As it happens, San Francisco's cracker-moron problem goes beyond my own irksome morning commute encounters. Every day, it seems, I hear of someone who's been either injured or terrified by a motorist who's become enraged by the sight of a cyclist riding in the vehicle lane. (The law allows cyclists to take the entire lane to avoid opening car doors and other obstacles.)
"I've had the situation where I felt in order to be safe I had to take the lane, and a driver comes over from the left lane, and without signaling or saying anything, just starts riding over into me to push me over," says Vince Vitale, 53, a San Francisco writer. "Unfortunately, that can cause my death."
Vince should know. He spent two hours unconscious last month after a motorist swerved into him, masking Vince's face with road rash, injuring his leg. Mike Smith, 38, who works for an S.F. technology company, knows about the problem, too. His wife was nailed last month by a right-turning motorist. Now, she's got 15 screws in her arm.
And there are the hundreds and hundreds of S.F. cyclists who've been "doored" -- concussed or otherwise injured when a parked motorist opens a car door in their path. It's a horrible experience. You'll be riding along and BAM!, a sharp piece of Chrysler unexpectedly lodges itself in your forehead. More than one-third of S.F. cyclists interviewed in a Health Department survey last year said they had been doored at least once.
The city of San Francisco recognizes this problem. In fact, on this issue, San Francisco's city government officials -- remiss in many of their duties, I'm sure -- have planted themselves firmly on the side of health, safety, and enjoyable urban life. Police Chief Fred Lau, for one, has issued a bulletin informing motorists and transit agencies that cyclists are allowed full use of the traffic lane when necessary, such as in cases when riders must stay three feet clear of parked cars.
And the Department of Parking and Traffic has sought to paint stencils in the middle of S.F. street lanes to remind motorists to watch for, and accommodate, bicyclists using the whole lane. This would be nothing fancy: an arrow running in the direction of traffic with the image of a bike rider inside. There are already several of these arrows, painted a sparkly green, on streets around the city. The DPT recently decided it wanted to paint more of them, and change the color to a brighter hue to improve visibility.
"The hope of the stencils was to provide some guidance where bicyclists can ride, and to alert motorists that bicyclists have a right to ride a safe distance from parked cars," says Peter Tannen, who runs the DPT's bicycle program.
This kind of measure is known in the politics business as "manna from heaven": It's cheap, quick, uncontroversial, enjoys the potential to improve quality of life, and may even save lives.
Unfortunately, it seems, the cracker morons who make my life miserable during the S.F. morning commute have inbred siblings in Sacramento. When Tanner and San Francisco traffic engineer Bond Yee last month sought California state permission to paint new, brighter bike-riding stencils on streets here, they were met with an ignorant, redneck stonewall. California state government bureaucrats, who often engineer policy in favor of automobiles against all other forms of transport, seem to have struck again.
Bike stencils could set a dangerous precedent, even provoke havoc, members of the state's California Traffic Control Devices Committee claimed. For one, bike stencils painted on a narrow road might lead people to mistake the whole road for a bike lane -- heaven forbid! The bike stencils might "force" cyclists to ride farther left than they really wanted to! Stencils could even create a whole new category of city bike lane. And if too many cities and counties jump on the bike stencil bandwagon, stencil maintenance expenses could become prohibitive, the committee said.
"If I sound frustrated, it's because I am, because it's been a very difficult process," says Tannen, who recently suffered an argument with the state Traffic Control Devices Committee's California Highway Patrol representative, who seemed to think that it's perfectly safe to ride within forehead's reach of parked-car doors. "The guy said the possibility that somebody might open their door is not justification for people to ride out of the way of car doors, and that a bicyclist should look into every car window to make sure nobody's about to open a door. This guy was really very adamant."
Of all the people who should know how stupid such a statement is, it should be a CHiPs motor mountie. No bicyclist, or motorcyclist, or motorist is equipped with sensory organs sufficient to safely examine every potential car-door opener, while at the same time paying proper attention to the rest of traffic. It's absurd to suggest otherwise.
Just the same, the committee prescribed three months of bureaucratic wheel-spinning for San Francisco officials.
"They told them to go back, study it, and present more information, and bring it to the next meeting," a CHP spokesman says.
So Tannen will go to the committee's next meeting in mid-July and continue to press his case: Where stencils aren't appropriate, they won't be used; the stencils won't force cyclists to ride in the traffic lane, they will just show a suggested path outside the reach of opening car doors; and cities and counties not wishing to pay for stencils shouldn't use them, Tannen wrote in response to the rejection of the proposed S.F. stenciling program. But Tannen doesn't expect much in the way of a speedy change in the state's position. The committee, which meets four times a year, has been known to stall decisions for years. There's no hurry, these crackers surely believe. After all, we're merely talking about some paint on the pavement.
But really we're talking about a simple bit of policy that would make it safer for bicyclists to use city streets, while potentially making transit easier for the rest of us, as well. As it stands, about 3 percent of S.F. commuters use bicycles; more than 50 percent, however, own bicycles. The most common rationale for the low use of bicycles as regular transport involves the belief that city streets here are just too dangerous for bicycle commuting.
That belief is bad news for all of us, because a mere doubling of the number of S.F. bicycle commuters would ease the city's transit burden by hundreds of thousands of rider trips, open up thousands of parking spaces, and make streets safer for pedestrians by a measure of thousands of moving cars.
The new bike lane on Valencia Street provides hard evidence for the notion that, when streets are safer, more cyclists use them. After the lanes were installed in March 1999, bicycle ridership on Valencia went up by 117 percent. The number of reported accidents per cyclist, meanwhile, was nearly cut in half. The number of pedestrian accidents likewise declined. One way to unobtrusively spread this kind of success would be to paint street stencils, reminding motorists that state law requires them to accommodate cyclists.
As the matter now stands, there's a deadly standoff on San Francisco city streets between a minority of motorists who erroneously believe bikes aren't allowed in the traffic lane, and cyclists, who seek to exercise their right to ride safely in traffic.
On the cyclists' side, there's the law.
In 1998, Police Chief Lau issued an official bulletin reminding motorists that cyclists may occupy an entire traffic lane to avoid car doors and other obstacles. Citing the California Vehicle Code, Lau wrote that when there isn't room for a bicyclist to maintain a three-foot cushion from parked cars on the right, and a three-foot cushion from passing cars on the left, the cyclist "owns the lane and a vehicle must change lanes in order to pass," the bulletin says.
In case motorists aren't familiar with the concept of changing lanes to avoid a slow-moving vehicle, Lau's memo even provides a two-step diagram showing motorists how to signal, cross the dotted line, then move back again after passing, to avoid a cyclist who has taken the entire lane.
Golden Gate Transit spells it out even more painstakingly in a December flier reprinting the Lau memo. "In other words," the flier says, "there are many reasons why a bicyclist may be found legally in the middle of the traffic lane. This is the interpretation used by law enforcement agencies throughout the State of California. Failure to yield to bicycles in these situations is a violation of the vehicle code and the cause of many serious bicycle accidents."
On the side of the cracker morons, there is ignorance, backed up by 2,500 pounds of motor-driven steel.
Do they really need the help of bureaucrats from Sacramento?
Matt Smith (Matt.Smith@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.By Matt SmithMatt Smith