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Protected Bike Lanes

Superhero of Safer 17th

Streetsblog talks with Peter Belden, an independent advocate who helped lead the effort for a safer 17th

Belden, wearing his well-earned Superman t-shirt, in front of 17th. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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A project to replace 17th Street's stripe-only bike lanes in Potrero with parking-protected and plastic-post-demarcated lanes was approved by the SFMTA board on Tuesday, March 5. These approvals don't just happen—they require countless hours of hard work by professional and volunteer advocates. Streetsblog sat down with one of those advocates, Peter Belden, a 50-year-old father of two and founder of the group "Safer17th" to ask him about his journey from being just another San Francisco car driver to a hard-working advocate and "radical cyclist."


Streetsblog: So here we are in Philz Coffee on 17th, looking out at a street soon to be transformed. You must be feeling good about all this. How long have you been working on it?

Peter Belden: Four years. Just today I was looking at an email I sent in 2020 about the petition. So four years.

SB: How'd you get started?

PB: I had never ridden a bike in San Francisco. I used to ride to work in DC when I lived there, just out of college, working for the National Wildlife Federation. But then when I moved to San Francisco in 2003, I just drove everywhere ... occasionally I took transit.

SB: Why'd you stop riding when you got here?

PB: I was scared of getting killed. And it just wasn’t in my frame of reference. I talked to other people who biked, but driving was just "normal." Like so many other people I drove because everyone else drove. Then we went to Copenhagen for a week for vacation.

SB: And you saw the light.

PB: It was a life-changing experience. I enjoyed riding my bike in Copenhagen. You really experience the city when you’re on a bike. And as a parent, it’s so freeing because many parents like me spend half their time driving their kids around. But in Copenhagen, I could just say to my kids, “how about you bike to the beach because you want to go to the beach and we’ll bike to the museum because that’s where we want to go, and we’ll meet you later?" If we lived in Copenhagen they could also just bike to school and soccer practice.

SB: Then you came back to the reality of San Francisco streets.

PB: When I came back I said to myself that I should try this, I should try biking in San Francisco. That was in 2019. And to go to most places you could get part way there in relatively safety, and then you always are forced onto a street where it's not safe. I live on the western side of Potrero, and I would go to the UCSF gym every day and ride down 17th. And I’m like this is just not safe. I was riding with a ten-year-old at the time.

SB: So that's how you got into advocacy?

PB: I heard about the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition pushing for bike lanes on the Embarcadero. And I had two reactions. One, that yes we should have them in front of the ferry building. But then I thought, wait a minute, why are we pushing for a platinum bike lane there when we have all these shitty bike lanes or no bike lanes going to the Bayview.

SB: You're against bike lanes on the Embarcadero?

PB: No, of course not. I supported the lanes on the Embarcadero. It's just so ridiculous that we should push bit-by-bit, when it's so obvious that what we really need is a citywide network.

SB: So we need protected bike lanes everywhere.

PB: I launched a petition for a “connected and protected” citywide network. I learned two things, one is that sucks. I had 1000 people sign my petition, but at the time you could download the file with the zip codes. The majority of people who signed my petition didn't even live in California. For local topics that is harmful.

SB: But that works both ways?

PB: Yes. When I hear about people fighting against bike lanes, I believe 75 percent of them don’t even live in this city. It's just some random person in Michigan or wherever who doesn't like bike lanes. So I started doing it all by hand on Google Sheets instead.

SB: It seems obvious that you can't have bike lanes that only go for a few blocks. What makes getting a network so challenging?

PB: The electeds we have now fetishize the hyper-local. They act like all I should fight for or care about is a bike lane in my neighborhood, so you get these disjointed bike lanes.

SB: So we need better leaders across the board, at all levels, who support bike safety but aren't so parochial?

PB: In 2020, I was trying to help out with the Great Highway becoming a permanent park, and the Sierra Club was on the other side of that fight.

SB: I remember that. Crazy.

PB: Their position was this is a change, taking the cars away is a change. And anything that’s a change requires an environmental impact study. So they wanted the cars back before doing a study.

SB: That's incredible.

