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Friday, November 6, 2009

'Signs' Point to Better Times Ahead for Cyclists

Posted By and on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 11:15 AM

click to enlarge The tide is turning...
  • The tide is turning...

For San Francisco's ever-growing cadre of bicyclists, this week opened with both good news and bad.

On Monday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch postponed until Nov. 12 his decision on whether to allow the city to install bicycle improvements. San Francisco has for years been barred from installing amenities such as bike lanes and racks thanks to a court injunction based on the theory that the city hadn't devoted sufficient environmental review to the notion that facilitating bike commuting harms the environment.

Also on Monday, a jury in Los Angeles found an emergency room doctor guilty of six felonies and a misdemeanor after he intentionally stopped his car in front of two cyclists, causing one to shatter several teeth and nearly sever his nose, and the other to suffer a separated shoulder.

The cyclists' courtroom victory might offer some solace from the ordeal we've been suffering here. The widely covered assault trial has awakened some Southland motorists to the fact cyclists have a right not to be bullied on the road. It may be possible to drive that lesson home here, too, in spite of Busch's delay.

It's easy for cyclists to forget that many drivers simply aren't aware that people riding bicycles have the same right to the road that motorists do. Motorists make this point to me every day as they race to cut me off at stop signs, play chicken on residential streets, and otherwise drive as if the California Vehicle Code contained the phrase "automobiles first."

On Oct. 25, for example, I was waiting at a red light along Third Street when a woman started honking at me. She wanted to make a right turn, and apparently believed I should get up onto the sidewalk. I said, in what I fancy my pleasant voice, that I was waiting where the law prescribed. She replied, "Move, you faggot!"

LA Times columnist Meghan Daum pointed out this ignorance epidemic in a Nov. 5 column about the Dr. Christopher Thompson's conviction: "Many people don't know what rights cyclists do and do not have, which pretty much makes them assume they have none," she wrote. "I was in this category myself until I consulted the bicycle laws in the California Vehicle Code and learned that a cyclist has 'all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle.'"

Unbeknown to many motorists, that means we use left-turn lanes to turn left, and don't need to get out of the way so a car can go first on a narrow road. And it means that in traffic lanes where there isn't enough room for motorists to share side-by-side, with a four-foot cushion separating bikes from parked cars on the right, and three feet separation from moving cars on the left, safety dictates bicycles take the full lane of traffic, to prevent motorists from passing when there's not enough room.

The greatest safety hazard facing cyclists is that motorists are ignorant of this, and believe they have a right to try to force bicyclists out of the lane.

San Francisco is now experiencing a wonderful moment, in which the number of people using bikes to get to work is exploding. On a typical morning I'll see hundreds of cyclists emerging from apartments, dropping off kids at school, disappearing into downtown office buildings. The city feels safer, more peaceful, more beautiful than at any time during my 13 years living here.

With motorist access now limited on northern Market Street, morning rides through the financial district are quiet, festive, and devoid of the menace cyclists are used to absorbing from careless or hostile drivers. And an ever-larger portion of the morning bicycle commute seems to be female -- around half at a typical downtown stoplight, I find --  which social scientists say signifies that this is coming to be seen as a mainstream, wholesome activity.

Some people believe that when the new bike plan is implemented, and 109 additional miles of bike lanes and specially marked shared lanes are painted, people who'd been wavering regarding taking the bike to work will begin to do so, and the city will begin moving in the direction of locales such as Berlin, where one-third of all trips undertaken are on bicycles. But elements of the bike lane injunction are expected to drag on into next year, and the full bike plan will take a few years more to implement fully.

But there's an interim fix that nobody seems to be discussing, one that might soften some of the dangerous behavior of motorists who imagine there are laws that say cyclists shouldn't be in the road. 

San Francisco actually has dozens of street signs like this, bolted to lamp-posts and other poles all over the city:


But chances are, you've never seen one. That's because they're typically positioned high in the air, near the level of streetcar power lines.

"They're up where the dirigibles can see them," says the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's Andy Thornley. "The placement of those signs is, in most cases, worse than useless. They're up way higher than anybody can look. And if somebody actually does look at them, they'll be likely to hit a bicyclist because they weren't looking where they were going."

Here are a few pictures I took earlier this week, just a sampling of dozens of instances of these oddly positioned signs. If you were a motorist who felt it was fine and dandy to menace a bicyclist who's taking the whole lane, would these street views change your mind?

click to enlarge sign1.jpg
Where's Waldo? Can you spot the traffic safety sign advising motorists to let bike riders take the whole lane?
click to enlarge sign2.jpg
We're now a quarter-block from the sign, and even if one were to anti-intuitively look to the skies for traffic direction, the type's so small as to be unreadable.

click to enlarge sign3.jpg
Finally, looking straight up in the air, we can barely make out what the sign says. If we were in a car, however, we'd have had a fender-bender, or pedestrian-mutilator by now.

Yesterday, I asked Municipal Transportation Authority spokesman Judson True whether there's a reason for these signs' ultra-high placement; how this apparent hide-the-bike-signs policy got started; and whether it's likely to change. He and his colleague Kristen Holland hadn't heard back from SFMTA staff by Friday.

It seems that two city employees with ladders and wrenches could spend a few days placing these signs at an ordinary height, and make San Francisco a safer place, without falling afoul of Busch's injunction. Concerned readers are urged to call SFMTA director Nat Ford at 415-701-4720 and request a well-placed sign on the route of your morning or evening commute.

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