The Bike Issue: Behind the pack

Pub date May 13, 2008

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>>10 things Bay Area cyclists should know

>>Don’t Stop: Bike lessons from Idaho


There’s a strange dichotomy facing bicycling in San Francisco, and it’s spelled out in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s "2007 Citywide Bicycle Counts Report," which features a cover photo of Mayor Gavin Newsom and me pedaling up Market Street together on Bike to Work Day two years ago.

That photo, its context, and the information contained in the report tell the story of a city that at one time set the pace for facilitating bicycling as a viable alternative to the automobile. But that city has been passed up since then by cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Seattle, and Portland, Ore.

San Francisco still has a higher per-capita rate of bicycle use than any major city in the United States, and that number has been steadily rising in recent years, even as construction of new bike facilities has stalled. The report’s survey found a 15 percent increase since the first official bicycle count was conducted in 2006.

"This increase is especially significant when viewed in light of the injunction against the City’s Bicycle Plan. This injunction has stopped the City from installing any new bicycle facilities since June 2006. Despite a lack of improvement or additions to the City’s bicycle route network, cycling use in San Francisco appears to be increasing," the report read.

It’ll take at least another year for city officials to wrap up the environmental studies on the 56 proposed bike projects and get Judge Peter Busch to lift the injunction (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07). But it’s still an open question whether San Francisco’s three-year hiatus will be followed by the rapid installation of new bike lanes and other facilities.

City officials express confidence, and there are some hopeful signs. Newsom has been focused on environmental initiatives, the MTA has beefed up its bike staff from six full-time slots to nine, advocacy groups like San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are at the peak of their numbers and influence, and all involved say promoting bicycling is a cheap, effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion.

"I’d be very surprised if, within six months after the injunction being lifted, we don’t see a record number of bike lanes striped," said MTA spokesperson Judson True.

Yet there are still political barriers to overcome in a city where cars are the dominant transportation option — and the first barrier is Mayor Newsom. He has yet to show a willingness to back his green rhetoric with policies that actually take space from cars, which many of the bike lane projects will entail.

"I think we have seen this mayor talk big on some environmental problems, but I’ve been disappointed that on transportation, that thinking hasn’t been turned into action yet," said SFBC executive director Leah Shahum, whom Newsom appointed to the MTA board but then removed earlier this year before her term expired, a sign of the complex and largely adversarial relationship between the mayor and bicyclists.

Newsom has been able to avoid tough decisions on bikes and cars for the past two years because of the injunction and the wait for Muni and traffic congestion studies, which are being released throughout 2008. But that’s about to change with the court’s ban on new bike projects slated to end next year. So will Newsom, who may be running for governor at the time, be willing to make controversial decisions that back up all his green talk? It’s an open question.

The common denominator in all the cities that have pedaled past San Francisco in recent years is that they’ve had strong mayors who have embraced cycling and partnered with bike advocates to change the rules of the road, often contracting them to work directly on projects.

"We’re poised for it, but will we act on it?" Shahum said of the potential for a bike boom in San Francisco. "It’s going to be a real test next summer and I think the mayor’s role is crucial."


Like many big city mayors, Newsom has become enamored of all things green at the same time that he’s trying to manage an overtaxed transportation system. He is pushing for Muni improvements and has voiced support for congestion pricing initiatives that could make driving a car more expensive.

"This trend of big city mayors focused on transportation to deal with environmental problems is spreading, and I think Newsom has caught that bug," Shahum said.

SFBC and other groups have been meeting regularly with Wade Crowfoot, the mayor’s new director of climate change initiatives, to push the bike plan work forward, create an aggressive implementation strategy, and craft new initiatives like the recently unveiled "Healthways" proposal to close down the Embarcadero to cars on summer Sunday mornings, an idea borrowed from Bogotá, Colombia.

It’s a sea change from that ride I took with Newsom two years ago, three days after he vetoed Healthy Saturdays, which would have created another day of car-free roads in Golden Gate Park. He labeled the bike advocates as "divisive," and told me his veto decision was influenced by "people in the neighborhoods who just came out in force in ways that, frankly, I didn’t expect."

Those feelings, held by the half of San Franciscans who use a car as their primary mode of transportation, haven’t gone away. Newsom’s advisers and the MTA staffers working on the Bike Plan acknowledge the political challenges in completing the bike network, which advocates say is an important prerequisite for convincing more people that cycling is a safe, attractive option.

I asked Oliver Gajda, who is leading the MTA’s bike team, whether the 56 projects he’s now working on would be queued up and ready to build once the injunction is lifted. While the technical work will be done, he said that most projects still will require lots of community meetings and negotiations.

"Some of the projects will take a couple years of work with the community, and some will take less," Gajda said. "When you discuss the potential of removing lanes or parking spots, there are lots of different interests in San Francisco that have concerns."

That’s where the rubber meets the road. Yes, everyone wants to see more cycling in San Francisco — Newsom two years ago even set the goal of 10 percent of all vehicle trips being made by bicycle by 2010, a goal that nobody interviewed for this article thinks the city will meet — but is the city willing to take space from cars?

"The public priorities are already correct, but we need political leadership to implement those priorities even when there’s opposition," said Dave Snyder, transportation policy director with the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

Crowfoot said Newsom is committed to creating better alternatives to the automobile.

"The mayor is fully supportive of expanding the bike network and that will involve tradeoffs," Crowfoot said, acknowledging that some projects involve losing lanes or parking spaces to close the bike network’s most dangerous gaps. "To the extent that the bike network continues to be a patchwork, people won’t get on bikes."

