A Victory for Bike and Safety Activism on Upper Market Protected Bike Lanes

SFBC's Janelle Wong at the front of a line of advocates who urged the Board of Supervisors to reject any more delays to protected bike lanes on Upper Market. Photo: SFBC
SFBC's Janelle Wong at the front of a line of advocates who urged the Board of Supervisors to reject any more delays to protected bike lanes on Upper Market. Photo: SFBC

As Streetsblog readers have surely seen on social media, heard through the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), or read in the SF Examiner, advocates fended off a last attempt (one hopes) to jam up the Upper Market parking protected bike lane project. Yesterday afternoon, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to deny a procedural appeal that would have resulted in long delays.

“The decision by the Board of Supervisors upholds the project, rejects the appeal and considers the issues resolved,” is how the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition put it in its statement. “What this means for you is that the protected bike lanes on Upper Market Street will be implemented as rapidly as the City is capable.”

In yesterday’s call-to-action post, Streetsblog explained how an appeal of the environmental review of the project, brought by David Pilpel, a regular at SFMTA meetings, threatened to delay construction. Pilpel, who was the only person to speak in favor of the delay at the Supervisors’ meeting, said “I believe that the concerns of the fire department about whether they can … quickly deploy ladder trucks … is a significant concern,” during his testimony. Readers will recall that the Fire Department was concerned that parking protected bike lanes, in conjunction with Muni’s trolley wire over that stretch of Market, would make it difficult for them to deploy ladder trucks when fighting building fires. After contentious negotiations between SFMTA and the fire department, however, it was determined that this issue could be mitigated.

However, Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who represents Upper Market, was rumored to have wanted to delay construction, something he strenuously denied during the meeting. “My first job in San Francisco was as a bike messenger in downtown. I’ve always supported parking-protected bike lanes. Anyone who says I changed my position is simply misleading the public.”

But, as Streetsblog pointed out in yesterday’s post, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition didn’t think that was the case. In a statement published Friday, Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier wrote: “Behind the scenes, we’ve learned that Supervisor Jeff Sheehy is waffling on whether to further delay already-approved bike lanes on Upper Market Street.”

Fortunately, pressure from Bike Coalition members and, we would like to think, Streetsblog readers, helped solidify support for the bike lanes. The Coalition’s spokesman, Chris Cassidy, said that “Over 400 emails flooded Supervisor Jeff Sheehy’s inbox … more than back in February when the project was first supported by the Supervisors.”

Whether you believe Sheehy or not, it certainly didn’t hurt that activists and supporters of bicycle and pedestrian safety were out in force at the hearing. “I’ve witnessed and experienced so many near misses, I personally count myself lucky that I haven’t seen someone killed on Market Street,” said Janelle Wong, operations manager at the SFBC, during her public testimony. “These few blocks are about life and death.”

“In the last five-year period, there have been 172 collisions on Upper Market. It is unacceptable to delay safety improvements,” said Natasha Opfell, Community Organizer for Walk San Francisco, who also testified. “We all support this project. These safety improvements are critical,” said Andrea Aiello of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District.

It was interesting to note that the ten citizens who came to speak (all of them, except Pilpel, were against delaying the bike lanes) were women. It might have been a coincidence, but research has found that women are especially more likely to cycle if protected infrastructure is available. Streetsblog readers will recall that was part of the impetus for the creation of the advocacy group, “Her Bike Lane.

Meanwhile, Sheehy cautioned the SFMTA and the Planning Department to work harder to stave off public disagreements between city agencies–meaning, in this case, with the San Francisco Fire Department. “You have two city agencies in violent disagreement, it doesn’t reflect well on the city.”

Fair enough, but it’s important to note that the fire department does more work cleaning up the carnage from car wrecks than anything else; they could more aptly be called the “car crash department.” City planners must do what they can to help first responders do their jobs–even where that means removing street parking to facilitate curbside building access. But if San Francisco’s streets are ever going to be as safe as streets in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and other countries that have inspired the whole “Vision Zero” approach, it will require protected bike lanes. And if enough of them are installed, in addition to other safety measures, perhaps  the fire department can one day go back to fighting building fires as their primary mission.

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