There's no doubt that San Francisco is one of the best cities in the United States for bicyclists, a place where near universal support in City Hall has translated into regular cycling infrastructure improvements and pro-cyclist legislation, as a slew of activists and politicians will attest to on May 10 after dismounting from their Bike to Work Day morning rides.
But even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities — including Portland, Ore., Davis, Chicago, and New York City — are still on training wheels compared to our European counterparts, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where around 30 percent of all vehicle trips are by bike. By comparison, even the best U.S. cities are still in the low single digits. [Correction: Davis, which stands alone among U.S. cities, is actually at about 15 percent bike mode share]
Board President David Chiu and other city officials proposed to aggressively address that gap two years ago after returning from a fact-finding trip to Europe that also included Ed Reiskin, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the agency charged with implementing city policies that favor transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians over motorists.
Chiu sponsored legislation setting the goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips in San Francisco be by bike by the year 2020 and calling for the SFMTA to do a study on how to meet that goal. It was overwhelmingly approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed by Mayor Ed Lee, who has regularly cited it and proclaimed his support for what it now official city policy.
But the city will fail to meet that goal, probably by a significant amount, unless there is a radical change on our roadways.
The latest SFMTA traffic survey, released in February, showed that bikes represent about 3.5 percent of vehicle trips, a 71 percent increase in five years. While the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) lauded that gain as "impressive," it would mean a 571 percent increase in the next seven years to meet the 2020 goal.
The SFMTA study on how to meet the goal is long overdue, with sources telling us its potentially controversial conclusions have it mired by internal concerns and divisions. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us in March that it was coming out in April, and now he won't say when to expect it and he won't even make its authors available to answer our questions.
"We want to make sure everything is addressed before the plan is finalized," he told us, acknowledging that it's been a difficult process. "The challenge of reaching the goal is ambitious."
Chiu acknowledges that the goal he set probably won't be met and expressed frustration with the SFMTA. "I'm disappointed that two years after we set that goal, there is still no plan," he told us, adding that to make major gains "will take leadership at the top" and a greater funding commitment to this cost-effective transportation option: "We're spending budget dust on something that we say is a priority for the city."
Reiskin also seemed to acknowledge the difficulty in meeting the goal when we asked him about it and he told us, "To get to 20 percent would be a quantum leap, no question, but the good news is there's strong momentum in the right direction."
Yet on Bike to Work Day, it's worth exploring why we're failing to meet our goal and how we might achieve it. What would have to happen, and what would it look like, to have 20 percent of traffic be people on bikes?