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The Bumpy Road to Biketopia

Loren Mooney | December 18, 2013 | Story Politics

It’s a typical 6 p.m. scene on Market Street: Buses lumber to the next stop, taxis and cars alternately slam accelerators and brakes, and a swarm of bicyclists pedals along in a cluster and then splits, filling the gaps between vehicles like caulking between tiles. In the parlance of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, this arterial biking corridor is an LTS 4: the maximum level of bike traffic stress, “tolerated only by the strong and fearless.”

Now, imagine a similar scenario—except with more than twice the bicyclists. This is San Francisco in four years, at least if the city’s transit vision is reached. Part of the stated goal of the city’s plan, which was conceived by the SFMTA, is to increase cycling by 157 percent. While that’s an ambitious project, bicycling is already by far the fastest-growing mode of transportation in the city, with bike trips up 96 percent from 2006 to 2013, and San Francisco consistently ranks among the most bike-friendly cities in the country.

But there’s one big problem: The city doesn’t feel safe, let alone friendly, for bikers. In San Francisco, bicyclist injuries and fatalities have grown in parallel with the bike boom, with four killed in 2013. This may seem like an obvious result—the more pedals on the streets, the more bodies on the ground—but it’s actually fairly dismal compared to other cities’ track records. In New York, for example, the number of severe injuries and fatalities has remained fairly constant since 2002 even as the number of bicyclists has nearly quadrupled.

Today, many of San Francisco’s most heavily used bikeways can’t accommodate the incredible swell of riders. Take the popular bike corridors on downtown Market, Polk Street, and Folsom Street. “There is infrastructure,” says SFMTA transportation director Ed Reiskin. “It’s just that the volume of cyclists quickly overruns that infrastructure.” That, or motor traffic is still too heavy and fast. All three streets have had plans in the works for years to install larger, protected bike lanes—but none will be finished for years to come. The Market Street plan in particular would both allow for more cyclists and reduce bike traffic stress to practically nothing, but its estimated completion date isn’t until 2018, when rush hour could bring packs of 30 or 40 cyclists—like Critical Mass every evening.

For many would-be cyclists, 2018 is not soon enough. “Personally, what makes me feel safer are separated bike lanes,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who learned to ride a bike just two years ago. She is exactly the type of rider to whom the city must appeal in order to meet its ridership goals. “Folks who have been biking don’t need to be convinced to bike more,” Kim says. “But I still have to convince myself every time.”

The city has plenty of beautifully designed protected bikeways in the works. But the problem, according to Supervisor Scott Wiener, is that “our system is completely broken. Because of our political process and bureaucratic resistance, it becomes incredibly hard to implement these improvements in a timely manner.”

In 2013's most high-profile incident, 24-year-old Amélie Le Moullac was riding to work in the bike lane on Folsom Street at 6th when she was killed by a truck turning right across the lane. After pressure from Kim and the S.F. Bike Coalition, and following a botched police investigation, the city quickly announced the approval of a $253,000 stopgap, a temporary separated bike lane on Folsom from 6th to 11th Streets while the full project continues to make its way through the bureaucracy.

“The tragedy pushed the city to say, we can’t wait 3, 5, 10 years to make these changes,” says Kim. A pilot project can move quickly, she explains, because it doesn’t require the full community input and environmental review of a long-term plan. And sure enough, around Thanksgiving, less than two months after its announcement, the Folsom pilot took shape, with a wider bike lane and painted buffer zone to separate cyclists from cars and trucks (which now have three lanes instead of four). It’s likely that this new lane will lead to increased usage and improved safety. But it came at an unacceptable human cost. City bikers—and everyone else, for that matter—are left to wonder what it’s going to take to make the city’s streets feel safe.

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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