by Thomas K. Pendergast
On a Saturday morning the foreign tourists queued up in front of a bus near the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
Standing scattered across a bicycle lane in a loose group of about a dozen people, they did not notice a bicyclist bearing down on them. He whistled first, then yelled “hello!” at them so they would see him coming.
The tourists moved and let him through but the confusion was on every face. Why was this bicyclist so pushy and why didn’t he just go around the bus on the other side?
They obviously had no idea that they were blocking his bicycle lane.
Farther down the road the sidewalks were clogged with pedestrians and a jogger was running fast, so he moved across the grass strip and into the middle of the bicycle lane to go around them, which caused the bicycle rider coming up behind him to move left into the parking buffer zone, around the jogger and only a couple of feet from a row of parked cars.
City planners and the SF Bicycle Coalition are set to create more of these “cycle tracks” around San Francisco but opposition is growing against the design found along John F. Kennedy Drive, near the east side of Golden Gate Park, with some disabled people and even some bicyclists saying that this design is more dangerous for them than not having any bike lanes at all.
A survey found that most of the buffer zones adjacent to the 22 parking spaces reserved for disabled people along that bike track are between six and eight feet wide, although some are between four and five feet wide.
Howard Chabner is confined to an electric wheelchair because he has Muscular Dystrophy.
“For people who use wheelchairs and people who have difficulty walking it’s important to be able to park next to the curb,” says Chabner. “Many people such as myself who have a wheelchair or a scooter, we have a mini-van or a full-size van with a ramp or a lift; in either case it’s much more common for the ramp or the lift to be on the side. Instead of that, to have to park away from the curb and basically have to deploy your lift or your ramp into a very narrow buffer zone or into the actual bike lane itself, that’s really dangerous.”
Chabner says he raised these concerns when he first learned about the cycle tracks, but he claims his complaints and the complaints of others fell on deaf ears. He became so frustrated with the process that eventually he resigned from his position as the chair of the Physical Access Committee (PAC) on the Mayor’s Disability Council.
“The way we found out about this project was that we were being asked about where the blue zones should be but we didn’t know anything about the project,” he says. “By the time it came before our committee, we were told it was basically a done deal and the only real input we could have would be where the blue zones would be located.”
A spokesperson for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA), Paul Rose, denied the Physical Access Committee was cut out of the loop.
“MTA staff have met multiple times with advocates for people with disabilities throughout the design, construction and evaluation process,” says Rose. “As a result of those discussions, staff made key adjustments to the project design to better accommodate disabled parking in blue zones and elsewhere along JFK Drive. After the project was constructed, staff led a field visit with members of MOD’s Physical Access Committee and the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee to discuss how the new design was functioning. At one point, individuals from that committee wrote an e-mail thanking our staff for increased efforts to reach out to the disabled community on innovative bike projects.
“We acknowledge that despite the design changes that we made to address some of these concerns and despite our initial findings that people feel safer as a result of the design, advocates remain concerned about parking-buffered cycle tracks in general. We plan to address these concerns in the project’s final report, which should be ready for distribution in February.”
Bob Planthold, a representative of the Senior Action Network, had polio as a child and uses crutches to get around. He says members of that group only found out about the park cycle track right before the Rec. and Park Commission met to approve it.
“We heard about it on a Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday, (the Rec. and Park Commission) was going to consider this,” says Planthold. “So there was effectively no time to delve into the issue and to deal with some of the questions that we’ve been talking about.
“Rec. and Park, when some of us showed up, totally ignored us. They unanimously approved it and commented only about how it was great for the bicyclists, ignoring the safety concerns of all vulnerable pedestrians, whether parents with a baby stroller or a person with a disability,” Planthold said.
The Recreation and Park Department, however, provided a letter to the commission dated Oct. 20, 2011, the day final approval for the project was given, which noted that the Environmental Impact Report for the plan was certified by the San Francisco Planning Department in June of 2009. Plus there were two public workshops held to examine the project, one in June and another in August of 2011.
The letter also claims that MTA staff presented the project to the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority (GGPCA) on Oct. 5, 2011, at which time approximately 30 speakers from the public addressed the authority, most of them speaking in favor of the proposal. The GGPCA also received more than 200 letters supporting the configuration and four opposing it, according to the letter.
But at least one bicyclist is not happy with the design. Joe Corio describes himself as belonging to the “bicyclist activist community,” and says he is a former bicycle messenger and has participated in Critical Mass.
“I believe the general consensus amongst my friends is that the bicycle tracks on JFK are not good, at times dangerous, and at times misleading for experienced cyclists,” says Corio.
He lists off some of the hazards that experienced cyclists have to deal with on the current configuration:
“Slower and unpredictable cyclists on the track; unpredictable pedestrians crossing right in front of you, i.e. you never know when they’re going to cross at the drop of a hat or when they’re actually going to step back and look at their iPod; and the hazards of the road, the storm drainages, are all right in the cycle track and a lot of debris often catches there. … So, you’re dealing with a lot of unpredictable stuff in a small space. There’s no way to bail out over the curb and there’s not a lot of safe room to bail out on your left side into traffic anymore.”
Corio likens the experience to riding though a narrow canyon because the line of sight has been reduced by parked cars on the left.
There is one critic who sees the possibility of a more positive outcome to the issues raised by the JFK bike track.
Jessie Lorenz is the blind executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center SF.
“The way it is now, if you get out of the car you’re in the line of fire,” says Lorenz. “In my personal situation, I have a seeing-eye dog and I have a two-year-old child, so I can’t imagine that parents’ groups are happy with this arrangement either.
“Since this has happened it has led to some strategic relationships between the disability community and the bicycle coalition,” she says. “We’ve had some productive discussions so I don’t think a design like this will just be shoved through again. I have some real concerns about safety … but this has led to a lot more productive discussions about public spaces and for that I’m really grateful.”
“It’s unfortunate that the track is how it is at the moment but there are other tracks that are going to be built in San Francisco and how can we think about things so that we’re looking at all of our citizens?” she added.