PB: Local Sierra Clubs set their own positions, with elected leaders. So I encouraged people to run. We won the election. And now I’m very involved with the Sierra Club in San Francisco*. And now they're supporting density, bike lanes, and transit. And it’s all through organizing people and getting people involved.

SB: So petitions are great, but they don't do anything if the wrong supervisors, mayor, etc. are in office. We need better electeds from the Sierra Club all the way up.

PB: There’s only so much we can do with the wrong people in office. We have to change elections. In this recent election, there was a Democratic County Central Committee vote. That is the most important election nobody has heard of, because they only endorse certain candidates, so having people on the DCCC who support safe streets makes a huge difference. It makes it more likely they will support candidates for mayor and supervisor who support safer streets.

SB: So that should be the long game? Whittle away at elected positions until we get people who give a damn about safe streets?

PB: Yes, that's the long game. Why does SoMa have such amazing bike lanes but Potrero doesn’t? Jane Kim and Matt Haney.

SB: The past two supervisors for D6.

PB: You change one person and that can really affect the bike lanes in that part of the city. Why are there almost no bike lanes in D3?

SB and PB, together: Aaron Peskin.

PB: One of the most important things is identifying more supporters and organizing citywide. It’s great to fight for this corridor, great to change elected officials, and work on a citywide network, but most of all we need a bigger army. That is also a long-term effort. I like the way that Safer 17th had a synergy with "the MinneSLOWta Slow Street," which had a synergy with "Safer Illinois." We need more and more people and more and more organizations.

SB: So returning to 17th, it's not done either. This project will make things safer, but--

PB: It’s 17th between Potrero Avenue and Mississippi. Why Mississippi and not Pennsylvania? This project is a step forward, but it should have gone further. The city doesn't control the street for that last block. There's funding from project impact fees to create a bike-ped bridge by Mariposa over the Caltrain tracks, where 17th Street comes to an end. But the Safer 17th project won't reach it because of that gap.

SB: So that's next on your agenda?

PB: Yup. Get it to the future bridge.

SB: And west into the Mission of course.

PB: (Nodding).

SB: So we just need to replace most of the elected officials from the committees to the mayor's office, and then on up?

PB: One of the things I like about bike lanes in San Francisco is it’s an issue that doesn’t fall into the two ideological camps. The media described Jane Kim as a progressive, and she’s very pro bike. Peskin is also called progressive, and he’s not pro bike. Matt Dorsey has been called a moderate, but he’s pro bike. It’s refreshing that people have different views on this because of the position itself.

SB: Rather than ideology.

PB: Exactly.

SB: So as we covered previously, while these bike lanes will be safer, they still won't be fully protected.

PB: The way people casually use the word, it is. But what you and I and others realize is that paint and posts are not protection. Now, some sides of the street will be separated by plastic posts, and I think the bike lane will be safer. Right now people are riding in the door zone on both sides, which is definitely not safe. This will have painted posts on one side, with parking-protected on the other. On narrower portions of the street it will be paint and posts on both sides.

SB: So the fight will continue to add concrete.

PB: There’s a short area on 17th, between Vermont and San Bruno, that runs under 101. It's called the Potrero Gateway project and it's under DPW. That's going to add wider sidewalks, some art, and some greening. The idea is that’s the gateway to the neighborhood, so let’s make it nice. So a few of us said, well, why don't we also improve the bike lanes. And DPW and SFMTA said “okay, no problem.” So for that short section, they're doing concrete-protected.

SB: That's great.

PB: They're eliminating parking on both sides and replacing it with a two-foot wide, six-inch-high, curb-protected bike lane. It's going to be awesome.

SB: So why only there?

PB: Because that section is under the highway. There are no houses or businesses on that street.

SB: So nobody to offend. Nobody to scream about parking.

PB: Except for the couple of people who used to park there. And that gets back to electeds fetishizing the hyperlocal.

SB: So again, your point is that we really need better electeds. Are you willing to run for office yourself?

PB: No. I don’t want to do it. I think public service is so important and so noble and I’m so grateful to people who do it, but it is thankless. Plus I'd have to deal with a lot of serious issues that aren't as interesting to me. Maybe if we had a bike mayor, I'd run for that.

SB: That would be nice. We could use a bike mayor.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

*Belden emphasized he is speaking in his personal capacity, not as a member of the Sierra Club

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