But the mayor also has been fully supportive of the Transit Effectiveness Project’s proposal to reform Muni, even though he recently suggested opposition to proposed parking fine increases might mean that some TEP proposals need to be scaled back.

Skeptics also note that Newsom removed Shahum from the MTA and has appointed no one else with connections to the bicycling community since then, even though that body has sweeping new authority under last year’s Proposition A to implement the bike plan and make decisions about which transportation modes get priority and funding.

"I’m pushing for that, and we’ll see what happens," Crowfoot said of his efforts to get a complete bike network going during the Newsom administration’s reign, acknowledging that, "the proof is in the pudding."


San Francisco’s strong bicycle advocacy culture, the creation of lots of new bike lanes between 2000 and 2004, and innovations like Critical Mass and the sharrow (a painted arrow on the road indicating where bikes should safely ride) made this city a leader in the bicycling movement.

Yet it is only in the last few years, when San Franciscans have been sidelined by the injunction, that the movement really gained mainstream political acceptance and begun to make inroads into the dominant car culture of the United States, slowly and belatedly following the lead of European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

"Interest in bike-friendly policies is surging, along with the growing number of adults who are riding more. Moreover, the movers and shakers of the biking scene are often smart, always passionate, and they believe strongly in what they are doing. Even when such groups are in the minority, they often enjoy significant political success, and they should never be discounted," J. Harry Wray, a political science professor from DePaul University in Chicago, argues in his new book Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life (Paradigm, 2008).

Jeffrey Miller, executive director of Thunderhead Alliance, a national umbrella organization supporting regional bicycle advocacy groups, told us he’s pleased with the movement’s progress in recent years.

"There’s been an awakening by the decision-makers in both government and businesses that bicycling and walking can solve a lot of the environmental problems we’re facing," Miller said.

He cited Portland, Ore., Chicago, Seattle, Washington DC, and New York as the cities leading the way in prioritizing bicycling and creating systems that encourage the use of bikes, and said he was sad to see the setbacks in San Francisco.

"But advocates in each of those cities will say there’s so much more work to be done," Miller said.

Most of that work centers on changing how drivers and planners think about cities, and especially with those who see the competition for space as a zero-sum game. Miller noted that it’s good for motorists when more people are encouraged to opt for alternate forms of transportation.

"If you just get 10 to 20 percent of the drivers to use those other modes, it frees the freeways up for cars as well," Miller said. "I don’t see why we go out of our way to favor cars over every other form of transportation."

Like many advocates, he said a strong and consistently supportive mayor is crucial to change the priorities in cities.

"We have an executive leader in Mayor Daley who believes strongly that the bicycle is a big part of the solution to our environmental problems," said Rob Sadowsky, director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

"We have an incredible partnership with the city," he said, noting that the organization often works directly on city contracts to create more bicycle facilities, something that happens in other bike-friendly cities like Portland and New York. But it doesn’t happen much in San Francisco.

"There’s a real sense that we’ve turned a critical corner and things that we’re been fighting for, for years now, are in sight," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives in New York. "In the last year, there have been some significant policy advances."

Like Mayor Daley in Chicago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become a vocal advocate of green transportation alternatives and has been willing to stand firm against displaced drivers.

"Anything you give to cyclists is basically taken away from automobiles," White said, adding that New York officials "have not shied away from taking parking away, or even a lane on Ninth Avenue. And that shows how serious they are."

The problem isn’t just San Francisco’s, but California’s as well. It is the state’s decades-old California Environmental Quality Act that was used to stall the Bike Plan and make bike projects so cumbersome. Sadowsky said bike projects in Chicago are relatively easy to implement, with little in the way of hearings or environmental studies needed.

Oregon laws also helped make Portland a national leader, with a requirement that all new road construction include bike lanes, paid for with state funds. Yet here in the small, 49-mile square that is San Francisco, with ideal weather and a deeply ingrained bike community, many say the city could be on the verge of regaining its leadership role in the bicycle policy.

A poll conducted in November 2007 by David Binder Research found that 5 percent of residents use a bicycle as their main mode of transportation, and that 16 percent of San Franciscans ride a bike at least once a week. Even more encouraging is the fact that most reasons cited for not biking — not enough bike lanes or parking, bad roads, feeling threatened by cars — are all things that can be addressed by smart bike policies.

"If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen in San Francisco — as far as making more bicycling a reality," Gajda told us. "I really feel like we’re poised after the injunction to take it to the next level."


The SFMTA has a series of upcoming workshops on the city’s Bike Plan and network:

Central Neighborhoods May 21, 6–7:30 p.m., SoMa Recreation Center Auditorium, 270 Sixth St.

Southeastern Neighborhoods May 22, 6–7:30 p.m., Bayview Anna E. Warden Branch Library, 5075 Third St.

Western Neighborhoods June 3, 6–7:30 p.m., Sunset Recreation Center Auditorium, 2201 Lawton.

Northern Neighborhoods June 4, 6–7:30 p.m., Golden Gate Valley Branch Library, 1801 Green.


Biking is easier and more fun than many people realize, so Bike to Work Day is the perfect excuse to try it on for size. There will be energizer stations all over town for goodies and encouragement, and lots of fellow cyclists on the road for moral support, including group rides leaving 11 different neighborhoods at 7:30 a.m. After work, swing by the SFBC’s Bike Away from Work party from 6–10 p.m. at the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. For more details, visit