"Our power comes from our focus," says Leah Shahum, the Bicycle Coalition's executive director for the past 11 years. "If we were overly broad, we wouldn't have a strong membership."

She just wants to get more people on bikes. Sometimes, a bicycle is just a bicycle.

The city, meanwhile, wants you to leave the house. People sitting at home all day is bad for business. And the city wants more business. It wants more commerce. It wants more growth. It wants more jobs. So it wants you to leave the house. But not, if you can help it, in a car.

San Francisco Call, 1896
Bike messenger Jr. has seen Valencia, where he lives, transformed into "a second Haight Street for computer whizzes."
Photograph by Camila Bernal
Bike messenger Jr. has seen Valencia, where he lives, transformed into "a second Haight Street for computer whizzes."

Studies out of Portland indicate cyclists spend their money in-town, as does data from officials in New York. Polk Street merchants recently revolted over a plan to install bike lanes and parking at the expense of some car parking. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest, Rutgers urban planning professor John Pucher notes that shopkeepers are eagerly signing onto waiting lists for bike corrals.

Currently, 61 percent of the trips in this city are taken via automobile. Seventeen percent are on public transit, 7.5 percent are on foot, and just 3.5 percent are on bikes. Considering the surge of people, and trips, anticipated in the coming years, far more journeys must be shunted to alternative means just to keep the number of cars around its current level. Reducing car trips to the SFMTA Strategic Plan's goal of 50 percent requires about 20 percent of trips to be on transit; 20 percent to be on foot; and about 10 percent to be on bikes.

For those already cycling regularly, this strategy is bittersweet: It's not for them. It's a ploy to coax would-be cyclists to dust off the wheels and hit the road. For all the talk of the Bicycle Coalition's great influence, the city's investment in cycling has been modest and its bike network is disjointed and incomplete. Stretches of smooth, traffic-segregated lanes inviting to even novice cyclists are broken up by dangerous and bewildering segments. These swaths essentially render miles of cycling paths useless for all but the daring — who were already on the roads. Pucher says the mark of a truly safe cycling system for young, old, and non-Lycra-clad riders is observable parity of the sexes. In San Francisco, however, only 28 percent of frequent cyclists are women. And, based on the city's own "Levels of Traffic Stress" assessment, only 10 percent of bikeways are suitable for everyone. Even large portions of Market Street are accessible only to strong, experienced riders.

With safer roads for bikes, urban workers could ride to their places of business. That was true in the 19th century, and it remains so in the 21st. Building safer roads now, however, costs more.


The 2013-2018 SFMTA Strategic Plan is the most comprehensive cycling document the city has ever produced. It dwells upon the intersections requiring upgrades, the routes on which to create bike paths, and the existing bike paths to beef up. It calls for installing tens of thousands of new bike parking spaces and hundreds of future stations for the city's nascent bike-sharing program.

It does not, however, identify where the money to pay for this is going to come from.

The plan's graphic representation of the $30 million in available funds placed in the context of its $190 million price tag resembles a depiction of Earth next to Jupiter. (Transforming San Francisco into a Copenhagen-esque bike city, meanwhile, is priced at $600 million). Tearing up the streets requires money, and ongoing, Polk Street-like battles require time. And time is money.

Precious few state or federal dollars are earmarked specifically for cycling projects. So, they're included under the aegis of "complete streets." As a result, bike advocates aren't in favor of generous appropriations to pay for the improvement of the streets and highways for the bicyclists alone — though the horse lobby has dropped off since 1896.

"Bicycle boulevards" — in which some auto lanes are removed in favor of bike lanes and everyone is made to slow down — are now being rebranded as "neighborhood greenways." This is marketing, says Pucher. Building bicycle-friendly roads "benefits pedestrians, people crossing the street, neighbors who want to chat in the street. You can make the argument you're doing it for the kids!" And, as this is San Francisco: It's good for dogs, too.

It's an argument that, likely, will be put before city voters. "We need to get things on the ballot," says Papandreou. The shortfall of $25 million a year between the present and 2018 "is too large to make up internally."

Mainstream cyclists and cycling advocacy groups sniping about blowback from Critical Mass riders' antics is a ritual as tired as the derivative antics of those Critical Mass riders. In the not-too-distant future, however, voters may be hit up for heaps of money to make cyclists' progress about the city comfortable and safe in order to place San Francisco in the front rank with other cities. As such, cycling advocates both inside and outside of city government seem to be reading from the same script in describing the dollars spent on cycling infrastructure as a boon to even the non-cyclist. Voters' perception of bike-riders will be critical, as the city hopes to spend public dollars to create more of them.

