Green City: San Francisco's bicycle community finds itself in an awfully strange position
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GREEN CITY San Francisco's bicycle community found itself in the strange position of encouraging Superior Court Judge Peter Busch — someone many cyclists revile for his strict enforcement of a far-reaching injunction against bike projects in the city — to reject a city-sponsored bike safety proposal during a Jan. 22 hearing. It was one more sign of the desperation bicyclists and city officials are feeling over the three-year-old ban on all things bike-related, from new lanes to simple sidewalk racks (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07).
Judge Busch denied a city motion asking for the authority to make safety improvements at intersections that have proven dangerous to bicyclists, as well as a specific proposal by the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) to remove the bike lane at the most dangerous of those intersections, on Market Street at Octavia Boulevard, where 15 bicyclists have been hit by cars making illegal right turns onto the freeway since the revamped intersection opened in September 2005.
But the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other bicyclists opposed the MTA proposal, arguing it would be more dangerous and holding a Jan. 16 rally at the site, which drew several supportive local politicians, including Sen. Mark Leno, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, and Bevan Dufty. "As people who ride through that intersection every single day, we believe the proposal would have made the intersection more dangerous. So I'm really relieved that the judge saw that," SFBC director Leah Shahum told us.
She was less pleased with the judge's refusal to relax the injunction, which stems from a legal challenge to the San Francisco Bicycle Plan. San Francisco resident Rob Anderson and attorney Mary Miles successfully sued the city in June 2006, arguing that the plan was hasty and did not include an environmental impact report (EIR), as required by state law, to determine how the plan would affect traffic, neighborhoods, businesses, and the environment.
"This case has been very discouraging because there are a handful of activists against bicyclists in the city," City Attorney's Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey said. "The hearing showed that the city has to go to court any time it wants to improve the streets for bicyclists."
Although Judge Busch denied the city's request to remove the bike lane, he hinted that the injunction would probably be lifted this spring with the completion of the Bike Plan's EIR. "There was a strong message from the judge that he sees the bigger picture about getting the EIR done. It just needs to be complete and fair and accurate. Then the city can get back to work making the streets safer," Shahum said.
Both Anderson and the SFBC, who usually agree on little, agreed on the judge's latest ruling. Anderson advocates maintaining streets for cars and pedestrians, while the SFBC works to make roads safer for bicycles and encouraging bicycling as an important transportation option. Shahum urges city officials to rethink their approach to make Market and Octavia safer. "The city really does need to move on to the next steps to make the intersection better," she said.
Although the number of bicyclists in San Francisco has doubled in recent years in light of volatile gasoline prices, the economic crisis, and greater awareness of global climate change, Anderson continues to argue that bicyclists will always be a minority interest, even in San Francisco.
"We have to make the streets as safe as possible without strangling the rest of the traffic," Anderson told the Guardian. "Only a small percentage of the population in San Francisco use bicycles as their main mode of transportation. It's not fair for the bike people to design the streets just to benefit them."
Dorsey and Deputy City Attorney Audrey Pearson oppose Anderson, who has said bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity that the city shouldn't be promoting. "As a policy, the city tries to discourage cars in San Francisco," Dorsey said, referring to the longstanding "transit first" policies.
Now that the public comment period for the Bike Plan's Draft EIR is over and Judge Busch has ruled to keep the bike lane at Market and Octavia, all parties are looking ahead to spring when the court is expected to lift the injunction on improving bike safety in San Francisco, unleashing nearly 60 new bike projects. That is, unless Anderson and Miles can find a way to stop them.