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Sea otters return, a literary eviction, bike lane ‘Hunger Games,’ and more

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Four things to know today

Workers with the SFMTA install a selection of safe-hit posts.
Photo by SFMTA

Welcome to Curbed Cuts, a tri-weekly digest connecting the dots between shelter, structure, parks, transportation, and more.

Bike lane battle

It’s been a little more than six years since a court decision unblocked San Francisco’s plans to add dedicated lanes for cyclists to city streets, and in those intervening years the argument evolved from being able to have the things at all—a court in 2006 sided with bike lane opponents and required a lengthy environmental review of the lane strategy—to exactly what kinds of lanes are the best. Ones that are simply denoted by paint are frequently abused by drivers, inspiring cycling advocacy groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to argue for protected lanes (2015 was apparently The Year Of The Protected Bike Lane, did you know that?) that drivers can’t use for parking, passing, et cetera.

“Can’t,” of course, is a loose term. Even though some bike groups suggest that a completely separate section for cyclists is necessary, first responders like the city’s own Fire Department argue that fully-protected lanes will block their way as they rush to save lives. The compromise are “safe-hit” posts that protect the lane: more of a deterrent than a physical impediment, they “allow emergency and paratransit vehicles to pass over them without causing damage,” the SFMTA writes on their blog. And just as there are seemingly endless variations on types of bike lanes, there are on safe-hit posts. That’s why you might have noticed an inconsistent-looking set of posts on Market Street between 9th and 10th Streets.

It’s not that the MTA ran out of one type and had to make do with another (though you’re forgiven for making that assumption, knowing the SFMTA), it’s that that block is where they are currently testing four types of the safe hit posts to see which one best takes the abuse of emergency and/or errant drivers and keeps on ticking. Whichever one best endures this transit Hunger Games will get a big order from SF, and will be rolled out across the city.

Bus rider’s reverie

Remember when everyone and her brother had a personal blog? While most bloggers have taken their musings to Facebook, some folks have stuck with the medium even in this day of 140 character updates. One blogger I’m so glad has stayed with us is Rachel of Fog City Notes, who, on a Blogspot (kids, ask your parents) blog rarely changed since it began in in 2004, has detailed (as of this week) 969 of her Muni commutes. Each post is a delight, a reminder that, while Muni rides often suck, those rides are filled with passengers and drivers who decidedly do not. It’s some of my favorite transit writing in the city, a break from the endless breakdowns, frustration, and policy talk.

Why I otter...

Good news for sea otters and those who love them: ABC 7 is reporting that California’s population of sea otters, which were once thought to be extinct, have bounced back this year. A fashion craze for their soft fur meant that they were hunted to near-eradication in the 1800s, sending their population from 16,000 to nil. A small community of around 50 was discovered near Big Sur in 1938, and the 1980s, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife set protections and population goals for the otters, in hopes of a comeback.

And back they have come, with around 3,000 counted along the central and northern coast this year. But before you celebrate, be aware that experts believe that the bounce back might be due to another bump in the ocean’s fragile ecosystem.

According to UC Santa Cruz, “Sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast are dying in great numbers from a mysterious wasting syndrome. Similar die-offs have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and the 90s, but never before at this magnitude and over such a wide geographic area.” Obviously, this is not great news for starfish, and suggests that there’s a new “infectious agent involved, likely a pathogen” afoot which is certainly not the sort of thing you want to hear about the ocean. (It’s not believed that the outbreak is related to the Fukushima disaster, UCSC researchers emphasize.)

That bad starfish news is good for the otters, though, as the two species share the same primary food source of sea urchins. Fewer starfish means more urchins for otters, and there we have a possible reason for the current boom. But though the starfish thing is certainly on Harris’ radar, his glass of sea water is currently half full. All in all, the otter uptick is still “good news,” he says, as “for a number of years, almost a decade, we have seen very little to no growth in the sea otter population in California and we've had very high rates of mortality.”

Of course, you don’t have to leave the otter stewardship to Harris. This livecam at Monterey Bay’s Elkhorn Slough (as of 2013, the home of CA’s largest sea otter population) “is programmed to automatically focus on three different locations where otters have been observed,” researchers with Friends of the Sea Otter write, and frequently captures otter families, including moms “grooming themselves or their pups.”

Book Cover: City Lights Publishers

Turning an eviction lemon into lemonade

You’re likely familiar with artist/author Paul Madonna from the lengthy run of “All Over Coffee,” a column that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle from 2004-2015. The last year of his column was also the year he learned he was being evicted from his decade-long home and workspace in the city’s Mission District.

When faced with adversity, Madonna says in an interview with The Rumpus, “anyone can run up to a rooftop, tear off their clothes, and scream about how screwed up the world is.” He decided instead to funnel his experience into a new work, one that was released this month by City Lights Publishers.

Beginning as “All Over Coffee” installments that Madonna described at the time as The Eviction Series, by December of 2015 the experience had spurred Madonna to ended his Chronicle column as well. But the result of this upheaval is On To The Next Dream, a book Madonna describes as “absurdist fiction, because the story is utter hyperbole.”

“The story builds to such an exaggerated and ridiculous pitch that there’s no way it can be true—and yet, because it’s based on the current cultural climate, it feels as if it is,” he tells The Rumpus. For example, “there’s a scene in an apartment where a real estate agent is standing on the counter auctioning the place off, and we realize it’s not the apartment she’s selling, but a cardboard box in the corner. When I wrote that I thought it was hilarious, and obviously absurd, but after it ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, people wrote to me asking if it was actually true.”

Described in a recent Chronicle review as “for everyone who has ever looked for a place to call home in San Francisco,” the book is available at City Lights or online. On April 19, Madonna will appear in-person at City Lights for a signing and “in conversation” event starting at 7 p.m.