Tag Archives: traffic

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

Santacon and an Urban Arrow

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown's Ross Alley

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown’s Ross Alley

Our kids get the same present every birthday: an “All About Me” day, where they get to pick exactly what we do all day (within reason—we had to veto any activity that involves a plane flight).  Typically that ends up involving a lot of visits to places like ice cream shops, but they’re getting more creative over time. Our son recently turned 8, and last Saturday was his day. He wanted to go to Chinatown to visit the fortune cookie factory, to the Ferry Building for lunch and chocolates, and to spend the evening at Acrosports on the trampolines. No problem, kiddo.

The weekends before Christmas are always a challenging time to get around San Francisco, as there is a huge influx of shopping traffic. Something that never, ever gets old about commuting by bicycle: never having to care about how many other people are headed to the same place we’re going. So it didn’t matter that much that we’d forgotten that December 14th was also Santacon. We only realized when we’d gotten most of the way downtown and started seeing Santas drifting out onto the streets, even around 9am, which is an impressively early start for people who are planning to be up all night drinking.

So we went to Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory, which was far more interesting for our kids than I would have guessed. Probably the endless handouts of flat fortune cookies that were too stiff to fold didn’t hurt. Walking through Chinatown is a trip, because it is not that big and so packed with people that it is difficult to stay on the sidewalk, and yet we were, as usual, the only white people visible in any direction, not to mention the only people speaking English. A few blocks over, we crossed the street and presto—North Beach, and the signs in the windows were suddenly in the Roman alphabet and said things like “Sicilian salami” and “Espresso.” Our son wanted to top off his post-breakfast fortune cookie snack with a pre-lunch cannoli, so, okay, fine, there is no shortage of Italian bakeries in North Beach. From there we threaded back to Matt’s office for a bathroom break (carefully navigating around the North Beach strip clubs) and to lunch (and more dessert) at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was even more packed than Chinatown.

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

After a post-lunch stop at the Sue Bierman Park children’s playground, we packed up and headed home over Nob Hill. Where we found: Santacon, in force. After lunch the Santas were all up and ready to party, and for much of our trip the sidewalks and streets were filled with them. I heard later from people who attempted to drive downtown on Saturday that the streets were immobilized for cars. A few blocks of this and my son asked, “So do Santas really like bars?” And I said, “These ones do.” There were Santas filling the streets all the way into Japantown and the Western Addition. They liked our bike.

Our new neighbors' new holiday display

Our new neighbors’ new holiday display

On the way back home we stopped by our new condo to see our new neighbors’ Christmas display, which rivals their awe-inspiring Halloween display. And right as we stopped, a woman next door to them wheeled out: AN URBAN ARROW! OMFG! The Urban Arrow I spotted at the Golden Gate Park tree lighting belongs to a family five doors over from our new home!

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

Based on what the mom told me, it could well the only Urban Arrow in the entire Bay Area. Apparently Rolling Orange in New York, the only US importer, gets only a dozen of these bikes each year, and most of them are pre-sold well in advance of their arrival. When our neighbors started looking for theirs there was only one bike in the shipment not already pre-sold, and they bought it. First impressions: no question, that bike is really, really big. It makes our Bullitt look like a Brompton. And the kids’ box is tricked out like an airport lounge. The neighbors have three kids, and that morning they also had things to do, so I couldn’t quiz the mom as mercilessly as I would have liked about her bike but I consoled myself: in a few months, we’ll be seeing them almost every day. Then on Sunday I learned that some of our other neighbors bought a Bullitt. We’re moving to the street of box bikes, whoo hoo!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

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

Bay Area Bike Share in an empty city

The first bike arrives at the bike share station.

The first bike arrives at the bike share station.

This Friday is the opening day for Bay Area Bike Share. I knew, idly, that it was coming, but hadn’t really paid much attention, as the station route map reveals it is too far east for me to use much. I forgot, of course, that Matt works downtown. There is a new bike share station right outside his office! My sister has one outside both her home and her office (and mystifyingly, she does not plan to join. Yet.)

