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Bicycle Infrastructure

What SF Needs to Catch Up to NYC’s Bicycling Success: Political Leadership

New York City has raised the bar in recent years for rolling out bicycle improvements and reclaiming public space from automobiles. While San Franciscans have come to expect major delays for bike projects as the norm in their city, New York, the only American city more dense than SF, has zoomed ahead by adding roughly 20 miles of protected bike lanes since 2007, with more on the way. After each new NYC bikeway is built, injuries to all users decline and bicycling increases along the corridor.

How can San Francisco emulate New York's success? In short: San Francisco's public officials need to exert bold leadership to hasten a painstakingly slow planning process intended not so much to achieve specific goals, but to avoid rocking the boat. That was the general sentiment at a recent forum where local bike advocates popped questions at Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, New York's leading advocacy organization for bicycling, walking, and transit.

"New York's success, tenaciousness, vision, and drive have been guiding the way for other American cities," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Executive Director Leah Shahum told an audience at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last Thursday, where she and White discussed the state of the bicycling movement in the two cities.

"We all know that we talk about Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Barcelona as being these wonderful bicycling cities, and many getting better and better, but [with] that European model, you really lose people," said Shahum. "To have a great American city guiding the way in being a great bicycling space, and really reclaiming space from the automobile and creating public space for people, frankly, is making our job a lot easier in San Francisco."

NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has earned a reputation for pursuing groundbreaking projects like the two-way bikeway on Prospect Park West, which produced major benefits and, despite high-profile resistance from a small group of politically-connected NIMBYs, has been largely embraced by the public.

"We've been very lucky to have such great leadership that has managed, nevertheless, to involve communities and be very democratic while at the same time acting swiftly and decisively to implement safer streets," said White. "I think one way to cut through the red tape, and maybe some of the needless process, is to appeal to safety, and say that every day that a street goes without pedestrian or bike infrastructure is putting people in danger."

"There's enough data now to show that it's simply inhumane not to add bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure when there's an opportunity," he added.

One of the main barriers preventing San Francisco from experiencing the same "impressive explosion" of visible change, said Shahum, is that SF transportation officials and politicians like Mayor Ed Lee haven't been as willing to commit to completing bike projects, and that New York planners don't have "to go through as much process as we do in San Francisco."

San Francisco's "consensus-democracy style" is "fantastic," Shahum said, eliciting some appreciative chuckles in the audience. "But it slows things down quite a bit."

In the SFMTA's most recent bikeway project delay on three critical blocks of Fell and Oak Streets, the agency abandoned their initial approach -- building it as a trial project that staff said could be implemented within a year (by this June). Instead, they tried to appease car owners upset over the loss of 80 curbside car parking spots, adding nearly a year to the project timeline (construction has since been moved up to next winter). In NYC, protected bike lanes on some corridors have re-purposed hundreds of on-street parking spaces without replacing a single one. While NYC DOT has looked to offset the parking loss for some bike projects, the agency has never delayed a safety project solely to blunt complaints from car owners.

New York's leaders have shown that progress ultimately depends on the willingness of transportation officials and politicians to stand behind the proven safety and mobility benefits of improvements like protected bike lanes. "The leadership they have at the Department of Transportation and the higher level of political leadership has meant they have been able to move faster," said Shahum.

While San Francisco's leaders haven't stepped up for safer streets in the same way New York's have, it's not for any lack of popularity with the public. The SFBC has recently touted its findings that 7 in 10 San Franciscans rode a bike in 2009, and the SFMTA announced last month that bicycling rates have jumped 71 percent in the last five years. Comparing membership rates alone, White pointed out that San Francisco's bicycling movement is actually larger than New York's -- in fact, the SFBC has more members than Transportation Alternatives, despite New York being 10 times bigger.

San Francisco also has the advantage of a driving culture that's more respectful towards bicyclists than New York's, said White.

"I'm jealous of the humanity that I see here in your 'little seaside village,'" remarked White, adopting a characterization proffered by Jeffrey Tumlin, the forum's moderator. "It looks like sort of Portland and New York together here, in a way."

Demonstrating existing community support and the documented benefits of street improvements, White said, has been a successful strategy for Transportation Alternatives in dispelling myths about street redesigns. To counter opposition spouting doomsday predictions of traffic congestion, failing businesses, and increased danger, TA has promoted findings that bikeway projects in New York have consistently made streets safer for all users, with decreases in traffic injuries as high as 56 percent.

"Our job at TA has increasingly been to show that that support exists, going out there, collecting letters, collecting signatures, convincing the politicians to stand up and be vocal, getting positive media for them," said White. "Because of initiatives like this, we are seeing a new generation of these protected lanes and other facilities expanded into new neighborhoods."

The SFBC has employed a similar tactic, promoting findings like the demonstrated boon for bicycling and transit speeds on Market Street since the SFMTA began diverting car traffic off the street and painted the city's first physically-separated bike lane.

San Francisco planners often point to bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of street space as barriers to street improvements, but White said such excuses were ultimately shown to be invalid in New York. A major lesson advocates there have learned, he said, is "not taking 'No' for an answer."

"One thing that Jan Gehl said when he came to New York, because we were throwing up all the reasons why we had heard we couldn't do what they did in Copenhagen, or Paris or wherever -- he says, 'What the hell are you talking about? You have these enormous, wide streets,'" said White.

In San Francisco, he pointed out, the streets are even wider.

"I come here, and see all this real estate," he said.

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