Cyclists approaching the intersection of Market and Eighth streets as they head west ride across a street marking that shows two arrows above a bicycle. Cars, buses and trucks are supposed to share that space with bikes.
Across the intersection, a new lane opens up for cyclists only. It’s painted green and separated from auto traffic by plastic posts, making it clear which vehicles go where.
This intersection is one example of how San Francisco — which has had a bike ridership increase of 71 percent in the past five years — is evolving its view of automobile-cyclist interaction.
Click on the photo to the right to see examples of types of bike lanes in San Francisco.
As recently as 2005, The City was focused on making it easier for cyclists and autos to share space. A study from the early 2000s led to roadway markings with the arrows above a bicycle, commonly referred to as a sharrow. San Francisco began marking streets with the sharrow in 2005.
The markings, according to San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum, are meant as a safety mechanism for both cyclists and motorists.
“They were always intended to be used in places where you weren’t going to have bike lanes,” Shahum said. And though bike lanes were still being added at the time, Shahum said, The City seemed to lean toward sharrows.
But that mentality began to shift when studies revealed that shared-lane markings were not helping motorists maneuver around bikes and cyclists were not getting the room they needed to ride, Shahum said.
Approximately 20 miles of bike lanes have been added in The City in just the past two years, following a lawsuit that halted installations from 2007 and 2010. A portion of those have been painted green to distinguish them from auto lanes, and some are entirely separated from traffic with plastic posts.
“I do think the new piece is not necessarily bike lanes as much as the separated bikeways, which is definitely, for America, a new thing,” Shahum said.
New York City pioneered a U.S. version of separated bikeways three to four years ago, working off the European model, Shahum said. Other cities have followed.
Locally, Market Street has the most noticeable green lanes, installed in early 2010. More recently, protected bike lanes were placed along John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park this year. Parking spots were moved away from the curb so bicyclists could ride between the parked cars and sidewalk.
The City is not stopping there. San Francisco recently applied for and was accepted for a national project with five other cities — Austin, Texas; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Washington, D.C. — to implement more protected bike lanes. The Green Lane Project was launched by the nonprofit Bikes Belong Foundation to help reach that goal and reduce traffic congestion.
“The more green lanes we have, the better,” said bicyclist Jade Deed, 39. “I love that we’re getting recognized more and that The City is becoming more bike-friendly.”
The five cities were selected from a pool of 32 in the U.S. Martha Roskowski, Green Lane Project director for Bikes Belong, said cities were chosen based upon community support and their dedication to improving cycling conditions. The new bike lanes on JFK Drive persuaded the campaign to accept The City.
“We were very impressed when we began to look closely at San Francisco,” Roskowski said. “Getting protected bike lanes on JFK Drive really showed The City’s commitment to creating an environment where people can feel comfortable on bikes.”
The new bike lanes on JFK Drive caused a shift in driving habits, said the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees ground transportation in The City.
“Before the installation … drivers were exceeding 30 miles per hour,” said Seleta Reynolds of the SFMTA’s safety program Livable Streets. “At that speed, pedestrian collisions are more likely to be fatal and it is challenging for new and casual cyclists to feel comfortable sharing the road.”
The bike lane projects, which can be controversial when they replace a lane of traffic or parking spaces, are expected to continue. Work is planned on three blocks of Oak and Fell streets, along with on Cargo Way, Cesar Chavez Street, Eighth Street and John Muir Drive.
“Most of these streets have something about them that makes them uncomfortable for people who are not experienced riding with traffic,” Reynolds said.
The separation of bicycle traffic not only benefits cyclists and motorists, but pedestrians as well.
“It’s not just cars that are aggressive,” said Richard Williams, 73. “The green lanes are a good idea as long as everyone stays in their designated space.”
S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Mike Billings contributed to this report.