Category Archives: advocacy

Who protects us from you?

We were hit at the intersection here, in front of the Conservatory of Flowers.

We were hit at the intersection here, in front of the Conservatory of Flowers.

Today is the one year anniversary of the Sunday that a driver hit us while we were riding in Golden Gate Park. Last Thursday, Matt took our son to court to get a settlement from the driver’s insurance company for his injuries. It wasn’t much money, roughly equivalent to the cost of the ambulance ride to San Francisco General. We pursued the claim on principle, because higher insurance rates are the only consequence that the driver, Michael O’Rourke, is ever likely to face.

Last August, a bike commuter was mowed down by a truck in SOMA. Afterward Sergeant Richard Ernst of the SFPD showed up at her street-side memorial to claim that according to the police report, her death was her own fault. How he could possibly have known that is a mystery, because SFPD also claimed that there was no video of the event. He did this after parking his car in the bike lane and demanding that the people at the memorial, including her family members, admit that her death was her own fault. If they didn’t, well, the cyclists who’d been forced by his parking in the bike lane into the kind of traffic that had just killed someone were just going to have to suffer.

His claim, however, turned out to be wrong. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition canvassed local businesses, only to find that not only had SFPD not bothered to ask for video, but that a local business with a street camera had a video of the truck mowing her down. Then, belatedly and as far as I know without apology, SFPD decided that the truck driver was in fact at fault. Activism like this is why we have doubled our membership contribution to SFBC every year. I wish we could afford to give them millions.

I digress. As someone who was run over from behind by a driver in front of a stop sign, this news doesn’t particularly surprise me. Drivers run stop signs and threaten pedestrians and cyclists all the time. They don’t even feel guilty about it. The driver who hit us said, as every driver in his situation seems to, that he “never even saw us.” Even though a statement like that offers evidence that he should immediately have his license suspended—if you can’t see what’s on the road in front of you, then you’re not competent to drive—he viewed this as a completely reasonable justification for hitting people. And he viewed it that way because the police in San Francisco, and many other places as well, are looking to make excuses for drivers when they hurt people.

Before I was hit, I was not so cynical. I was raised to believe that the police were there to help people and protect the innocent. The collision changed me. When my son and I had our injuries assessed, the paramedics took off our helmets (and cut off the rest of my clothes as well). For the next half hour that we were in the ambulance as the police took the report, I was asked repeatedly whether we had been wearing helmets. “Were you sure you were wearing helmets? You’re not wearing helmets now. If you were really wearing helmets, where are they? Were you really wearing a helmet?” Then they asked my son whether we were really wearing helmets. My husband showed them our helmets.  “Were they wearing those helmets when they were hit?” The paramedics said we were wearing helmets, that they had taken off our helmets. “Did you see the helmets on them?” They asked the (many, many) witnesses, “Were they wearing helmets?” They said yes. “Are you sure?” As an aside, we did not have head injuries. Our heads never touched the ground. If only I had had a leg helmet!

In the meantime, they told Michael O’Rourke to go ahead and drive home. He was never charged.

It is pretty hard to excuse a driver for ramming into someone from behind. But even though the police finally decided that he was technically at fault for hitting us from behind in front of a stop sign while driving 15 miles per hour, they had to get their digs in. The police report says that I “moved left too soon” when I got out of the protected bike lane to make my left turn. However there is only one place to get over before making that left turn, because the protected bike lane is protected by parked cars. As I lack the ability to transmute my bicycle through two tons of metal, I moved left before I reached the row of parked cars directly in front of the stop sign. Not that it matters, as there is no such thing as taking the lane “too soon” under the California Vehicle Code. Nor should anyone be moving at 15 miles per hour a few feet from a stop sign, even if there weren’t two people on a bicycle in front or a half-dozen people in the crosswalk. Nonetheless, the police report says that I moved left “too soon.” That’s pretty much saying that they thought it was our fault we were hit.

At the beginning of this year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to pursue Vision Zero for San Francisco, a program to eliminate traffic deaths pioneered in Sweden in 1997. Versions of Vision Zero seek to limit speeds, redesign streets and change legal penalties so that driving causes less carnage. Although it’s been successful in other countries, I am somewhat pessimistic about this effort in San Francisco, given how little the SFMTA spends on infrastructure for safe streets, and how limited its ambitions are for the future. However San Francisco’s police culture would cripple safe streets no matter how much the SFMTA agreed to spend. As long as the people sworn to uphold the law choose to blame victims and excuse perpetrators instead of protecting the innocent, change is virtually impossible.