Of course Matt rides to work already, but riding a big cargo bike around the Financial District is not always the most convenient option, especially since one time that he did that, his (U-locked) bike was stolen. At noon. In a location with lots of foot traffic. By a thief using a handheld angle grinder.  At work, we can bring our bikes inside. Personally, if I had the option, I’d leave my bike inside all day and ride a bike share bike to meetings when I needed to leave the office. I think a docking station is designed to lock up a bike better than I ever could, and I suspect that it would be too tough to sell a bike share bike to make stealing one tempting. Not that it matters, because stolen bike share bikes wouldn’t really be my problem anyway.

Although I am not in the neighborhood and I can’t haul my kids on a bike share bicycle, I will eventually make it over to that part of the city (which is flat!) and try one out. You’ll hear about it here first.

However the grand opening of bike share is not the only reason that this will be a great weekend. This is also the long weekend of the empty city. On Wednesday night, the Bay Bridge was closed so that Cal Trans can transition the earthquake-damaged eastern span over to the new bridge. Virtually all of the traffic from the East Bay has evaporated. I noticed even this morning that there were far fewer cars on the road, which is always welcome. We have had this experience before during bridge closures, as well as on Thanksgiving and Christmas—visitors leave the city, and everything is suddenly completely accessible to those of us who live here. Restaurant reservations are available all evening and the lines at museums disappear. I’m sure that it’s not great for business, but it’s sometimes nice to have the city be a place just for its residents. Happy Labor Day!

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The city and the city

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

Today, thanks to a complicated sequence of planned afternoon events, I took the shuttle to work. I was surprised to realize that this is the first time I’ve ridden a bus instead of a bike in months.

The university shuttle, compared to Muni, is fairly palatial. You always get a seat, there are no stops between most destinations, and people are quiet. A lot of people work on the shuttle, but now that we drive so rarely, I’ve found that I, like the kids, tend to get a little carsick. So I looked out the windows instead, which helps.

The city that I saw on the shuttle is very different than the city I see on a bike. The bus got caught in traffic at one point, which was unnerving (San Francisco keeps postponing the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit lanes). And most of what I saw on the way to work was roads and cars, an endless expanse of gray asphalt and metal. It was unpleasant. The bus is high enough that I could look down on cars, which were filled, almost without exception, with drivers texting on their cell phones. I did not find that reassuring. And from my perspective, every car I saw, even the “compact” cars, was comically oversized for its typical load of one or two people. People on foot sprinted across major intersections. The city I traveled in today is filled with noise and fumes and traffic. It feels dangerous and unwelcoming.

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

I normally ride to work through Golden Gate Park and on back streets, and aside from a few transitions on major roads, the trip is quiet. I ride either in the park or on back streets lined with trees. My city is mostly filled with bird song and nature and brief conversations with people walking to work. “Please,” I say, “go ahead.”

No cars allowed

No cars allowed

I live in one place, but it contains two cities. I realize now why I haven’t ridden the shuttle in months. Why would I want to?

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Safety in numbers

What makes any bicycle safe on any street?

What makes any bicycle safe on any street?

There is a theory in cycling literature that there is a safety in numbers effect for bicycles. This stems from the observation that where bicycles are not commonly found on streets, injury rates are higher, and where bicycles are commonly found on streets, injury rates are lower. Thus, goes the logic, if you get more people riding then all of them will be safer, presumably because drivers will know to watch for them.

I’ve always been suspicious of this theory, as it seems to confuse correlation and causality (although correlation can serve as a big causal hint). There are a lot of omitted variables that could both increase the number of bikes on the road and increase safety, like creating separated cycle tracks and instituting strict liability for drivers that hit cyclists and pedestrians. If people assess, correctly, that the infrastructure and legal system protects them, they’re both more likely to ride and they’re more likely to be safe, but increasing the number of bikes on the road wasn’t really what increased safety. If people jumped on bikes without that infrastructure or legal protection, I’m not sure they’d see the same effects.

This is the kindergarten bicycle crew at Rosa Parks each morning. I also feel safer when I join their impromptu bike train.

This is part of the kindergarten bicycle crew at Rosa Parks each morning. I also feel safer when I join their impromptu bike train.

