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Pedaling toward Nirvana: Bike Boosters Trying to Make the Bay Area a Cycling Paradise

August 10, 2014
by Ben Christopher

On Tuesday the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition celebrated its 22nd annual “Golden Wheel Awards”—a waterfront event that gave the city’s bike boosters the opportunity to bust out their best Lycra and give themselves a collective pat on the back for another year well done. By all accounts, they had a lot of patting to do.

It has been a banner year for bike advocacy. The last 12 months have seen the launch of a region-wide bike share program, the end of rush hour bike bans on BART, the opening of a cycle route on the new Bay Bridge span, and the continued incursion of telltale green bike lanes into urban and suburban roadways once the exclusive dominion of cars.

And yet, turn your eyes outward and the lanes are always greener.

While the Bay Area may rank high on most metrics purporting to evaluate “bikeability” (or the more congenial “bike-friendliness”), we never quite make it to the front of the pack. That spot, predictably and categorically, belongs to Portland, Oregon where census data shows that more than 6 percent of all workers ride to work. That figure nearly doubles San Francisco’s proportion of pedal-powered commuters and triples Oakland’s. And while 8 percent of workers in collegiate, progressive Berkeley get to the office by bike (a figure not measured alongside Portland’s given the vast difference in city size), by global standards, comparing these single-digits amounts to damning with faint praise.

For an ambitious and unflattering comparison to our local bike promoting efforts, consider the international epicenters of pedaldom, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In those cities, more than one-third of commuters glide helmetlessly to work across bridges, chunnels and highways built specifically for bikes.

For bicycling proponents in the Bay Area, this raises a simple question: Why not us? Certainly, we have the density, we have better weather, and we have that oh-so-bike-friendly blend of youth, health-consciousness and eco-mindedness that ought to make us the Copenhagen of the Pacific Rim.

Do the close confines of Northern European living promote the use of the bicycle? Is there something fixed deep within the boom-and-bust-loving American psyche that draws us to the internal combustion engine? Is California fated to be synonymous with car culture? Or is it simply unfair to compare the flatness of the Dutch Lowlands to the calf-straining topography of the Bay?

Actually, the answer is more straightforward, says Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning: You get what you pay for.

“In a lot of these (Northern European) cities, upwards of 18 percent of the transportation budget is going to bicycle infrastructure,” he says. “In the U.S. we typically spend a fraction of 1 percent and so we get a fraction of 1 percent of all trips taking place on bike.” In San Francisco, the spending proportion is 2 percent.

Cervero’s “build it and they will come” argument is one that is commonly deployed by bicycle advocates and one based on the assumption that millions of Americans are just rearing to ditch their cars and jump on their bicycles—if only the infrastructure was there to support them.

“Cycling remains a marginal mode of transport in most American cities because it is widely viewed as requiring special equipment and training, physical fitness, and the courage and willingness to battle with motor vehicles on streets without separate lanes or paths,” writes Rutgers University urban planning professor John Pucher in an academic overview of bike infrastructure and transport policy in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. “Cycling is a mainstream mode of urban travel in northern Europe precisely because it does not require any of those things.”

State-sponsored bike-friendliness means not only throwing more money at bike paths fully separated from car traffic—in his view it also means making it more of a pain to drive a car through the use of traffic calming measures and high parking fees. The bicycle also has to be taken seriously at the top. Each of the three countries profiled in the study have national bicycling master plans.

And while American high school students take driver’s ed, young Danes and Dutch receive schoolyard training in safe cycling habits.

A couple of recent studies provide some support for the Pucher thesis. Last month, Portland State University’s Chris Monsere surveyed riders using nine protected bike lanes across the country, including the Oak and Fell Street cycle tracks in San Francisco. Aside from funneling cyclists from around the neighborhood onto these safer corridors, Monsere found that one in ten users reported that absent the new, safer infrastructure they would have taken another type of vehicle to work. In other words, San Francisco built it, and the cyclists came.

Similarly, in a paper published last winter with graduate students Benjamin Caldwell and Jesus Cuellar, UC Berkeley’s Cervero tried to measure the way bike facilities in and around various BART stations encourage commuters to bike to the stations. Not surprisingly, he found that the two stations which saw the biggest bump in cyclist ridership between 1998 and 2008, Ashby and Fruitvale, had both dramatically expanded secure bike parking options. Another result? Doubling, tripling—and in the case of Fruitvale, octupling—neighborhood bike lane length over the same time period.

Likewise, the “worst case scenario” station, Balboa Park, suffers a dearth of onsite and surrounding bike facilities, by San Francisco standards.

Cervero admits “we probably can’t match the numbers of Amsterdam.” For one, the Dutch have a tremendous head start on us. Even at the apex of car culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, the bicycle always made up a larger share of traffic on Amsterdam streets than it does in any American city today. Plus, there are all the Bay Area hills to consider—although here too, the Europeans may have us beat.

