There’s no doubt that San Francisco is one of the best cities in the United States for bicyclists, a place where near universal support in City Hall has translated into regular cycling infrastructure improvements and pro-cyclist legislation, as a slew of activists and politicians will attest to on May 10 after dismounting from their Bike to Work Day morning rides.
But even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities — including Portland, Ore., Davis, Chicago, and New York City — are still on training wheels compared to our European counterparts, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where around 30 percent of all vehicle trips are by bike. By comparison, even the best U.S. cities are still in the low single digits. [Correction: Davis, which stands alone among U.S. cities, is actually at about 15 percent bike mode share]
Board President David Chiu and other city officials proposed to aggressively address that gap two years ago after returning from a fact-finding trip to Europe that also included Ed Reiskin, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the agency charged with implementing city policies that favor transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians over motorists.
Chiu sponsored legislation setting the goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips in San Francisco be by bike by the year 2020 and calling for the SFMTA to do a study on how to meet that goal. It was overwhelmingly approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed by Mayor Ed Lee, who has regularly cited it and proclaimed his support for what it now official city policy.
But the city will fail to meet that goal, probably by a significant amount, unless there is a radical change on our roadways.
The latest SFMTA traffic survey, released in February, showed that bikes represent about 3.5 percent of vehicle trips, a 71 percent increase in five years. While the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) lauded that gain as “impressive,” it would mean a 571 percent increase in the next seven years to meet the 2020 goal.
The SFMTA study on how to meet the goal is long overdue, with sources telling us its potentially controversial conclusions have it mired by internal concerns and divisions. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us in March that it was coming out in April, and now he won’t say when to expect it and he won’t even make its authors available to answer our questions.
“We want to make sure everything is addressed before the plan is finalized,” he told us, acknowledging that it’s been a difficult process. “The challenge of reaching the goal is ambitious.”
Chiu acknowledges that the goal he set probably won’t be met and expressed frustration with the SFMTA. “I’m disappointed that two years after we set that goal, there is still no plan,” he told us, adding that to make major gains “will take leadership at the top” and a greater funding commitment to this cost-effective transportation option: “We’re spending budget dust on something that we say is a priority for the city.”
Reiskin also seemed to acknowledge the difficulty in meeting the goal when we asked him about it and he told us, “To get to 20 percent would be a quantum leap, no question, but the good news is there’s strong momentum in the right direction.”
Yet on Bike to Work Day, it’s worth exploring why we’re failing to meet our goal and how we might achieve it. What would have to happen, and what would it look like, to have 20 percent of traffic be people on bikes?
CLOSING THE GAP
SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum said that all the group’s studies show safety concerns are by far the biggest barrier to getting more people on bikes. Most people are simply scared to share space with automobiles, so SFBC’s top priority has been creating more bikes lanes, particularly lanes that are physically separated from traffic, known as cycletracks, like those on a portion of Market Street.
“We’ve seen it time and again, when you build, they will come,” Shahum said. “People want to feel safe. They want dedicated space on the roadways.”
SFBC’s Connecting the City proposal calls for the creation of four crosstown colored cycletracks totaling 100 miles. Other bike activists emphasize the importance of projects that close key gaps in the current bike network, such as the dangerous section along Oak and Fell streets that separates the Panhandle from the Wiggle, scary spots that deter people from cycling.
That safety concern — and the possibilities for making cycling a more attractive option to more people — extends to neighborhood streets that don’t have bike lanes, where Shahum said measures to slow down automobile traffic and increase motorist awareness of cyclists would help. “What we’re talking about is a calmer, safer, greener, neighborhood-focused street,” she said.
Bike advocates say the goal is to make cycling a safe and attractive option for those 8 to 80 years old, a goal that will require extensive new bike infrastructure — not just new bike lanes, but also more dedicated bike parking — as well as education programs for all road users.
“What I hope is on the drawing board is infrastructure that will make more people feel safe riding, particularly women,” SFMTA board member Cheryl Brinkman, a regular cyclist, told us.
Shahum also praised the Bay Area Rapid Transit District’s new Bike Plan, which seeks to double the percentage of passengers who bike to stations (from 4 percent now up to 8 percent in 10 years), saying Muni should also take steps to better accommodate cyclists. And she praised the city’s bike-sharing program that will debut in August, making 1,000 bikes available to visitors.
But to realize the really big gains San Francisco would need to hit 20 percent by 2020 would take more than just steadily increasing the mileage of bike lanes, says Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor who is writing a book on transportation politics. It would take a systemic, fundamental shift, one either deliberately chosen or forced on the city by dire circumstances.
“If gasoline goes to $10 per gallon, sure, we’ll get to 20 percent just because of austerity,” Henderson said. But unless energy prices experience that kind of sudden shock, which would idle cars and overwhelm public transit, thus forcing people onto bikes, getting to 20 percent would take smart planning and political will. In fact, it will require the city to stop catering to drivers and accommodating cars.
Henderson noted that bicycle mode share is as high as 10 percent in some eastern neighborhoods, such as the Mission District, Lower Haight, and in some neighborhoods near Civic Center. “In this part of the city, Muni is crowded and young people get tired of Muni being such a slow option,” Henderson said. “If you live within a certain radius of downtown, it’s easier to bike.”