I thought of this last weekend when I was taking my daughter to her ballet class and suddenly found myself in a pack of over a dozen lycra-clad road cyclists on a major street. There were too many of us to stay in the bike lane, and so the fastest riders moved left into the car lane. Not all these cyclists were riding together—they came and went in small clusters—but everyone in the group was watching out for each other, and signaled to other riders (including me) when to move around turning cars and hazards in the street. Thanks, lycra-clad roadie guys!

I listened to them chat as we rode along. It was a pleasant ride, and I realized I did actually feel safer in a big group of cyclists. I knew someone would warn me if there were any obvious dangers in the road, and cars hung back rather than rushing to pass. That was very different from the same trip the week before, and from my ride home along the same route. Maybe there’s something to the safety in numbers theory after all.

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A week of riding

One kid on board, one kid yet to pick up

Earlier this week I found myself on the hook to pick up both kids because Matt was out of town. The complication was that I had to be in a Faculty Council meeting until 5pm. That meant I would have to run across campus to my daughter’s preschool, coax her out, then run across town to get my son at his after-school program before it closed at 6pm. I seriously considered hauling two car seats to my meeting and renting a car from the City Carshare in the preschool parking lot for this trip. Ultimately I decided against car share because I’d tried that once before and not gotten there in time—rush hour traffic is unbearable in the evening, and the after-school pickup line stretches back for three blocks. And after all, isn’t stuff like this what we got the Bullitt for?

With that in mind, I parked the Bullitt outside the preschool in advance. Then I sprinted out of my meeting at 5:01pm, hauled across campus to preschool, collected all of my daughter’s art for the day, and dragged her out with promises to finish the story they were reading at home. We got to my son’s after-school program at exactly 5:30pm (in the rain). That beats my previous record by car by almost 20 minutes. And that is why we got the electric assist! My son was the first kid in his class to be picked up. Unfortunately I’d forgotten the speaker, so I had to listen to “99 bottles of beer on the wall” all the way home. Nobody’s perfect, I guess. I cranked the assist up to “high” for the ride home to spare myself.

The New Wheel recently put together this drool-worthy BionX SOMA (also Pitlocked to the hilt).

I would actually have gotten to him even earlier if someone hadn’t tried to steal my saddle. The Bullitt came with a very nice Brooks saddle, so nice that I never would have purchased it on my own. Saddle theft is epidemic in San Francisco, and thieves learned years ago how to clip the chains traditionally used to lock saddles to frames. However on the advice of a friend whose very expensive SOMA bike has survived being locked up at SF General for five years without being stripped or stolen, the first thing I did when the Bullitt arrived was to take it to The New Wheel, where they put Pitlock locking skewers on everything, including on the seatpost and under the saddle screws. Thanks to that, the thief was able to loosen the saddle screws but not remove them. As a result my ride was slowed by the saddle slipping back and forth, and that was really, really annoying. But I am gratified that my paranoia has paid off, and that I still have my saddle. Two thumbs up for the Pitlocks!

The next morning, with the saddle screws re-tightened, I rode my son to school and came out to find the Bullitt being admired by two dads who work as contractors. When our PTA president rode up on his daughter’s bike, he looked at it and asked, “Will you give me a ride back to my bike?” and I said, “YEAH!” I didn’t get a picture, so you’ll just have to imagine me riding with a six foot tall man wearing a nice suit in the box. I can tell I’m getting better with the bike, because the prospect of carrying a heavy live load didn’t make me worry I’d dump the bike. And it was no problem at all.

What was a problem was an earlier morning ride I took with my daughter in Golden Gate Park. For the first time in my life a driver nearly clipped me while passing, ignoring the empty road to the left to gun past me ON THE RIGHT. It was terrifying. When I saw the car pulled over less than a block ahead I pulled over to ask, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT? Passing me on the right is incredibly dangerous!”  The driver turned to her husband in the passenger seat, who explained that she didn’t know the traffic rules and didn’t speak English. After he prompted her, she said, “Sorry! Sorry!” Okay, call me a xenophobe, but I feel that if you don’t know traffic rules or speak enough English to learn them, maybe you shouldn’t be driving. Although I’m glad that she wasn’t malicious, I suppose.

