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Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2006


By day, they are sober-minded city professionals – teachers, doctors, lawyers – who forgo cars and buses to commute by bicycle.

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One Friday night a month, they gather in this liberal bastion of activism for the cause of cleaner air and quieter and safer streets. One thousand to 2,000 strong on average, they pedal through traffic lights and stop signs like a diminutive band of Hobbit cyclists out to conquer the armies of Sauron (car owners of San Francisco).

"It has taken a decade of organizing and lobbying, but bike riders in San Francisco have put themselves into the forefront of city politics," says Supervisor Chris Daly, one of 11 supervisors who last year gave a unanimous thumbs up to a five-year plan to create skeins of official pathways for bicyclists all over the city.

About 40,000 residents say they commute by bike regularly, which is less than 10 percent of the city's 450,000 registered car owners. They are led by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), which has secured backing from the public and the city to develop plans for more bike lanes, official bike routes, bike parking, and bike racks on buses.

But not all residents are embracing the city's five-year plan. Critics filed a lawsuit to put the brakes on it. And in June, a San Francisco Superior Court judge put the plan on hold, preventing it from going forward until the court rules on the case. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.

"We are about to redesign the streets of San Francisco on behalf of less than 2 percent of the population – based on a fantasy prophesy that people will get out of their cars and start biking...." says Rob Anderson, an activist and blogger, citing 2000 census figures of bike commuters.

The lawsuit, filed by Mr. Anderson and others, doesn't challenge the plan's merits, but invokes a state law which requires a study to be done on the environmental impact. "When people look at what it will mean to their neighborhoods to lose parking and lanes for cars and buses, they will say, 'Hey this is over the top, I don't want it,' " says Anderson. Some shopkeepers, too, worry that replacing parking spaces in front of stores with bike lanes could hurt business.

But bicycle coalition organizers, including Leah Shahum, director of the SFBC, counter with a recent study by David Binder Research, which found that 73 percent of San Francisco residents favor creating more bike lanes in the city.

If more lanes were available, 33 percent said they would commute by bike more often, the study found. When bike lanes were added to Valencia Street – a key corridor for bikers cutting through town– bike riding there went up 144 percent in the first year, Ms. Shahum says.

"This is a case of, if you build it they will come," says Shahum, whose organization has about 6,000 members and five full-time staffers. It has a yearly budget of about $500,000 raised from membership dues, donations, foundations, and events.

The size and influence of the SFBC has made it a model for large cities such as Miami and St. Louis, which also seek ways to ease traffic, parking, noise, and air pollution.

"This movement is spreading to cities all across America," says Dave Snyder, director of program development for the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of state and local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. "Organizers call and want to know how San Francisco has done what it has done in creating membership, raising money, winning public support, and pushing legislation."

By most accounts, it has done much through an articulate base of members who care about personal health and reducing dependence on foreign oil.