Shifting gears

Pub date June 30, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

Bicyclists throughout the city cheered as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board unanimously approved 45 new bike-network improvement projects June 26, a move that was hailed as a major step forward for cyclist safety on city streets and a win for the environment.

In a historic decision, SFMTA accepted the findings of an environmental impact review associated with the long-stalled San Francisco Bike Plan and green-lighted almost all of its near-term project proposals, a decision that could trigger the construction of 34 new miles of bike lanes throughout the city starting as early as August.

Plans also call for innovative improvements such as colored bike lanes, converting on-street parking spaces from cars to bikes, thousands of new bike racks, and an effort to ramp up education about safety for bicyclists and motorists. Three years after a court injunction came down on bike-network improvements in the wake of a lawsuit for failing to conduct a full EIR, the board’s vote was widely applauded as a pivotal moment for bicycling in San Francisco. Now that the EIR has been adopted, the process of lifting the injunction has been set in motion.

The vote followed more than three hours of testimony from avid San Francisco cyclists, who asked for more bike lanes and greater accessibility for would-be bicyclists such as children and seniors. Fewer than 20 people turned out in opposition and most people on the thumbs-down side voiced their general support for enhanced bike lanes, but took issue with some flawed aspects of one of the projects.

For a comprehensive design that could ultimately remove more than 2,000 parking spaces from city streets to accommodate bicycle infrastructure, there was remarkably little discussion about the loss of parking.

An old familiar debate about bikes vs. cars continues to grind away — but even Mayor Gavin Newsom called this squabble a thing of the past, touting the Bike Plan as progress for San Francisco and focusing his comments at a press conference on sustainability and livability instead the competition for space on city streets.


Moments after the MTA Board announced its decision, a crowd of die-hard bike enthusiasts from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition exchanged hugs and congratulations outside the City Hall hearing room. The vote was hailed as a major, hard-won victory.

"This is a momentous day for better bicycling and a better San Francisco," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the 10,000-member organization. The city "has taken a significant step forward in proving its commitment to smart, sustainable transportation choices, and we expect to see the numbers of people choosing to bicycle to increase dramatically."

Still, there are undoubtedly some who only expect to experience a dramatic increase in frustration when looking for a parking space. There are 880 lane-miles of streets in San Francisco’s roadway network, and according to SFMTA spokesman Judson True, a total of 880 parking spaces throughout the city would’ve been removed if the MTA Board had approved all 46 Bike Plan projects. (The board okayed 45 out of 46 projects; the hotly debated Second Street project, which would have stripped out a handful of parking spaces to accommodate bike lanes, was continued for further study.)

Amid the hundreds of pages of comments submitted during the EIR process was a complaint that the Bike Plan — often touted as a win for sustainability — could adversely impact San Francisco’s air quality by causing more drivers to circle in search of parking.

"More time will be spent by persons in cars as a result of a lack of on-street parking (already at a critical lack of capacity) searching for an available parking spot or stuck in traffic jams due to removal of car traffic lanes," one member of the public complained.

In response, the EIR points to San Francisco’s Transit First policy, which essentially says that the city will provide more of an incentive to take public transit than drive. "The social inconvenience of parking deficits, such as having to hunt for scarce parking spaces, is not an environmental impact," the EIR notes. "There may be secondary physical environmental impacts such as increased traffic congestion at intersections, air quality impacts, safety impacts, or noise impacts caused by congestion. In the experience of San Francisco transportation planners, however, the absence of a ready supply of parking spaces, combined with available alternatives to auto travel … induces many drivers to seek and find alternative parking facilities, shift to other modes of travel, or change their overall travel habits. Any such resulting shifts to transit service in particular, would be in keeping with the city’s Transit First Policy."

The underlying idea is that the Bike Plan can help to clear the air, fight climate change, and boost public health by making it more convenient to go without a vehicle — and more of a headache to drive.

As one commenter pointed out, the Bike Plan could also make life easier for people with disabilities who have to drive by replacing cars with bikes and thus freeing space in traffic lanes.


There are, of course, many sound arguments for nudging people away from driving. At a June 26 press conference, Newsom noted that 54 percent of the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions are related to vehicle traffic on the city’s roadways — and reducing those carbon emissions would go a long way toward making the city more climate-friendly, not to mention healthier for cyclists and non-cyclists alike.

Meanwhile, Bert Hill, chair of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, noted that 40 percent of car trips in the city cover two miles or less, a distance easily traversed by bicycle. If more people opt to go by bike, the result could be calmer traffic, cleaner air, and possibly a boost for business. "No one goes shopping on the highway," one commenter pointed out during the SFMTA Board hearing. For all of these overarching benefits to be realized, of course, many motorists will have to change their behavior by electing to leave the car at home.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition points to evidence suggesting that many frequent drivers are in fact ready to transform into frequent bicyclists. "New bike lanes will … attract tens of thousands of new bicyclists," an SFBC press release noted. "More than one-third of San Franciscans say they would ride if streets had more bike lanes and were more inviting for bicycling."

Newsom sounded a similar note, calling the Bike Plan "inevitable" and asserting that the debate that "used to be framed in terms of two wheels vs. four … that is behind us." Instead, he added, it’s time for "a new narrative of collaboration and partnership" between people who share the road.

Still, a battle continues to be waged against the implementation of the Bike Plan. Mary Miles, the attorney responsible for securing the three-year Bike Plan injunction (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07), momentarily ruined the party at the SFMTA hearing by showing up, casting an icy glare, and warning the SFMTA board to "just stop now. We are appealing these actions." In the overflow room on City Hall’s first floor, Miles’ comments elicited hoots of laughter from a crowd of cyclists.

Miles’ client, Rob Anderson, is known for his cynical view that most people will never be encouraged to ride a bike, and that the Bike Plan unfairly rewards cyclists, a "special interest" group, at the expense of the majority of people, who drive.

Anderson and Miles are expected to appeal the SFMTA’s decision, possibly throwing one last monkey wrench into the process of moving the Bike Plan forward. Construction of new bike lanes can’t begin until the legal issues are resolved and the injunction is lifted.


A frantic driver who has just found a parking space might be thrilled to seize it, but Matthew Passmore has sparked a different sort of appreciation for parking spaces. One of the founders of Park(ing) Day, Passmore helped draw international interest in 2005 by temporarily transforming a parking space in the Mission District into a public park.

Since then the trend has caught on all over the world: all it takes is some Astroturf, a couch, and a few coins to pay the meter fare — and suddenly the public space usually reserved for cars is transformed into an attractive mini-park for pedestrians and passers-by.

The Park(ing) Day exercise, an event that takes place in September, has since prompted the creation of some 600 parks, free clinics, and other temporary "spaces" as part of the wider commentary about the allocation of public space. In Passmore’s view, "far too much of our city is dedicated to the automobile," and Park(ing) Day is just one way of illustrating this point.

For the soon-to-be 79 miles of bike lanes in the city, after all, there are still 880 lane miles built for cars, and San Francisco streets still accommodate a whopping 320,000 parking spaces. For his part, Passmore characterizes the removal of a few parking spaces as mere "growing pains," but emphasizes that in the long run, the Bike Plan will benefit everyone — not just cyclists.