Renegade Bike Lanes: It Always Takes An Activist In San Francisco

After two cyclists were killed in hit-and-runs on the same day, the SFMTrA grabbed traffic cones and took action.

Cyclists in San Francisco’s Mission District might’ve been surprised this week to discover a different kind of bike path. It was a regular curbside lane, but protected with traffic cones directing right for “BIKES” and left for “UBER.”

The fortified passage was the work of SFMTrA, a riff on the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) that stands for “SF Transformation.” The shadowy activists, who seem to have a warehouse of orange cones, have been erecting protected lanes around San Francisco that last for brief periods before they (or someone else) remove them. The group joins others nationwide to push for safe roads with guerrilla actions, including organizations in New York,Boston, and Portland.

The SFMTrA is a collective of “concerned citizens (men and women, young and old, cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, concerned parents, etc.) that cooperatively discuss and decide on tactical urbanism actions,” emails the group, who want to stay anonymous partly because of their activities’ questionable legality. Their message is clear: Build a safer infrastructure to prevent fatal collisions among cyclists, which are on the rise in California in 2016 after declining in the two previous years.

“Even with some improvements from the SFMTA and other advocacy groups lobbying the city for safe streets, we felt there was more that could be done to increase street safety and attention to these issues by taking direct action on our public streets,” they say. “After two cyclists were killed by drivers on the night of June 22nd (Kate Slattery on 7th and Howard and Heather Miller on JFK in Golden Gate Park), we decided that enough was enough and felt we had to take more direct action.”

This being likely the hottest year globally in known history, there’s an added climate motivation. “We also want to promote modes of transportation that do not rely on fossil fuels,” they say. “If pedestrians and cyclists feel safe on our streets, they will increasingly turn away from cars and to these alternate modes.”

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The SFMTrA maintains a map that lets people pinpoint areas they think are in need of attention. For instance, a marker in North Beach reads: “Bike lane on Embarcadero from Ferry Building to Pier 39 is an Uber/Lyft/Taxi pickup-dropoff site, and a handy place for buses to idle while waiting for passengers.” And in Nob Hill: “Mid-morning, all of the beer trucks are delivering to Polk St bars in the southbound bike lane. This lane is so disrespected that one time I passed a guy unrolling carpet and trimming it in the bike lane!”

To the city’s credit, it’s built 13 miles of protected lanes in the past six years. It also just started construction* on its first-ever protected intersection in an area notorious for cyclist injuries. But some might argue it could move faster.

“There is a culture of delay in the San Francisco city agencies responsible for delivering safe streets,” says Chris Cassidy, spokesperson for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “People are frustrated with years of delays and a vacuum of reasonable explanations on projects across SF. These kinds of actions [by SFMTrA] don’t change anything for more than a couple of hours, but they do represent very reasonable frustration with city agencies that can’t seem to keep to their own deadlines.”

The SFMTrA has performed at least seven interventions and has plans for many more. “We are just getting started,” they say. “Most streets in San Francisco are too dangerous (too wide, too many traffic lanes, missing crosswalks, unprotected bike lanes, etc.)…  With a growing group of members we expect to increase the amount of safety improvements we can make and this will encourage the city to do more as well.”

This feature originally appeared in Citylab.

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