It’s been hard to get pictures of the kids on the bike; they jump off and run to make faces at the camera.

That, however, was an unusual event. In general riding the Bullitt is a daily party. When I ride people shout, “Cool bike!” and other riders pace me to ask where I got it. “I want one to carry my kids!” they say, and the parents at our kids’ schools say the same. I found the attention disconcerting at first, but I’ve found that as time passes that I like it. Our Bullitt is apparently a wildly compelling advertisement for family biking. And I never have to worry about not being seen by drivers. Admittedly the way that drivers drift out of their lane while staring with their mouths open can be unnerving, but hey, they’re not going to hit our bike—an oncoming car, possibly, but not us.

It seems like we’ve spent quite enough on this bike, but this cover is pretty tempting.

Last night I took my son home with groceries piled around him. He complained that the wind made him cold. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should have gotten the rain cover after all. It’s not like it rains much here in San Francisco, but the winds can be pretty brutal in the winter, and the kids are right in front taking the brunt of it. It’s not too late, I suppose. What would you do?

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Bicycles in São Paulo

Last month Matt went to São Paulo, Brazil. He always asks what he should bring back from these overseas trips, and I always say “pictures of bicycles.” (The kids ask for chocolate and foreign currency.) São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil and the 7th largest city in the world, home to 11 million people. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “The city, which is also colloquially known as “Sampa” or “Cidade da Garoa” (city of drizzle), is also known for its unreliable weather, the size of its helicopter fleet, its architecture, gastronomy, severe traffic congestion, and multitude of skyscrapers.”

The view of the street from everywhere in the city

Here’s what Matt wrote on arrival: “São Paulo is an extremely pedestrian (and bike) unfriendly place, with crushingly bad traffic at all hours as a result.  The joke running around the conference this morning was, ‘What time’s your flight? 9 pm?! Then, you’d better leave for the airport now!’ It’s so bad, even my dinky second tier business hotel has a helipad on the roof (and I could see a half dozen on other nearby rooftops).  It’s clearly a motor vehicle culture.

On my 40 minute rush hour walk, I passed 4 or 5 giant auto tire and rim shops, a deluxe two story Ducati dealership, several motor bike accessory stores, miles of tail lights, and exactly two moving bicycles… both commuters in work apparel with helmets riding on the sidewalk for safety.

Hope you weren’t planning a long ride.

I have not seen a single bike lane yet, though I’m told one exists on Ave Paulista, the main financial street.

Lots of lane splitting motorbikes everywhere, though, often riding their horns constantly.  Our bus driver remarked that one or two are killed every day!”

Here’s a bike lane he found later.

Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, it’s not funny. I’m laughing just to keep from crying here.

I have commented that I don’t feel particularly threatened by San Francisco car traffic. I wouldn’t feel so sanguine about riding a bike everywhere. After seeing Matt’s photos I can’t imagine riding a bike for transportation in São Paulo.

These bike share bikes would be perfect for commuting, but they never leave the city park.

However there are bicycles there. But like many parts of the United States, they’re apparently viewed exclusively as toys. People drive to the park, where they can rent bicycles. That’s because São Paulo, unlike U.S. cities, has had a bike share program since 2009. I’m torn between envy and despair–it’s a city with bike share, but there isn’t the slightest practical application for it.

Now that’s my kind of bike.

Here’s Matt, after finally finding someplace in a city of 11 million people where he actually wanted to spend some time. “I spent today in Ibirapuera, the Golden Gate Park of São Paulo. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and people were out in droves, jogging, biking, skating, etc.”  If you build it, they will come.

Beggars can’t be choosers seems to be the philosophy here.

Just like Golden Gate Park, there’s also this weird phenomenon where the city has built separated bike lanes where they’re least needed and that don’t go anywhere interesting. “In addition to separated bike lanes on the main walking paths, there was one area that seemed to be a bike only circuit path — not long enough for a ride but one father was teaching his young son to ride on it.” Like the parents of São Paulo, I like taking my kids to practice on trails like these, but how depressing it must be for the children there to learn to ride a bike only to discover they can’t go anywhere.

