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Bike Lane Battles Heat Up

Cities like San Francisco and Chicago are running into resistance from drivers as they try to meet demand for more bike lanes.

Photo: AP/Elaine Thompson
There's no question that biking has surged in popularity in the last few years. The share of Americans commuting by bike has grown by 47 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey.

The rising popularity of biking has also led to a surge in the number of bike paths and bike lanes. But as demand for lanes continues to rise, the nation's cities are beginning to see resistance grow.

In 2011, for example, a tony Brooklyn neighborhood became enraged when three traffic lanes were whittled down to two to make way for bike lanes. Although residents of Park Slope tried to have the bike lanes removed, they ultimately failed. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, more than 200 miles of bike lanes have been added and more are in the works.

Resistance is growing in Chicago too. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015 ran into a roadblock when the Illinois Department of Transportation said lanes can't be installed on state-designated roads until the agency is satisfied they are safe. It turns out, the safety issue was closely linked to the fact that the new lanes would mean less room for cars. But biking advocates pointed out that protected lanes would increase safety by separating bikes from cars.

Just as drivers want to rid the city of bike lanes, bicyclists want more of them. In 2009, a group of bike commuters went so far as to take off some (but not all) of their clothes on a frigid December day to protest the closing of a bike lane in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The lane was closed after conservative members of the community expressed concern at the sight of women wearing spandex and skimpy clothing as they rode by.

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Front and center in today's bike-lane dust-ups is San Francisco. If there's a bike-friendly big city in this country, you would assume it would be San Francisco, which has had a transit-first policy for 40 years. Recently, it set a goal of making the bicycle the preferred choice for 20 percent of all travel within the city by 2020. Already, San Francisco which is just 49 square miles, has built 25 miles of bike paths in the past three years with more to come.

But an effort to build bike lanes along Polk Street, which would provide a relatively flat, north-south route in the city, has met opposition. Polk Street is a narrow, congested thoroughfare, so the plan is to replace most of the curbside parking with bike lanes and miniature parklets. However, business owners in the heavily commercial neighborhood are not impressed, fearing the loss of parking will have a negative impact on their business. They have placed protest signs in storefront windows and have jammed community meetings on the lane plans, turning them into rowdy events.

City officials are caught in the middle. After a spate of public meetings, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has been forced to come up with six alternative plans, in the hopes that one of them will give everyone what they want: bike lanes and parking. The goal is to have bike lanes on Polk Street by 2015.

San Francisco's bike lane battle reflects a larger problem when it comes to America's road infrastructure. Once a road is built, people get use to having it, and attempts to change it result in heated civic fights. Resistance to changes in road infrastructure isn't limited to bike lanes, of course. When San Francisco's Central Freeway was damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, it took 11 years and three ballot measures to remove half of the double-decked freeway and replace it with a street-level boulevard, according to Jose Luis Moscovich, former executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The problem was that some parts of the community wanted to keep things as they were, while others were ready for change.

City officials in San Francisco hope to have bike lanes on major thoroughfares in two years. But as the saga of the Central Freeway shows, changing traditional uses for a road are never easy. Still, bike riding as a form of urban transportation is here to stay. Somehow, some way through concessions, compromise and a bit of cooperation, bikes and vehicles will find a way to share the road.

View an interactive map showing changes in bicycle commuting for U.S. cities

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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