San Francisco: Where only those with spokes get to speak

(Examiner file photo)(Examiner file photo)

(Examiner file photo)(Examiner file photo)

Unless you might have missed it, bicycle safety and education week has arrived in San Francisco, with courses being offered to improve the overall biking environment in our fair city.

That is a fine thing, since biking has gained a foothold here unlike almost any big city in America, San Francisco being green and bold and sensitive to its carbon footprint.

Also, it’s going to happen whether you like it or not, because while the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will be offering courses in safety and “respectful biking,” what it should really be teaching are lessons on organizing and political power.

This is knowledge I gained the hard way. My first column many years back took on the subject of the lobby that was controlling transportation policy in Golden Gate Park and the impressive force behind pedal power hit back with the fury of a runaway train. I was branded an enemy of the state and only the years, and some kind column mentions, have softened the response.

Yet even then, I seriously underestimated the strength of bicycle advocates and their many friends in the Planning Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. You only need to look curbside for that, where more than likely a new bike lane has been painted, a speed bump introduced and a parking spot removed.

San Francisco’s street landscape is being quietly transformed. If you are forced to drive to navigate your daily life, you’ve seen it: Lanes along Cesar Chavez Street suddenly reduced, commuter parking spots along Seventh Avenue removed overnight and streets striped for miles regardless of whether bike use there is light or heavy.

This is all designed for the greater good. Bikes are more environmentally sound. Biking is wonderful exercise. In a perfect world, bikes would replace cars to get the kids to school, pick them up at practice, go shopping and somehow include that magical eight-hour day to work and back.

But here in San Francisco, most people can’t do that and they’re not so happy when they’re told that regardless of their wants or needs, their input about city transportation policies regarding the removal of lanes and parking spaces has no place in “the plan.”

When a few dozen Inner Sunset residents heard recently that about 140 parking spaces were going to be removed along JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, they showed up at a meeting to complain. They were told by transportation officials that putting in lanes where people used to park would encourage more people to bike, a sort of “build it and they will come” philosophy.

“The message was that if you force more people out of their cars, they’ll start biking,” said Simone Hass. “We were floored.”

That’s understandable when you consider that the lofty goals contained in the city bike plan don’t jibe with current reality. Bicycling in San Francisco has increased markedly in recent years, but still accounts for fewer than 9,000 trips, according to the last official count.Yet transportation planners hope to add 34 miles of bike lanes to the current network of 45 miles, which will require a lot more cherished parking spaces to vanish.

Will 20 percent of all San Franciscans be taking their trips by bike by 2020, as a Board of Supervisors resolution desires? I’ll take that bet.

We can all agree that having a transit-first policy is a fine idea, until you add in Muni. If you can’t fix and maintain a public transportation system — nor find any reasonable way of paying for it — you’re setting yourself up for failure. Encouraging people to bike or bus around town is laudable, but forcing them by political fiat is fractionalizing. If city officials want to build denser developments along transit corridors, they need better, more efficient transit.

I live on one of the longest, steepest hills in San Francisco, and every day there’s a group of about three people who manage to bike up that grade, one that most have difficulty walking.

I greatly admire them. I tip my bike helmet to them. They are leg-churning environmental heroes. But they don’t reflect the reality of the vast majority of people in San Francisco, save for living in a city that can often leave you breathless.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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