How Do You Fix a Problem Like Valencia?

Once hailed as a great step forward in cycling infrastructure, Valencia Street's bike lane is now outdated, dangerous, and in line for renovation.

Cyclists no longer feel safe commuting along Valencia Street’s 1999-era painted bike lanes. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

When Valencia Street’s bike lanes were striped in 1999, they came with much fanfare and celebration. City officials showed up in suits, and bike activists grinned as the Department of Public Works laid the first layer of paint onto the asphalt. While it wasn’t the first bike lane in the city — that honor is reserved for Lake Street in the Richmond, painted in 1971 — it was the first piece of infrastructure for cyclists added to a major thoroughfare. It took five years between approval and striping, but the end result was a painted line running the full length of the street, including the removal of two lanes for vehicle traffic.

Initially, it was a great success. Based on a 2000 report from urban planning firm SPUR, the number of cyclists along the street rose from 88 to 191 per hour — a 117 percent increase. That marked a turning point for the city and a victory for bike advocates, but not the end of the battle.

Cars have always frequented Valencia Street, from the low riders of the 1970s and ’80s blasting music from their souped-up stereos to the contemporary fleets of Priuses with Lyft and Uber stickers in their windows. And bike lanes haven’t seemed to deter drivers: Although biking more than doubled along Valencia the year after the lanes went in, car traffic decreased just 12 percent.

Eighteen years later, traffic citywide has almost reached the breaking point. With the influx of tech buses, Uber, and Lyft, there are more vehicles than ever congesting the street, and stopping mid-block — and often mid-lane — to load and unload passengers. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) reports in a recent study that there were 2,190 daily pickups and dropoffs by ride-hail vehicles on just one block of Valencia near 16th Street.

For cyclists, the cars that regularly pull into or idle in the bike lane make what was once a streamlined commute into a battle over the 45-foot stretch of street sandwiched between parked cars.

“When I first started biking on Valencia Street over a decade ago, it was one of the best places to ride in the city,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “Since then, Uber, Lyft, and others have turned the street into a dangerous obstacle course.”

Frustrated with what they perceive to be the city’s lack of response to cars blocking the bike lane, many advocates have taken to Twitter to file complaints with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, 311, their local supervisors, and even Mayor Ed Lee.

Others are taking data into their own hands.

“Data convinces people,” says Catherine Orland, a Mission resident and District 9’s representative to the Bicycle Advisory Committee. “That’s why I did it. I knew that anecdotally, cyclists, their stories, and our anger are a small segment of the population. A large part of the city are the old guard, and they don’t understand why we need bike lanes, and they don’t want to give up parking.”

“It” was a large but fairly straightforward effort: to count all Uber and Lyft vehicles blocking the bike lanes on Valencia Street during rush hour on one summer evening in 2016. Volunteers armed with clipboards stood on each side of the street, observing the complicated dance between cyclists and drivers.

“The West side of Valencia between 16th and 17th saw some of the most flagrant disregard for safe operation of motor vehicles between 6 and 7 p.m,” Orland says. “During the 6 p.m. hour, on the west side of Valencia between 16th and 17th, motorists double-parked at least once every two minutes.”

This was complicated by the fact that 205 cyclists — more than 61 percent of all traffic logged during that hour — also commuted down that block, and they were forced to merge into vehicle traffic to bypass the cars in their lane.

Streetsblog picked up the vigilante study, offering proof that Valencia Street — particularly between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — is no longer a comfortable space for cyclists or the cars that maneuver down the crowded lanes. But Uber and Lyft aren’t the only new additions to the bike lanes in the past five years: Tech buses are also making an impact.

Justin Connolly commutes along Valencia each morning on his way to work at St. Luke’s Hospital, and regularly runs into the enormous buses on his ride. “Between 26th and Cesar Chavez, I’ve seen as many as five buses in a row — all the way across, from the curb in the bike lane, some turning left, some going right,” he says.

The buses are there because one of the largest shuttle stops in the city sits at the northeast corner of Valencia and 25th streets. In September 2016, the SFMTA tracked buses making 79 stops on that corner to pick up and drop off passengers. A total of 123 tech bus trips occur along Valencia Street on an average weekday.      

“They’re mostly pretty good about not cutting me off, but they’re dangerous to get around, and I don’t know if they can see me,” Connolly says.

After years of frustration, however, the city seems on the brink of making a change to the street — in favor of the cyclists who commute down it. Leading the charge is the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

“We have heard our members loud and clear: Enough is enough, and the time for protected bike lanes is now,” Wiedenmeyer says. “If Uber and Lyft can’t get their drivers to comply with the law, we need to make it physically impossible for them to break it. The safety of thousands of people who bike Valencia daily is at stake.”

The SFMTA is also on board with the changes.

“Street design in American cities is in a constant state of evolution,” says spokesperson Ben Jose. “In recent years, more U.S. cities have implemented infrastructure to meet the growing interest in bicycling from a broader range of people.”

That “broader range of people” should include people who aren’t yet confident enough on two wheels to weave in and out of traffic. “The conventional bike lane stripe or stencil on the roadway used in recent decades may be enough for experienced cyclists, but they often don’t provide the sense of comfort needed for the average person to ride a bike on streets with traffic,” Jose adds.

The SFMTA’s answer lies in “modern street engineering treatments” — such as the parking-protected bike lanes on Seventh, Eighth, and 13th streets, and the one coming soon to Folsom.

Valencia is next on the list. The SFMTA has applied for a grant to conduct a planning study of the street, all the way from Market to Cesar Chavez. Orland’s data collection may soon be done on a much larger scale, with numbers that the city can use to justify funds for improvements.

The SFCTA Board will review the grant money on Nov. 14. And if everything goes smoothly — a rare situation, to be sure — outreach to the Mission’s diverse communities could launch early next year, with plans developing by September 2018.

Whether this will include parking-protected bike lanes, converting the street’s vehicle traffic to one-way, or adding in drop-off and pick-up curbs for ride-hail cars and tech buses, remains to be seen. But you may want to get your thinking caps on, because Valencia Street, 2.0 is on the horizon.

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