SF Bike Coalition plans friendlier roads for cyclists

Jul 30, 2012

In Downtown San Francisco on Market Street, subtly hidden next to the glitzy Westfield Shopping center, 10 floors above the newly painted green bike lanes, are the offices are the San Francisco Bike Coalition. It’s big and lofty-feeling; there’s a wall filled with hooks for bikes. This is the brain trust of the city’s bike movement. The person in charge is SFBC’s executive director, Leah Shahum. And she has a vision:

"Imagine riding from literally the Ferry Building along the bay, all the way out to the ocean on the west side of the city," says Shahum. "Imagine riding down Market Street through the Lower Haight, connecting to the Panhandle and onto Golden Gate Park. Imagine that being a rider you really felt safe and comfortable bringing your child on.

In a city where biking is a huge part of many people’s daily experience Shahum and the Bike Coalition are doing everything they can to improve that experience. KALW’s Ben Trefny met Shahum in the coalition’s conference room to hear more of her thoughts on the future of bicycling in San Francisco.

SHAHUM: There are some key pieces there that are gaps right now, that really aren't frankly as inviting as they should be. One of the big ones is the stretch of Fell and Oak Streets right before you get into the Panhandle. And folks that bike there probably know this area. It's basically three blocks from the Lower Haight area up to the Panhandle. These are pretty scary three blocks. I mean, Fell and Oak Streets are pretty fast streets for auto traffic; they can be a little bit intimidating. So, what we are proposing are dedicated bike ways on each of these streets, one way, one direction, so that people can ride in the Panhandle and out of the Panhandle. They can connect to the western part of the city and all the neighborhoods there in Golden Gate Park and then of course to downtown and regional transit on the east side.

BEN TREFNY: But in order to do this, don't you have to take away a lane of car traffic? And those are already pretty congested, especially Oak, going to the Octavia Round.

SHAHUM: There are different ways that the city is looking, and engineers are kind of playing with different options there. You know, it's possible that a travel lane would be removed. It may be more likely that a parking lane would be removed. I think that the way they are looking right now, it's possible that parking on one side of the street for those three blocks would be removed to make room for the dedicated bike way.

SHAHUM: What we feel really encouraged about and is helping with as a Bicycle Coalition, is trying to find some replacement parking because we know that it can be tough. We are looking around the neighborhood within a block or two or three for areas that you can squeeze in more parking. You can turn the parking different angles. You may be able to use some parking lots in the area that are underused in the evenings – dedicate that to neighborhood parking. I think there are some creative solutions to lessen the impact there.

TREFNY: So, the San Francisco Bike Plan finally got on the road, so to speak. I'm wondering about some of the choices that were made and where to improve bike traffic. I understand that there are bike lanes going into Golden Gate Park which from my perspective living out there is already really wide streets that seem pretty safe to me already.

SHAHUM: Yes, great question. And to your point of a lot going down – about 17 miles of new bike lanes have been striped since mid-2010. So it's a huge increase and a lot more are queued up. One of those that is queued up right now is JFK Drive – it's the eastern half of Golden Gate Park. And the plan that's actually going to be implemented there probably in the next week or two is the city's first parking protected bike way.

SHAHUM: Imagine, the parking lanes that are there are kind of being moved out more into the center of the street and the dedicated bike way will be against the curb or against the green space, so the sidewalk area, so that people biking actually have that physical separation from the moving traffic. We think that JFK Drive is the great place to try this because it is a very wide street, as you can imagine. It is way wider than most streets in San Francisco. So there was room there to try something different.

TREFNY: I, as a regular bicyclist, have a big concern, and that is about the rules of the road. Bicyclists, just out of convenience, are not really following car rules and cars are not really waiting for bicycles going 15 miles slower in their lane to go by. It creates dangerous situations. Do you think that those rules are right, the way that the rules should be?

SHAHUM: I think there are some definite improvements that can be made, changes that can be made. I feel like some things that the city is doing already are showing positive results. A great example is the Green Wave. This is on Valencia Street and hopefully will be rolled out elsewhere. But the traffic lights at the middle part of Valencia Street basically have been timed for the average bicycle rider's speed. There are so many people biking on Valencia Street that the city traffic engineers really understood, “Hey, why don't we time this in a way that it's accommodating and encouraging for people biking?” That's great! It's also been good for people driving because in my opinion they are slowing down a little bit. They are still moving to the lights – they are having to start and stop less. That's a good thing for the environment, good for their gas mileage and stuff. But most importantly, it's moving everybody at slower, more predictable, safe speed. And again, that's most important for pedestrians and people crossing.

TREFNY: What would you say to car drivers? Most people listening are not bicyclists so don't bike regularly. And they just see bicyclists, say, breaking rules or getting in their way or things like that.

SHAHUM: I think that environment out there has got a lot better between people biking and people driving. In the last 10 years or so I have really seen a kind of calming down of it in general. I think it's partly because there are so many more people bicycling. So I would say to everybody on the road: “Be thinking about how we share the road.” It's sounds kind of goofy but it's the really important words, I think. How do we share the road? How do we coexist out there? Think about whether that person on the bike could be your neighbor. Could she be your daughter's teacher? Could she be your dentist? Could she be the friend of yours? Because a growing number of people biking means, it's all of us.

This interview originally aired on January 26, 2012.