A group of about 45 cyclists, myself included, arrived at the CVS Pharmacy at South Flores Street and SW Military Drive at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday night. After about five minutes of small talk in the parking lot crowded with bikes and humans of all genres and passions, an argument between two cyclists rose above the chatter.
“Every Lane is a Bike Lane” organizer Monica Walker, who described the gathering as a “semi-protest, semi-show of solidarity,” in an email, confronted a fellow cyclist about riding in the middle of the lane designated for vehicle traffic. The cyclist was intentionally blocking cars and trucks from passing rather than utilizing the bike lane on South Flores Street. The argument was heated and briefly devolved into personal insults.
The bike lanes are slated for removal after a 10-1 City Council vote last week approved a $700,000 re-route. Barring any further Council action, 2.3 miles of South Flores Street will revert to its pre-2013 state in about six months – two standard vehicle lanes in both directions. Currently, the bike lanes end at SW Military Drive.
Nearly $1 million was spent on the “South Flores Street Improvement Project” as part of the council-approved 2011 Bike Master Plan. After an uproar by nearby business owners and residents, the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department held several public meetings and District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran recommended the lanes be removed.
Many in the Southside community were caught off-guard by the project and claim the City didn’t engage in sufficient community outreach before adding the bike lanes. Some claimed that traffic is impaired by the bike lanes, though evidence is only anecdotal and contradicted by the standard traffic impact studies carried out on the street before and after the project earlier this year.
The City agreed mistakes were made.
(Read more: City Council Removes South Flores Bike Lanes)
The cycling community, caught of guard by the unfamiliar proposition of removing newly installed bike lanes, opposed the staff recommendation, but was unorganized and slow to react.
So why are we arguing?
Nicholas Duran, the most vocal of the rogue group of cyclists intentionally riding outside the bike lanes, wanted the group to take a more defiant approach to the ride.
“Drivers need to understand that we won’t have our own lanes now,” he said. “Even the (existing) lanes are filled with trash – pot holes, glass, and I’ve even seen diapers.” By blocking traffic, “it shows (drivers) that we’re not going anywhere … these are our streets, too. We’re allowed to use the whole lane.”
Legally, Duran is right. Cyclists are allowed to ride in the same lanes used by vehicles, but also are required to yield. Too often, neither drivers nor riders on city streets seem to know or obey the law.
Walker, who also runs the Union de Chicas Ciclistas, found Duran’s approach counterproductive. “We’re not here to make people (drivers) mad at us … this is a visual to show people that we’ll take up a lane whether (a designated lane is) there or not.”
Most riders seemed to demonstrate their agreement with Walker’s point of view as they rode within the boundaries of the bike lane, only straying to pass other cyclists when vehicle traffic subsided.
Everyone has an opinion about how to achieve a more bike-friendly community. Some don’t believe it’s possible. Some advocate for sharing the existing road, and argue that striped bike lanes merely provide a psychological barrier between bikes and cars. The larger problem, cyclists say, is getting drivers to paying more attention, respecting the three-foot spacing and passing ordinance, and obeying urban speed limits. Others believe painted bike lanes promote safe cycling and get more people out of cars and on bikes. Cycle tracks, which are bike lanes protected by barriers from vehicle traffic, are the accepted best practice everywhere, but are more expensive to build and require roadways to be re-engineered for fewer vehicle lanes.
Most participants in Wednesday night’s ride were intermediate to advanced cyclists; comfortable on the road and familiar with traffic signaling procedures.
“Removing the lanes means not giving people a chance to get out and ride,” said Jesse Paiz, founder of the Compadres y Amigos Bicycle Club, who has lived on the Southside for 25 years. Bike lanes not only make it safer for experienced riders, he said, they encourages more families to ride.
“We were challenged to get out and be healthy, to ride our bikes,” Walker said. “We took up that challenge and now they’re taking our (bicycle amenities) away.”
When the group started its journey from La Tuna Icehouse and Grill, it quickly became apparent that many drivers in the neighborhood were not comfortable sharing the road with cyclists. Some slowed to a crawl and quickly turned onto a side street, unsure of how to pass. Others accelerated to speed by.
The route itself is flat and straight, a direct line from the modest neighborhoods of the near-Southside to downtown – one of the reasons South Flores was chosen to receive bike lanes. Most pedestrians gave a friendly wave to passing cyclists Wednesday evening.
During the ride, I heard only one driver yell at the group to “get in the bike lane” as some shifted out of the way of an exposed gutter (another problem with many bike lanes). Others reported even more intense interactions with drivers and passersby.
“Some pretty ugly language was used,” said Jeff Chattin, who works for high-end bike manufacturer Jamis Bicycles. “The biggest problem is always the few knuckleheads on both sides (of the issue).”
When a few cyclists rode in the vehicle lane of traffic (either on purpose or to avoid obstacles), effectively backing up several cars at a time, things got dangerous. Motorists used the center turning lane to speed past. At least twice, however, a car underestimated the speed of oncoming traffic. Such near-misses raised two question: One, is making a point about bike lanes worth complicating traffic to the point of possible injury? Two, is the City making South Flores less safe by removing the bike lanes now claimed by cyclists and forcing cyclists and vehicles now to share the same space?
Once South Flores Street is restored to four, traditional vehicle lanes, motorists can get in the opposite lane to pass. The two-lane set-up assumes that bike lanes are perfect for bikes – and usually they’re not.
Discussions of how to incorporate bike facilities – even debates among bike advocates in CVS parking lots – will continue in San Antonio. Bike lanes are about more than transportation – implementation touches public health, environmental sustainability, public safety, lifestyle choices, city planning, and more.
On the way home, the pack of cyclists was cut in half by a passing train. We waited in the growing evening shade with a line of cars impatiently gathering behind us. We realized, with a small amount of irony, what was in the containers. Cars. Hundreds of cars on their way to somewhere.
*Featured/top image: Jesse Paiz at a traffic light during the South Flores Street lane removal protest, “Every Lane is a Bike Lane.” June 4, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.