San Francisco Ponders: Could Bike Lanes Cause Pollution?
City Backpedals on a Cycling Plan After Mr. Anderson Goes to Court
Updated Aug. 20, 2008 12:01 a.m. ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- New York is wooing cyclists with chartreuse bike lanes. Chicago is spending nearly $1 million for double-decker bicycle parking.
San Francisco can't even install new bike racks.
Blame Rob Anderson. At a time when most other cities are encouraging biking as green transport, the 65-year-old local gadfly has stymied cycling-support efforts here by arguing that urban bicycle boosting could actually be bad for the environment. That's put the brakes on everything from new bike lanes to bike racks while the city works on an environmental-impact report.
Cyclists say the irony is killing them -- literally. At least four bikers have died and hundreds more have been injured in San Francisco since mid-2006, when Mr. Anderson helped convince a judge to halt implementation of a massive pro-bike plan.(It's unclear whether the plan's execution could have prevented the accidents.) In the past year, bike advocates have demonstrated outside City Hall, pushed the city to challenge the plan's freeze in court and proposed putting the whole mess to local voters. Nothing worked.
"We're the ones keeping emissions from the air!" shouted Leah Shahum, executive director of the 10,000-strong San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, at a July 21 protest.
WSJ's Phred Dvorak reports from a Critical Mass event in San Francisco, a monthly bike ride that draws hundreds of cyclists. She talks with bikers as well as disgruntled drivers. Mr. Anderson disagrees. Cars always will vastly outnumber bikes, he reasons, so allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more traffic jams, more idling and more pollution. Mr. Anderson says the city has been blinded by political correctness. It's an "attempt by the anti-car fanatics to screw up our traffic on behalf of the bicycle fantasy," he wrote in his blog this month.
Mr. Anderson's fight underscores the tensions that can circulate as urban cycling, bolstered by environmental awareness and high gasoline prices, takes off across the U.S. New York City, where the number of commuter cyclists is estimated to have jumped 77% between 2000 and 2007, is adding new bike lanes despite some motorist backlash. Chicago recently elected to kick cars off stretches of big roads on two Sundays this year.
Famously progressive, San Francisco is known for being one of the most pro-bike cities in the U.S., offering more than 200 miles of lanes and requiring that big garages offer bike parking. It is also known for characters like Mr. Anderson.
A tall, serious man with a grizzled gray beard, Mr. Anderson spent 13 months in a California federal prison for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War. He later penned pieces for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a muckraking Northern California weekly owned by his brother that's known for its savage prose and pranks.
In 1995, Mr. Anderson moved to San Francisco. Working odd jobs, he twice ran for a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors, pledging to tackle homelessness and the city's "tacit PC ideology." He got 332 of 34,955 votes in 2004, his second and best try.
That year Mr. Anderson, who mostly lives off a small government stipend he receives for caring for his 92-year-old mother, also started a blog, digging into local politics with gusto. One of his first targets: the city's most ambitious bike plan to date.
Unveiled in 2004, the 527-page document was filled with maps, traffic analyses and a list of roughly 240 locations where the city hoped to make cycling easier. The plan called for more bike lanes, better bike parking and a boost in cycling to 10% of the city's total trips by 2010.
The plan irked Mr. Anderson. Having not owned a car in 20 years, he says he has had several near misses with bikers roaring through crosswalks and red lights, and sees bicycles as dangerous and impractical for car-centric American cities. Mr. Anderson was also bugged by what he describes as the holier-than-thou attitude typified by Critical Mass, a monthly gathering of bikers who coast through the city, snarling traffic for hours. "The behavior of the bike people on city streets is always annoying," he says. "This 'Get out of my way, I'm not burning fossil fuels.' "
Going to Court In February 2005, Mr. Anderson showed up at a planning commission meeting. If San Francisco was going to take away parking spaces and car lanes, he argued, it had better do an environmental-impact review first. When the Board of Supervisors voted to skip the review, Mr. Anderson sued in state court, enlisting his friend Mary Miles, a former postal worker, cartoonist and Anderson Valley Advertiser colleague.
Ms. Miles, who was admitted to the California bar in 2004 at age 57, proved a pugnacious litigator. She sought to kill the initial brief from San Francisco's lawyers after it exceeded the accepted length by a page. She objected when the city attorney described Mr. Anderson's advocacy group, the Coalition for Adequate Review, as CAR in their documents. (It's C-FAR.) She also convinced the court to review key planning documents over the city's objections.
Slow Pedaling In November 2006, a California Superior Court judge rejected San Francisco's contention that it didn't need an environmental review and ordered San Francisco to stop all bike-plan activity until it completed the review.
Since then, San Francisco has pedaled very slowly. City planners say they're being extra careful with their environmental study, in hopes that Mr. Anderson and Ms. Miles won't challenge it. Planners don't expect the study will be done for another year.
Meanwhile, Mr. Anderson and Ms. Miles have teamed up to oppose a plan to put high-rises and additional housing in a nearby neighborhood. He continues to blog from his apartment in an old Victorian home. "Regardless of the obvious dangers, some people will ride bikes in San Francisco for the same reason Islamic fanatics will engage in suicide bombings -- because they are politically motivated to do so," he wrote in a May 21 post.
"In case anyone doubted that you were a wingnut, this statement pretty much sums things up!" one commenter retorted.
Mr. Anderson is running for supervisor again this November -- around the time the city will unveil the first draft of its bike-plan environmental review. He's already pondering a challenge of the review.
Write to Phred Dvorak at firstname.lastname@example.org