Will San Francisco Become the Nation's Best Biking City?

Reader Contribution by Staff
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The first bizarre thing was the lawsuit itself.

In 2005, San Francisco created an ambitious Bicycle Plan that was passed unanimously by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The detailed, 400-page document had a simple agenda — encourage the healthy, green transportation option by making streets safer and more accessible for cyclists.

In short order, a disgruntled blogger who didn’t like the idea of precious parallel parking spaces being turned into bike lanes sued the city to stop officials from moving forward. The suit itself wasn’t the surprising part. We’re all used to the unfounded fears that a single bike lane will somehow lead to immediate, catastrophic gridlock. The ironic element was the guy’s argument. The anti-bike blogger charged that the city violated the law by not completing an Environmental Impact Review.

Now, logic might dictate that a plan encouraging people to ditch their gas-guzzling automobiles and travel by a means that burns calories, not carbon, is a clear environmental benefit. But, a Superior Court judge bought the blogger’s argument and issued an injunction on the Bicycle Plan in 2006, dropping the gavel on the dozens of bike safety improvements.

And that’s when the second head-scratching thing happened.

Progress was stalled at City Hall. San Francisco’s streets saw virtually no increase in bicycle facilities. And yet, the number of cyclists surged. Over the past four years, as the Bicycle Plan was tied up in legal limbo, the number of bike riders in the Bay City jumped by more than 53 percent.

So, wait a minute. If you’ve zeroed out new bicycle infrastructure and put a hold on public education campaigns, how do those numbers add up? Four words: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is one of the oldest grassroots organizations in the country to advocate for two-wheeling transportation. Founded in 1971, the group has grown into a political powerhouse with more than 11,000 dues-paying members. Yeah, you read that right: 11,000. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the SFBC is the largest grassroots organization — for any cause or interest — in the entire city. Which is a pretty impressive feat in a town that’s known for its enthusiasm for progressive causes and collective endeavors.

So, with the city tied up at the courthouse, the pressure was on the SFBC to keep San Franciscans fired up about their bicycles. And that they did. Take just one example. In mid-2009, the group I work for — the Alliance for Biking & Walking — awarded the San Francisco group a $25,000 Advocacy Advance Grant to spur its Market Street campaign. With the wholistic Bicycle Plan on hold, SFBC pressed the city to turn the iconic artery into a model thoroughfare for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users.

Within a year of SFBC receiving that funding, Market Street was in the middle of a makeover, including the debut of new, separated, green-painted bike lanes. On Bike to Work Day in late May, the SFBC fired up its members for the chance to make a statement about the bike-friendly improvements. They turned out in droves (no pun intended). A whopping 75 percent of traffic on Market Street that morning was bicyclists.

Plug those numbers into your Environmental Impact Review.

But that incredible showing was likely a mere preview for this summer’s blockbuster. On August 6, the Superior Court finally — and fully — lifted the Bicycle Plan injunction, opening the gates for a flood of bike projects the city promises will be completed with lightning speed.

The SFBC was, of course, the first organization to applaud the ruling. “We are celebrating San Francisco’s freedom to once again make streets safer for everyone and look forward to real improvements on streets in a matter of days,” Renée Rivera, Acting Executive Director of the SFBC, said in a statement. “This is the first time in San Francisco’s history that this many bike lane projects are approved and ready to be striped. These long-awaited improvements will help growing numbers of people feel more confident, comfortable and safe when they bike to shop, to work and to play.”

The city’s top brass followed-up with a press conference of their own, including enthusiastic support from Mayor Gavin Newsom and Municipal Transportation Agency director Nat Ford. “You’re going to see a lot of visible infrastructure improvements for the bikes,” Ford told reporters. “What we’re able to do with this Bike Plan is clearly delineate the part of the street and the infrastructure of the street that belong to bicyclists.”

That means 35 new bike lanes projects, scheduled to be completed within the next 18 months. That means 5,500 more sharrows — the on-street markings that let motorists know cyclists have the right to the full lane. That means at least 500 new bike racks throughout the city to meet two-wheeling parking needs.

That means San Franciscans aren’t the only ones at the edge of their (bike) seats, ready for the show.

Last week, Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists applauded the ruling and made a great point. Thanks to the advocacy of the SFBC and the active partnership of the city, we’re about the witness the meteoric rise of a premiere cycling city in a matter of months — not decades.

“San Francisco can now show us how to become a truly bike-friendly community in less than the 40 years it took Copenhagen to be so transformed; in less than the 20 years it took Portland to reach the dizzy heights of platinum and the moniker as America’s best biking city,” Clarke wrote on the League’s blog. “The momentum for cycling in San Francisco is going to shift dramatically; they are going to be able to use more innovative designs and do more experimentation that will help move every U.S. city forward in the future.”

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Clark predicted.


Photo: With Mayor Gavin Newsom (blue tie) smiling behind her, Renée Rivera, Acting Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, applauded the lifting a four-year injunction on the city’s Bicycle Plan at a press conference last week. Courtesy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

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