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Filed under advocacy, injury, San Francisco

Game changer

It's more powerful than it appears.

It’s more powerful than it appears.

When we sold our car, I switched from a dumb phone to a smartphone. I wanted to be able to check bus schedules and arrange rental cars or rides easily, and for those purposes, the smartphone has performed admirably. I’ve also become one of those people who texts my husband from the bedroom while he’s in the kitchen. This is arguably less admirable, although I prefer to think of it as modeling a way to communicate without yelling. Goodness knows that message hasn’t taken yet with our kids.

Although I try not to make my attachment to the phone a 24/7 thing—I put it away at least one weekend day and am obligated to turn it off for almost all work meetings—I am more engaged with my phone than with any other device I’ve ever owned. I’m not unique in this. And in many cases this is a clear win for humanity: since the advent of camera phones, for example, reports of UFO sightings have pretty much disappeared, and that’s a mercy. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to notice the increasingly vehement urging that people should put their phones down. In some cases this makes sense to me: I embarrass myself when I am checking the phone as my kids are talking to me. Bad parent!

I’m far less impressed with recent arguments that people should put their phones down while walking. If you don’t pay attention to traffic, the argument goes, you’ll be run over. The San Francisco police department had a whole campaign along these lines, and I found it offensive. Trust me, you can be run over while paying plenty of attention to traffic. I speak from experience. More to the point, though, no one should ever be run over in a crosswalk. Only reckless drivers pay so little attention that they run people over, and they can manage that whether you’re paying attention to the road, paying attention to your phone, or you’re a little kid crossing the street with the light while holding your dad’s hand. Pedestrians don’t kill themselves. Drivers kill them.

I am, in contrast to SFPD, a huge fan of people using their phones while walking. And the reason why became very clear recently while I was walking with my kids down Fillmore. A driver making a left turn slammed into a motorcycle, toppling it over and knocking its rider into the street. A dozen people with their phones in their hands began taking pictures the second it happened, and kept taking pictures and videos as the motorcycle rider staggered up and the car started to drive away. I didn’t have my phone out and so I watched the driver, who looked back at the motorcycle lying in the road, started to accelerate the heck out of there, and then noticed two people in the crosswalk filming his car and zooming in on his license plate. At that point, he decided to pull over after all. People walking with their phones out prevented a collision from becoming a hit-and-run that evening.

Something very similar happened when we were hit last year. Golden Gate Park is full of walkers, and they had their phones out, taking pictures, when they saw what had happened. There was also a sheriff’s deputy in the crosswalk who ran over to us yelling, “I’m a sheriff’s deputy!” so it’s hard to say whether the driver who ran us down was ever tempted to hit-and-run. However if he had been, we would have had recourse, because of all those people who ignored the advice to put their phones down.

When I see people walking and using their phones now, I am grateful. I feel that way even if they’re distracted and they sometimes walk into me. Bumping into me is annoying, true, but nothing that I don’t get already from my kids. More importantly, though, it’s a price I’m happy to pay because I know that the more phones that are out, the safer I am walking and riding on the streets. My smartphone is useful and fun and it makes my life easier. But it’s a game changer because it keeps people from getting away with murder.

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic

Even yet more San Francisco family bikes

It’s been a while since I posted about some of the bikes we see around town, which is misleading because I see more family bikes every day. Red Bullitts are so thick on the ground that I think they might have their own gang. Who knew that going with a blue Bullitt would be so passé? And I’m still trying to get a picture of the CETMA I see near our son’s school sometimes, but the dad riding that bike is just too fast for me. In the meantime, there are others.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

The most common family bike we see is an assisted longtail, like this one. The EdgeRunner made a big splash in SF, but there are also a lot of pre-EdgeRunner Xtracycle options running around the city. I liked this assisted Surly because I thought the front wheel lock was a clever addition. The family riding this bike parked it outside the Jewish Community Center while we were there for an event with only the wheel lock, so they didn’t need a rack. I thought that was tempting fate when I first looked at it, but realized that without the need for a rack, they could park right in front, in full view of the security guard standing at the door. The bike was still there after our 3-hour event, and I saw it parked there again a week later, so it was evidently safe enough.

