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A bike lane moved, and this San Francisco neighborhood erupted

The Valencia Street bike lane, intended to protect cyclists from cars and other vehicles along the busy thoroughfare, has become a source of controversy since its introduction. | Justin Katigbak/The Standard

A bike lane moved, and this San Francisco neighborhood erupted

Two of the most heavily used bike lanes in San Francisco intersect in the city’s Mission District, at Valencia and 17th streets, where there’s a taqueria, a police station, an upscale furniture store and a famous sex shop. 

One set of lanes cuts east-west, from the giant rainbow flag in the nearby Castro across the Mission into Potrero Hill. As with most bike lanes, these flank the parking lane, are generally unprotected from cars and, for the most part, don’t offend anyone. The other, running north-south through the ever-trendy neighborhood, has lately become a cultural flashpoint, a fight on par with the conflict over tech shuttle buses. 

Four months ago, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency relocated the north-south bike lanes along Valencia between 15th to 23rd streets from the sides of the street to the center, zipping them together for the span of eight blocks before unzipping them again. In the process, several dozen parking spaces were eliminated, too.

On that section of road, plastic bollards and firm barriers separate cyclists from vehicular traffic, with a buffer zone on either side. In itself, this “cycle track” configuration might be little more than a procedural tweak by a city that’s always tinkering with its streetscape, from lane-narrowing “road diets” to mileslong rapid transit projects for buses.

But something about this change in this place just hits different, as they say, perhaps owing to its perpetual popularity as a destination and its convenience as a through route. Here, solo drivers, Ubers, Lyfts, robotaxis, cyclists and delivery vehicles are ceaselessly jockeying for asphalt across Valencia’s 82 feet, 6 inches of width. 

a crowd of people in a street stands behind someone holding a microphone
Kevin Ortiz, co-president of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club, spoke during a protest this week criticizing Valencia Street's center-striped bicycle lanes. | Source: Courtesy Roger Rudick/Streetsblog

Grumbling about this eight-block stretch has been building since summer. But the anger erupted Tuesday when Kevin Ortiz of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club led several dozen small business owners to occupy the street, chanting and holding signs calling on the city to remove the lanes, as Streetsblog first reported. 

The protest came just a few days after the bar and live-music venue Amado’s closed, with its owner claiming that sales dropped 80% after the bike lane was installed and created a hassle for musicians due to a lack of parking.

Opponents have seized on the bike lane as more evidence that the city runs roughshod over the small businesses that fill its coffers with tax revenue and give it character. But how does moving a bike lane by a few feet destroy a business? 

More Than Just a Bike Lane

Walk down Valencia, and it’s impossible to miss the pink-and-white signs in the windows of many shops that read, “This Bike Lane Is Killing Small Businesses and Our Vibrant Community.” 

Yasmin, a Middle Eastern restaurant that already endured arson and a legal imbroglio with its landlord, has one. So do two auto shops, businesses with something of a direct interest in car culture. Ditto for Curio and Amado’s, restaurants and live-music venues that serve alcohol.

“Everybody’s focused on the bike lane, but it’s really about a bureaucracy,” said Bill Dickenson, who sits on a steering committee of the San Francisco Small Business Coalition. “The SFMTA is a government agency that has gone rogue in many ways.”

A composite image of four signs in shop windows that show opposition to a bike lane.
Several businesses along Valencia Street have posted signs in their windows that read, “This Bike Lane Is Killing Small Businesses and Our Vibrant Community,” with a QR code for the San Francisco Small Business Coalition. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

In Dickenson’s view, the powers that be have pit cyclists against small businesses unnecessarily, and it’s a canard that the center-running bike lanes are part of a flexible pilot program that can be tweaked based on public input, which is the city’s current position. The transit agency giveth, and the transit agency will never, ever taketh away.

“It’s not a pilot!” he told The Standard. “There were millions and millions in there, and the [San Francisco] Bike Coalition kept pushing for more infrastructure. This is a misuse of public funds. A ‘quick-build’ would be chalk and paint.”

An April 2023 planning document appears to put the cost at $590,000, funded by several previous ballot measures, but SFMTA confirmed to The Standard that $1.5 million had been spent so far, with the total amount yet to be determined.

From the perspective of Valencia merchants, the past three years have been an unending nightmare of public-health restrictions, rising costs and a likely permanent reduction in people eating out. Now the same city government whose transit agency radically altered Van Ness Avenue to the consternation of merchants there and whose Department of Public Works has a multiyear corruption scandal has rammed through a project nobody seems to want. 

