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Neighbors split on protected bike lanes in SF’s Panhandle

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The Golden Gate Park Panhandle is a popular spot for casual walkers and commuting cyclists, but the narrow path has prompted The City to consider carving out new bike lanes to relieve the overcrowding. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Cycling down Fell Street on any given evening commute, a cyclist’s obstacles are similar to any other street: swerving cars, swinging car doors, double-parked trucks and more.

But when that commuting cyclist rolls to Baker Street, the scenery changes. Suddenly, a major commute route featuring nearly 4,000 cyclists on a given weekday is confined to a narrow multi-use path in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle.

A narrow splash of paint is all that divides barrelling cyclists and walking parkgoers in either direction. Strollers swerving to avoid errant cyclists, bicycles swerving to avoid errant dogs — a carefully managed chaos with irked compromise on all sides.

Now, the cyclists may see their commute shift, and that may ripple across all commuters on Oak and Fell streets, including drivers, walkers and cyclists alike.

Oak and Fell streets may lose one car lane each if an early stage proposal to carve new bike lanes along the Golden Gate Park Panhandle moves forward.

Oak and Fell streets, which run parallel to each other through the Haight-Ashbury and Hayes Valley neighborhoods are, for the most part, exclusively for cars. In the portion between Baker and Stanyan streets, bicyclists who traverse the area are relegated in part to a narrow path through the Panhandle park.

The proposal has far-reaching impacts beyond the Panhandle or nearby Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods, as the Panhandle is part of “The Wiggle,” a major east-west bicycle transit corridor.

Making The Wiggle safer, according to proponents of the bike lanes, could open up bicycle commuting for many westside residents at a time when bicycle use in San Francisco is growing.

Even in the Panhandle, this is true, as data from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency shows ridership on Fell and Scott streets grew from 25,730 bike trips per month in 2009 to 50,886 bike trips per month in 2015.

SFMTA spokesperson Ben Jose said conversations around the proposal are still in the early stages. A feasibility study conducted by the SFMTA was released in August.

“Our review of the Oak/Fell bikeways parallel to the Panhandle was in response to community interest,” Jose wrote in an email. “This review was cursory and not part of a formal project or planning initiative.”

So the project isn’t set in stone, and is so far merely a twinkle in planner’s eyes. Still, Jose added that the project may be considered for funding in the agency’s next round of project considerations, which could cost anywhere between $1.6 million and $3.9 million.

As many as 75 of 280 unmarked parking spaces along the north and south edges of the Panhandle could be eliminated for turn lanes, according to the feasibility study.

But the project’s early status hasn’t stopped neighbors from rattling their chains over the potential new bike lanes — and the divide is geographic.

On the south side of the Panhandle, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council has grave concerns about traffic impacts of adding bike lanes on Oak and Fell streets.

In a newsletter to members, HANC president James Sword said he is particularly worried about one section of the SFMTA’s feasibility study that states removing a car lane on Oak Street may “result in lengthy queues on Kezar Drive spilling back to Lincoln Way for several hours a day and diversion of several hundred vehicles to alternative east-west routes or to local side streets during the weekday morning peak period.”

The neighborhood council also took issue with a possible exemption for cyclists from stops at minor intersections to allow speedier travel.

On the north side of the Panhandle, however, support for the new bike lanes is much stronger.

The North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association is preliminarily excited about the bike lanes, according to its president Tim Hickey, though they have yet to take a vote on a formal position.

NOPNA surveyed neighbors, and 54 percent of 694 respondents felt adding dedicated bicycle lanes along the Panhandle would make travel “safer and more enjoyable for everyone,” while just 14 percent of respondents were satisfied with the current configuration of the park.

NOPNA’s neighbors south of the Panhandle, HANC, blasted the survey’s results and said they didn’t talk to people south of the Panhandle.

Hickey said his job was to survey people within his own neighborhood, not the Haight-Ashbury.

Right now, since cyclists can only use a multi-use path shared between cyclists and pedestrians through the Panhandle, Hickey said cyclists and pedestrians alike experience dangerous conflicts.

“I’ve experienced dogs off their leash, or a skateboarder that lost control of his board and it went under my bike,” Hickey said. He added even his wife doesn’t like to bike along The Wiggle because she doesn’t feel it is safe, but she believes protected bike lanes could change that.

Addressing the potential traffic impacts to Oak Street, the SFMTA feasibility study also looked at potentially adding both west and eastbound bike lanes to Fell Street only.

The politically powerful San Francisco Bicycle Coalition hasn’t taken a stance on any of the proposed options for bike lanes along the Panhandle yet, according to coalition spokesperson Chris Cassidy.

“That is just another opportunity for us to see where our members are at,” Cassidy said. “This is the preliminary stage of something that may or may not come to pass.”

Though the project is far from potential approval, expect neighbors to have very heated opinions –– one way or the other.

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