“Still, we can certainly improve upon a fraction of 1 percent,” says Cervero. “Some people think of these kinds of projects as ‘frills’ or ‘amenities.’ They’re not. They are basic provisions in the same way that automobiles need on-ramps and traffic lights. We need to shift our thinking on how to prioritize our transportation options.”

In the Bay Area, that shift is already underway.

Two years ago Rebecca Sanders, a postdoctoral researcher at Cal’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, asked more than 500 pedestrians, drivers, transit riders and cyclists along San Pablo avenue what kinds of changes they would like to see along the corridor to improve overall safety. The addition of a bicycle lane was the most suggested improvement.

“Slow but tectonic shifts that are occurring,” says Cervero. He notes that roughly one in five early 20-somethings in the United States doesn’t have a driver’s license. That’s double the figure from thirty years ago. “Quite a bit of it comes from the fact that increasing numbers of people are rejecting this idea of the nuclear family that lives out in the suburbs with two cars and they’re moving towards living more like they do in Europe.”

Whether or not everyone is equally on board with this Danish vision, city planning departments across the Bay Area are taking note. The continual expansion and enhancement of Berkeley’s bike boulevard network has helped boost ridership by some 60 percent over the last decade. The City of San Francisco has assumed the perhaps overly ambitious goal of convincing 20 percent of its commuters to bike to work by 2020. Even perennially cash-strapped Oakland is getting serious about bikes.

“I think it’s recognized by pretty much everyone here that biking is transportation, not just recreation,” says Kristine Shaff, a spokesperson for Public Works Oakland. “In the last couple of years and every year more so after that, what Oakland is doing is that we’re incorporating bicycle projects into existing paving programs. The funding is always not nearly enough, but we are starting to make these various improvements together now.”

The proposed redesign of Telegraph Avenue is an example of such an approach. Though you wouldn’t know it from the whir of the traffic, the pockmarked pavement or the lack of telling signage, the some 1,200 cyclists who brave the route daily make it one of the most well trafficked bicycle corridors in the city. Pursuing a balance of walking, biking, bussing and driving options—as opposed to accepting mere auto-supremacy—the city of Oakland is now taking public feedback on how to gussy up the avenue, and flirting with the idea of protected bike lanes once the pavement is broken.

“I do think it’s important when we talk about this that we not prioritize bikes over other modes of transportation,” says Shaff, “but they are definitely part of the mix.”

A part too large for some, which has triggered a backlash.

The notion that cyclists and their anti-automotive allies have led a silent coup within Bay Area transportation departments seems to underlie many of the recent squabbles over local land use. Take Restore Transportation Balance, the San Francisco ballot initiative backed by tech billionaire Sean Parker. It aims to roll back the tyranny of parking meters, increase funding for car garages, boost the representation of drivers at the SFMTA, and finally start fining those scofflaw cyclists for running red lights.

This same “take our city back” argument in San Francisco also found expression in last year’s campaign against a Polk Street bike path plan, after business owners complained that the requisite removal of street parking would be their ruin.

Still, despite these fits and starts—or to use the more appropriate vehicular metaphor, despite the chain occasionally coming off—the momentum seems to be moving in the direction of increasing bike-friendliness. And for that, Sacramento deserves some credit.

“The faster that cit­ies start build­ing pro­tec­ted bike lanes in­stead of the crappy door zone paths we’re all used to, the bet­ter.”

By setting statewide vehicle emission targets in 2008, for example, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 has pressured regional planners to “Dutchify” their planning and land-use policies. California policy makers are now aiming to overturn the state’s so-called “level of service” metric for the environmental assessment of new projects, a measure that prioritizes the speedy flow of car traffic at the expense of public transit, pedestrian, and bike infrastructure. Likewise prospects look bright for a bill sponsored by San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting that would reduce some of the barriers cities face when trying to build European-style protected bike lanes.

“The faster that cities start building protected bike lanes instead of the crappy door zone paths we’re all used to, the better,” says Dave Snyder, the executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition and a supporter of Ting’s bill. “This is something that this country didn’t do for a really long while, but I think we’re finally starting to make up for lost time.”

Snyder attributes part of that shift to lobbying from the bike industry. And now that we are starting to see the replacement of “crappy” facilities with protected lanes, he says, that momentum will be self-perpetuating as the traffic-wary come out to ride and as municipalities start seeing the financial upside.

“Once cities realize how cost-effective this kind of bike infrastructure is—that they’re relatively cheap to build, that they’re good for business, that they’re absolutely no operational costs compared to transit—I don’t think we’ll have any funding issues anymore.”

That day may not be so far off.

Cervero, who’s been a professor at Cal for 35 years, reports observing a huge increase in the number of students in the master’s program for city and regional planning who want to focus on bikes.

“Ten years ago, no one did that. Now, among the entering class, it’s anywhere from one-third to one-half,” he says. “Quite frankly, we still have a lot of old folks like myself who don’t know anything about bicycles. But there is a legion of new professionals coming from the top planning schools in the country who have a very different set of interests and priorities. I don’t see the enthusiasm for this diminishing.”

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