There’s nothing new about a store owner fighting a bike lane. Street changes that eliminate curbside parking spaces often stoke shopkeeper ire in cities around the world.
But a leading voice calling on San Francisco officials to rethink cycling improvements slated for Valencia Street puts an Onion-esque spin on that old narrative. The owner of the 35-year-old Valencia Cyclery — the oldest bike shop on a strip that has long been the center of local cycling culture — opposes the city’s plans to sandwich a row of vehicle parking between traffic lanes and the existing unprotected bike lane. The barricade of stationary vehicles that would physically segregate cyclists from moving cars as a safety boost would also strip 47% of curbside spots along the segment in question, according to city estimates.
The fears of store owner Paul Olszewski will probably sound familiar to those steeped in the bike-lane politics of their own hometown. Reconfiguring the street could create challenges for delivery trucks, Olszewski told CityLab, and the loss of parking could lock out families who travel from afar to shop at his store, which is known for its selection of children’s bikes. “We do draw people from a large area around the Bay and people do drive here,” he said. “We appreciate those customers, as we appreciate all of our customers.”
Yet the irony of a bike merchant opposing a bike lane project has not been lost on many local news outlets, which have covered the dispute with zest. And the bad optics have caught up to Olszewski, who penned a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle last week about his concerns and voiced them again at an open house on Monday. In this “Vision Zero” city, where traffic fatalities shot up 26% in 2019 and vehicle-miles traveled are on the rise, some street safety advocates have called for a boycott on his shop via Twitter.
Olszewksi now says he has been misrepresented as a foe to bike safety, when that isn’t true. He says his real issue is that his viewpoints weren’t adequately solicited by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency during its planning process before finalizing their decision. He has been rallying other merchants along Valencia to support alternative designs that might preserve more curbside spots.
“We’re not against bike safety. We’re not against the protected bike lane,” he said. “But we are for being part of a solution for everybody.”
His store manger, Will Nunn, said that Valencia Cyclery would unequivocally support whatever cycling improvements the city makes so long as their voices are heard. “We’re for it if it’s going to make the neighborhood safer and better,” he said.
Kimberly Leung, an SFMTA traffic engineer and the bikeway project manager, says that the city did solicit feedback from Valencia Cyclery multiple times over the course of its 18-month outreach process, including an in-person conversation with a service manager who wasn’t Olszewksi or Nunn in fall 2018. An SFMTA staffer conducting a door-to-door survey of corridor merchants wrote in his notes that that manager “did not like separated lanes,” among other parking and delivery-related business concerns. That struck Leung as surprising. “I never thought I’d be working on a bike lane project where a bike shop is against it,” she said.
Leung also points out that the city is adding metered spots on side streets to help meet the parking needs of nearby retailers, and that the by-the-hour garage around the corner from Olszewksi’s shop is rarely at capacity. The alternative that Olszewksi is now pushing for and which the city did consider — a protected bike lane down the center of Valencia — would likely require removing more parking in order to make room for fire trucks, she added.
There is a second irony embedded in this bike shop’s conundrum. Valencia Street is one of the original case studies in what a bike lane can do to boost local businesses. When the existing, unprotected bike lane was installed in 1999, several merchants (including Olszewksi) raised concerns that the changes might negatively affect their operations. Instead, business utterly boomed along Valencia — so much so that the bike lane became psychically linked to the meteoric gentrification that transformed the Mission District in the early 2000s. When a San Francisco State University public policy student surveyed 27 business owners along Valencia Street about their perceptions of the then-recent street changes in 2003, 65% reported a positive impact on business and less than than 5% reported a negative impact.
Subsequent analyses of Valencia Street businesses supported those findings, while countless academic studies in other cities have found that the economic effects of bike lane projects are neutral at worst and often quite positive. One look at Toronto’s Bloor Street, where a 1.5-mile bike lane replaced 136 on-street parking space in 2016, found that “all indicators point to increased economic activity” following the changes.
Another San Francisco bike shop owner recently explained how this works. Barry Grosfield, the manager of Huckleberry Bikes on Market Street, told Streetsblog last week that while some customers may turn away when they find fewer parking spots, “you just get a new batch of people who uses buses, bikes, BART — you don’t have to worry about parking.”
Olszewksi says that he has seen some of these studies. Though he isn’t entirely sure, he thinks it is possible that the changes could benefit his shop, seeing as the protected lane could get more people riding bikes. He feels similarly about the possibility that Valencia Street could go completely car-free, an idea that an SFMTA board chair raised in January after downtown’s Market Street closed to private vehicle traffic, to great fanfare.“We’d probably do better than anyone with that,” he said. Still, fearful of alienating far-flung customers and of how other businesses might fare, Olszewksi wants to keep the parking, too.
There is an extra twist in this kerfuffle, and that is what it says about bike advocacy. John Stehlin, a professor of geography, environment, and sustainability at UNC-Greensboro, pored into the history of Valencia Street as a case study in bike politics in his 2019 book Cyclescapes of the Unequal City. As a former San Francisco bike shop worker and avid cyclist himself, Stehlin says he unequivocally supports the bike lane changes, but also has a certain amount of sympathy for owners concerned about customers who won’t be able to access their shop as easily anymore.
“If you removed parking to fix this one corridor, then people who might have wanted to come wouldn’t be able to get there,” Stehlin said. “I don’t think that’s a legitimate argument for opposing the bike lane, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility if the broader spatial structure hasn’t changed.”
What he means is that in most American cities — even ones like San Francisco, which came in second in Bicycling Magazine’s 2018 ranking of the best bike cities in the U.S. — high-quality cycling infrastructure is still generally limited to the affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods where vocal cycling advocates (who are often white) tend to live. Newly transit-rich neighborhoods are often (and increasingly) constrained by class, too. As long as that’s true, people who rely on their cars can indeed face more difficulty accessing these islands of richly sustainable mobility. Valencia Street may have helped make the business case for bike lanes, but it also shows its limits: The benefits of bike infrastructure often fail to extend beyond commercial corridors that are often already primed for success, said Stehlin. (Indeed, in this case, the economic argument for bike lanes hasn’t even convinced a longtime bike shop owner.)
However, in the face of climate change’s dire consequences and rising traffic fatalities, this is no reason for bike advocates to give up, Stehlin explains. Instead of focusing on how bike lanes can be a boon for a slew of small businesses, they ought to think bigger — beyond the confines of their own neighborhoods. “It has to be a spatially comprehensive approach,” Stehlin said. “It can’t be so uneven that it’s like winning the lottery to live in a place where you can easily bike or walk or take transit to things that are meaningful to you.”
In a city like San Francisco, which is already lavishly endowed with spatial inequality, that might mean emphasizing that there’s a moral or political case for bicycling that has little to do with economics, and perhaps that goes beyond building specific types of infrastructure. “The bigger picture is,” Stehlin said, “we need this stuff everywhere.”