SF Has to Pick Up the Pace on Downtown Protected Bike Lanes

In Chicago, a new two-way, parking-protected bike lane is being constructed on downtown Dearborn Street, four months after it was announced. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/24858199@N00/8236500938/in/set-72157632145099249/##trapgosh/Flickr##

Bicycling in San Francisco is getting better since the bicycle injunction was lifted in 2010, and concrete progress on projects like the critical Fell and Oak Street bikeway is very encouraging. But this week also made bicyclists in SF painfully aware that as the SF Municipal Transportation Agency gets closer to completing the projects in its Bike Plan, it will need to elevate its game to keep up with the nation’s leading cities. The upcoming release of the SFMTA’s Bicycle Strategy is a can’t-miss opportunity to pick up the pace.

The latest reminder that SF risks falling far behind the leading American cities came when bike advocates around the country got a look at Chicago’s new, protected two-way bike lane on downtown Dearborn Street — providing a 1.2-mile connection to another protected lane on Kinzie Street. It’s part of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to building 100 miles of protected lanes within his first four years of office. And it stands in contrast to the much slower roll-out of protected bike lanes, so far, under SF Mayor Ed Lee.

The SFMTA is planning a handful of similar projects on streets like Market, Second, and Polk, and getting improvements like that into the pipeline is hugely important. Still, those improvements are several years off from construction, as part of larger street makeovers. Meanwhile, cities like Chicago and New York are making much more rapid progress toward building continuous protected bike routes into their major job centers.

San Francisco could catch up, depending on the commitments the SFMTA makes in its upcoming Bicycle Strategy, which planners are expected to brief the agency’s board on in January. SFMTA staff says the strategy will lay out a network of priority routes for bike improvements that will help attain the city’s official goal of increasing bicycling’s share of all trips to 20 percent by 2020.

To get San Francisco to its mode-share target, the strategy also has to include solid commitments to building bike infrastructure within a competitive timeframe. “The city is really moving at the pace of several years ago, when really we need to be preparing for a dramatically different San Francisco, where significantly more people are biking,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition.

The need for protected bike lanes is increasingly important in downtown areas with high-speed traffic like SoMa, where jobs are growing and bike-share is expected to launch early next year. “As we expect to see more people bicycle thanks to bike-share, and thanks to more businesses, especially tech businesses being located in San Francisco, I think we’re seeing a real lack of urgency from city agencies about upgrading streets for more and better biking,” said Shahum.

Last week, Chicago’s Department of Transportation began implementing the two-way protected bike lane on Dearborn, connecting the center of the Chicago Loop to a similar lane on Kinzie Street that was implemented last summer. John Greenfield of Grid Chicago said the Dearborn project, which was announced by the city in August, was done using low-cost methods: re-striping traffic lanes to place the two-way bikeway along the curb, separated from the car parking lane by a striped buffer zone. The lane has bicycle traffic signals at each intersection to allow bicycle riders to travel through the intersection on a dedicated signal phase, eliminating conflicts with turning cars. The current citywide goal, said Greenfield, is 110 miles of protected lanes and 40 miles of buffered lanes by 2015.

“We’re really inspired by Rahm Emanuel’s leadership and dedication to 100 miles of crosstown bikeways,” said Shahum. “The Dearborn bike lane is exactly the kind of project we need in San Francisco. Huge numbers of people bike on Market Street daily, and just like Chicago, we should have a safe, protected bikeway down the center of our city.”

San Francisco has seen few similar projects in the downtown area. Market Street has a green, physically separated bike lane, but it only runs from Eighth Street to Octavia Boulevard. Though all of lower Market could get a continuous, raised bike lane as part of the Better Market Street project, that isn’t slated for completion until 2016, assuming it doesn’t see more delays.

Second Street, meanwhile, was originally slated for conventional bike lanes — a design that was improved upon after a communication breakdown between agencies forced the planning process to be re-started. Now, planners are proposing raised, protected bike lanes as part of a major street makeover, but it won’t be completed until the end of 2015.

These are excellent projects, but it doesn’t have to take so long to reconfigure the street.