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

This Bakfiets short belongs to our neighbor up the hill, and is well-known in the city because the owner works for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which is a totally awesome organization to which we donate an increasing amount of money every year. I am grateful for their tireless efforts to create world-class bicycle infrastructure here, and that infrastructure is a big part of the reason that I get the opportunity to photograph many awesome family bikes. Thank you, SFBC! I tell all my friends to join! The Stokemonkey (now back in production!) is a recent addition, which made it possible to ride up the hills around here with kids on board. I was surprised that she reported that it is kind of noisy, given that I had heard it was silent. But if it kills the hills, it’s probably worth it.

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

This Cannondale tandem appeared recently at the bike rack at my office. It’s been there every morning for the last few days at least. It looks like it might be set up for two adults, or maybe an older kid. I’m surprised it has so little carrying capacity—just one rack for two people? But maybe as kids get older you end up hauling less crap around as parents. That would be something, wouldn’t it? I like big bikes (and I cannot lie) but the prospect of being able to ride a lighter bike one day… I admit, this has some appeal.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Mixed messages

Nearly every day on the bike I’m confronted with a mixed message. Most often, it’s the sign on a sidewalk curb cut that says “NO BICYCLES.” This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that bicycle RACKS are placed on sidewalks, typically a good distance away from the only access, which is that same curb cut. The signs don’t say “no bicycle riding on the sidewalk, not even to get to the bike rack” although that would be annoying enough. Nobody is ever forced to get out of their car and push it on foot to a parking place. The signs say “NO BICYCLES.” That means that there is often no legal way to lock a bicycle on a bicycle rack. (There may also be signs insisting that I not lock my bicycle to anything that I could reach from an area where bicycles are legally allowed.)

So I break the rules. If there aren’t people walking in the area, I ride right over that “NO BICYCLES” sign to the nearest rack to lock up. If there are people walking in the area, I usually get off and walk the bike to the rack. But in both cases I’m doing something I’ve been told I shouldn’t do.

There is no real space for bicycles, so when I’m riding my bike I’m constantly confronted with rules that contradict each other. As a result, at least once a day I have to make a decision about which rule I’m going to have to break so that I can follow a different rule.

When people complain that bicycle riders are “scofflaws” I think: how could riders be anything else? In San Francisco, I am legally forbidden from riding on the sidewalk, even though the sidewalk is the only place I can find a bicycle rack (or a meter). That’s before you even consider the road rules that drivers routinely ignore. In California, cars making a right turn across a bicycle lane are supposed to pull into the right lane near the corner, where the bike lane has dashed lines, before making a turn. If they are, as a result, stuck behind a bicycle that has reached the intersection first and is going straight: so be it. It is like being stuck behind a car going straight when you want to turn right. You have to wait for the car in front to go. When I’m on a bicycle, drivers assume that they can pull in front of me from the left lane and make a right turn on red, or block me from going straight on green, just because they’re in a car. It happens every single day. Some days I have had two cars make right turns on a red light in front of me at the same time, one from the right side (using an open parking spot) and one from the left side (using the car lane). Apparently bicycles don’t count as vehicles. Often drivers will start honking if there isn’t enough room for them to make a right turn on red light in front of me. I’m never sure what they want me to do, exactly. Maybe they want me to ride on the sidewalk. As a result, every day I have to worry that I’m going to be right-hooked at a dead stop.

The same drivers that I see doing these things, or rolling through stop signs without slowing, or stopping at red lights and checking for cross traffic and then cheerfully running right through them, insist that all bicycle riders should follow the rules of the road to the letter. Which rules? Should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver to follow the rules of the road, or should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver who’s insisting that I break the rules of the road? Decisions, decisions. PS: way to set a good example, guys.

When bicycle riders ask for separated infrastructure, they’re not asking for special privileges, they’re asking for clarification. For now it is simply impossible to do the “right” thing as a bicycle rider in the United States. That would be easy to change, and we’d all be a lot safer—everyone, whether traveling on foot, on a bike, or in a car or bus or train—if it did change.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

The deceptively “empty” bike lane

New building with old exhibits.

New building with old exhibits.

This weekend we headed to the new Exploratorium. Because the Bullitt is in the shop with broken spokes (sigh), we took Muni.  That meant an unusual amount of walking for me, all the way from Embarcadero station to Pier 15 and back. It would have been a much better day to ride, both because the weather was outstanding and because the Embarcadero bike lanes had been expanded for the weekend due to the America’s Cup. And it would also have been a better day to ride because I still can’t walk very far on my bad leg so I passed out in exhaustion as soon as we got home. Such is life. I have no stamina.

Watching the traffic along the Embarcadero was fascinating, and because my kids are even slower and more easily distracted than I am, I had plenty of time to think about it.

