As an inner city dweller, I think about where I am going before choosing my mode of transportation. In San Francisco this choice can be the beginning of all out war.
No matter what type of transportation you choose, someone is going to be mad about it. The City of San Francisco’s transportation goal is 50% of all travel within the city limits in something other than private vehicle by 2018. A laudable goal, but one fraught with animosity. Cyclists and pedestrians say that they are not listened to regarding safety (the city averages 17 pedestrian and 2-3 cyclist deaths every year). Automobile owners suggest this is an anti-car town. The number of parking spaces in the densest parts of the city is shrinking, and the number of parking meters are increasing in parts of town that never had them before. Parking meters are charging more and the metering hours are being extended to include weekends and holidays.
San Francisco is the second densest city in the United States, behind New York and in front of Los Angeles. San Francisco also has the oldest fleet of transit vehicles in North America. This has led to a decrease in service and on time performance of only 57.2% this past August. All this at a time when the riding population is increasing. Those that find public transportation can not meet their needs often have no choice but to opt for cycling or walking.
Bicyclists in San Francisco have increased by 71% since 2006 with approximately 75,000 daily riders. San Francisco is 3rd in trips to work via bicycle for major cities with populations over 300,000 and yet just under 1% of San Franciscans ride bikes to and from work. Less than .02% of New Yorkers ride bikes to work, and in the number one U.S. city Eugene, Oregon, 5.64% commute by bike. San Francisco’s overall bicycling rate looks slightly better, at 3.5 percent of all trips, this number ties for second among major American cities like Seattle, lagging only behind Portland at 6 percent.
Urban bike riding is fraught with dangers, and as a century cyclist, any cycling I choose to do within the city begins at dawn. And yet, when it comes to urban populations, San Francisco is ahead of the curve on the biking war.
A signal re-timing mechanism called the Green Wave, begun as a test program on Valencia Street, is now permanent. Following examples set in cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Portland, this signal optimization system keeps vehicles traveling at a steady cycle-friendly 13 mph. All-green lights provide a great convenience for bicycle travel, effectively removing the strenuous stop-and-go movement that often encourages pushing red lights. Along with pedestrians, cyclists also experience a much safer environment as motor vehicles travel at minimally fatal speeds. Additionally the Green Wave helps reduce noise and air pollution. What makes San Francisco’s Green Wave unique is that it is the first to work both ways simultaneously.
A second Green Wave was installed on 14th Street this year, and the staff from the SF County Transportation Authority plans to propose “four to six potential new Green Wave corridors along the existing San Francisco Bike Network,” with hope they could be completed in 2013.
Along Market Street bike lanes are “Green Carpets” , not to be confused with the Green Wave. I first encountered this type of bike lane while riding the Tour de Tucson, and believe me I was impressed. I was thrilled to see that San Francisco is adopting this around town. The advantage of this green pavement is two-fold. The motorist is made far more aware that this is a bike lane, and the cyclist knows where to go and what to do. One of the most difficult things to navigate when riding in an urban environment is the turn. The cyclist may be going straight while a car is attempting a right hand turn. On the other side a cyclist must act as an automobile when making a left hand turn. The Green paths make it easy for even a beginning cyclist to understand the rules of the road.
The corner of 8th and Howard in SoMa
The City recently put a buffered bike lane near my house in SoMa: I have ridden on it, it still doesn’t make me feel safe. This lane on Eighth Street was prioritized partially because of its history of pedestrian injuries.
Proposed protected bike and pedestrian lanes
The recommended long-term plan for Seventh and Eighth Streets includes a parking-protected bike lane, pedestrian bulb-outs, and greenery. By moving the buffered bike lane to the curb and placing the car parking lane to its left, a parking-protected bike lane would provide a physical barrier separating motor traffic and bike traffic, and the design could include pedestrian islands at the crosswalks. Bus stop boarding islands could also eliminate the need for Muni buses to switch. This is an expensive solution, but one that, if implemented in the more dense areas of town, will encourage people to get out of their cars and walk or ride, not only because it is much safer, but because it feels much safer.
Sharrows on The Wiggle at Steiner Street (photo Courtesy of B.I.K.A.S.)
A third busy bike riding area in San Francisco is The Wiggle. The Wiggle is the flattest route connecting the east and west parts of the city, and is a magnet for bike traffic. The twists and turns of the route can confuse new riders, and high-speed motor vehicle traffic makes cycling feel too dangerous for many people. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition envisions wider sidewalks, more public seating, higher-visibility bike markings, and streets engineered for automobile speeds that don’t threaten people traveling on foot or by bike.
The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has already rolled out ladder crosswalks and green-backed sharrows (lanes that are shared by both cars and bicycle) to emphasize pedestrian and bike priority along the roadways of The Wiggle.
The conversation about bicycles, pedestrians and auto owners cannot be complete without the discussion of simple manners. Why do we all forget that? When I drive, I keep an eagle eye out for cyclists. I am sympathetic. I allow the elderly to cross intersections at their own pace, even if it means I sit through two light changes, but I expect the same in return. If I am driving, I expect cyclists and pedestrians to obey the rules of the road. The concept that the pedestrian and cyclist always has the right-of-way, may be legal, but assuming that can also be deadly.
San Francisco is a leader in the push to get people on bicycles and walking as their primary mode of transportation. I simply hope that as we seek new innovations that make safety a priority, we realize there are many types of transportation needs, and divisiveness does not help to solve the problems.
Get in touch with the author @PQPP3.