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21 comments
John Lilly
John Lilly

anarchists don't feel the need to answer to anyones irrelevant opinions.

NoBikesOnSidewalks
NoBikesOnSidewalks

I'd have much more goodwill to cyclists if they would stop riding on the dang sidewalks! If you have to bike up Pine Street, do what you've got to do, but do not think it is okay to ride on the sidewalk there: it is not. The few bad, obnoxious apples who don't give a flip about anyone else are what makes people see all cyclists as a nuisance.

cafelinus
cafelinus

As a progressive (who hopefully hasn't lost his sense of humor or patience) I might point out that encountering critical mass back in the 90s as a pedestrian meant having to wait at street corners with sore feet (from working a long day at a job that really didn't pay enough to live in the city even then) while a quite long parade of people on bikes passed by (without in my recollection giving you chance to cross the street).

EssEffOhMy
EssEffOhMy

I assure you that Critical Mass remains very relevant to me and my many friends who ride in it whenever we get the chance. Joe, why didn't you interview anyone for this article who still rides in and enjoys Critical Mass? (Just interviewing the founders who don't enjoy it anymore, obviously doesn't count.) Considering about 12K rode in the anniversary ride last September, there a still a few of us. And I say "a few" facetiously. 

Andy Blue
Andy Blue

There is nothing more predictable in this town than the occasional newspaper article claiming Critical Mass is bad and/or ineffective and/or irrelevant. But it's never done anything but just bring more publicity to the event. My prediction is that THIS FRIDAY will now end up being be the biggest ride in months. And you know what? It'll be a blast. Thanks Joe Eskenazi! The obvious fact is that hundreds, sometimes thousands, continue to find CM very relevant to their lives and community and continue to show up for this celebration of freedom, public space -- and of course bicycles -- every month, year after year. I could go on for days about why Critical Mass is incredibly relevant. But I don't have to. Anyone who shows up on the last Friday of the month knows this. (Course if anyone wants me to go on and on, and even provide evidence from academic research, I would be thrilled to talk your ear off!).

jymdyer
jymdyer

• Interesting and informative piece.  I have quibbles here and there, but never mind.

I was in S.F. during and after the 1997 crackdown on Critical Mass and N.Y.C. during and after the 2004 crackdown (which started with the Republican National Convention). In both cases, a burgeoning bike community associated with Critical Mass was growing even without attractive bike infrastructure.

Here in San Francisco, our numbers kept growing even during the injunction that Rob Anderson's lawsuit imposed.  In New York City we had to contend with Sadik-Khan's hostile predecessor, Iris Weinshall (who would later file her own failed nuisance lawsuit against a bike lane), yet even under those conditions, our numbers kept growing.

 I expect that good infrastructure will swell our numbers even more, and the data shows that they have -- and at 0.46% of the transportation budget it's a bargain!  But it's worth looking at what make our numbers swell in the first place, even in the face of hostile authorities.

sfparkripoff
sfparkripoff

Cycling is Impractical for Families and Daily commuting.....So why is the SFMTA Deficit spending to build more Bike Lanes?  By willfully ignoring most of San Francisco’s residents, the Board of Supervisors and the MTA have created a master plan that makes no sense at all. 

It demands that people ride bicycles or use a transit system that doesn’t work. The enduring fiction is that cars and their drivers are evil, but bicyclists are holy.  The number and type of bicyclists remains constant because people do not convert to bike riding, but move into, then away from it. As people move into their professional lives, age and have children, bike riding becomes a recreational activity, not a commuting choice.

Yet, San Francisco has developed an urban plan around the loud but short-sighted desires of 15,000 people in our population of 800,000. All the changes required will be paid for by extending parking meter hours, raising parking rates, raising parking fines, and installing tolls into San Francisco. The narrowing of traffic lanes to add bicycle lanes has only added to the gridlock around the city. Shrinking the number of auto lanes and replacing them with bike lanes has created less efficient roadways for public transit,  private autos, and emergency vehicles. 

Over the last ten years developers have been fighting the construction of parking garages and using the Bicycle Coalition to spread their car-free message. Why? So that they can construct car free, stack and pack, high rise transit villages WITH NO PARKING!  Why? 