There’s some proof closer to home than Chicago. On one-way Eighth Street in SoMa, the SFMTA created a wide, buffered bike lane in July by re-configuring a traffic lane in conjunction with a street re-paving. It’s not an ideal design (motorists frequently drive in it), but Shahum noted that it’s an example of “the city taking an advantage of an opportunity to be relatively quick and nimble in changing the lane configuration.”

That’s a practice bike advocates would like to see more of.

“The city needs to streamline its planning and implementation process, and not get so mired down in a cycle of planning forever with the intent of making everyone happy,” Shahum said. “Yes, you do community outreach, and yes, you do good analysis and work with neighbors and merchants. But there are smart ways that you can implement pieces of a plan in an iterative way that helps bring positive change more quickly, costs less, and builds confidence that change can be good.”

The impetus for protected bike lanes, which also calm car traffic and make streets safer for all users, was perhaps put best by SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin last month at a conference with the National Association of City Transportation Officials in New York.

“The most cost-effective investment we can make in moving people,” he said, “is in bicycle infrastructure.”

  • Richard Mlynarik

    No, SF doesn’t have to.

  • Gneiss

    If the example of adding buffered bike lanes on Oak and Fell or parking changes in the Mission are anything to go by, there is there is a significant level of opposition from numerous stakeholders in San Francisco to *any* changes in the streetscape that takes space away from cars, particularly if it ‘gives it to cyclists’.

    I think there are four basic problems that cycling advocates face:

    1.  There is a legal savvy group of ‘bike guy’ haters who see the rising number of cyclists as an uncouth and dangerous scourge that must be stopped at all costs.  They will use whatever tools and appeals (ADA compliance, EIR, LOS, etc.) to delay and prevent installation of bike lanes.
    2.  Having the same agency that manages parking enforcement also manage MUNI has created a percieved conflict of interest among many drivers.  When they see that money from parking enforcement is used to fund MUNI rather than street improvements, it creates a backlash against the agency over any parking changes (including bike lane installations) that *might* increase parking enforcement revenue.
    3.  The changes to the streetscape to add bike lanes is always framed as cars vs. bikes rather than as making the streets safer for all vulnerable users by slowing traffic.  Until we see the media looking at how these changes effect safety, we’ll continue to have an uphill battle convincing a majority to favor these projects.
    4.  We need to stop thinking of bicycle riders as ‘slow cars’ and start thinking of them as ‘fast pedestrians’.  Making that paradigm shift would go a long way towards accepting how cyclists travel thorugh are streets, and how other pedestrians treat them at cross walks and other intersections, and the percieve danger of cycling behaviors like rolling through intersections or not wearing helmets.  It would also stop car drivers from thinking that they can interact with cyclists in the same way as other cars – where a minor collision caused by inattentative or aggressive behavior might result in slight damage rather than death or severe injury.

  • mikesonn

    Vehicular cycling For The Loss. 🙁

  • Melvintodd

    Thank you for the valuable and insightful comment.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Wow!  Such a “Bike Friendly City Problem;” Being envious of advanced bicycle infrastructure in another city.  😉

    I’d be happy if we had ANY usable bike lanes in Jersey.

    Okay, I’m lying a bit.  In the past two months the city and county here in Central Jersey where I live actually did install usable bike lanes and infrastructure but before that I would NOT have been lying.

    BTW, the Dearborn Street lane looks a little too narrow for two-way use particularly if they are expecting a decent amount of bicycle traffic volume.  Maybe 2 feet more because the curb and gutter already make 2 feet of the retrograde lane unusable.  Still, its a interesting start.

  • Jake Wegmann

    Rahm Emmanuel doesn’t have to think about CEQA.

  • Mom on a bike

    Wow, OK, this is very simple. You appear to be from somewhere in the Commonwealth. Have you been home lately? Chances are it’s somewhere you might see quite a few protected lanes. 

    You know those members of society called ‘women’ and ‘children’? Maybe you don’t personally know any, but see many of them riding in SF? Mostly just young women, right? But not a whole lot of them. Very very few women (or men) with small kids on bikes here. This would be attributed to a phenomenon known as ‘not OK with vehicular cycling.’ 

    So much of the Commonwealth and the rest of the first world has clued in, and now we’re trying to remind SF to catch up. Please quit your ridiculous opining about how well vehicular cycling works for you and wake the hell up.

