For a City of Panhandles! Copenhagenize it!

city_living.jpgMona Caron’s rendition of 24th and Folsom after we’ve made a few basic changes.  (Thanks to Mona Caron for this image, originally published in the Bay Guardian in 2006.)

We’ve been waiting for years now to see some physical changes to accommodate the huge increase in daily bicycling. We did get an odd set of painted bike lanes and green bike route signs, and a significant number of bike racks for parking, before it all came to a halt due to the injunction three years ago. After perusing the much-anticipated Draft Bicycle Plan and its dense bureaucratese, full of overlapping redundant promises, I’m afraid we’ll be waiting a good while longer to see the kinds of changes that we ought to be getting.

It’s really hard to believe that after all this organizing and earnest campaigning we’ll basically end up with a few thousand “sharrows” and another batch of partial, end-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bike lanes, lanes which in any case are horribly inadequate patches on our misallocated and car-centric public streets. How is it that after almost two decades of rapidly expanding bicycling, the city’s transit priorities still treat bicycles as an annoyance that they only grudgingly are willing to accommodate? When will there be a systematic commitment to altering the streets of this city to create dedicated bikeways, separated from cars and pedestrians, comprehensively linked to provide for easy, graceful, convivial bicycling to all parts of the city?

Over at the blog Copenhaganize their basic point is summarized in two short sentences:

Each and every day 500,000 people ride their bicycle to work or school in Copenhagen. This blog highlights who they are, why they do and how it was made possible.

Forty years ago Copenhagen was just as car-clogged as anywhere else but now 36% of the population choose the bicycle. Copehagenizing is possible anywhere.

My mother is from Copenhagen so I’ve visited the Danish city many times. I think it must have influenced my early thinking, because it was back in 1987 when I drew up a little flyer calling for a “City of Panhandles.” San Francisco cyclists all know the Panhandle’s cyclepath as one of the real pleasures around here (granted, it would be better if pedestrians would have their own path to its side!) and the way it links to the Wiggle route between the Mission and the Haight is just icing on the cake. A city with some vision, rather than a plodding traffic planning bureaucracy that is led by a Mayor who is only interested in what is going to facilitate his election to the next office (and always blatantly biased towards car owners and the wealthy), would have already been working on converting key routes across the city to bicycle boulevards… not just car-centric streets with “bike boulevard” signs, but whole thoroughfares that are closed to cars and only open to bicycles and emergency vehicles. Going a couple of steps further, why not open such thoroughfares to horticultural design and public art? Imagine sculpture gardens, curving murals, daylighted creeks, linear food forests, vegetable gardens, benches and fountains… the list goes on. The city would benefit in so many ways through such a comprehensive conversion of space currently sacrificed to the insatiable uses of private automobiles.

It’s self-evident how much better such street spaces would be for neighbors, pedestrians, children, and cyclists. It would open space for a systematic approach to re-localized food security. For those who clamor for “green jobs” (I’m not one of them), such natural ribbons crisscrossing the city would require first a lot of major construction work, and then a great number of gardeners, farmers, bicycle mechanics, bike parking attendants, landscapers, artists, and more. Juxtapose such quality, engaging, meaningful work to the stupid jobs that pass as “important” in the financial district, or the wasted labor producing so many luxury highrises, office buildings and other pointless projects of “economic development”… Let the tourists join us in riding and walking through the garden paths of San Francisco! Let’s think about the work we do and the design of our city as a canvas on which to create something really astonishingly better than what we’re settling for now. The SF Bike Coalition should be a lot more aggressive and push for much more far-reaching and far-sighted transformations than this tepid and uninspiring Bike Plan, in order to live up to its political and social responsibilities!

  • patrick

    While I agree going farther in getting true bike paths would be great, I think what the SFBC is trying to do is impressive. I believe taking an incremental approach is the best way to do it. The big 56 is a pretty major effort, and once it’s (hopefully) implemented it will generate more bike riders, who can then put more pressure on the city to make more and bigger improvements. I doubt that Copenhagen went from a trivial level of bike ridership to 36% overnight.

  • Peter Smith

    Mona’s drawing is, as usual, amazing. Is that a hovercraft or something??

    I’m with the SFBC being more aggressive, but on the flip side I feel like I still have no idea what’s going on in San Francisco. I’ve been there, I’ve lived there, ridden there, etc., and I have no idea how cycling facilities there are still so horrible. The whole bike injunction thing is the surface reason, but I can’t help but think we, as a group, are just not big enough, powerful enough, imaginative enough, organized enough, etc. I haven’t done jack to force the city to act right, so I have to look in the mirror, first.

