San Francisco Examiner * April 30, 2001

Cyclists changing face of S.F.

By Lucia Hwang
of the Examiner Staff

As bicycling catches on as an accepted way of getting around San Francisco, the bike community is steadily gaining political clout in its crusade to make the congested streets safer.

The unprecedented and growing body count for bicyclists has accelerated calls for change. There were two more bicyclist deaths in the Bay Area on Friday, enough to rile the Critical Mass protests crowd.

"There really is a war for people's minds going on over whether people are going to identify themselves as drivers or walkers and bicyclists," said Gabriel Metcalf, deputy director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "And right now, it's close."

Metcalf said the bicycling community, in particular organized groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the San Francisco Bike Messenger Coalition, has been slowly gaining ground in this war. He points to more bike lanes, bike racks in city parking garages and even companies providing showers for bicycling employees as progress. Regionally, cyclists' success in getting Caltrans to add bike lanes to Bay Bridge plans is another victory.

Lawmakers with the inclination to spend money creating official bike lanes and other accommodations are key, and the election last year of the most bike-friendly slate of supervisors in years was a coup.

Already, supervisors have made the Valencia Street bike lanes permanent and are expected to do the same with the Polk Street lanes. Supervisor Chris Daly this week proposed adding Howard Street lanes into the bicycle network, and Tom Ammiano, president of the Board of Supervisors, is developing laws that would ban drivers from talking on their cellphones -- a major hazard for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as other drivers.

And the San Francisco Transportation Authority, in charge of the city's half-cent transportation sales tax, is considering spending more money on improvements for bicycling and walking than ever before.

"When the new board got elected, the supervisors were calling us and asking what we wanted," said Leah Shahum, program director for the Bicycle Coalition. "I think the decision-makers are starting to realize that we're not just a bunch of whiners who want our own space, but that we're a pretty big piece of the city's transportation solution."

Whether motorists want to share the road with bicyclists is another matter entirely.

While 15-year bike messenger veteran Manuel Affonso says the messengers' coalition has made great strides with groups such as Muni operators, he says drivers as a whole are as dangerous as ever.  "They want to go to where they're going, and we're just in their way," said Affonso. While he thinks bike lanes are a good idea for preventing accidents, they shouldn't be necessary. Bicyclists legally have the same rights on the road as cars. That in itself, he said, is indicative of how far bicyclists have to go in gaining respect on the road.

Metcalf says time is on the side of bicyclists, however, and as dense urban cities like San Francisco choke on cars, society at large will grow to accept bicycles as transportation, not just recreation. He predicts the bicycling community will gain in clout over the long run.  "The bicyclists, they're not a typical interest group, but are representing a new idea of how to organize a city," he said. "And that's very powerful."


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