Don’t accept Bike Plan delays

Pub date December 18, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The way city officials are describing the situation, it’s going to be another 18 months at least before San Francisco can add even a single bicycle lane or road stripe or put in a single new bike rack. That’s because a lone nut who thinks bicycles shouldn’t be on the city streets sued San Francisco and forced it to do an environmental impact report on its Bike Plan. And that report has been delayed and delayed again as city planners have been unable to complete it.

That’s infuriated some advocates, including Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and Tom Ammiano — and for good reason. The San Francisco Planning Department seemed to have no problem whatsoever forcing an EIR on the 55 Laguna Street development project onto the fast track, but the Bike Plan … that’s just creeping along.

And in the meantime, bicyclists and pedestrians continue to be run down at some of the most hazardous intersections in town, particularly Fell and Masonic streets and Octavia Boulevard and Market Street. City figures show that Fell and Masonic is one of the most dangerous places in town for pedestrians and bikers; the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition reports that at least eight collisions between cars and bike — all of them causing injury to the rider — have occurred at the intersection since April. It’s not an acceptable situation, and with a little creativity, the city ought to be able to do something about it.

The lawsuit, brought by blogger Rob Anderson, claims the city failed to do a complete EIR before approving its Bike Plan. That’s put everything — even the restriping of pavements for safer bike lanes — completely on hold.

In a sense, it’s absurd to have an environmentally positive change — a city policy promoting bicycling — held up by environmental law. But the California Environmental Quality Act and the way the city is interpreting it still have roots in the era when automobile traffic was considered the most important form of urban transportation.

For example, CEQA requires cities to evaluate how projects would impact traffic — and San Francisco has always used a yardstick called "level of service," or LOS, which refers to the number of cars using a particular intersection and the speed at which those cars can proceed. If a project slows down car traffic beyond an acceptable level, there’s an environmental impact that has to be addressed.

But that’s a backward analysis; the city’s job shouldn’t be to find ways to facilitate more cars on busy streets. And it allows bizarre interpretations: if, for example, the addition of a bike lane on a street reduces the available space for cars, that ought to be looked at as a positive environmental step; the city interprets it as a negative impact.

State senator Carole Migden has discussed legislation that could exempt bike plans from CEQA, and while we’re nervous about any exemptions to the state’s premier environmental law, that might make some sense. But it might not even be necessary.

San Francisco’s city planners are still looking for ways to accommodate cars — all of the city’s development policies are based on the assumption that the number of private vehicles in San Francisco will increase over the next 10 years. An assumption like that leads to mandates for more parking, wider roads, and (maybe) fewer bike lanes.

But there’s nothing in the law requiring the pro-car approach. The Planning Commission could simply adopt new rules that define the level of service on streets differently. Instead of tracking how many cars go through an intersection, the city could track the number of people — including people on foot, people on bikes, and people in buses — and made a determination that pedestrian and bike safety and the quality of the travel experience for non–car users is as important as the degree of auto traffic.

That simple change would render much of the Anderson suit moot: new bike lanes, for example, would no longer be a potentially adverse impact. The city could move forward with much of its bike plan, now.

CEQA doesn’t require cities to accept public safety hazards — and the law clearly creates exemptions for situations in which lives are at risk. Mirkarimi has proposed legislation to change the LOS system, but it has languished; the supervisors need to move on it if the city planners won’t. You don’t need an EIR to tear down a freeway that’s about to collapse — and you shouldn’t need an environmental review to fix the most dangerous intersections in the city, including Fell and Masonic. City planners should simply define those hazardous sites as imminent dangers to public safety and immediately start changing the traffic lights, rerouting cars, and redefining bike lanes to put an end to the carnage, now.