Anatomy of winning a protected bike lane in a major American city – a two year battle.

Executive Summary: Below is our two year playbook for winning protected lanes on Valencia Street in San Francisco. The People Protected bike lane has shown to be a powerful political tool for transforming our streets for safety. However, so far we’ve only won protected lanes for first four blocks of Valencia.  We have 12 more to go. Every week average 1.2 reported collisions on Valencia street. Many more collisions go unreported. Valencia is a VisionZero high injury corridor – one of the 13% of streets in San Francisco that account for 75% of deaths & injuries.B

September 2016: Begin

In September of 2016 there was no plan or even discussions among San Francisco city agencies or established nonprofits to address the egregiously dangerous conditions on the Valencia unprotected bike lane.  For those unfamiliar, Valencia Street is the second busiest bike route in San Francisco, with over 2,100 people riding bikes on it every day.  While never a safe lane for new or less adventurous riders, the unprotected lanes installed in 1999 were functional for more athletic “cyclists” for over a decade.  However, with the launch of Uber in 2010 and massive growth of TNCs, food delivery, and increased goods deliveries on Valencia, the bike lane had become a slalom course of vehicles blocking people on bikes – and a harbinger of conditions to come for unprotected bike lanes across the country.

October of 2016: Dragon and ConeGuy install guerilla safe hit posts on the Valencia unprotected bike lane.

Following the death of Kate Slattery and Heather Miller on June 22, 2016, two women killed by car drivers in separate collisions on San Francisco streets on the same day, a guerilla tactical urbanism group formed in San Francisco.  The group built on a burgeoning North American movement of tactical urbanism. This new tactical urbanism spread via Twitter, connecting fearful everyday bike commuters from Toronto to Seattle. Calling itself SFMTrA (a play on the city’s official transportation agency SFMTA), the San Francisco group installed lightweight paint & posts safety transformations on unprotected bike lanes and dangerous intersections across the city.  

In October 2016 SFMTrA took to Valencia Street.    Using white safe hit posts, SFMTrA created a stretch of protected bike lane.  With these safe hit posts, an orange cone, several signs and a unicorn costume, these advocates created Valencia’s first protected bike lane. They handed out information cards (image below) showing a future where people of all ages and abilities could safely travel Valencia street by bike.  Within 24 hours SFMTA removed the guerrilla safety enhancements.

(photo @SFMTrA)

Winter 2017: The People Protected Bike Lane is invented on Valencia Street

In the winter of 2017, Maureen Perisco and Matt Brezina were biking on Valencia. While weaving around cars blocking the bike lane, an exasperated Maureen exclaimed “We should create a protected bike lane by standing on the line, holding hands, and keeping cars out of the bike lane. It can be like Hands Across America. If the city won’t protect us, we will protect our own!”  The @PeopleProtected bike lane was invented.

May 1, 2017: The world’s first People Protected Bike Lane takes place on Golden Gate Ave.

The first People Protected bike lane took place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood on Golden Gate Avenue – another of the city’s dangerous unprotected bike lanes.  15 people participated, including several parents with cargo bikes and a few people on electric skateboards – a hint toward the future of this inclusive group of unarmored street users.

May 15, 2017:  First of three protected bike lane actions on Valencia Street

The first People Protected bike lane on Valencia Street took place during evening rush hour on May 15th, 2017.  Over 70 people participated. Local and national media covered the action including the Sierra Club magazine, The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and local Fox affiliates who flew a helicopter overhead.  Over the next six months, two more People Protected bike lane actions were held on Valencia street.

(photo Bryan Goebel)

Behind the scenes, we were working the political process

District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who’s district borders Valencia Street, was up for re-election in 2018. The SF bicycle riding community is politically engaged and turns out to vote in local elections.  Several members of the @PeopleProtected group developed personal relationships with Sheehy as well as other politicians and staff in City Hall. Individual advocates and organizations, like SF Bicycle Coalition and WalkSF, began to engage and push these politicians to fix the dangerous Valencia Street.  With increased attention on the danger of biking on Valencia Street, local press began to ask read more questions of politicians and city officials. This resulted in D8 Supervisory Sheehy and D9 Supervisor Hilary Ronen getting engaged and supporting change.

September 2017: The wheels of government begin to turn

Supervisor Sheehy and his staffer Bill Barnes were aware of some unallocated neighborhood-specific transportation funding. This funding was created by Prop K and is called the Neighborhood Transportation Improvement Program (NTIP).  Sheehy decided to dedicate $50,0000 of District 8’s NTIP funding for the Valencia bicycle safety project. Supervisor Sheehy and staff, Amy Beinhart from Supervisor Ronen’s office, Julia Raskin from SF Bicycle Coalition, @PeopleProtected members and SFMTA staff together drafted a Valencia bicycle safety project.  San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) approved the funding. Matching funds from SFMTA took the budget to $145,000. The Valencia Bikeway Improvement Project was born.

December 4, 2017 Politicians join the @PeopleProtected line for the first time

(photo John Entwistle)

One block from Valencia street, another protected bike lane battle was brewing.  Plans for protected bike lanes on Upper Market Street were floundering and possibly being cancelled. So @PeopleProtected teamed up with San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and performed an action on a Monday evening commute.  This time however we also invited politicians to join us. Then D8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, D8 supervisor candidate Rafael Mandelman, and State Senator (and former D8 supervisor) Scott Wiener all stood on the line. We used the political involvement to drive more press awareness and recruit more bike riders to participate.

