The Bike Issue: Behind the pack - Page 2

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

It's an open question.

The common denominator in all the cities that have pedaled past San Francisco in recent years is that they've had strong mayors who have embraced cycling and partnered with bike advocates to change the rules of the road, often contracting them to work directly on projects.

"We're poised for it, but will we act on it?" Shahum said of the potential for a bike boom in San Francisco. "It's going to be a real test next summer and I think the mayor's role is crucial."

THE GREEN BUG

Like many big city mayors, Newsom has become enamored of all things green at the same time that he's trying to manage an overtaxed transportation system. He is pushing for Muni improvements and has voiced support for congestion pricing initiatives that could make driving a car more expensive.

"This trend of big city mayors focused on transportation to deal with environmental problems is spreading, and I think Newsom has caught that bug," Shahum said.

SFBC and other groups have been meeting regularly with Wade Crowfoot, the mayor's new director of climate change initiatives, to push the bike plan work forward, create an aggressive implementation strategy, and craft new initiatives like the recently unveiled "Healthways" proposal to close down the Embarcadero to cars on summer Sunday mornings, an idea borrowed from Bogotá, Colombia.

It's a sea change from that ride I took with Newsom two years ago, three days after he vetoed Healthy Saturdays, which would have created another day of car-free roads in Golden Gate Park. He labeled the bike advocates as "divisive," and told me his veto decision was influenced by "people in the neighborhoods who just came out in force in ways that, frankly, I didn't expect."

Those feelings, held by the half of San Franciscans who use a car as their primary mode of transportation, haven't gone away. Newsom's advisers and the MTA staffers working on the Bike Plan acknowledge the political challenges in completing the bike network, which advocates say is an important prerequisite for convincing more people that cycling is a safe, attractive option.

I asked Oliver Gajda, who is leading the MTA's bike team, whether the 56 projects he's now working on would be queued up and ready to build once the injunction is lifted. While the technical work will be done, he said that most projects still will require lots of community meetings and negotiations.

"Some of the projects will take a couple years of work with the community, and some will take less," Gajda said. "When you discuss the potential of removing lanes or parking spots, there are lots of different interests in San Francisco that have concerns."

That's where the rubber meets the road. Yes, everyone wants to see more cycling in San Francisco — Newsom two years ago even set the goal of 10 percent of all vehicle trips being made by bicycle by 2010, a goal that nobody interviewed for this article thinks the city will meet — but is the city willing to take space from cars?

"The public priorities are already correct, but we need political leadership to implement those priorities even when there's opposition," said Dave Snyder, transportation policy director with the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

Crowfoot said Newsom is committed to creating better alternatives to the automobile.

"The mayor is fully supportive of expanding the bike network and that will involve tradeoffs," Crowfoot said, acknowledging that some projects involve losing lanes or parking spaces to close the bike network's most dangerous gaps.