Recently, Mayor Ed Lee affirmed San Francisco’s commitment to We Are Still In as a rebuke to the United States’ planned withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. It is heartening to see and certainly something most San Franciscans can agree on: we care deeply about the environment.
One of the ways I show my commitment is by using a bicycle as my primary means of transportation. I was excited to ditch my car when I moved here; I still don’t regret the decision. I enjoy biking, it’s good exercise, and frequently, it’s the fastest way to many destinations almost anytime of day. However, if we want to continue to affirm our commitment as stewards of sustainable world, it’s paramount we do a better job of making biking safer and more accessible for all San Franciscans.
I commute from the Inner Richmond to Embarcadero BART for work. It’s approximately 4.5 miles. I ride in a bike lane or on a path for approximately 1.5 miles of that, none of that protected from traffic by infrastructure. Even the parts SFMTA calls “protected” are frequently only separated from automobiles by paint. When I reverse my commute home, I ride through a hundred yards in Golden Gate Park protected by hit posts. That’s it.
My ride includes busy stretches with only sharrows such as McAllister and Market. Most folks are aghast when I tell them I ride on Market almost daily. I don’t blame them. It’s a harrowing stretch with too many vehicles and almost no dedicated space for other modes of transportation. It doesn’t have to be this way.
While SFMTA makes improvements on the margins, such as the Polk Street Contraflow, they continue to build bike lanes that don’t work, such as the recent paint-only lanes on Golden Gate. They are frequently clogged with parked cars and unsafe for people biking. That lane has worked so poorly the SF Bike Coalition is opposing a similar configuration on Turk. SFMTA has more ambitious designs, but there’s always some reason they end up getting changed. Many folks decry the loss of parking or lanes for driving or the fire department claims they won’t be able to provide adequate emergency service and the design ends up being changed. Whatever the cause, there always seems to be a reason to make the bike infrastructure less safe until it’s questionable whether it’s accomplishing anything at all. For example, anyone who rides down Valencia knows the bike lane has become a loading zone for folks using ride-hailing apps these days.
Despite all this, city data shows bike ridership is growing. More folks are choosing to use a bike as their everyday vehicle. We are already out there. While we would appreciate, benefit from, and deserve better infrastructure, we need to emphasize building infrastructure for those who don’t currently feel comfortable enough to bike in the City. That means protected lanes which are actually divided from traffic physically, not just with paint. That means critically thinking about and addressing which neighborhoods are connected to good infrastructure and which ones are not. One of the best protected bike lanes in the City is in the Bayview, but it’s not connected to other good biking options, so who does it serve? While we dither, folks like Moises Chavez, Kate Slattery, and Heather Miller die due to irresponsible deadly driving on unsafe streets. We failed them, and too many others. It isn’t hard to build equitable infrastructure for all San Franciscans; we just don’t.
There are promising signs, though. SFMTA has put in more hit posts and added physical barriers in locations throughout the City (though sometimes only due to the prodding of local activists). SFMTA has strong designs for dangerous corridors like Howard and Folsom. But we need to be better. We have not always had cars and parking in our cities. How we use our roads are decisions we actively made and continue to make; we dedicate an excessive amount of space to free or nearly-free car parking on our streets. We dedicate a lot of street space to private automobiles. If we want to continue to show our commitment to the environment, we need to change those things. It won’t change overnight. Cities renowned for their bike infrastructure like Amsterdam made decisions decades ago to become what they are today. But biking is the greenest way to travel. If we truly care about the environment, then we need to be steadfast in building actual bike infrastructure. We must disentangle ourselves from the cycle of private automobile ownership to create a more equitable San Francisco. I look forward to the day my entire commute from the Richmond to downtown is in protected bike lanes. I can’t wait to see who else joins me once we create space for them.
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