Bike to Work Day creates new cyclists, but the city still can't make them safer
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This year's Bike to Work Day, set for May 17, comes as San Francisco's cycling network lies dormant in a court-imposed coma. The city isn't allowed to make any physical improvements to promote safe bicycling until late next year at the earliest, more than two years after the injunction began. Yet that setback could be followed by the most rapid expansion of bike lanes in the city's history.
At issue is the San Francisco Bicycle Plan and its stated goal of making "bicycling an integral part of daily life in San Francisco." City resident Rob Anderson and attorney Mary Miles don't share that goal particularly when it translates to taking lanes and parking spaces from cars and they challenged the plan in court last year after it won unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Ironically, this environmentally benign mode of transportation was attacked under the state's landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires detailed studies of projects that might have impacts on the environment and measures that can be taken to offset those impacts.
City officials and bike advocates were shocked last June when Judge James Warren in his final ruling before his retirement issued a sweeping injunction against bike projects in the city, which was upheld and reinforced when Judge Peter Busch heard the case in September.
The judges found that city officials had taken an impermissible shortcut around CEQA by claiming the bike plan was exempt from its strictures. As the plan was being developed, some bike advocates and city officials had called for more resources to be put into doing the detailed studies CEQA calls for, and that's what now appears to be happening.
"The good thing about the lawsuit is it is forcing the city to do the traffic analysis that it should have done with the bike plan and it reveals the absurdity of our interpretation of environmental laws," Dave Snyder, the former executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), who is now a planner with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the Guardian.
Now city planners and consultants are preparing environmental impact reports (EIRs) on up to 60 proposed bike projects in the city, which will be queued up and ready to begin once the bike plan is approved. "The projects can be approved all at once," Snyder said.
At least, that's what could happen if the city's political leaders don't lose their will to create a more bicycle-friendly city.
Oddly enough, it was the vague, feel-good nature of the plan that created all the problems.
Cities are required to have a bike plan, updated every five years, to qualify for certain state funding. San Francisco did its first plan in 1997, and in 2001 transportation officials and bike advocates set out to develop an updated version.
From the beginning, there were divisions between those who wanted to focus on completing the bike network with ready-to-go projects and those who wanted a more comprehensive and innovative plan laying out policies for education, enforcement, safety, new traffic models, integration with public transit, and everything else associated with cycling.
Responsibility for developing the plan was shared by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the San Francisco Planning Department, and the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic, with significant input from the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee, the SFBC, and other groups. For reasons of expediency, the decision was made to focus on a relatively vague plan, one that made all sorts of high-minded statements and offered lofty goals.
The plan was presented as an effort to radically transform the roadways to make bicycling a more attractive option, but it didn't include the detailed transportation analysis needed to support that effort nor did it draw any conclusions about which car spaces to give over to bikes.
"The plan makes no decisions.... The plan has no measurable objectives anywhere in it," Snyder said, noting that the vague nature of the final product was the reason it was so uncontroversial. "Anytime anything passes unanimously, you know you didn't ask for enough."
Andy Thornley was chair of the Bicycle Advisory Committee when work on the plan got under way and now serves as program director for the SFBC, which was heavily involved on outreach for the plan. SFBC officials were shocked by the injunction but said the city should have devoted more resources to the project.
"It was a logical outcome to the city's undercommitment to the bike plan," Thornley said of the lawsuit. "There wasn't the commitment from the mayor on down to doing this right."
"We had discussions about what it means that the plan doesn't have any benchmarks," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SFBC and a member of the MTA board. Sure, it had the goal of having 10 percent of all vehicle trips be by bicycle by the year 2010. "Only later did we realize that the 100 pages behind it didn't support that goal."
MTA public affairs managers wouldn't allow the Guardian to speak directly to Oliver Gajda, the main staffer on the bike plan then and now. They required questions in writing and answered the one about lack of city support for the initial plan by writing that "the court's decision was not based on resource issues."
Newsom's press secretary, Nathan Ballard, also resisted admitting that the city did anything wrong, responding in writing to a written question by saying, "Actually, the City moved forward drafting and implementing this bike plan quite ambitiously, even though there was a risk it would be challenged in court."
