Bike plan hits environmental speed bump

November 17, 2008 7:08:30 PM PST
Love them or hate them, bicyclists are a part of San Francisco's transit landscape. The city has embraced the two-wheelers as one of the many answers to cleaner air and reduced reliance on foreign oil that powers the cars that share the roads.

There are already 200 miles of bike lanes in the city, but some say that is not enough.

"The number of people bike commuting in the city has grown tremendously," Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said.

The 10,000 member strong non-profit is advocating for people to get out of their cars and onto bikes.

"We know what will help them bike more: safer conditions, more inviting conditions, better bike parking, more bike lanes and the city has an obligation and I think a real commitment to make those improvements," Shahum said.

In 2007, the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority released its plan. The 527-page document outlined 240 places where the city wanted to make changes and boost bike ridership. It included miles of new bike lanes and better bike parking.

But in some cases, it meant eliminating traffic lanes and street parking.

That did not sit well with resident Rob Anderson, who feels that cars are a fact of life in the city and essential to the city's tourism industry.

"The cars are already here; there are 460,000 registered motor vehicles in San Francisco alone," Anderson said.

Anderson put the brakes on the city's bike plan with a legal challenge. He claimed the bike plan violated environmental laws because an environmental review was not done.

"It's all about process, it's a process issue, first you do this, then you do that," Anderson said. "First do you do an environmental study, then you implement your project."

Anderson argued the city failed to conduct an environmental impact study required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

"Traffic is considered an impact under CEQA." Anderson said.

CEQA was passed in 1970 to ensure that developments do not have a significant impact on the environment, including traffic.

"Unfortunately, the environmental review standards are used, twisted and almost corrupted, for an anti-environment basis and that's what's happening with this lawsuit right now," Shahum said.

City attorney Dennis Herrera believes the case is not in the spirit of CEQA.

"In my opinion, the intentions and the objectives of CEQA have been perverted in this case," Herrera said.

Herrera's office argued the environmental review was unnecessary in this case because cars are harmful to the environment and getting them off the road could only benefit the planet.

In late 2006, a superior court judge stopped the bike plan in its tracks and ordered the city to complete an environmental review.

"Right now that is something that is being done so that we can make sure that we implement a bike plan that meets the needs of San Francisco as soon as possible and one that's environmentally sensitive," Herrera said.

The city anticipates some early results of the environmental study later this month.

"There is no environmental impact report that's been done quite like this in the state of California," MTA bike program manager Oliver Gajda said.

Despite all the legal wrangling, the environmental impact study will show that there is little impact on the traffic environment because the plan calls for adding bike lanes on less traveled streets, Gajda said.

"When the injunction's lifted we will actually come out with more projects than perhaps we would have had we not had the injunction," Gajda said.

That is good news to bikers who say they have waiter two years too long for a bike plan.

"I think it's really ironic that someone was able to stop bicycle safety improvements on the grounds that it might hurt the environment," Shahum said.

Anderson has no regrets.

"I think I did San Francisco a public service by slowing the process down, and forcing the city to do the legal thing and the right thing and to do a thorough study," Anderson said.

Anderson can live with the outcome, provided the city followed the rules.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.


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