The Bike Issue: Behind the pack

Can San Francisco regain its leadership role in making bicycles a safe and viable transportation option?
Illustration by Danny Hellman

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There's a strange dichotomy facing bicycling in San Francisco, and it's spelled out in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's "2007 Citywide Bicycle Counts Report," which features a cover photo of Mayor Gavin Newsom and me pedaling up Market Street together on Bike to Work Day two years ago.

That photo, its context, and the information contained in the report tell the story of a city that at one time set the pace for facilitating bicycling as a viable alternative to the automobile. But that city has been passed up since then by cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Seattle, and Portland, Ore.

San Francisco still has a higher per-capita rate of bicycle use than any major city in the United States, and that number has been steadily rising in recent years, even as construction of new bike facilities has stalled. The report's survey found a 15 percent increase since the first official bicycle count was conducted in 2006.

"This increase is especially significant when viewed in light of the injunction against the City's Bicycle Plan. This injunction has stopped the City from installing any new bicycle facilities since June 2006. Despite a lack of improvement or additions to the City's bicycle route network, cycling use in San Francisco appears to be increasing," the report read.

It'll take at least another year for city officials to wrap up the environmental studies on the 56 proposed bike projects and get Judge Peter Busch to lift the injunction (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07). But it's still an open question whether San Francisco's three-year hiatus will be followed by the rapid installation of new bike lanes and other facilities.

City officials express confidence, and there are some hopeful signs. Newsom has been focused on environmental initiatives, the MTA has beefed up its bike staff from six full-time slots to nine, advocacy groups like San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are at the peak of their numbers and influence, and all involved say promoting bicycling is a cheap, effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion.

"I'd be very surprised if, within six months after the injunction being lifted, we don't see a record number of bike lanes striped," said MTA spokesperson Judson True.

Yet there are still political barriers to overcome in a city where cars are the dominant transportation option — and the first barrier is Mayor Newsom. He has yet to show a willingness to back his green rhetoric with policies that actually take space from cars, which many of the bike lane projects will entail.

"I think we have seen this mayor talk big on some environmental problems, but I've been disappointed that on transportation, that thinking hasn't been turned into action yet," said SFBC executive director Leah Shahum, whom Newsom appointed to the MTA board but then removed earlier this year before her term expired, a sign of the complex and largely adversarial relationship between the mayor and bicyclists.

Newsom has been able to avoid tough decisions on bikes and cars for the past two years because of the injunction and the wait for Muni and traffic congestion studies, which are being released throughout 2008. But that's about to change with the court's ban on new bike projects slated to end next year. So will Newsom, who may be running for governor at the time, be willing to make controversial decisions that back up all his green talk?