Asked if he and other small-business owners would prefer the previous bike lanes or no lanes at all, Dickenson demurred. But he claimed many people are unhappy with the current configuration, like senior citizens now forced to circle the block while trying to find parking near the corner grocery store. Or residents who live just off Valencia and are finding more cars parked on their streets these days. 

When pressed, Dickenson said he merely wants something that’s better-designed. Ticking off features, he described something much like Valencia’s previous iteration.

“Something with two directions on either side that allows public-safety first responders to move the way they used to, that allows cars to pull out,” he said. “Why did they put the curbs in there? A sixth-grader can look at this and say this doesn’t work.”

A long view down a street with a green-painted cycle track, and a red car nosing into the intersection.
The center-striped bike lane—technically a cycle track—is part of a pilot program by the SFMTA that is subject to community feedback. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Voicing a fairly widespread belief, Dickerson said he believes ride-share companies like Uber paid the city to remove parking spaces to free up room for pickups and dropoffs.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Uber told The Standard, “The SFMTA regularly reaches out about issues impacting safety and efficiency around the city. We did not discuss the removal of parking spaces.”

For its part, the transit agency says it’s heard business owners’ concerns and has restored some of the 70 parking spaces that were removed.

“We temporarily adjusted the type and duration of many of the loading zones on Valencia Street between 15th and 23rd streets and on several side streets (18th, 19th, 20th, 22nd) to create more general parking availability in the neighborhood,” SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun told The Standard in a statement. 

From October until this month, Dickenson was the interim operations director of Amado’s, the now-closed bar. But the bike lanes weren’t the only challenge for that longtime home for underground music and performance this year. In June, Amado’s suffered a flood, resulting in $500,000 in damages. A crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $50,000 toward repairs has garnered just half that.

Asked how many Amado’s patrons drove to a venue with, at most, a handful of parking spaces on the block, Dickenson responded with statistics about an unspecified competitor’s bottom line in the period during and after Covid. 

A cyclist passes by a shuttered nightclub facade on a street in daytime.
A cyclist passes Amado’s, a recently shuttered bar and music venue at 998 Valencia St., whose owner attributed its closure to the new bike lanes. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“We reached out to a number of businesses and—I won’t name them—but one well-known business owner has a restaurant on Valencia and a restaurant somewhere else in the city,” he said. “The other place saw a 3% dip, and Valencia saw a 50% reduction when the bike lane went in.”

Already a Compromise

Despite the business owners’ complaints, study after study shows that bike lanes typically yield positive economic outcomes for businesses along their corridors. 

During Covid, when Valencia Street was temporarily pedestrianized, Yelp’s data concurred. But the idea that bike lanes are bad for business has entered the cultural bloodstream, seemingly as axiomatic as the erroneous belief that homeless San Franciscans mostly come from somewhere else

A woman walks in the middle of an otherwise open street, with Victorian homes in the background.
Pedestrians enjoy wide open space on Valencia Street in 2020, when it was closed to vehicles on weekends under the city's Slow Streets program. | Source: Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

The transit agency could strengthen its case by releasing promised metrics on the Valencia Street pilot project, but Chun said that it’s going to be a while.

“The data-gathering started later than anticipated,” he said. 

This opacity is clearly infuriating to small-business owners. But it is also a challenge for advocates who want to know if cyclists are using the street less or if drivers are zooming through intersections. 

“It’s incredibly frustrating that the SFMTA hasn’t given us the evaluation data they promised us at quarterly milestones,” said Claire Amable, a Tenderloin native and the director of advocacy for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “We’re four months in, and we were supposed to get it at three, six and nine months.”

The bicycle coalition hears feedback from its members, who seem to be evenly divided on the current state of Valencia, and the organization has offered suggestions for improvement while allowing the fire department to maintain emergency access. Amable says bike lanes are most successful when everyone embraces them but notes that the existing configuration on Valencia was the product of a protracted back-and-forth.

“This design was already a compromise based on merchant feedback from 2020,” Amable said. “It was presented as the only solution by the city because it preserved the most parking options, and SFMTA recently converted loading zones back into parking spaces, which we hope alleviates merchant concerns. But the answer is not more cars, but more people-centered spaces.” 

No Amount of Parking Can Solve the Problem

John Oram, a tech worker and sometime blogger known as Burrito Justice who came up with his own “Burrito Plan” for Valencia Street, sees a simple explanation for the business owners’ grievances.

