(Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Long battle results in protected bicycle lanes for Polk Street

With the unanimous approval of protected bicycle lanes along Polk Street by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors Tuesday, cycling advocates and area business owners claimed a share of the victory.

Debate over the embattled pedestrian- and bike-safety project, which drew criticism from businesses and cyclists alike, had stretched over 2½ years. In the end, neither side got everything it wanted.

The approved plan will result in a raised, protected bike lane on northbound Polk Street from McAllister to Pine streets, a morning commute-only bike lane from Pine to Broadway, high visibility crosswalks, sidewalk bulbouts, bus stop consolidation and more, at a cost of $8 million. The SFMTA board of directors meeting was packed with advocates for pedestrian safety and neighborhood business interests.

Some business owners had argued that a proposed loss of 140 parking spaces in the area would lead to financial losses, and they had pushed hard for studies on possible economic impacts in order to pause construction of the bike lane.

“I came to the U.S. 20 years ago. I'm a dentist and I practice on Polk street,” Ivy Chan said. “My patients complain about parking, and I have to drive around 20 minutes to find parking.”

While no economic studies were conducted, an SFMTA analysis indicated that most people get to the Polk Street section on foot. An equal number also get to Polk from a combination of car and public transit, while 7 percent arrive to Polk by bike, which is higher than average for businesses in other parts of The City.

And car-use habits may soon change as technology changes, some argued.

“In a few decades, needing on-street parking may be as antiquated as needing water for your horse,” Luke Schwartz, a Polk neighborhood resident, said during public comment.

Bike advocates say Polk is one of the busiest north-south routes for cyclists in The City, but also among the most dangerous. From 2006-11 there were 122 collisions on the small stretch of Polk alone, equating to two collisions per month, advocates say.

“We are absolutely bottom line obligated to protect bikes,” Madeleine Savit, leader of advocacy group Folks for Polk, told The San Francisco Examiner. Failing to do so “amounts to crowd sourced homicide,” she said.

SFMTA board members seemed more than ready to embrace increased cycling on Polk street.

“We can't grow more streets, we can't accommodate more cars,” board member Gwyneth Borden said.

The City's Vision Zero safety policy, which pledges to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero citywide by 2024, was also cited as a reason to move forward with the project.

In public comment, Nicole Schneider of advocacy group Walk San Francisco recalled the car collision death of 6-year-old Sofia Liu on Polk Street on New Year's Eve 2013, a reminder that brought a hush to the room.

“If this is the first project we approve post-Vision Zero, I don't want to be hypocritical,” board Director Cheryl Brinkman said. “I don't want parking to outweigh the need for safety on this corridor.”

But while Brinkman and the board voted to move forward with the safety improvements, she brought forward an amendment that the board revisit the project a year after it begins to evaluate its impact on business.

Advocates noted that only in San Francisco would there be a bitter, two-year battle over something as simple as a bike lane.

Noah Budnick, the new executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he was shocked it took so long. In New York City, where he last worked, he said, “bike lanes just get done.”

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