On a drizzly Feb. 17 evening in First Baptist Church, near the intersection of Market and Octavia streets that has become notorious for bicycle versus car collisions, more than 200 members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition came together to plot a major offensive.
"We honestly weren't sure how many people would come out tonight, so this is very impressive," SFBC executive director Leah Shahum told the young, engaged crowd. "We are embarking tonight on the biggest, most ambitious project that the Bike Coalition has ever taken on."
For almost three years, the bicycle advocates have been waiting. Since the city's bicycle plan was struck down by the courts in 2006 for lack of adequate environmental studies, there's been a legal injunction against any bike-related projects, leaving an incomplete network of bike lanes even as the number of cyclists in the city soared and SFBC's membership reached 10,000.
Now, with city officials expecting to have a new plan approved and the injunction lifted by this summer, SFBC has set the ambitious goal of getting all 56 near-term projects mentioned in the plan approved by Bike to Work Day, May 14.
"We're in a fine position to get the whole enchilada, all 56 projects," Shahum said, a goal that would boost the current 45 miles of bikes lanes to 79 miles and the 23 miles of streets with the "sharrow" bike markings up to 98 miles.
While some knowledgeable sources in the bicycle community say a three-month timeline isn't realistic for this whole package, the energy and coordination displayed at that meeting shows that this will be a formidable campaign with the potential to rapidly change the streets of San Francisco.
"There's nothing more to stop this city from going forward with these projects," Andy Thornley told the crowd, sounding more like a military strategist than the SFBC program director that he is. He flipped through slides and stopped at one showing members of the Municipal Transportation Agency Board, which will consider the projects.
"Your mission is to convince these seven people," Thornley told the crowd. "They are the people who say yes to traffic changes or no to traffic changes."
The crowd was divided into nine groups representing different neighborhoods in the city. On the tables at the center of each group were maps, timelines, and other documents, along with sign-up sheets that would be used to organize everyone into online discussion groups to plot strategy and discuss progress and obstacles. Large pieces of butcher paper headlined "Key Stakeholders" and "Issues and Opportunities" were laid out for group brainstorming.
But Thornley made clear that each group would work toward a common goal. "We've got to have a whole network," he said. "I don't want people to lose sight of the fact that the network is the thing."
SFBC community planner Neal Patel defined the expectations: "Every week or every other week, we'll be asking you to do something."
The groups plan to reach out to supporters and potential opponents in the neighborhoods to make decisions on preferred options within each project, rally the support of political leaders and other influential people, generate media coverage, develop persuasive arguments, and generally create a grassroots political blitzkrieg.
"It's very easy for the city to say no," Amandeep Jawa, an SFBC board member, told the Mission District group.
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