When the Board of Supervisors this week voted 9-2 to require commercial building owners to allow employees to bring their bicycles indoors while they work, ordinance sponsor Sup. John Avalos hailed the legislation as an important step toward meeting the city goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips in the city be by bike by the year 2020.
“We are removing a barrier to people getting around the city by bicycle,” Avalos said at the March 6 hearing, noting that the measure addresses cyclists' concern about bike theft and helps keep sidewalks uncluttered and racks and poles free for other cyclists to use.
While it's true this may help make cycling a bit more attractive, San Francisco would have to take far bolder actions to get anywhere near meeting its 20 percent by 2020 goal, a target it set in 2010 with legislation sponsored by Board President David Chiu and one regularly touted in speeches by Mayor Ed Lee.
Just last month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency released its latest bike count survey, which showed that about 3.5 percent of vehicle trips in the city are taken by bike, a 71 percent increase in the last five years, gains the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition lauded as “impressive.” Yet to reach the city's goal would require a 571 percent increase in the next seven years – one that would seem unattainable at this pace.
“It's a very ambitious but realistic goal,” SFBC director Leah Shahum told us, although she acknowledged it would require a drastic change in the city's approach. “I've been impressed by how much Mayor Lee has touted the 20 percent by 2020 goal, but our city agencies need to step up their sense of urgency and commitment to meet that goal.”
The SFMTA is now finalizing a report on how to hit that 2020 target, which is scheduled for release next month. But agency spokesperson Paul Rose acknowledged the difficulty in meeting that goal: “It would take funding resources which at this point we don't have.” He can't yet say would it would take to meet the goal, which the report will outline, but he said, “We're exploring what can be achieved with our available funding.”
Shahum said all studies by SFBC and other groups show concerns about safety is the biggest barrier to substantially increasing cycling in the city, and that most people need bike lanes – particularly paths physically separated from cars, known as cycle tracks – to feel safe. She praised the SFMTA for installing 20 miles of new bike lanes in the last two years, its fastest pace ever, “but that pace needs to double or triple to meet that goal.”
Instead, Mayor Lee has backed off a pledge he made last year to fast-track a short segment of bike lanes on dangerous sections of Oak and Fell streets that would connect two popular east-west bikeways: the Panhandle and the Wiggle. That project was delayed by a year for more meetings and work after motorists objected to the loss of street parking spots.
“We're talking about three blocks. It's relatively small in scope but huge in impacts,” Shahum said of the project. “If the pace of change on these three blocks is replicated through the city, it'll take hundreds of years to meet the goal.”
In his run for mayor last year, Chiu regularly touted the 20 percent goal he set in 2010 after returning from a fact-finding trip to the Netherlands – where about 38 percent of vehicle trips are by bike – that he took with SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, SFBC members, and officials from other cities. Chiu says that San Francisco might be further along than the SFMTA figures show, citing an SFBC poll showing that 5 percent of San Franciscans say they ride a bike daily and another 12 percent ride more than once a week.
“Whatever the current percentage is, we have a long way to go. We have to be bolder about specific projects and strategies,” Chiu told us. He said there is a growing recognition that promoting cycling is an important way to address traffic congestion and greenhouse gas reduction and that “segregated bikes lanes are the most efficient way to move the most people through areas of urban density.”
Chiu also said that San Francisco could be poised for rapid progress on the creation of new bikes lanes, citing early opposition to replacing parking spaces with parklets and the car-free Sunday Streets (which kicks off its new season this Sunday along the Embarcadero) events, with the business community and many neighborhood groups fearing that restrictions on motorists would hurt businesses.
“The experience has turned out to be exactly the opposite,” Chiu said, noting the explosion in demand for parklets and new Sunday Streets events in the last couple years, saying that a widening embrace of more cycle tracks and other biking infrastructure could be next.
Mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey told us, “The mayor is very much committed to the aggressive goals set to get to 20 percent by 2020 and the city is moving in the right direction. He has also always supported the Oak Fell project and we're seeing progress. It will be complete in 2013 and he has been talking to the SFMTA about the project to keep up to date. San Francisco is on its way to becoming the most bicycle friendly city in the U.S. and in this era of limited public funding, the mayor is working with the SFMTA to explore what ways we can increase trips taken by bicycle with available funding and increased public awareness.”
She cited the Avalos legislation and the current installation of cycle tracks on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park as examples of the city's commitment to “move us toward the goal of 20 percent,” but many in the cycling community consider these efforts to be low-hanging fruit – easy, cheap, and non-controversial improvements – that won't get the city anywhere near its stated goal.
Bike activist Marc Salomon is critical of the incremental approaches taken by SFBC and the city, saying that to make significant progress the city needs to address enforcement and the culture on the roadways, protecting cyclists from aggressive or impatient motorists and recognizing that many traffic laws don't make sense for cyclists.
“We need to change the culture of the cops to make sure every street is a safe street,” he said. Shahum said that's an issue SFBC is trying to address: “We are talking to them about how police could better enforce dangerous behaviors.”
Yet any efforts to promote cycling will likely be met with a backlash by motorists who resent losing space to cyclists and the fact that many cyclists routinely run stop signs and lights. Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chu voted against the Avalos legislation, with Chu objecting to city staff evaluating businesses that seek waivers based on limited space or other factors, calling it a waste of precious resources.
But Avalos noted that his ordinance – which will be up for final approval on its second reading this Tuesday – has no enforcement mechanisms and “overall, this is a cost effective way to promote bicycling in the city. The costs are minimal.”
He also thanked the conservative Building Owners and Managers Association for supporting the legislation. Shahum said BOMA strongly opposed similar legislation almost 10 years ago and its embrace of it now shows how attitudes toward cyclists have changed. “There are so many more people biking now and the business community recognizes the benefits of having more of their employees biking,” she said.
Even politically moderate supervisors have been supportive of promoting cycling, with Sup. Scott Wiener saying at this week's hearing, “It's very important to make it as easy as possible to bike, and bike theft is a big issue in this city as well.”