    Also, the bike plan was probably put together several years ago, reviewed a few times, then injuncted more than three years ago. It’s basically a fossil at this point, so I’m sure our SFBC peeps are more than ready to start pushing the bigger, more-transformative projects — they just don’t want to drop the ball on the existing bike plan.

    The Great Streets program (or whatever it’s called) is one of these tranformative projects already kicking in, and it seems to already be affecting people. Let’s cross our fingers.

    I’m hoping that the new bike plan starts seeing changes start rolling in soon, and then we’ll all feel a bit of relief and then a bit energized, and then we’ll start demanding real bike facilities.

    And it’s definitely not all on the SFBC — I feel like most riders in town are still very much afraid of demanding real bike facilities. That’s another thing I can’t get my head around.

    I’d still like to see a bigger/combined coalition of people to start organizing for bigger changes — bike + walk + transit — let’s see what happens.

    And I’d like to see some type of SF Bike Summit or Bike/Walk/Transit summit to just blow it out — talk to each other, come up with some big ideas, learn some new stuff, get excited about how we’re gonna topple the government if they don’t get us some real bike infrastructure, etc. 🙂

  • marcos

    @Peter Smith, The SFBC has not been carrying the ball on the bike plan, other than to hold a rally to demand city staff move faster, a project at which they have not realized success. You are correct in your impression that this bike plan is a fossil, the route network is 12 years old and the policy portion of the plan was written in 2002.

    Nor has the SFBC been taking advantage of this “down time” to figure out what to do next as concerns getting the City to change its business practices to produce a steady stream of bicycle facilities and policies that reflect existing reality in real time.

    The MTA certainly has not charged its staff of 8 in the Bicycle Program, which has quadrupled over the past 7 years, with figuring out how to change the way it does business in order to bring bicycle improvements to bear on the real world in real time.

    The SFBC has taken pains to marginalize anyone who criticizes their MO, and that conduct has a chilling effect on many, and as the MTA holds all the cards, they can shut off access to the SFBC if they don’t play along.

    In Newsom’s political world, the highest form of action is the press release, never let substance get in the way of good PR.


  • Susan King

    On the Panhandle multi-use path, I frequently muse about why 90% of the users of this block-wide space are relegated to share a narrow 18-20 foot wide path. There is a lot of room to grow with a little creativity and some on the part of the City, we could develop a better way to use this space.

    There are two paths through the Panhandle, true, but people do not like the South path for a variety of reasons: it is pock marked and unevenly paved, darker, and less populated. People like to go where there are people, it’s human nature. Instead of trying to force people off the primary pathway, we should make parallel trails on both sides of the Northern multi-use path for peds and joggers. These trails could weave in and around the trees and existing landscaping, so would not need a huge amount of engineering or construction. Local community gardening organizations could contribute resources to define and enhance the pathways.

    This improvement could allow for more use of this space and address the constant complaints from both cyclists and pedestrians who use the path regularly. Bikes and peds are travel at different speeds, and there is plenty of room in the Panhandle to have high quality, attractive facilities adjacent to one another for all kinds of users.

  • Pat

    The panhandle is not a exactly a model of great open space. I definitely appreciate it, but surrounding open space with major arterials is the perfect way to handicap its use. The best open spaces are those, regardless whether they are paved or natural, that are immediately surrounded by mixed use development that will encourage people to use the space and self-regulate safety and cleanliness simply by being there.

    That said, someone definitely needs to close parts of The Wiggle to auto traffic. Especially on Haight because there is already activity there.

  • I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get to the Panhandle after having cars flying past my right elbow at 40 mph on Fell. But then I immediately have to concentrate on avoiding collisions with joggers, dog walkers, strollers, etc. I am delighted people get such good use out of the Panhandle, but I fear with the number of bicyclists on the increase an accident is waiting to happen. I would endorse Susan’s proposal above to have separate bicycle and pedestrian ways/lanes to better accommodate the various uses of the Panhandle.

    Until the current situation is remedied, it is certainly the obligation of bicyclists to ride slowly enough for the circumstances and always pass safely. Just recently, however, in a similar situation on a bridge in Portland, (a too-crowded space shared by pedestrians and bicyclists alike), there was a fairly traumatic accident caused by a faster bicyclist passing a slower bicyclist who was in the process of passing a pedestrian. Good infrastructure is the best defense; cautious riding is also necessary.

  • P.S. As I was crossing Masonic at the bike light this afternoon I yelled at a cabbie turning left on to Masonic off of Fell. “The light’s red! You’re not supposed to go!” He looked at me like “yeah, right lady.” I don’t usually yell at errant cars–I usually just give dirty looks–but we have one darn bike light in the whole city. It makes me kind of mad when people don’t respect it.

  • marcos

    There is only one class I bike facility in all of San Francisco, and that is the Panhandle northern path. This facility was just rehabbed and expanded within the past five years.

