twin Peaks is a mile from my house, all up hill. It’s a lovely walk, as I describe here: Conquer Twin Peaks and Stand on the Rooftop of San Francisco. If you’re visiting San Francisco, I recommend taking Muni to the Castro Station and starting your walk from there. (Another option is to take the 37 bus to Crestline Drive, a few minutes walk from the top.)

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Karl visits

Sometimes the top of Twin Peaks is enshrouded in fog (locally known as Karl); sometimes it’s ridiculously windy. Sometimes the sun shines and the air is crystal clear and the views stun even the jaded long-time resident into speechless gratitude at the magnificent splendor, both manmade and natural, before her.

The walk from my house is lovely because it’s largely car-free, except at the top, where, until recently, a hardy pedestrian had to scramble over concrete barriers, breathe tour bus diesel exhaust, and dodge two lanes of car traffic in order to access the area. Until recently, it was only amidst the rumble of internal combustion engines that you could admire wildflowers and hear birdsong.

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Caution: change ahead

A few weeks back the city closed the eastern half of the figure eight on Twin Peaks to cars on a two-year trial basis. As usual when any change in San Francisco is proposed, the end of civilization was at hand, even though cars and tour buses can access the vista at Christmas Tree Point as easily as they could before. Drivers howled, tour bus operators wailed. Some diehards even protested the closure by declaring they enjoyed walking next to cars.

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My husband and I checked out the new .35 mile car-free promenade (as it’s now being called) on a sunny, windy Sunday afternoon. We saw that the city had added maybe thirty parking spots where there’d been little or no parking before. We saw people leave their cars and hike up the peaks or stroll along the promenade. We saw the two-way traffic on the western half moving at slower speeds than previously, although still not congested except near the added new parking. We saw scores of people hiking up to the promenade from the neighborhood below, just as we had. We saw bicyclists who’d made the long climb via the roadway; we saw skateboarders; we saw people walking dogs. In fact, we saw a heck of a lot humans milling about, moving. The eastern half of the figure eight now has far more asphalt than necessary. Hopefully once the trial period is over, much of it can be returned to a more natural state. 

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Biking the roof

We didn’t go all the way to Christmas Tree Point (because, seriously, it’s mostly a big parking lot), but I imagine it was packed as usual with people standing and sitting. Not moving much. Because there isn’t much place to go, unless on your way there you happen to notice a peak with a bunch of people on it and think, “Hey, I want to do that. How do I get there?” If you’re determined, you’ll backtrack and figure it out, but for the majority, the experience at Christmas Tree Point is static.

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Walking thirty minutes a day is better for you than any drug you can take. (See The Brilliance of Walking.) It is the single best thing we can do for our health. In fact, if Americans walked thirty minutes a day, they could probably get by with three-fourths fewer medications, as evidenced by the fact that Americans are 5% of the world’s population, consume 75% of all prescription drugs in the world (80% of all opiods), far outspend all other nations per capita on health care, and collectively still have the worst health in the Western world. Study after study shows that thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise like walking (also bike riding) will substantially reduce the risk of four different types of cancer (breast, uterine, colon and prostate), heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression, not to mention it boosts the immune system so you’ll catch colds and the flu less often. Really the only problem with walking is that Americans have designed their entire way of life to avoid it.

Which is more important–recreation or health? What if you could offer both at the same time? Which is a higher public good, someone saving two minutes of travel time, or someone joyously climbing a peak? Is it better for tour buses to have an extra twenty seconds of view, or for a neighborhood to have a serene connection with nature? Might giving people, even tourists, interesting, enjoyable places to walk encourage them to do so? In a dense city like San Francisco, with the exception of handicapped access, is space dedicated to cars public space or a sacrifice of public space?

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Maybe there’s a link?

You can be a little overweight and be healthy, but you can’t be sedentary and be healthy. In fact, being sedentary is second only to smoking for the harm it does to the human body. Every single community in America could do more to integrate walking into daily life. Every single community could do more to take walking seriously as a form of transportation. The entire country would benefit from a citizenry fit enough to hoof it a mile or two without puffing or breaking a sweat.

Even if you think cheap oil will last another fifty years, even if you think you’ll be dead before climate change affects you, even if you think human beings are so clever someone will surely solve the myriad problems humanity faces so, hey, chill out, this much is clear: the American sedentary, car-based way of life is a disaster for public health. This would be true even if all cars magically became electric tomorrow.

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Heck of a hike

For those of you who, like me, are less sanguine about future prospects down the road, let me tell you a story. Long ago I met an American woman who’d been married to an Iranian and lived in Iran during the last days of the Shah. As protests arose and borders closed, she began to go for walks each morning because she knew that if things got bad she would have to walk out over the mountains to leave. Each day she walked miles and then more miles, building her strength, her stamina. Once the revolution began in earnest, she indeed left Iran on foot over the mountains.

It’s unwise to wait until there are empty store shelves to put in a vegetable garden. It’s useless to wait until the middle of a heat wave to plant a shade tree south of your house. Being fit enough to walk a few miles without effort is as important to resilience as solar panels, a sealed and insulated attic, or a bicycle in working order. Which city or town is more likely to thrive in any circumstance—one where most people routinely walk and few take medications, or one where few people walk and most take multiple medications? Which kind of town, which kind of neighbors do you want to have?

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Corporations profit from bad health; communities profit from the opposite. (Corporations especially profit from chronic conditions “managed” by expensive medications and other interventions.) A town or city with lots of parking and public space devoted to cars has bad health designed into its very fabric. We need to transform parking lots and repurpose street space to serve people on foot and bicycles, even if it means drivers are inconvenienced. We need to pedestrianize shopping streets like cities have done all over Europe. We need protected bike routes safe and pleasant enough that even children and seniors can use them. (Seniors, check out electric trikes!)

My husband and I have a car and use it occasionally. (My mode share is 40/40/10/10, walking/biking/transit/car.) When I’m behind the wheel, I’m just as impatient as my fellow drivers, wanting to get where I’m going ASAP and then park ten feet from my destination. Go, go, go, my trip is important, get out of my way, the driver in me cries. But the saner part of my brain knows that just as we’ve reduced smokers’ convenience in order to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke, so should we reduce drivers’ convenience to protect non-drivers from the many, many negative externalities of cars, including death from speeding, careless, or reckless drivers. As frustrating (and even threatening) as it might be to those whose lives are designed around car use, for the public good we need to reclaim and repurpose space currently devoted to motorized vehicles.

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Not exactly elegant, but it’ll do

The next time you’re in San Francisco, forgo the car. Take BART in from the airport (or the suburbs) and tackle the city on foot, bike or transit. You’ll see and experience so much more. If you’re up for it, conquer Twin Peaks under your own power. It’s so worth it.

Karen Lynn Allen

Karen Lynn Allen is a novelist and blogger who draws on her background in both literature and engineering to write about energy and resilience issues. Her novel, Beaufort 1849, depicts a society that needs to make an energy transition but instead doubles down on its way of life with catastrophic consequences.

Tags: public health, sustainable transport, urban planning, walking