Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco
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"Ten years ago I was working too hard and started riding my bike to the office on weekends to get exercise," says Jean Fraser, a married mother of two and CEO of San Francisco Health Plan. "I found it was cheaper, faster, and more fun than driving or riding the bus."Skip to next paragraph
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Commuting this way saves her $250 a month in parking fees and $2,000 a year on gas, Ms. Fraser says.
She rides about 30 minutes each way from her home in the Richmond District to her office south of Market Street. She often bikes to meetings midday – carrying a briefcase in a bike bag, and wearing a pants suit, including cuff clip to keep her pants away from the oily bike chain.
Urban planner Gabriel Metcalf also rides daily to work wearing a suit, with a briefcase strapped to the back wheel as he has done for 12 years since moving here from Colorado. He relies on a chain guard, and keeps his hair cut short to avoid the imprint of his plastic Bell Helmet. "The planet is in an environmental crisis, and I think our solutions are going to have to be things like biking that actually make our lives better," he says.
The power of bike riders here stems from savvy leadership and a willingness to compromise with city leaders, observers say. In one example, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Shahum to the Municipal Transportation Agency's board of directors even after the SFBC supported Mr. Newsom's opponent in the 2003 election.
Trying to behave better is another tactic that many in the coalition have tried. That means not running people off the sidewalks, not scaring crosswalk pedestrians when racing down a hill, not dodging through traffic or riding in the wrong lanes against oncoming cars.
"Some bikers are still rude enough that it ticks you off," says Molly Northrup, a 20-year resident. "But for the most part, it seems like they have gone out of their way to clean up their act."
They also have established goodwill with the last-Friday-of-the-month ritual known as Critical Mass. Between 600 and 2,500 bicyclists gather at dusk and pedal shoulder-to-shoulder through city neighborhoods, while singing, playing boom boxes, and waving flags and banners – and taking up the length of at least two city blocks. Ten years ago, riders were often treated as obnoxious scofflaws intruding on civility. Now, people mostly welcome the parade as it passes.
"I'd say about 90 percent of the city believes in what they are doing," says a police officer riding behind the some 1,500 bikers during the Critical Mass bike ride last month. The loosely organized event has grown over the past 10 years that a police escort is routine, he says. What is different now is "widespread acceptance ... even affection," he adds, noting applause from nearby cafes, honks from bus drivers and cabbies, and cheers from residents.
In this supportive environment, the court case is just a speed bump, even if there is a ruling in favor of the bike plan's critics, most observers say. City officials say the required citywide impact study would probably take no longer than six months. Each project of the overall bike plan has its own environmental review during which local homeowners and business owners can voice their concerns, they say.
In the meantime, the SFBC has developed maps of routes through town, many of which zigzag to avoid the steepest hills. Shahum says many of the routes between key landmarks – Civic Center and City College – fall short of completion by just a few blocks, and that is enough to stop some riders from using the route.
"It's like having a bridge 75 percent built," she says. "You can't just dream yourself over that last part."