Bikes and sailboats

Pub date January 10, 2012
WriterLeah Shahum

OPINION I’m not much of a sailor. In fact, I’ve been known to turn more than a little green when venturing out on the bay under sail. So it may seem a little odd that I am excited about the America’s Cup regatta coming to San Francisco. This high-profile international yacht race has the potential to accomplish even more impressive feats on land than on water, ultimately leaving a legacy of safer streets and more accessible neighborhoods.

An anticipated five million spectators will put the city’s transportation infrastructure to the test. It starts this summer with the qualifying races, then ramps up in summer, 2013, when upward of a half million people are expected to travel to the waterfront on peak race days.

There’s no possible way to move all of these people around this tightly packed city in cars. For proof, talk to anyone who’s been near the waterfront during Fleet Week, a traffic nightmare at a fraction of the size of the America’s Cup.

The Mayor’s Office plan for the America’s Cup wisely puts bicycle transportation front and center. Event planners and politicians know that traffic and parking constraints will preclude many from driving, and transit capacity can be stretched only so far so fast.

Event organizers propose investing in a robust bike share program, park-and-ride lots where visitors can ditch their cars on the edge of the city and pedal the last few miles, and plenty of secure valet bike parking lots.

The most important component is ensuring that the city also invests in safe, comfortable routes welcoming the wide diversity of people who will be trying out two wheels — people who are likely to continue biking long after the events if they have a good experience.

A top priority must be the Embarcadero. Already an enormously popular — and overcrowded — bike route for locals and visitors, the Embarcadero should be made more welcoming to the huge numbers of people who will be drawn there on bikes and by foot.

On big event days, the plan calls for temporarily designating an existing travel lane as bicycle-only space and freeing up the pathway for walking — a more comfortable set-up for everyone.

I urge city leaders to take advantage of this opportunity to pilot a permanent, dedicated bikeway on the waterside of the roadway — the EmBIKEadero. It’s a low-cost, easy way to reconnect people with the waterfront and offer an unparalleled biking experience.

Imagine riding on a mini-version of Sunday Streets on the Embarcadero any day of the week. Imagine a New York City-style high line for S.F.’s waterfront, from Mission Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. Imagine a way to connect diverse neighborhoods and draw people to local businesses…long after the yachts have left the bay.

The city should also use the momentum behind the America’s Cup to test other opportunities for safe, more welcoming streets, including Polk Street, a major connector to the northern waterfront and already an important route for the growing number of people biking in San Francisco.

Market Street should continue to be a site for innovation. Recent pilot programs prioritizing biking, walking, and transit are already proving to save bus riders time and the Muni system big dollars.

The America’s Cup is our opportunity not only to stage a world-class event, but to build toward a world-class bicycling city.

Leah Shahum is executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. To learn more about the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s vision for the EmBIKEadero, see