January 2017:  SFMTA project team is formed and begins data collection, small rapid changes, and community outreach

San Francisco’s process for simple safety improvements of our streets remains onerous and burdensome.  To see the extensive research done prior to construction by the SFMTA Valencia project team, check out the related reports and documents on the project page:

Here are some examples of work undertaken by the SFMTA team:

  • Hired contractors for data collection of vehicle, bike and pedestrian street usage.  
  • Contacted over 200 Valencia street merchants with 86 survey responses.  
  • Created and executed a large shopper intercept survey with 238 individual responses.
  • Created detailed, bespoke design boards for online and in-person viewing  
  • Held two three-hour community meetings with over 10 paid city staff answering questions.
  • Met in person with over 40 community groups
  • Held dozens of internal meetings
  • Installed small rapid changes: soft-hit posts and an additional white line on the bike lane

Once the SFMTA project team was formed, SF’s long standing San Francisco Bicycle Coalition kicked into high gear. Community organizers Kristen Leckie and Andy Gonzalez Cabrera held meetings with community groups along the corridor, merchants, and SF Bicycle Coalition members.  Kristen, Andy and the rest of SF Bicycle Coalition staff, veterans of SF streets politics, laid important groundwork for success by making sure all groups were included and listened to.

May 2018: @PeopleProtected leads actions with all three mayoral candidates, including the eventual victor London Breed

We learned nothing moves a city agency more than political support and press coverage.  Given we were about to have a new mayor – after the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee – we focused on executing a People Protected action with each of the three mayoral candidate in their home districts.

We joined hands with Supervisor Jane Kim on Howard Street at 8th Street, where a protected lane is being built as I type these words (only 7 months later!!).  We joined with former State Senator Mark Leno on Upper Market Street. Lastly, we joined hands with Supervisor London Breed on Market Street at Valencia.

(photo John Entwistle)

September 6, 2018: @PeopleProtected Advocates push our new mayor for urgency on Valencia Street

Once elected, we kept the Breed administration in the loop on progress on Valencia Street.  Even after community outreach was completed and viable bike lane designs were published, SFMTA had no timeline for when construction would begin.  We realized we had to continue pressuring SFMTA to speed up the project or risk it languishing indefinitely. Advocate Kyle Grochmal outlined the case for expedited protected lanes in a widely read blog post.   We also brought our urgent request, in person, to the Mayor’s office, and she listened.  

September 26, 2018: Mayor Breed Announces construction of the first four blocks of Valencia

Along with the support of both district supervisors, SF Bicycle Coalition & WalkSF, the mayor announced new measures to quickly address bicyclist and pedestrian safety concerns, including the installation of four blocks of parking protected bike lanes on Valencia Street within four months. SFMTA is an independently operating agency with a Board of Directors appointed by the mayor. Historical, mayors have not been directly involved in individual SFMTA projects. Mayor Breed’s support allowed the SFMTA to focus on quickly designing the Valencia protected bike lanes rather than collecting additional community input or building support with city politicians.

November 14, 2018: SFMTA holds a final community meeting

SFMTA staff held only one community meeting to show the final protected bike lane designs.  Due to the expedited timeline, SFMTA did not allow any public input on the design of the protected bike lanes. This community meeting simply informed residents of the pending changes.

December 4, 2018: SFMTA Board approves the protected bike lanes

SF Bicycle Coalition excels at getting people who bike to voice their support for bike projects during public SFMTA Board meetings. Over 35 street safety advocates, including many @PeopleProtected participants and @sfbike members gave public comment during this board meeting, including many parents with their children in attendance.  An additional 500 emails of support were also sent to the SFMTA Board. The board unanimously approved the four block Valencia protected bike lane pilot.

December 27, 2018:  Construction begins on the Valencia protected bike lane!

The Valencia protected bike lanes actually required significant construction compared to other near-term bike projects. This construction included new midblock sidewalk ramps and loading islands with rails outside two schools. Generally, any street excavation in SF requires an environmental review. SFMTA overcame this obstacle by installing the lane as a “pilot” whose performance would have to be analyzed in the future. SFMTA was also able to use Public Works crews rather than requesting bids from external contractors – this saved both time and money.

In an amazing testament to mayoral influence, the protected bike lanes on Valencia street began construction before the close of the year – about three months after Mayor Breed’s directive.

From inception to three blocks of completion, these protected bike lanes have taken two years and two months of near constant focus, attention and work from bicycle advocates.

Looking Forward

We are planning a celebration ride, but our work is not done.  Valencia will soon have four blocks of safe protected lanes. But the remaining 12 blocks of Valencia street remain unprotected and unsafe.  The blocks between 19th and Mission can benefit from the same treatment as these first four blocks. We want to watch how these new protected lanes work for a few months, make adjustments, and then extend this same treatment from 19th to Mission by next summer.  Every day we delay, we put people needlessly in harm’s way. Valencia Street averages 1.2 collisions every week – and many more go unreported. Seventy percent of these collisions are happening on the 12 blocks of Valencia that don’t yet have protected lanes. The @PeopleProtected bike lane, invented on Valencia Street, has shown its power in giving unarmored street users a voice and it moving political will.  However, success entirely depends on people joining the cause and standing on the line for safety.

Join us, and build more Protected Bike Lanes Now! Follow @PeopleProtected on twitter and sign up here to be notified of the next People Protected Bike Lane event in San Francisco.