The slow lane
In bike-friendly S.F., why do cars still come first?

By Steven T. Jones

Bicycles may rule the road on May 19, when Bike to Work Day draws thousands to pedal through the streets of San Francisco, but it's the automobile that still rules the planning process in this supposedly progressive city. Any project that slows automobile traffic even a little can fall into a bureaucratic black hole, as those waiting for long-overdue approval of the official Bike Plan can attest.

Yet the car may lose its position of primacy if a budding reform movement – one pushed by bike and pedestrian advocates that has drawn key support from the city's environmental health director Dr. Rajiv Bhatia and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi – is successful.

The idea is simple: Consider pedestrians and bicycles to be at least as important as cars. Or in technical terms, stop considering increased traffic congestion to be a "significant environmental impact," a designation that under the California Environmental Quality Act requires a proposed project to undergo a detailed, expensive, and time-consuming environmental impact report.

Is it that easy? Yes, according to Bhatia, who notes that even though CEQA is a state law, it's one that leaves local jurisdictions to decide what they deem significant impacts. And when it comes to projects that steal a lane from cars in order to make it easier and safer for people to bike or walk, he argues that most California cities have had things exactly backward since the 1950s: the impact of projects that encourage the free flow of cars has taken a devastating environmental toll on the planet and the safety of people in their neighborhoods.

"Use of LOS [Level of Service, or the measure of how rapidly cars can move through a given area] creates obstacles to healthy urban planning when it creates barriers to environmentally beneficial projects," Bhatia wrote in a policy paper in March. "Auto LOS has been a barrier to a number of such projects, including pedestrian safety improvements, bicycle lanes and sidewalks, and infill development."

His analysis, advocacy by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Transportation for a Livable City, and many years of work on the issue by local activist Greg Hayes – who has pushed the issue with a fervor that has occasionally alienated him from his more mainstream colleagues – all came together last month at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting at which representatives of all the affected agencies agreed to study the issue.

Mirkarimi, who attended the meeting, said he intends to push things forward after first getting an analysis by the City Attorney's Office.

"We need to put our heads together to see how we can modify CEQA and still stay within the confines of the law, and I think we can do that," Mirkarimi told the Bay Guardian. "We need to design these projects with bikes and pedestrians in mind and make sure they aren't second cousins to the automobile."

The status of the city's Bike Plan update is a good example of the problem. Three years in development and the product of dozens of public hearings, the plan was supposed to get final approval last year. But now the Department of Parking and Transportation has decided to chop it in half, sending the broad policy portions on for approval and breaking the bike network portion up into many individual projects – and the ones with the most impact on cars will likely languish as they wait for detailed review.

It was a decision criticized by many in the bike community, one they blame largely on the cumbersome review process applied to anything that takes space from cars. Ironically, there is plenty of bond money set aside for bike projects but not for planning agencies whose staff have been decimated by budget cuts and overworked by a backlog of development projects. The proposed change to the CEQA interpretation might allow bike and pedestrian projects go around that bureaucratic mess.

"In a stroke, it would undo this knot that has confounded the progress of the Bike Plan," said Andy Thornley, community outreach director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has worked with the DPT on public hearings on the proposed plan.

While activists are pleased with some aspects of the policy documents that got extra attention, Bicycle Advisory Committee chair Bert Hill said, "It's caused a delay in the implementation of the bike network and a lot of us are frustrated about that."

But Oliver Gajda, who works on the Bike Plan for the DPT, said the network portion of the plan was slowed by drastic expansions of its scope and that of policies like new design guidelines, enforcement policies, and expanded use of shared-lane arrows, or "sharrows," which many bike activists love.

Sharrows are those logos with a picture of a bicycle and a double set of arrows that serve to let car drivers know bikes are allowed to be out in the lanes and encourage bicyclists to take the lanes and avoid the zone next to parked cars where open driver-side doors pose a hazard. Gajda said the city plans to paint about 2,500 sharrows around the city next year, assuming the plan is approved on schedule.

Thornley likes the policy plans and the bike projects that have recently moved forward independent of the stalled Bike Plan, such as the new bike lanes on Market Street between Van Ness Avenue and Eighth Street and on San Jose Avenue and Guerrero Street. Yet such a piecemeal approach doesn't help San Francisco live up to its claim to being a "transit-first" city.

"What's missing is this ambitious declaration of a citywide bike network," Thornley said, noting that delays in the most problematic parts of the network – such as the dangerous knot around the freeways at Mission Street for east-west bicycle travelers – discourage people from considering the bicycle a safe and viable mode of transportation. "If you do 80 percent of it but leave gaps, the value is far less."

Gajda disputes the activists' views on the state of bicycling in the city. He said San Francisco is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country and noted that the number of San Franciscans regularly riding bikes has increased in recent years, while the number of auto-versus-bike accidents decreased from 412 in 1998 to 285 in 2002.

But the activists counter that it is precisely because of the drastic expansion of bike lanes during those years that the situation has improved. The fact that a car hits a bicyclist or pedestrian in San Francisco almost every day is a grim testament to the cost of our auto-first practices.

"It's really a public health issue, because these street designs are killing people," Hayes said. "Streets should reflect the values of the city rather than just moving cars like a machine.... And it's all because of the LOS standard. If you take it down, you win."

Having spent years working on the issue, Hayes understands the technical details, arguing how LOS relies on discredited arguments that congestion worsens air quality, rather than a more comprehensive analysis of encouraging fewer cars on the roads.

"Once you take out the air-quality impacts, it's only a social impact, and social impacts aren't 'impacts' under CEQA," he said.

But in his lobbying for the issue, he tries to leave out the bureaucratic alphabet soup and focus on more easy-to-grasp statements like "The driver actually has more right to drive through an area than someone has to live there."

Or, as Thornley described the current state of bike improvements in the city, "We've done all the easy things so far. Now we need to take space from cars."

And that's precisely where the problems are likely to come, even from those in the neighborhoods that are generally supportive of alternative transportation. Land-use attorney Sue Hestor, a staunch environmentalist, regularly uses the increased auto traffic aspects of CEQA to contest development projects. Although she's not familiar with the changes being proposed, she did tell us, "I would have a problem with making 'more congested' into 'less congested.' "

City planner Bill Wycko, who's been working on bike-related issues with a committee of officials and activists, said the change is easier in concept than in practice because you can't simply toss out the LOS standard. "You can't have no standard. You have to have something else," he told us. Transportation for a Livable City president Dave Synder has suggested substituting in the generation of auto trips – something bike and pedestrian projects conveniently don't do.

Gajda said that while the DPT is awaiting the results of the studies and policy discussions about CEQA, its mandate is not to prioritize bikes over cars. "We balance the modes [of transportation]," he said. "It's important to look at how all the modes are affected."

Meanwhile, the Bike Advisory Committee will hold its regular meeting May 19 (which happens to be Bike to Work Day), at which it will vote on whether to ask the Board of Supervisors to create a task force to study the issue of how CEQA is interpreted.

"There are successes happening," Thornley said. "But the city seems to be at a tipping point in facing up to the heritage of designing to make things easy for cars." E-mail Steven T. Jones at

Bike to Work Day

THERE'S STRENGTH AND safety in numbers, so even those who don't regularly pedal to work are encouraged to do so May 19. To help, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will have energizer stations with free coffee, snacks, and bike shwag set up all over San Francisco. And they're sponsoring a Bike away from Work party that evening from 6 to 9 p.m. at 111 Minna Gallery.

To learn more about Bike to Work Day, go to For more information on the Bike Plan and other bike-related issues, go to the city's site at