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

A while ago I read a fantastic book, Human Transit, which talked about how irritated drivers can get seeing “empty” bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes during car traffic jams. The perceived emptiness of the BRT lanes leads solo drivers to complain that these lanes take away capacity for solo drivers for no good reason. But as Walker (the author) points out, the “empty” BRT lane typically allows a fully-loaded bus to pass at least every five minutes, carrying 50-100 passengers apiece. Drivers see BRT lanes as “empty” because they are stuck in place, but their perception is flawed. Taking away the BRT would trade an hourly throughput of 600-1200 (at worst) people on buses for an hourly throughput of a few dozen people in automobiles (at best). Having the lane clear enough that buses whiz through uninterrupted is what makes BRT work.

Of course, buses aren’t full all the time. However they are almost always full when traffic is backed up, and no driver cares how many buses are in a BRT lane if private auto traffic is moving quickly. If moving people around is the goal, then pretty much every street that ever has a full bus should have a protected BRT lane. At which point more people will want to ride the bus, which would further reduce private auto traffic: it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wins! The city is now providing less traffic for solo drivers and quicker trips for transit riders. Yet because of the false perception that the lanes are always “empty” installing protected BRT lanes has been incredibly controversial.

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

I thought about this as I watched drivers in cars fume in traffic on the Embarcadero, glaring at the usually-for-cars lane that had been removed to make a two-way (mostly) protected bike lane. To people stuck in the abysmal auto traffic along the Embarcadero, the bike lane looked “empty.” Early in the morning, when we were there, a bike (or group of bikes) passed northbound roughly every ten seconds, though that’s an average—sometimes a minute would pass with no bikes, then there would be a handful, etc.

Weekend riders--bikes with trailer-bikes.

Weekend riders–bikes with trailer-bikes.

The bikes passed much faster than we could walk, but because of the traffic we were walking faster than the people in cars. In about a half-mile of watching northbound traffic, I saw cars reach stop lights, lurch forward into the next clump of traffic, then wait several light cycles to get to the front of the line, and then repeat. I estimate that about 30 cars got as far as we did in 20 minutes—the same cars I saw when we started our walk. In the same amount of time, a northbound bike passed every 10 seconds, so that one bike lane moved 120 bikes. Now if you assumed that all those cars were holding four people (you would be wrong, most were solo drivers), that would mean that at 9am on a Sunday a single “empty” bike lane was moving as many people as multiple lanes dedicated to private auto traffic. However the cars were mostly filled with 1-2 people, even on a weekend. Moreover, weekend bike riders tend to be more family-oriented, so probably a quarter of the bikes we saw were hauling 1-3 kids in addition to the rider (the 3-kid bike was a BionX Madsen!) So the comparison is really more like throughput of:

  • 50 people in cars using 3 lanes vs.
  • 150 people on bikes using 1 lane.

And this was early in the morning—on the way back I gave up trying to count bikes because there were so many more of them in the lane by lunchtime. Car traffic was, if anything, more abysmal.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

The irony, of course, is that these incredibly desirable “empty” lanes are public. They’re available to anyone who wants to use them. All you have to do is get on a bus or a bike—and if I can carry my kids on a bike even with a gimpy leg, and a senior on an oxygen tank can ride a trike while hauling his oxygen tank, and a man with no legs can hand-wheel his way along the same path, I have to think that nearly anyone can manage one option or the other. Really, the only way to take away the freedom to travel uninterrupted is to give that “empty” lane to cars.

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

With or without me

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

I have been incapacitated for 12 weeks now, and it is really starting to chafe. Even though I can go into the office now (thanks to my new compression stocking) and that is fun, I find that I am irritable. I can only maintain a good attitude for so long. And when people tell me things like, “You should just be grateful that you’re alive! And that your son is okay!” I kind of want to punch them in the face. Yeah, sure, it could have been worse, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy that my entire summer was ruined and I can’t go out with my kids and that after three months I still have weeks to go before I can try walking again. Maybe I shouldn’t have weaned myself off all of those narcotics.

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Then again: I have forgotten the entire month of May. Seriously, my son was asking me questions about some things that happened then, things in which evidently I had some involvement, and I had no memory of them whatsoever. I do remember that in June I bought my daughter an entire new wardrobe on eBay after my mom mentioned that a four-year-old probably shouldn’t be showing so much VPL or sporting crop tops. Normally I would go to the local consignment store and pick up stuff in her new size, but I couldn’t leave the house. Luckily for me, there are scads of amazing deals on eBay for people who have nothing but time. She’ll be spending the next year or so in secondhand cashmere. Nonetheless, thank goodness our son goes to a uniform school.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents' bed.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents’ bed.

