No matter the grade of the street, getting a separated bike lane installed anywhere in San Francisco is always an uphill battle.
On Polk, local businesses have stalled an MTA proposal that hinted at the possibility of a cycle track, decrying the plan's removal of parking as an attack on the economic vibrancy of the neighborhood. Over in the Panhandle, the vision of twin lanes on either side of the DMV building funneling cyclists safely between the Wiggle and the park remains glaringly unfulfilled as the Oak project is delayed yet again. And all along Market Street, where the Bicycle Coalition has been pushing for separated lanes from Octavia to Embarcadero for years, well, why would you want to bike much farther than 8th Street, anyway?
Fortunately for local bike lane backers, Martha Roskowski is on the case. As the director of the Green Lane Project, Roskowski is leading a two-year effort to help six cities that are "national leaders" (that includes San Francisco) to get an Amsterdam-grade system of separated bike lanes on the ground as quickly as possible.
In celebration of the project's first birthday -- and to get Roskowski's thoughts on the future of cycling in the city -- I spoke to her via phone at her Denver office this week.
SF Weekly: There are so many ways that a city can be made safer or more comfortable for cyclists. Why such a specific focus on separated bike lanes?
Martha Roskowski: We focus on protected bike lanes because they're totally transformative. They're one of the best ways to quickly and dramatically change how biking actually works in a city.
Right now, in most cities, the places where people can ride safely are broken up. In quiet, residential neighborhoods, you might find a lot of streets where bikes and cars coexist without too much trouble. But then those streets intersect with a big, busy boulevard and that can be pretty hostile for the average person riding a bike. Obviously, people need to be able make the connections from one neighborhood to the next, and so separated lanes help people make those connections.
SFW: Some might argue that what we have in San Francisco is enough. To get from the Mission to SOMA, there's a painted bike lane on Folsom, and getting from Castro to Nopa, you can take the Wiggle. So what's the local problem?
MR: There are cyclists in every city that are completely comfortable with the status quo, but they make up a very small minority. The main reason that more people don't ride bikes in our cities is that they don't feel safe doing so. Up until recently, the standard practice (at most) has been to stripe a single bike lane and call it a day. A lot of people just don't feel comfortable with that. When you add a bike lane with that additional level of protection or separation, it changes how people feel. It also sends a clearer signal to drivers where everyone is supposed to be. As a result, you get more people on bikes.
SFW: In other words, "if you build it, they will ride."
MR: Something like that. Look, assuming San Francisco is interested in getting more people on bikes -- and I think you should be, for all kinds of reasons -- that means changing how the streets work. That means, taking a look at the existing street system and asking, "can we carve out some safe space for people on bikes?"
SFW: But that can be a zero-sum game. Put in a bike path for a cyclist and you have to take away some driver's lane or parking space.
MR: Streets are public space. For decades, we have ceded that public space almost exclusively to cars, but now I think we're starting to rethink that arrangement. Streets are not just seen as a place for cars, anymore, but more broadly, as a place for the movement of people. Where it gets most difficult, of course, is where parking is involved. People get hysterical about parking.
SFW: You're talking about Polk Street.
MR: The SFMTA has done research that shows 85 percent of the people showing up on Polk are coming by means other than cars. And yet, there's this part of the American psyche that equates driving and parking with customers and business. There's this idea that if people can't come by car easily, they're just not going to come.
That's what's going on over on Polk Street. And of course, it really is a challenging time to be running a small business, so when the city comes along and says, "we're going to change how this entire street works," there's an immediate reaction that's like, "oh my God, this is going to make things even worse!" But really, that's an emotional argument. And it is difficult to address emotional concerns with data.
SFW: But you're going to try. Gathering data on these types of issues is part of the Green Lane Project's purpose.
MR: The data out there does consistently back up our side of the argument, but to be fair, there's not really a robust history of research on the impact of these facilities. That's because, at least in North America, they're quite new. That's why we're working with Portland State University to do a research project that's going to gather data on at least one traffic corridor in each city. We'll be looking at metrics like collision data, to check for changes in safety, and at overall use of the new lanes, to see how much they encourage more cycling. Where it makes sense, we'll be looking at economic data too.
SFW: What cities could San Francisco learn from when it comes to cycling?
MR: The best example for us is New York City. They started building these protected lanes in 2007. There's a report they put out last fall that looked at sales-tax data along business corridors where separated bike lanes had been introduced and in not one of the 11 cases did business suffer. In most cases, business actually improved, sometimes dramatically. You also saw reductions in crashes, decreases in speeding, better bus service. The indicators were all generally positive.
You also have Chicago, which has put down a lot of these projects just in the last year. A big part of their rational for doing so was to make the city attractive to high-tech employers. When you look at the Twitters, the Googles, the Amazons of the world, they're locating to cities. Why? It's not because rent is so cheap and parking is so plentiful. It's because that's where smart young people want to live. And in a lot of cases, smart young people want to ride their bikes.
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.