When the first Bike to Work Day was held in San Francisco 20 years ago, cyclists had little support in City Hall. But on May 8, almost every one of the city's top political leaders will take part in Bike to Work Day, pledging their support to an increasingly popular and important transportation option.
In fact, Bike to Work Day has become such an anticipated event in San Francisco that city officials and cycling advocates in recent years have used it as the deadline to unveil the latest high-profile bike project to demonstrate the city's commitment to cycling.
This year, it's the new contraflow bike lanes on lower Polk Street, an important connection from Market Street to City Hall that helps cyclists avoid dangerous, car-centric Van Ness Avenue or Larkin Street — without having to illegally cut up the one-way section of Polk.
When that $2.5 million bike and pedestrian project — with its attractive landscaping, pedestrian bulb-outs, pretty green lanes, and trio of special bike-only signal lights — was officially opened on May 2, bike activists kept circling the new lanes as if they were doing victory laps.
"I cannot think of a better way to kick off Bike Month in the Bay Area and the 20th anniversary of Bike to Work Day, coming up May 8, than to celebrate what I think is the most beautiful, functional, well-designed, and what is probably going to be the best used piece of bike infrastructure in our city," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
She and the others who spoke at the event praised the city officials who moved quickly to complete this project, calling it a testament to the growing political will to make streets safer and more welcoming for cyclists.
"I will be honest, we put a lot of pressure on to get this done by Bike to Work Day," Shahum said. "We really wanted to make sure you all and the folks throughout this city could, this year, for the first time in San Francisco's history, make a safe and comfortable and direct link from Market Street...to City Hall."
Building high-profile, separated cycletracks to the steps of City Hall seems to symbolically mark the arrival of cyclists into the political mainstream.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Twenty years ago, California Bicycle Coalition Director Dave Snyder was the head of SFBC, and he was able to persuade only one member of the Board of Supervisors to participate in that first Bike to Work Day.
"I should give a shout-out to Tom Ammiano because he was the first supervisor to care enough to ride on Bike to Work Day, back when the Board of Supervisors didn't really care about cycling," Snyder told us. "These days, it's not uncommon for supervisors to ride for transportation, but back then none did."
Shahum remembers it as well, back before the SFBC was one of the city's largest member-based political advocacy organizations.
"Twenty years ago, Bike to Work Day was a fun but sort of lonely event," Shahum told us, noting how the number of cyclists on the road has exploded in recent years. "Riding on a regular Thursday during rush hour feels like Bike to Work Day used to feel 20 years ago."
But both Snyder and Shahum said the universal statements of support for cycling that emanate from City Hall these days are only half the battle.
"It's a good idea to promote bicycling as a mainstream activity, and we won that battle," Snyder said. "Now, we have to get them to put their money where their mouth is."
With cycling projects receiving less than 1 percent of the city's transportation funding, and city officials so far unwilling to pay for the projects that would allow the city to meet its official goal of 20 percent of all vehicle trips being by bike by the year 2020, Snyder said, "We haven't accomplished that second goal yet."