Sadik-Khan and her groupies urge bold action on the streets of San Francisco

Pub date June 25, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

San Francisco and our timid Mayor Ed Lee could learn a few things from New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — who became a national hero to urban cycling advocates while being villified by some in NYC — have quickly created hundreds of miles of new bike lanes and the nation’s biggest bike sharing program.

That was the enthusiastic (if more diplomatically worded) message delivered on June 20 during the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s annual Golden Wheel Awards, where Sadik-Khan gave the keynote speech to a large, rapt crowd. She was introduced by SFBC Director Leah Shahum and Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin, who almost upstaged Sadik-Khan and one another in their calls for San Francisco to take more aggressive action.    

“Cities need to try new things on their streets and public spaces,” Shahum said, echoing the message Sadik-Khan regularly delivers. “We need to try new things and we need to do it now.”

It was a message that became a mantra, as she repeated it again and again, urging the city to do more experimentation on the streets and less long analysis. Part of that is slowing down cars to “actually prioritize the safety and health of our citizens on every street in the city.”

Shahum and Reiskin both admitted being star-struck by Sadik-Khan, with Reiskin saying his intro was “like my teenaged daughter introducing Brittany Spears.” Shahum said she’s often guided by the acronym WWJSKD: What Would Janette Sadik-Khan Do?

Reiskin, a regular cyclist, told the story of moving to New York City in 1991, selling the last car he owned (cue the applause by the large crowd of cyclists), but that he didn’t bring a bike because at that time, the common thinking was, “Who’d be crazy enough to ride a bike in Manhattan?”

But in just the last few years, Sadik-Khan has led the transformation of New York City into one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. “If she can do that there, why can’t we do that here?” Reiskin asked, later adding, “It’s phenomenal what’s happened there.”

He called Sadik-Khan a cross between famed urbanist Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, who was responsible for more public development projects than any New Yorker. “She’s got the Jane Jacobs sensibility, but getting shit done like Robert Moses,” Reiskin said.

When Sadik-Khan took the stage, humbled by an introduction that she said could only be followed by turning water into wine, she gave credit for her accomplishments to the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg and the “unbelievable political courage” it took to build 350 miles of bike lanes in six years despite sometimes strong opposition.

In the process, Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan started an alternative transportation arms races of sorts, prodding Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, and other cities to also beef up their bike infrastructure. “I think it’s great that there’s this national competition on who can be the greenest,” she said, later adding, “The future of cities is the key to our planet.”

She showed slides of various streetscape improvements that she led, often replacing lanes of parked cars with protected cycle tracks, including along tony Prospect Park, which she called, “the most controversial piece of land outside the Gaza Strip” for the backlash and lawsuits it sparked.

“When you push the status quo, the status quo often pushes back on you,” she said.

What has given Sadik-Khan such rock star status in the urban cycling world is her willingness to tough out the criticisms and let the results speak for themselves, noting that if some idea doesn’t work, it’s usually fairly easy to undo. Yet she arrived armed with stats showing her approach works, for both bicyclists and the business community.

She fought through arguments that cycle tracks along 8th and 9th avenues would hurt business, and she said those same businesses report a 50 percent increase in revenue since they went in three years ago. Same thing on 1st Avenue, where commercial vacancies dropped 47 percent. Citywide, 70 new bike shops opened during the recession to serve a burgeoning population of cyclists in the city.

She also talked about her latest and greatest innovation, the CitiBike sharing program that offers more than 6,000 bikes at locations densely spread along the bike network throughout the city, all with no public funds involved. “We think density is destiny in this instance,” she said. By contrast, San Francisco has taken years to launch its anemic bike-sharing program with just 350 bikes.  

Sadik-Khan called bike sharing “a gateway drug” that encourages more urban cycling in cities around the country, with all the environmental benefits that creates. Her studies have shown the new bike network and sharing program have added an average of 15,000 new cyclists to the city each day, and that it’s become a major tourist draw.   

Some of her slides also showed how elegant some of the improvements have been, from the cycle tracks to the bike racks that have sprouted up all over the city. “We brought good design into the public realm,” she said, encouraging San Francisco, with his reputation for innovation and good design, to do the same thing. “You have such design talent in San Francisco and I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

But as Sadik-Khan and Shahum both repeatedly emphasized, it takes bold political leadership that is also pushed by civic groups like SFBC and the public in general, prodding on timid elected officials. As Sadik-Khan said, “People are way far ahead of public officials in understanding what works.”

Indeed, two days later on the streets of San Francisco, bike activists demonstrated that reality, staging an amazing Bicycle Music Festival that drew thousands of people to Golden Gate Park for a day of music from its pedal-powered stages.

Then, from 5-6pm, a colorful crowd of more than 1,000 people mounted their bikes and followed lounge singer Jason Brock on a bike-pulled stage that wound through the city to the next stop for the festival in the Mission District, a sort of musical, organized Critical Mass that produced big grins on everyone involved.

Led by key festival organizer Fossil Fool and his Rock the Bike comrades, and taking a cue from Sadik-Khan and fervent supporters that she’s developed here and across the country, perhaps it’s still possible to create a parade that our leaders can be persuaded to step in front of.