There are things that I can do, although they are limited. Given that I can only use my left leg, and that university housing still hasn’t gotten around to putting grab bars in the bathroom despite our requests, I can do pistol squats on that leg until I fall asleep from boredom. That means, as I learned recently, that I can give my kids one-legged airplane rides in bed. That’s fun. And we can watch movies, when they’re into that. I can read them bedtime stories.  I can give them rides on the cool electric cart that I use at the grocery store (although the competition for those carts has been fierce lately). That’s about it.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway's Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway’s Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

Matt takes them out to do all the fun things I wish I could do. They’ve been swimming at city pools and ice skating and last weekend, they went to Sunday Streets on the Bullitt with the Roland add+bike attached. Poor Matt is getting worn down by the constant attention the Bullitt draws, and sticking the Roland on the back only adds to the effect. That will be our commute vehicle next year, so with any luck it will get a little more familiar to people on our usual route.

We won't miss her old preschool, although we'll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

We won’t miss her old preschool, although we’ll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

Some good things have happened, although I get the news secondhand. Our daughter has finally started at her new preschool. After the for-profit takeover of her old preschool I would have been happy with anywhere that let her go to the bathroom when she needed to and anyplace where her teachers didn’t tell her than she was “wasting mommy and daddy’s money” when she didn’t listen and she wasn’t told to “turn and face the wall” any time that she talked to another kid in line. But her new preschool is apparently awesome even by standards much higher than our radically downsized ones. She looks forward to going and she’s surrounded by her future Rosa Parks classmates—it’s a Japanese immersion preschool and a feeder for the school.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

I am also grateful for my colleagues, who make me happy every time I’m in the office that I work in academic medicine. I have scars on my right leg that look like a giant red zipper running from the ankle to above the knee, and they can’t stop telling me how great they look. Sure, they’re saying that because they’ve seen so much worse, but I don’t mind. One person told me it looked like a shaving accident. This is so far from the truth that when I reported it to Matt, he laughed so hard that he almost stopped breathing. But the person who said it was speaking the truth as he saw it, and that makes me feel okay about wearing skirts to work again one of these days.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn't go.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn’t go.

I have x-rays next week and if they look good I will get permission to start putting weight on my leg the week afterward. And according to my surgeon, who is also a bike commuter, if I can walk, I can ride. Sure, there’s the minor matter of what bike—I suspect I won’t have the strength to get the Brompton up our hill for a while, I know I don’t have the range of motion to get on the Kona because the top tube is so high and the stoker bars mean I can’t swing my leg around the back, and Matt sometimes needs the Bullitt so I can’t ride it every day. Maybe I could put an assist on the Brompton?

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

And one more piece of good news: just before I was hit, I wrote to Rainbow Grocery after a difficult Bullitt parking experience asking them if they’d reserve the end spots on their racks for cargo bikes and bikes with trailers. A friend of mine sent me a picture of the racks just the other day, and the new sign on them that gently requests that the big spaces be saved for big bikes. So life goes on, with or without me.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, injury, San Francisco, trailer-bike

Things keep happening

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

There are tragedies that unfurl slowly, and there are short, sharp shocks. The shocks seem more painful; they can’t fade into the background of daily life.

I work in public health. At its root, public health is an effort to make sure that everyone dies safely in bed, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in disease, or in pain, or with life needlessly cut short. But I work at an academic medical center, too, and that means I am surrounded by my profession’s failures. People die of preventable causes, in ways that could be seen coming from years away. We soldier on.

I have rarely been tempted by the urge to live an exciting life. I like routine and find change challenging. I completely understand why wishing someone “may you live in interesting times” is viewed as a curse. I could not imagine being happy lurching from one new experience to the next; making a job I dislike bearable through taking time off from it, or making a home I loathed tolerable by leaving it on vacation. And so I try to make my ordinary life as agreeable as possible. I tweak around the margins. But these changes add up. Who would have thought we’d become a car-free family? Or cut our waste down to a little baggie each week? This is our new normal, and we like it.

Because I like my everyday life, it seems especially painful to watch other people’s normal ripped away. This is the terror of the short, sharp shock. And I always wonder: what is the appropriate response when normal becomes terrifying? When we are surrounded by destruction? And in the end I think we should do for ourselves what we do for our children. We try to preserve the familiar and comforting parts of life that are left. We soldier on.

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