Stationary biking

Bike to Work Day creates new cyclists, but the city still can't make them safer

This year's Bike to Work Day, set for May 17, comes as San Francisco's cycling network lies dormant in a court-imposed coma. The city isn't allowed to make any physical improvements to promote safe bicycling until late next year at the earliest, more than two years after the injunction began. Yet that setback could be followed by the most rapid expansion of bike lanes in the city's history.

At issue is the San Francisco Bicycle Plan and its stated goal of making "bicycling an integral part of daily life in San Francisco." City resident Rob Anderson and attorney Mary Miles don't share that goal — particularly when it translates to taking lanes and parking spaces from cars — and they challenged the plan in court last year after it won unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Ironically, this environmentally benign mode of transportation was attacked under the state's landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires detailed studies of projects that might have impacts on the environment and measures that can be taken to offset those impacts.

City officials and bike advocates were shocked last June when Judge James Warren — in his final ruling before his retirement — issued a sweeping injunction against bike projects in the city, which was upheld and reinforced when Judge Peter Busch heard the case in September.

The judges found that city officials had taken an impermissible shortcut around CEQA by claiming the bike plan was exempt from its strictures. As the plan was being developed, some bike advocates and city officials had called for more resources to be put into doing the detailed studies CEQA calls for, and that's what now appears to be happening.

"The good thing about the lawsuit is it is forcing the city to do the traffic analysis that it should have done with the bike plan and it reveals the absurdity of our interpretation of environmental laws," Dave Snyder, the former executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), who is now a planner with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the Guardian.

Now city planners and consultants are preparing environmental impact reports (EIRs) on up to 60 proposed bike projects in the city, which will be queued up and ready to begin once the bike plan is approved. "The projects can be approved all at once," Snyder said.

At least, that's what could happen if the city's political leaders don't lose their will to create a more bicycle-friendly city.

Oddly enough, it was the vague, feel-good nature of the plan that created all the problems.

Cities are required to have a bike plan, updated every five years, to qualify for certain state funding. San Francisco did its first plan in 1997, and in 2001 transportation officials and bike advocates set out to develop an updated version.

From the beginning, there were divisions between those who wanted to focus on completing the bike network with ready-to-go projects and those who wanted a more comprehensive and innovative plan laying out policies for education, enforcement, safety, new traffic models, integration with public transit, and everything else associated with cycling.

Responsibility for developing the plan was shared by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the San Francisco Planning Department, and the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic, with significant input from the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee, the SFBC, and other groups.