Cycling May Be Bad for the (Automobile) Environment

7 12 2008
Powell Street, San Francisco

Powell Street, San Francisco

When you look at its incredibly steep hills, you wouldn’t think that San Francisco would be a cycling city. And when you consider that only about 2% of work trips in San Francisco are made by bike, you might be tempted to conclude that it really isn’t. But that isn’t to say, however, that with the city’s predictably pleasant climate, mostly-gridded street system and history of vigorous cycling advocacy (Critical Mass started in SF 10 years ago), it doesn’t have tremendous potential.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, a man with quite an incredibly slick coiff, has declared his commitment to make San Francisco the best cycling city in North America, targeting 10% of commuter trips by 2010. That’s been his intention for some time now, but achieving it has been stymied by the application of a court injunction that has kept the City from implementing its cycling plan, or indeed from making any improvements to cycling infrastructure whatsoever, since June of 2006. (Watch The Gav call out the bike haters in his State of the City address; skip to 20:45).

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom and his hair

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom - photo by Thomas Hawk

How could this be? Apparently, the City did not go through an adequate environmental analysis of its bike plan. All infrastructure or development projects in California are required to go through CEQA review, a process that is meant to “identify ways that environmental damage can be avoided or significantly reduced, requiring changes in projects through the use of alternatives or mitigation measures when feasible, and disclosing to the public the reasons why a project was approved if significant environmental effects are involved” (SF Bike Coalition).

A local commuter group decided to go to court over fears that the proposed changes to streets across the city would negatively effect automobile travel, arguing that the increased congestion would be detrimental to the environment, and that the Bike Plan did not take these effects into account. The argument worked. Rob Anderson, the spokesperson of the commuter group, also seems to think that the Bike Plan is an example of pie-in-the-sky planning for “smug, self-righteous progressives“, but never mind that now, because…

The counter-argument has finally arrived in the form of a 1,353 page, $1,000,000 draft Environmental Impact Report! Released just before US Thanksgiving, it is now in the public comment phase, which should take several more months to complete. Adoption of the updated Bike Plan is now scheduled for summer of 2009, barring any further legal injunctions. I tried a quick analysis of the EIR myself, but it’s honestly too big of an undertaking: the Executive Summary alone is nearly 200 pages! I’ll update this post when some other brave and diligent souls attempt an assessment.

Read more about the Bike Plan saga at the SF Bike Coalition website and Streetsblog. If you’re feeling really adventurous, the full EIR document can be found here.

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