“They based their business on double-parking, and now, they can’t do that. As soon as somebody double-parks, it blocks traffic,” he told The Standard, adding that since the changeover, some opponents have shown their hand. “Every single complaint about the bike lane, the next thing they say is, ‘Oh, I have $200 in tickets.’”

To him, Valencia Street’s primary issue is one of scarcity, with too many types of users competing for too little space. 

“There’s no number of parking spots you can add to solve this problem,” Oram said. “We’re in a city, and by the way, there are several 200- to 300-parking spot garages right off Valencia.” 

In 2022, Oram penned an opinion piece for The Standard, outlining his Burrito Plan as an “equitable way to distribute the three main road users—cars, pedestrians and cyclists—that involves minimal disruption and low-cost barriers.”

It called for converting Valencia to a one-way street, with bike lanes moved to one side and fully protected, and the remaining space allotted to ride-shares, delivery vehicles and people running errands—the users who shout, “I’ll just be here for a minute!” when parking enforcement turns around the corner. 

A caution sign warns cyclists in a yet-to-be-completed bike lane.
Over the summer, the cycle track's buildout was criticized for being slow and haphazard, but some brave riders used it despite the warning signs. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“In study after study, time after time, city after city, in any dense area, business owners grossly overestimate the number of people who are driving,” Oram said. “Who says, ‘Oh, I’m going to drive to Valencia because parking’s really easy’? It’s always been difficult! It’s just a little more noticeable [now].”

Even as many locals push back on the idea that the city is in a doom loop, they’re quick to suggest the city seems to be creating one in the Mission. As Oram wryly noted, the cry that “Valencia is dead!” may be a poor marketing strategy, and some merchants seem intent on alienating the potential customers who are pedaling past their establishments twice a day. 

It’s worth noting that most of the major streets that parallel Valencia have been reconfigured in some way. Folsom Street was narrowed and restriped a decade ago, South Van Ness Avenue not long ago went from four lanes to two, with pocket lanes for easier left turns. For its part, Mission Street got mandatory turn-offs and “red carpet” lanes meant to give packed buses the right-of-way—and small businesses hated that, too.

A cyclist bikes away on a wet bike lane during the day.
Valencia Street is one of several major north-south thoroughfares in the Mission District whose layout has been remade in recent years. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Why Do People Hate Cyclists So Much?

People hate bike lanes, at least in part, because people hate cyclists. And in fairness, many cyclists give non-cyclists more than a few things to hate. They pedal against traffic. They blow red lights. They wear expensive-looking Lycra jerseys that feel like flashy overkill on city streets. The stereotype skews toward six-figure-earning, middle-aged neckbeards mansplaining about derailleurs. And there’s that eternal whiff of superiority embodied by those “One Less Car” signs sometimes taped to the backs of bike seats, which manage to pack eco-smugness and a grammatical error into three syllables. It should read, “One Fewer Car,” if you want to be like that.  

At the same time, San Francisco is home to many physically fit, environmentally conscious people, plus the city charter’s explicit transportation policy is to prioritize alternatives to driving. And, whatever elitism may cling to cyclists, it’s simply true that every ride in a San Francisco bike shop will be cheaper than any new car at the dealership. 

Ostensibly, the changes to Valencia were largely undertaken for the benefit of cyclists. Several riders The Standard spoke with seem to appreciate the rejiggering of a heavily trafficked, high-injury corridor. In particular, the terror of being “doored” has been minimized.

But just as it’s possible to lament how all cars look alike while mocking the Cybertruck, it’s possible to be a daily cyclist while hating the Valencia Street cycle track, which was so haphazardly installed that pranksters installed guerrilla signage. 

A composite image juxtaposes a blurred picture of a cyclist in motion with a South Asian man in profile, wearing a helmet and jacket.
Valencia's current configuration has received mixed reviews from riders, including Sohan Murthy, right. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Even fully built, many riders dislike the new layout, with its awkward flow, overdesigned signals and a general feeling like they need to crane their necks in an owl-like, 270-degree fashion in order to make a left. When ambulances use it—and it’s pretty hard to argue they shouldn’t—it’s difficult to get out of their way safely. 

“I’ve still seen some crazy stuff, like a car hopping over and doing a U-turn, or swerving in here,” said Sohan Murthy, a West Oakland resident who was riding to a friend’s house. “I don’t know if this is better than before.”

Update: This post has been updated to note that Kevin Ortiz and the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club led the contingent of small businesses who occupied the Valencia Street bike lane.