Bike and pedestrian enhancements don’t necessarily hurt business 

A small but vocal group of San Francisco residents and merchants is vehemently opposed to removing parking on Polk Street to make way for a bike lane. Members have organized well enough to persuade The City’s transit agency to rethink its approach to the proposal, after admittedly not being fully prepared to sell the idea during a March community meeting.

While this contingent has made headlines and enemies, the fight simply clouds the real issue here: As San Francisco becomes more and more densely populated, there is less and less room for the automobile.

Let’s start with the facts. The plan for Polk Street involves more than just bicycles. The corridor happens to be one of the most dangerous in The City for pedestrians. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency says Polk Street from Sacramento to McAllister streets is among the 7 percent of city streets where the bulk of the most severe pedestrian collisions occur annually.  

Polk Street also is a busy commercial corridor that has been growing rapidly in recent years. Not only is it dotted with restaurants and bars, it boasts neighborhood businesses such as grocers and drugstores. And it’s one of the more practical north-south thoroughfares for bicyclists riding in one of the most densely populated parts of The City.

If any street makes for a convenient comparison, it would be Valencia Street.

In the late 1990s, a trial project was rolled out on the Mission district thoroughfare to see what would happen if vehicle lanes were removed in favor of bike lanes. That “road diet” involved eliminating two of four vehicle lanes and installing bike lanes on both sides of the street, along with a median, in hopes of improving pedestrian and cyclist safety.

According to advocacy group Bikes Belong, cycling traffic increased 144 percent in one year while total collisions decreased 20 percent. But perhaps most significantly — at least given the current Polk Street debate — two-thirds of area merchants said business actually improved after the changes took effect.

The result was that the trial project became permanent.

Now the transit agency has a chance to use that experience to make Polk Street another success story.

But city officials should not simply discount the concerns of residents and merchants. Motorized vehicles remain a central mode of transportation for our society, and many people do need them to do their shopping on Polk Street.

Two more community meetings will be held this month regarding the Polk Street proposal, on April 27 and April 30. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail on both sides, and transit leaders are more prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the public. Perhaps the safety of pedestrians and bikers can be improved without completely disregarding the concerns of merchants and motorists.

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