On a drizzly Feb. 17 evening in First Baptist Church, near the intersection of Market and Octavia streets that has become notorious for bicycle versus car collisions, more than 200 members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition came together to plot a major offensive.
"We honestly weren’t sure how many people would come out tonight, so this is very impressive," SFBC executive director Leah Shahum told the young, engaged crowd. "We are embarking tonight on the biggest, most ambitious project that the Bike Coalition has ever taken on."
For almost three years, the bicycle advocates have been waiting. Since the city’s bicycle plan was struck down by the courts in 2006 for lack of adequate environmental studies, there’s been a legal injunction against any bike-related projects, leaving an incomplete network of bike lanes even as the number of cyclists in the city soared and SFBC’s membership reached 10,000.
Now, with city officials expecting to have a new plan approved and the injunction lifted by this summer, SFBC has set the ambitious goal of getting all 56 near-term projects mentioned in the plan approved by Bike to Work Day, May 14.
"We’re in a fine position to get the whole enchilada, all 56 projects," Shahum said, a goal that would boost the current 45 miles of bikes lanes to 79 miles and the 23 miles of streets with the "sharrow" bike markings up to 98 miles.
While some knowledgeable sources in the bicycle community say a three-month timeline isn’t realistic for this whole package, the energy and coordination displayed at that meeting shows that this will be a formidable campaign with the potential to rapidly change the streets of San Francisco.
"There’s nothing more to stop this city from going forward with these projects," Andy Thornley told the crowd, sounding more like a military strategist than the SFBC program director that he is. He flipped through slides and stopped at one showing members of the Municipal Transportation Agency Board, which will consider the projects.
"Your mission is to convince these seven people," Thornley told the crowd. "They are the people who say yes to traffic changes or no to traffic changes."
The crowd was divided into nine groups representing different neighborhoods in the city. On the tables at the center of each group were maps, timelines, and other documents, along with sign-up sheets that would be used to organize everyone into online discussion groups to plot strategy and discuss progress and obstacles. Large pieces of butcher paper headlined "Key Stakeholders" and "Issues and Opportunities" were laid out for group brainstorming.
But Thornley made clear that each group would work toward a common goal. "We’ve got to have a whole network," he said. "I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that the network is the thing."
SFBC community planner Neal Patel defined the expectations: "Every week or every other week, we’ll be asking you to do something."
The groups plan to reach out to supporters and potential opponents in the neighborhoods to make decisions on preferred options within each project, rally the support of political leaders and other influential people, generate media coverage, develop persuasive arguments, and generally create a grassroots political blitzkrieg.
"It’s very easy for the city to say no," Amandeep Jawa, an SFBC board member, told the Mission District group. "The best thing we can do is give them a pile of reasons to say yes."
This wasn’t just the old veterans and familiar faces, but also fresh, young activists like Jennifer Toth, 26, who moved to San Francisco a year ago and has already become invested in this fight.
"The injunction has really held back new biking infrastructure, just at the time when cyclists are increasing exponentially, as people turn to bikes as an alternative to cars. I myself sold my car as soon as I moved here, and really enjoy biking across town," she told the Guardian.
Toth, who has been a part of antiwar and anti-globalization movements, said she was impressed by the SFBC’s approach: "It was really well coordinated, and I love how they made great strides to link neighbors up together."
The next day, at the downtown office of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, Oliver Gajda, SFMTA’s bike program manager and the point person on the bike plan, led a smaller and more subdued forum on the bike plan.
Gajda noted that the city’s transit-first policy prioritizes safer bicycling over automobiles, which he said is appropriate given that San Francisco is the second most dense city in the country. The most recent SFMTA traffic survey found that 6 percent of all vehicle trips in San Francisco were by bicycle last year, and the number of cyclists increased by 25 percent from the previous year.
The 56 near-term projects identified in the bicycle plan, Gajda said, are designed to quickly make the system safer by improving dangerous sections and addressing the question, "How do we fill those gaps and really complete the bike network?"
He placed the price tag for those first 56 projects at about $20 million, about $4 million of which is covered by existing grants, while longer term projects in the five-year plan would come to about $36 million.
Yet in response to questions from the audience, Gajda admitted that the approval process for some of the more significant near-term projects such as the bike lanes proposed for Second, Fifth, and 17th streets, which would involve the loss of traffic lanes or parking spaces could be complicated and controversial.
SFMTA spokesperson Judson True said the agency was still figuring out how to handle the bike projects. "We’re looking at what we can do, how fast, but we share the goals of getting the EIR completed and paint on the street as soon as possible," he said.
True said he welcomes the SFBC campaign. "We’re happy they’re pushing because we want to head in the same direction. We’re definitely stretched, but the commitment to the Bike Plan is enormous at the agency."
That commitment really rankles Rob Anderson, who filed the lawsuit that resulted in the injunction and pledges to oppose SFBC’s campaign. He characterizes bicyclists as a vocal fringe group and said the city shouldn’t take space from Muni or cars to promote bicycling.
"It’s a zero sum game on the streets of San Francisco," Anderson told the Guardian. "They’re going to have to decide how much we want to screw up the streets for this small minority."
While Anderson concedes that the studies now supporting the Bike Plan are "pretty thorough," he notes that many projects will have what the EIR called "significant unavoidable impacts." And he thinks it’s crazy to give over more street space to bicyclists, particularly on crowded corridors like Masonic Avenue.
Anderson’s group, Coalition for Adequate Review (CAR), has never been large it’s mostly just Anderson and attorney Mary Miles but he’s likely to find allies among businesses and residents who fear lost parking spaces and other roadway changes as the projects move forward.
"I’m looking forward to this process," Anderson said. "This is crunch time."