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Speed Bumps in the Path of New San Francisco Bike Plan

Speed Bumps in the Path of the Bicycle Juggernaut

Dr. Frank Gilson is recuperating from a bad case of road rash — not from ill-fitting cycling shorts, but from a grueling encounter with San Francisco’s bike plan.
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Scott James/The Bay Citizen
A new bike lane on 17th Street in the heart of the Mission district allowed street parking to remain after complaints from local residents and businesses.

A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. To join the conversation about this article, go to baycitizen.org.

Dr. Gilson, a chiropractor, said that when he left his Division Street clinic one evening last November, he found a $65 ticket on his car. The street parking that he and his patients had used had been removed during the day and replaced by a bike lane.

“A month later I got a letter from the bike coalition congratulating me for having a new bike lane on my street,” he said. “Why not tell me ahead of time what you’re planning to do?”

Dr. Gilson made his frustration public last month in his neighborhood newspaper, The Potrero View. He is part of an emerging group of residents and businesses raising concerns about how the city is carrying out its ambitious bike lane agenda.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency is responsible for executing the plan, which has only recently proceeded after being halted by the courts because of concerns about its impact on traffic. Mike Sallaberry, who works on the bike plan for the transit agency, said the city had partnered with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group, to inform the public about impending road changes.

“We always look for partnerships with various stakeholders,” Mr. Sallaberry said, calling it a matter of “limited resources.”

But there have been objections to both the plans and the public notification process, and some projects have been scuttled.

The city recently reversed plans to remove 199 automobile parking spaces along 17th Street in the Mission to make way for a bike lane. Some merchants worried that removing parking would hurt business, and they objected to how they had been informed.

Instead of notifying residents and businesses by mail — the standard procedure for nearly every other planning matter in the city — many in the neighborhood got the news when someone spotted a nondescript flier taped to a utility pole in April 2009.

“It was sneaky,” said Charlie O’Hanlon, owner of Charlie’s Place, a motorcycle-service shop that relies on street parking for its customers. “We wouldn’t have known if my friend hadn’t noticed that thing.”

Mr. O’Hanlon organized a group that included other local business owners, including John Lum, an architect on 17th Street whose firm faced the prospect of losing its loading zone. For two years they opposed the bike plan.

When he spoke out at a hearing packed with cyclists, “people hissed,” Mr. Lum said. “I said, Wait a moment, I live here. You don’t live here.”

The men said that eventually the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition brokered a compromise with the transit agency, and in recent weeks bike lanes were added that coexist with street parking in most areas.

Leah Shahum, executive director of the coalition, said she was pleased with how the matter had been resolved, but she seemed dumbfounded by the criticism — and took action to quash dissent.

After learning that Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Lum had been interviewed for this column, Ms. Shahum telephoned both men and urged them to amend their remarks. They called and repeated their acknowledgment of the coalition’s role in the resolution, but affirmed their disdain for how the neighborhood was treated.

“I lost time, energy and money fighting this situation,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “It was very disrespectful to working-class people. You’d never try to do this in other parts of the city.”

Paul Rose, the transit authority spokesman, said he also received a call from Ms. Shahum asking him to intervene with regard to this column. On Tuesday, Mr. Rose provided a copy of a bike lanes public-hearing notice that he said was mailed to Mission residents. But it was from May 2009 — the month after neighbors had started complaining.

Dr. Gilson, a former triathlete, thought the issue was larger. He said that cyclists had become a powerful political force, and that city leaders had forgotten that most people did not bicycle (7 percent of trips in the city are by bike, according to the coalition), including parents who must shuttle children or those with physical limitations.

“It’s so anti-family and anti-elderly it’s not even funny,” he said, referring to the bike plan.

It is an opinion city leaders seem hesitant to acknowledge.

At a public forum last week at Mission High School, Al Lopez, 71, rested on his cane and addressed a panel of city leaders and department heads, including Mayor Edwin Lee and Nathan Ford, the city’s transit chief.

“I’m a cripple,” Mr. Lopez said, and then expounded for several minutes on how as a slow-moving pedestrian he felt endangered by the proliferation of cyclists on streets and sidewalks.

Not a single member of the panel responded.

Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 22, 2011, on page A21A of the National edition with the headline: Speed Bumps in the Path of the Bicycle Juggernaut.