I got to explore San Francisco by bicycle over a couple of days during this month’s crucially educational Association for Commuter Transportation conference.
There’s no doubt the city is a leader at promoting bike riding. However, even in San Francisco, where dozens of riders pour down the protected bike lanes of Market Street every minute all day long, it is amazing that so much work remains to get Americans on board with doing something fun, healthy, efficient, and, yes, safe. (I mean, like, radically safe. So safe, in fact, that there has never been a death of anyone on a U.S. bikeshare bike.)
Start with the numbers: Commuter stats are a way to get a good read of a city’s bikability because if the streets are no good for urban bike commuting, then they’re probably not good for any other bike trips or for sightseeing bicycle tourists.
Portland’s bicycle commuters make up 6.3 percent of its population, based on 2011 numbers from the League of American Bicyclists. That’s as good as it gets in the U.S. and, frankly, it’s still pretty pathetic. San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Madison hover somewhere in the 3 to 4 percent range. Anywhere besides those places and seeing a bicycle taking up a lane may be a little like seeing a UFO for drivers.
If you ask me, protected bike lanes are where it’s at for getting children and elderly people bicycling on city streets. Once there, much of the rest of the population might follow. And there are not nearly enough protected bike lanes in San Francisco.
That said, the protected bike lanes there are the best I’ve seen in the U.S. The medians installed to buffer cars and bike traffic in front of Twitter headquarters are even pretty. They have cactuses in them, and Heath Maddox, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bikeshare program manager, told me the first time they planted the cacti, they were all stolen. Now they are anchor locked beneath the ground.
The Wiggle is another highlight of bicycling in San Francisco. It’s a mile’s worth of green street markings and signage that allows riders to get from Market Street up to the Panhandle Bikeway leading into Golden Gate Park without having to climb any of the city’s infamous hills. I didn’t see any similar guidance in other parts of the city, although more wiggles would be most welcome elsewhere, as well as in other hilly parts of other cities.
And perhaps most hopeful of all towards improving bike commute share is the nearly year-old Bay Area Bikeshare, which has 350 bikes and 35 stations in and around downtown San Francisco and 35 stations along the Caltrain corridor in other cities like Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose.
Introducing bikesharing to the city was a goal of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the SFMTA gave Maddox, a bicycle and pedestrian planner in the agency’s Livable Streets subdivision, the job of leading the effort. Taking some time out from our conference, several of us from Mobility Lab and partner organizations goDCgo, Arlington Transportation Partners, and Arlington County Commuter Services were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the city on BABS from Maddox.
Like Capital Bikeshare in D.C., the system is managed by Alta Bike Share and it is publicly funded, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Maddox is currently waiting to tabulate some of the first ridership survey data, but until then, we know that in San Francisco there are already about 3,000 members, and each of the 350 bikes average about three trips per day.
Maddox said there have not been that many complaints from riders, probably because there have been no major rebalancing issues. It’s relatively easy to keep the stations stocked since BABS is still confined to the areas north and south of Market Street and no further west than Van Ness Avenue.
Maddox said, “Mainly we just get questions about when we’re going to expand the system. We’ve reassessed that we can do things less densely. We can still do a little infill of adding stations in neighborhoods where stations already exist, but we’re planning to introduce bikeshare to new places earlier than we had originally planned. We hope to go next into the Casto and the Mission districts.”
He added that he hopes BABS can expand to about 3,000 more bikes in the future, although that would depend upon getting a big sponsorship of some kind and about $25 million.
Concerns that he noted to work on include:
- The overwhelming majority of bikeshare members are white, well-off males.
- San Francisco’s “very well-developed bike-rental industry is really concerned that bikeshare will hurt their businesses and they’re hyper involved.” But he cited Capital Bikeshare’s data showing that companies located near stations see an increase in business because of traffic from bikeshare riders, so he hopes those concerns can be alleviated. (I rented a bike overnight for $36 from Blazing Saddles on Mason Street near Union Square and there certainly appeared to be no shortage of customers.)
- Taxi drivers may be unhappy because about 50 percent of bikeshare trips appear to have been trips formerly taken by taxi. (So that leads me to think that the smart taxi drivers will mount bike racks on their vehicles.)
San Francisco is on the right course, promoting bicycling through protected lanes, The Wiggle, and Bay Area Bikeshare. These are all tools that will need to continue to be enhanced if the city has any realistic hopes of reaching its goal of 20 percent bike commuting by 2020, which was set in its 2009 Bicycle Plan and even harkens back somewhat to its 1973 “Transit First” policy, which noted that “travel by public transit, by bicycle, and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.”