Yet it was clear to all involved that doing the traffic analysis and other work would have headed off the injunction.
"Dave Snyder was always an advocate that the bike plan should be a bike plan and lay out what we'll see for bicyclists," Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, told the Guardian. "But the decision was made to do a bike plan in the abstract, not laying out specific routes."
Nonetheless, bike advocates say they're happy with the commitment that city officials are now showing. "Now we're clearly and unequivocally doing a bike plan," Radulovich said. "To some degree, the city has had to commit itself."
Bevan Dufty, chair of the Transportation Authority's Plans and Programs Committee, has been demanding that bureaucrats report to him regularly to show progress on the plan.
"I think the fact that we're seeing them regularly trotted out before the committee is a good thing, because it makes them hit their benchmarks," he told us.
Dufty also overcame the MTA's restrictive approach to public relations and facilitated our interview with Peter Albert, who took on the job of deputy director of planning for the MTA 10 months ago.
"Right now we're just looking to do the environmental review to clear the bike plan," Albert told us.
He said that staff and consultants are now going through 60 proposed projects to determine what their environmental studies will entail. Later this month that work will be presented during a scoping meeting, at which planners and advocates will decide whether some of the more complex projects will be eliminated from the plan.
"Our goal is to make sure this is as solid an environmental review as possible. We don't want to deal with any more legal issues," Albert said. "I feel right now there is a huge will to have this done correctly."
Yet advocates have a slightly different view of that political will, particularly given the projection of completed EIRs by July 2008, followed by the approval process, and maybe more court fights.
"We're not crazy about the timing, but the scope is good. We've moved to projects that we're planning to do," Thornley said. "So, in a backwards way, the commitment has come to the plan from the gun of the injunction."
"But we have real concerns about the timeline and scope getting shrunk," Shahum said. "Our fear is that we'll go from 60 projects down to 16."
That's because the plan will now look at the physical changes to roadways that are bound to get controversial once neighborhood groups grapple with the idea of losing traffic lanes or parking spaces.
"You've got a lot of people who are afraid of NIMBY opposition, and that goes from the mayor and the supervisors to the bureaucrats working on the plan," Shahum said. She added that the political leadership of San Francisco is more supportive of bicycling than it's ever been, "but you still have to work really hard for them to do the right thing in the end."
"Why did it take four years to get the Valencia Street bike lanes?" she asked, noting that the project has proved to be an unqualified success.
"They changed Valencia Street, and nothing [bad] happened, so that opened them up a little," Radulovich said of city officials. But only a little. "There is still a certain ad hoc quality to what they're doing, rather than being standards-based in how streets are designed."
City policy regarding bike projects which the Planning Commission will revisit this summer when it considers changes to how it interprets traffic level-of-service (LOS) impacts under CEQA is that anything that slows car traffic is considered a significant environmental impact that requires extensive study and mitigation.
"It's imperative for them to fix the way they do CEQA," Radulovich said. "LOS reform would help us in future projects."
Radulovich said that most California cities were built with a focus on automobiles before CEQA was even approved. Yet the law now requires expensive and time-consuming studies before those spaces can be converted to use by public transit, bicycles, or pedestrians.
"That's why, in some ways, CEQA has become an impediment to making us environmentally sustainable," Radulovich said. "It's turned into a tool that slows down the taking of spaces back from cars."
While the detailed EIR work is being done, Albert and others say the city is still committed to doing bicycling planning work, applying for grants, and making sure San Francisco can move forward quickly once the injunction is lifted. "We've been set back, but we're not stopped," he told us.
"The current injunction is frustrating because we want to be moving forward with bike improvements each month. While we cannot make physical changes such as bike lanes and bike racks, planning and design are continuing," Ballard said, also noting that the Mayor's Office is doing regular conference calls to ensure the bike plan moves forward quickly.
"I and the bike advocates are pushing to use this time to do the planning work so we're ready to go once we have an approved plan," said Sup. Chris Daly, the only regular cyclist on the Board of Supervisors. Once the injunction is lifted, he said, "You will have the most rapid striping of bike lanes in the history of the city." *