Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco

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

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.

"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."

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."

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