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A staffer thrusts open the glass doors of the San Francisco Public Library's Mission Bay branch, rushes toward the bike racks, and pleads with a commuter who works in a nearby office building not to park his bike there; it's for library customers only. Parking meters and signposts near City Hall, courthouses, and other public buildings are festooned daily with locked-up bikes, because the bike racks there are always full.
This city may be suffering a budget crunch, but this shortage of waist-high, upside-down steel Us isn't for lack of funding.
During the past four years, the number of cyclists on San Francisco streets has increased by more than 40 percent, yet the city has been prevented from installing amenities for cyclists thanks to the legal efforts of a local gadfly.
Rob Anderson, a self-described dishwasher from Mendocino County, has gained notoriety for suing the city in 2005 to force it to conduct an environmental impact study before implementing its proposed bike plan, which called for taking away parking spaces and car lanes to make room for bike lanes. The suit was filed by attorney Mary Miles, a friend of Anderson's from their days contributing to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a caustic Northern California weekly owned by his brother. Anderson and Miles made the novel argument that bikes are bad for the environment because they get in the way of automobiles, which must then idle and emit more smog.
A judge agreed that San Francisco city leaders had flouted California environmental law by forgoing environmental review. And he slapped the city with a punitive-seeming injunction, forbidding bicycle-related improvements, even ones that don't take away space from cars, such as bike racks.
Since then, Anderson has used the judge's ruling to tirelessly share his view that bike lanes are a plot by extremists bent on harming ordinary Americans' way of life. The Wall Street Journal even did a story on his unusual crusade last year, in which he railed against the city's "bike fanatics." "The behavior of the bike people on city streets is always annoying," he told the Journal. "This 'Get out of my way, I'm not burning fossil fuels.'" (The story also noted that Anderson himself hasn't owned a car for 20 years.) He also regularly catalogues his complaints about the bike nuts on his blog. "These people are arrogant crackpots determined to screw up our traffic based on a juvenile vision of the future of San Francisco," he wrote on May 14.
But as the end of the long road toward accommodating Anderson's lawsuit nears, and the Municipal Transportation Agency board awaits a June 26 vote to approve 34 miles of new bike lanes, new bike racks, and other amenities — and the city's Planning Commission awaits a scheduled hearing to consider the environmental study Anderson demanded — it's beginning to seem that nobody will have done more to advance the "juvenile vision" of giving more space to bicyclists than Anderson himself.
Bureaucrats, advocates, and local policy wonks say bicyclists' rights have progressed more thanks to Anderson's suit than they would have without it.
Anderson's lawsuit "increased the resources the MTA put into the bike plan, the traffic analysis, and the outreach, by a factor of three at least," said Dave Snyder, transportation policy coordinator at San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a private smart-growth think tank. "It encouraged them to consider all of the bike lanes as a package, and introduce them and get them approved as a package, which is way more efficient than what they planned to do" before Anderson's lawsuit.
Under California environmental law, projects must be studied and approved in their entirety. But under the original 2005 plan, city leaders had intended to add individual bike lanes incrementally, striping a bike lane here, adding a few racks there, until a network fell into place. That's an impractical way to construct a transportation system: Imagine the chaos that would ensue if the street changes needed to accommodate a light-rail line were added piecemeal.
But Anderson's lawsuit has fixed that. It has forced the city to make a detailed, highly engineered project out of a bike plan that five years ago was, comparatively speaking at least, more of an empty political gesture.
Because of the lawsuit and the injunction that followed, multiple city bureaucracies were forced to undertake the challenge of engineering 56 separate projects all at once. This meant assigning planners, engineers, scientists, and other specialists to measure bike lanes' effects on traffic, rejigger plans where appropriate, and then present results at countless community meetings and public hearings. Environmental law also requires planners to integrate public comment into their final product, and city staff has undertaken months of campaigning to apprise merchants and community members of the plan, and in some cases make changes to accommodate complaints.
A few years ago, I cursed Anderson — who has often dismissed me as a bike nut — for ruining what I thought was a good thing. So today, I come not to bury Anderson in his crazed logic, but to praise him.
Anderson's lawsuit and his caustic polemics have infuriated environmentalists, but they've also engendered some public sympathy. That's because within Anderson's ravings is a kernel of truth. A minority of San Francisco bicyclists are, dare I say it, fanatical.
Yet this, too, is a bicycling problem Anderson's lawsuit seems poised to help fix.
Since 1997, when much of the local police force was diverted to crack down on a law-breaking Critical Mass ride, some San Franciscans have regarded cyclists as an offensive fringe group. This is true in part simply because some motorists find it irksome to have to slow down for them on narrow city streets. But it's also because some people have taken to cycling as a form of activism or counterculturalism, rather than what ordinary bike commuters like myself consider it to be: merely a healthy, efficient, enjoyable, and cheap way to get to work, take my kids to school, cart the family to the ocean in the evenings, and ride to Marin County on the weekend.
As with other types of activism in San Francisco, the radical bicycle vanguard has a reputation for smugness, lawlessness, and a confrontational attitude — kind of like someone who quits cigarettes, then makes a commotion every time she enters a smoky room.
Mainstream environmentalists have taken pains to distance themselves from tree-spiking Earth Firsters. Advocates for AIDS patients long ago shunned the radical wing of Act Up. As I've noted before, mainstream bicycle advocacy has up until now failed to perform the necessary heavy lifting of shunning its radical fringe.
Critical Mass, a monthly cyclists' parade that occasionally disintegrates into red-light-running chaos, is listed on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's calendar of events, albeit with the disingenuous caveat that the "ride is not organized nor endorsed by the SFBC."
"We are better than motorists, by every important measure," one cyclist-convert recently wrote in a local political pamphlet, apparently unaware that most adult cyclists are motorists, too. He thoughtfully added: "Maybe you've seen me around town — and if so, maybe you've seen me blow through stop signs or red lights."
While bicyclists themselves have failed to suppress this unhelpful element, the comprehensive bike plan necessitated by Rob Anderson's suit has pushed bicycle advocacy in this direction.
That's because it's not purple-haired fixie-riders who've been meeting with merchants and neighborhood groups, but city staffers in suits. These are diplomacy-minded bureaucrats interested in taking all views into account — as required by the California environmental review process.
The results of this middle-of-the-road approach show up in the final product. One-quarter of the plan's stated goals involve corralling the law-breaking impulses of yahoos such as the aforementioned pamphleteer. The plan calls for bicycle safety education, and, more importantly, "improving bicycle safety through targeted enforcement." That's right: ticketing law-breaker cyclists as well as scofflaw motorists.
The plan calls for working with police to put a high priority on "motorist and bicyclist violations." And it even calls for working with police and the courts to create bicycle traffic school, for wingnuts who might think it's okay to blow through red lights.
The long-delayed bike plan is expected to be presented to the MTA board at the end of next month. Timothy Papandreou, assistant deputy director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, says he is confident that all 34 miles of proposed bike lanes and other improvements will be approved.
"My staff have been working day and night," Papandreou said. "I think what we're seeing is an example of a big cultural change in San Francisco."
If the Planning Commission votes to certify the court-ordered environmental study, the city attorney's office will take it before a judge, who, if all goes well, will lift the injunction. The city plans to spend between $3 million and $4 million next year on bike improvements, with a total of $14 million to be spent on the entire plan. That's a cheap way to get more types of traffic moving in the city.
Thanks to cranky bike-hater Rob Anderson, San Francisco could become one of America's most bike-friendly cities. For this I hope he always feels the wind at his back, and that his roads go downhill.