To build on that, he said the city needs to limit the number of parking spaces built in residential projects in the city core even more than it does now, as well as adding substantially more affordable units. “The most bikeable parts of the city have massive rent increases,” he said. “We have to make sure affordable housing is wrapped around downtown.”
Henderson said city leaders need to show more courage in converting car lanes and street parking spaces into bike lanes, creating bike corridors that parallel those focused on cars or transit, and exempting most bike projects from the detailed environment review that slow their implementation. At the same time, he said the city needs to drastically expand Muni’s capacity to give people more options and compensate for bike improvements that may make driving slower.
“If you want 20 percent bike mode share, you need 30 percent on transit,” he said, noting that public transit ridership in San Francisco is now about 17 percent, far less than in the great bike cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which made a commitment to reducing reliance on the automobile starting in the 1970s. “It’s like a puzzle.”
BARRIERS AND BACKLASH
The kind of active urban planning that Henderson advocates would be anathema to many San Franciscans, particularly people like Rob Anderson, the blogger and activist who sued San Francisco over the lack of studies supporting its Bike Plan and created a four-year court injunction against bike projects that just ended two years ago.
“The only way you could get to 20 percent is creating gridlock in San Francisco. I don’t think it’s going to happen. City Hall is adopting a slogan as transportation policy,” he told us. “It’s a statement of pro-bike, anti-car principle, but it’s not a realistic transportation policy.”
Anderson considers bicycles to be dangerous toys that will never be used by more than a small minority of city residents, believing the majority will always rely on automobiles and there will be a huge political backlash if the city continues to take space from cars for bikes or open space.
Many city officials and cycling advocates say making big gains means convincing people like Anderson that bicycles are not just a viable transportation option, but an important one to facilitate given global warming, oil wars, public health issues, and traffic congestion that will only worsen as the population increases.
“We need to help all San Franciscans see cycling as a legitimate transportation option,” Chiu said. Or as Shahum put it, “It’s prioritizing space for biking, walking, and transit over driving.”
Shahum said the city’s political leaders seem to get it, but she doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency from the city’s planners.
“I feel like the bureaucracy needs to get on board. We have strong political support and the public support is growing,” Shahum said. “We’ve set ambitious, worthwhile, and I think achievable goals, yet nobody is holding the city accountable….It can’t just be a political platitude, it needs to be an actual plan with measureables and people held accountable.”
She cited studies showing that the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. are spending between $8 million and $40 million a year on bike infrastructure and education programs, “but San Francisco is spending more like $2-3 million, which is peanuts…San Francisco has got to start putting its money where its mouth is to improve biking numbers.”
It’s cheap and easy to stripe new bike lanes. “It’s one of the best investments we can make in terms of mode share,” Reiskin said. That makes cycling advocates question the city’s true commitment to goals like the 2020 policy. “We will need more investment,” Chiu said, “but compared to other modes of transportation, it is far cheaper per mile.”
So why then has San Francisco slipped back into a slow pace for doing bike projects following a year of rapid improvements after the bike injunction was lifted? And why does the city set arbitrary goals that it doesn’t know how to meet? The answer seems to lie at the intersection of the political and the practical.
“We need a more detailed and comprehensive strategy that says this is where we need to be in five years and this is how we get there,” Sup. David Campos, who chairs the San Francisco Transportation Authority, told us. “I feel like the commitment is there, but it’s a question of what resources you have to devote to that goal.”
But it’s also a question of how those resources are being used, and whether political leaders are grabbing at low-hanging fruit rather than making the tough choices to complete the city’s bike network and weather criticisms like those offered by Anderson.
It often seems as if SFMTA is still prioritizing political projects or experimenting in ways that waste time and money. For example, the most visible improvement to the bike network in the last year, and the one most often cited by Mayor Lee, is the new cycletracks on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park. But they do little to make cycling more attractive and they may even exacerbate tensions between cyclists and drivers.
It was one of two major bike projects that Mayor Lee announced on Bike to Work Day last year, and it seemed to have more to do with politicians announcing more bike lane mileage that with actually improving the bike network.
The other project Lee announced, just a few blocks of bike lanes on Fell and Oak streets, really was a significant bike safety advance that SFBC has been seeking for several years. But Lee failed to live up to his pledge to install them by the end of 2011 after neighbors complained about the lost parking spots, and the project was pushed back to next year at the earliest.
“We’re talking about three blocks. It’s relatively small in scope but huge in impacts,” Shahum said of the project. “If the pace of change on these three blocks is replicated through the city, it’ll take hundreds of years to meet the [20 percent] goal.” But Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey said: “The mayor is very much committed to the aggressive goals set to get to 20 percent by 2020 and the city is moving in the right direction. He has also always supported the Oak Fell project and we’re seeing progress.” Yes, but not the kind of progress the city would need to make to meet its own goal. “Chicago is really the leader right now,” Shahum said, noting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to building 25 miles a year of new cycletracks and the city’s advocacy for getting more federal transportation money devoted to urban cycling improvements. “Where does San Francisco fit in this? Do we want to be at that level or not?”