  •  maybe we need to take one street and make an example of it by changing it but not putting a bike lane in. Just say “this street is too dangerous for pedestrians so we are making changes to slow the traffic”.

    Oh wait, we tried that in Noe Valley and we got the same backlash even without the cyclists as boogeymen. There was even a backlash on the 17th/Castro plaza that is becoming somewhat iconic now.

  • mike

    To keep things in perspective when comparing cities, SF is 1/5th the size of Chicago and 1/7th the size of NYC. So if Chicago is putting in 25 miles of bikeway a year, that’s similar to SF putting in 5 miles of bikeway a year. Since the lifting of the injunction, SF’s been averaging 8 miles a year, much of those the same type as what Chicago considers protected bikeways (which includes painted buffered bikeways).

  • Anonymous

     I think that people know that some jurisdictions are adding bike lanes as an excuse to reduce lanes in hopes of “calming” traffic. I can support it to some extent but some of it is just too much.

  • Anonymous

     Once you build something mom and kid friendly then there’s an expectation that all cyclists would have to use it, even though some of them ride fast and rather prefer to share space with automobiles rather than moms and kids.

    Look at the Clipper system, it benefits occasional riders and others that ride across jurisdictions, but after MTC spent hundreds of millions of dollars, MTC expects all transit riders to use Clipper, even though they are perfectly fine with paper tickets. The mandatory transition created a lot of hassles. While it introduces new ways to buy ticket (like autoload online), some people who relied on local retailer suddenly have to travel much farther to buy a ticket with cash because the old retailer couldn’t handle Clipper.

  • @acnetj:disqus Yes, it’s true–with more than a tiny bit of able bodied “hardcore” white men cycling, there may need to be some changes in what the old-school does.

    I’ll get over it.

  • J

    You point about city size is valid, but the lane mileage you cite compares apples to oranges. Chicago is installing 25 miles of *protected* bike lanes each year, while the 8 miles SF is installing includes all sorts of bike lanes. Protected lanes are markedly better at getting new cyclists to start riding, so it is important to compare cities on the same criteria. Does anyone know how many miles of protected lanes SF installed this year, and how many are planned for each of the coming years?

  • Richard Mlynarik

    You know those members of society called ‘women’ and ‘children’?

    I’ve heard of “women”.  They’re delicate flowers that need protection.

  • Anonymous

    @f84b22d3acf35e1589e626b8e51fe1a4:disqus You are being sarcastic, but fail to address the reality that women make up 51% of the population but only 33% of the bicycle ridership even in the bike-friendly-ish Bay Area, and a much lower percentage elsewhere in the US. Obviously the standard infrastructure is not winning them over, and studies have already proven that protected bike lanes and cycletracks attract a higher percentage of female cyclists than standard lanes, wedged between the curb (or parked cars) and traffic.
    If we want to encourage a wider demographic of cyclists then we have to build infrastructure that appeals to even the most cautious of potential riders, not just facilities that auto-centric traffic design manuals have deemed “safe”. I would make the claim that ALL human bodies are delicate and in need of protection, maybe women are just better at appreciating that than the typical risk-prone, young, male cyclist with a unfortunate sense of invincibility.

  • Anonymous

    CEQA no longer applies to bicycle projects.

  • mike

    CEQA absolutely does still apply to bicycle projects, at least any bicycle project that removes traffic capacity.

  • Gneiss

    While bike projects still are still covered under the CEQA, the bill ABA 2245 (which was passed into law in Septempber) provides a mechanism for agencies like the SFMTA to present an exemption to perform a full EIR if a study of traffic or safety has already been conducted.  That will make the process for approving bike lanes go much faster than since a full EIR (which can take from 12 to 18 months to complete) isn’t required.

  • mike

    Gneiss, you mean AB 2245: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120AB2245

    From the summary of AB 2245: “This bill would, until January 1,
    2018,
    exempt from CEQA the restriping of streets and highways for bicycle
    lanes in an urbanized area that is consistent with a prepared bicycle
    transportation plan.”To have a “prepared bicycle plan” means an environmental review of the plan has to take place so, in effect, the environmental review is still needed, just at an earlier stage.