What would it really take to meet the city's ambitious cycling goal -- and do leaders have the political will to get there?
CLOSING THE GAP
SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum said that all the group's studies show safety concerns are by far the biggest barrier to getting more people on bikes. Most people are simply scared to share space with automobiles, so SFBC's top priority has been creating more bikes lanes, particularly lanes that are physically separated from traffic, known as cycletracks, like those on a portion of Market Street.
"We've seen it time and again, when you build, they will come," Shahum said. "People want to feel safe. They want dedicated space on the roadways."
SFBC's Connecting the City proposal calls for the creation of four crosstown colored cycletracks totaling 100 miles. Other bike activists emphasize the importance of projects that close key gaps in the current bike network, such as the dangerous section along Oak and Fell streets that separates the Panhandle from the Wiggle, scary spots that deter people from cycling.
That safety concern — and the possibilities for making cycling a more attractive option to more people — extends to neighborhood streets that don't have bike lanes, where Shahum said measures to slow down automobile traffic and increase motorist awareness of cyclists would help. "What we're talking about is a calmer, safer, greener, neighborhood-focused street," she said.
Bike advocates say the goal is to make cycling a safe and attractive option for those 8 to 80 years old, a goal that will require extensive new bike infrastructure — not just new bike lanes, but also more dedicated bike parking — as well as education programs for all road users.
"What I hope is on the drawing board is infrastructure that will make more people feel safe riding, particularly women," SFMTA board member Cheryl Brinkman, a regular cyclist, told us.
Shahum also praised the Bay Area Rapid Transit District's new Bike Plan, which seeks to double the percentage of passengers who bike to stations (from 4 percent now up to 8 percent in 10 years), saying Muni should also take steps to better accommodate cyclists. And she praised the city's bike-sharing program that will debut in August, making 1,000 bikes available to visitors.
But to realize the really big gains San Francisco would need to hit 20 percent by 2020 would take more than just steadily increasing the mileage of bike lanes, says Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor who is writing a book on transportation politics. It would take a systemic, fundamental shift, one either deliberately chosen or forced on the city by dire circumstances.
"If gasoline goes to $10 per gallon, sure, we'll get to 20 percent just because of austerity," Henderson said. But unless energy prices experience that kind of sudden shock, which would idle cars and overwhelm public transit, thus forcing people onto bikes, getting to 20 percent would take smart planning and political will. In fact, it will require the city to stop catering to drivers and accommodating cars.
Henderson noted that bicycle mode share is as high as 10 percent in some eastern neighborhoods, such as the Mission District, Lower Haight, and in some neighborhoods near Civic Center. "In this part of the city, Muni is crowded and young people get tired of Muni being such a slow option," Henderson said. "If you live within a certain radius of downtown, it's easier to bike."
To build on that, he said the city needs to limit the number of parking spaces built in residential projects in the city core even more than it does now, as well as adding substantially more affordable units. "The most bikeable parts of the city have massive rent increases," he said. "We have to make sure affordable housing is wrapped around downtown."