Can SF Improve Upon New York’s Bicycle Access Bill?

774204496_c9d18fe63c.jpgFlickr photo: kate at yr own risk
Now that the New York City Council has approved a Bicycle Access Bill requiring commercial buildings to allow bicyclists entry, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is ready to push for a San Francisco version of the requirement "by the end of the year." New York's bill, which is limited in its scope and contains some significant loopholes, passed 46-1 and is expected to be signed by Mayor Bloomberg.

Like New York's, San Francisco's zoning code already requires new and significantly renovated commercial buildings to provide a certain number of bicycle parking spaces, depending on the size of the building. Amendments proposed by the Bicycle Plan would strengthen those requirements slightly, removing a loophole that exempted multi-use buildings from the requirement. Marc Caswell of the SFBC said he hopes to further strengthen those codes by increasing the amount of bike parking required and reducing the expenditure threshold when a renovation triggers the requirement.

The requirements are not retroactive, however, so they do not serve almost all workers whose buildings were permitted before 2001. Nearly half, 42 percent, of the cyclists responding to a recent SFBC member survey said they did not have bicycle parking at work. The lack of secure bicycle parking is the "number one reason seasoned bicyclists do not bike to work" in New York, according to surveys by New York's Transportation Alternatives.

San Francisco would surely see an increase in bicycle commuting if a version of New York's law passes here. How might the San Francisco version — and the politics around it — be different?

New York's law does not actually mandate indoor bicycle parking; it simply requires buildings to allow entry to bicycles if the tenant can store the bicycle in their rented space. It applies only to office buildings, not all commercial buildings, and only if the building has a freight elevator. Building owners may request an exemption if the freight elevator has peculiar issues that make it unsafe to carry bicycles or if there is sufficient, no-cost, indoor secure bicycle parking on the premises or nearby (and under control of the owner requesting an exemption).

These provisions probably mitigated some of the opposition from the Real Estate Board of New York, which opposed the mandate. Copying those same provisions in a San Francisco ordinance would result in fewer buildings being covered, because so many of San Francisco's downtown office buildings provide garage bicycle parking in conformance with San Francisco's strong garage parking requirements. But that's no substitute, says Caswell, because such parking is open to the public, it's next to impossible to make garage parking nearly as secure as bringing your bike into your office. Having your bike in your own view insures the safety of all of your components as well as your entire bike.

A San Francisco building access law could prompt better enforcement of the garage parking requirement, which is strong. It is retroactive, applying to residential and commercial garages of ten spaces or more, and requiring bike parking spaces in relation to the number of car parking spaces. Some garages are out of compliance and so far no fines have been levied to force compliance. Also, no standards ensure that the parking is something better than a U-rack in the dingy corner of the garage, hidden from the public except for the enterprising bike commuters and bike thieves who know about it.

A San Francisco building access ordinance will have to navigate likely opposition from the Building Owners and Managers Association, which historically has opposed mandates on building owners.

"Obviously this is a property rights issue," said Ken Cleaveland, BOMA's Director of Government and Public Affairs, "but I do believe that most owners want to work with their tenants in a way that keeps them happy, if it means accommodating bikes I can't imagine they wouldn't allow that. But they will want some level of assuredness that the building will be protected from damage, particularly in older buildings with historic elevators, like an additional deposit like you would pay with a pet."

Do they want a deposit "in case the bike pees on the carpet?" asked Noah Budnick, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, who stressed the "grassroots and grasstops" organizing work the T.A. did to win passage of the law. "The difference between three years ago [when T.A. first introduced this bill] and today is marked. The time has come."