    When I head out to points west and north of the Panhandle, I take the north path being that the ride is slightly uphill and into the wind and it is much safer than Fell.

    But when I head back east to the Mission, I’ll just ride on the right lane of Oak, because it is easier to stay on the street than to try to get to the north Panhandle path from the park and negotiate the throngs of people who are oblivious to the fact that they are on the only class I bike facility in San Francisco. The lights on Oak are timed which makes it is possible to keep up with traffic and even center stripe it through the knot of congestion around Divisadero to make it up to Steiner or, if luck is on my side, to Pierce before turning south down through the Lower Haight. That segment of Oak was repaved just a few years ago as well, and the condition of the roadway is pretty good except for one rough patch before Lyon.

    The policy matter here is that the Panhandle bike path was just widened and improved and that made it more attractive to pedestrians. Did I mention that it is the ONLY class I bike facility in San Francisco? Signage needs to be put up admonishing that it is neither appropriate nor safe to allow creatures on leashes, namely toddlers and canines, free range on that path. Might I note that there is a south Panhandle pedestrian path as well as sidewalks on Oak and Fell for pedestrian use. Yet the north path has “SLOW DOWN” painted signs, as if the cyclists must cede the one place which on paper is dedicated to cyclists.

    If the tax dollars of the majority of childless San Franciscans go to pay for Rec and Park facilities which only families with children are permitted to use, then the precedent is set for there to be safe spaces where bicycles can travel at speed from which children and dogs are protected by being prohibited.


  • Nick

    I was reading an interview with Dave Snyder and he said that “given political realities it will probably be 2020 before we have a complete bike network.”

    The work we are doing is not so much for us, but for the next generation. Incremental change, like it or not, is the reality. If we get the 56 through, and cycling increases, then we can demand more.

    For the longest time I didn’t understand why the SFBC would advocate for bike lanes when physically separated paths would be so much better. One step at a time, for now at least.

  • I agree with taomom, I am only able to relax once I get to the Panhandle after riding through what she called in another response (to the bike lane delays), the “three blocks of terror.” What makes drivers want to drift over toward the bike lane anyway? Is my bike that magnetic?

    It would be nice to see something similar to the bike/ped path at Crissy Field in the Presidio replicated in the Panhandle. I live in the Panhandle neighborhood and often walk through the Panhandle as well as ride. I’m cognizant of bikes but it does feel kind of dicey at times when there are lots of people on the path. It’s not always convenient to walk on the South path as I live on the North side.

    To pedestrians: stay to the right and pay attention. To cyclists: slow down and use your bell.

    To comment on the article regarding a bunch of sharrows and the poor state of cycling in SF: You can always find the sharrows on the street by following the potholes and maintenance hole covers. 😉

  • Peter Smith

    i like Susan’s idea of fixing the panhandle path so it accommodates even more bikers and walkers and multi-users. why not?

    we should definitely start taking away some lanes from car traffic and hand it over to bikes — that’s one possible solution, but sometimes you just want a break from traffic. in theory, the city would not be able to fight off path changes in the park as easily as they fight off street changes.

    a packed panhandle is a great problem to have — let’s induce even more people to use it, then expand it, and use all that momentum and energy to take some lanes away from cars — whether car lanes or parking spaces or left-turn pockets or whatever.

    we should keep squeezing the car lanes until cars can only trickle through. squeeze off their air supply! their crack drip! their free access to an easy and convenient asphalt fix! 😀

  • Zac

    Panhandle: pedestrians essentially do have their own route – it’s the northern path on the Panhandle which bicyclists are forbidden to use.

    Sharrows vs. Bike Lanes & Boulevards: the greatest safety factor for all road users is less speed and greater numbers of people, this is true for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses. The statistics for shared roads (sharrows) between bicyclists and drivers is actually quite good, so long as all parties are visible, aware, and mostly responsible. But generally only after a high volume of bicyclists are frequently traversing that road space.

    It seems to me then that bike lanes are a kind of road user ‘training wheel’ – done right, they educate drivers on the fundamentals of ‘sharing the road’ and attract bicyclists to bring up their numbers over that space. We may be able to get there other ways, and if the right deals are made with automotive residents and commercial corridors, I think dedicated and beautiful bike boulevards on flat & livable streets can get us there too.

  • Zac

    In frustration with the time it’s taking to have the Bike Plan in reality, one idea I shared with friends was a guerilla art project: make your own chalk bike lanes as a community art event. Invite all types of people to try it out after it’s done, to get a feeling for how it might work.

  • Mike

    Zac, I think this is a great idea.

    If we had an easy way to rig one of those engineer rolling chalkers to the back of a bike, a new temporary bike lane could be rolled out in just a few minutes.



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