1. Because it lowers their overall construction costs

2. It maximizes their profit 

3. Car free housing is easier to get through the planning department 

According to architecture 2030 The Building Sector is the Largest Contributor
to U.S. CO2 Emissions. Breakdown as follows:

Buildings      46.7%
Industry       19.9%
Transportation 33.4%

Most of this energy is produced from burning fossil fuels, making this sector the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet – and the single leading contributor to anthropogenic (human forcing) climate change

Developers LOVE that the Bicycle Lobby is encouraging the public to drop their cars in favor of bikes. Keep the public focused on the terrible cars so that the developers pack the skyline  with so many people that the city will be in total gridlock. Once that happens the only way you will be able to get around the city will be on a bicycle. If you look into the history of the Bicycle Lobby and all of the other non-profits that were spun off from them you will find questionable legislation, multiple conflicts of interest, and a lot of deception.

The public would love to see the writer report on that story!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

City Hall is bluffing about putting anything bike-related on the ballot, since even those dim bulbs know that the bike people are the most unpopular special interest group in the city. A citywide vote on the bike bullshit would put an end to all the "improvements" to city streets the MTA is now foisting on the neighborhoods.

For the record: the city did absolutely no environmental review of the 500-page Bicycle Plan before the Planning Commission and the BOS voted unanimously to make it part of the General Plan. Representatives from both those agencies stood up and lied about that during our last appeal hearing before the Supervisors. 

It was an easy decision for Judge Busch, since the city was obviously violating the most important environmental law in the state. That's why City Hall and phony "moderates" like Scott Wiener want to "reform" CEQA; so that no favored City Hall project will never be delayed again. 

Where's a link to Matt Smith's Critical Mass story ("Critical Masturbation") in 2003?

Rob Anderson

beaugheale
beaugheale

@NoBikesOnSidewalks I take the same attitude towards pedestrians: As long as any are poorly behaved, I don't care about any of them. Fortunately, I stop short of holding this attitude about any particular race, let alone I might end up with a show on Fox News!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer 

The number of cyclists in SF is "swelling"? According to the city's own numbers, there were 2.1% riding bikes to work in 2000, and in 2010 there were 3.5% commuting by bike, a not-so-swollen gain of 1.4% in ten years.

Speaking of numbers, the writer here invokes the 71% gain number, but it only represents a gain between a few years of the annual bicycle commuter count, not a gain in cycling in the city overall.

Another number cited in the story: the city is paying $188,000 a year for the SFPD to babysit Critical Mass every month.

And the problem with the changes the city wants to make to city streets on behalf of your small minority is not a lack of money, since City Hall always finds enough money to do what it wants to do. It's a lack of space on city streets to make bike lanes. Polk Street is a good example of the problem: making bike lanes there requires taking away a lot of scarce street parking, which that neighborhood---and others---will resist.

GetSomeFacts
GetSomeFacts

@sfparkripoff Dense urban housing is by far the most efficient form of housing. Parking garages for your car to live don't count. I ride my bike every day to work - it is the most practical way for me to get to work by far. And yes, I have a family. So speak for yourself.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@sfparkripoff Dude, it's time to loosen the tinfoil hat, turn off Glenn Beck, walk slowly away from the TV and go outside.

jymdyer
jymdyer

@rmajora Unlike this present piece, the 2003 piece was just a tirade unsupported by facts.

beaugheale
beaugheale

@rmajora @jymdyer Ideologies aside, going from 2.1% to 3.5% is a 60% increase. Perhaps it's time for a new calculator. Or a new way to fudge statistics.

meatsack
meatsack

@beaugheale @sfparkripoff  

The majority of Americans drive a car, so if this majority of tax payers are not supporting the full cost of driving a car, who is?

sfparkripoff
sfparkripoff

@mrericsir@sfparkripoffGo to Google and type in: 

Livable City shares an office with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

Now start a new Google search and type in:

Livable city car free legislation  

You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer @rmajora 

Smith criticized Critical Mass from the perspective of an avid cyclist who thinks it does a lot more harm than good for your cause, which is why, if a bike bond is put on the ballot it will be rejected by a majority of city voters.

beaugheale
beaugheale

@rmajora @beaugheale @jymdyer Perhaps if your issue is with the way statistics are calculated, you might want to launch a campaign against high school math teachers. Though it won't help you with the bigger problem: That cars aren't paying their own way in the transportation system. In any event, I hope your blog is better than your math skills.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@beaugheale @rmajora @jymdyer 

You're the one who's "fudging." If this is a serious way to calculate the increase, why isn't the city using it? Because even they know that it's ludicrous. The 71% is also ludicrous, but that's another story, which I've written about on my blog.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@sfparkripoff ...says the guy who offers nothing but his own "facts."  I hope for your own sake that you're being intentionally ironic here.

 
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