Some bike lanes are just another way to say, “Go away.”

There were a few other places with a little bit of bicycle infrastructure, but I get the sense it would be fair to call it ad hoc. “This ‘bike lane’ was in a pedestrian plaza — probably more to keep bikes away from peds than anything.  Even on a Sunday with lighter traffic, there were very few bikes in evidence on actual streets… A few on sidewalks, again (including one who was trying to pedal through a crowded market with shopping bags dangling from the handlebars).”

A view from the helipad

A view from Matt’s hotel’s helipad tells the story: this is a city that hasn’t thought much about transportation. Seriously thinking about transportation in a major city makes it apparent that a car-centric model is unsustainable. You can see that in São Paulo in the flight to helicopter commuting. But this is hardly more sustainable. Transportation planners tend to take trips to cities with a reputation for doing things right, like Amsterdam or Paris (which has removed tens of thousands of parking places in the last few years to make room for bike lanes). I’m sure that this is more appealing than visiting cities like São Paulo, where no one can go anywhere. But I suspect there would be a lot to learn nonetheless.

Riding our bikes to school started us down this road.

Transportation interests me because it is a necessary thing, like eating or sleeping. Except in the most extreme cases (like among the comatose), we all have to move around the world. For years I accepted that this experience would be tolerable at best. We would get in the car and drive, dealing with traffic and parking and road rage, because that was just the price of living. Sure, it could be nice to be out of the weather sometimes, but we still had to deal with that same weather once we got out of the car. And we paid several hundred dollars each month for this experience because we thought we had to.

I’m late to this party, but happy to be here now.

It is no overstatement to say that discovering that there was another way to move through the world changed our lives. I get on the bike and the trip is… fun! When I walk into work I’m not tired. I love our bikes. I can’t imagine going back.

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The traffic problem

Blah blah blah hills in San Francisco blah blah blah

When we started riding with our kids in San Francisco, we faced two big issues: hills and traffic. Okay, there was also the wind. It’s really windy. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, though, and what’s more, an electric assist will resolve nearly any hill and wind problem. Soon we’ll have two assisted bikes. So I label those problems: solved.

This is the western approach to my office at Laurel Heights. There are a lot of tight squeezes en route.

The traffic issue was initially really intimidating. It is illegal for adults to ride bikes on sidewalks in the city, for good reason: there are lots of people walking on them. There are a lot of cars on the street. Cars in San Francisco pass really, really close. They are occasionally going much faster than we are, although that happens less often than you might think. Yet cars are big and heavy and could quite literally crush us like bugs. When I started riding there were occasional moments of sheer terror, like when I hit an unexpected stale green light while crossing an eight-lane intersection, and it cycled through yellow and on to red before I’d made it halfway across. There were times that cars turning next to me felt so close that I seriously thought they were going to mow me down, and I ran the bike up onto the curb.

Cars tend to hug the yellow line when passing bikes on my morning commute.

Yet there were only so many perceived near misses I could experience before recalibrating my definition of what was dangerous. San Francisco drivers don’t give anyone much space, but I know from talking to them that they are not trying to be intimidating. The roads are narrow and people in cars are used to passing other cars with only inches to spare. Cars get dinged up in the city as a matter of course because the standard approach to parallel parking in a small space is to back up until you hit the bumper of the car behind you, then move forward until you hit the bumper of the car in front of you, etc. City cars carry scrapes along their sides from tight merges. By the standard drivers apply to each other, you actually get a lot of room on a bike. After experiencing the first thousand close passes I simply couldn’t perceive them as life-threatening anymore. Would I prefer a three-foot passing rule? Heck yeah. But thanks to AAA and Governor Jerry Brown, that’s not going to happen anytime soon in California.

The Market Street bike lanes never lack for excitement.

We have adjusted. By the standards of people outside the city, I realize we must now look like psychotic bike messengers. I have no problem weaving through a two-foot gap alongside a line of stopped cars. Matt and I have both threaded through spaces much narrower than that with our kids on deck by heading to the right hand curb, leaning the bike a little, and pushing along with the curbside foot until we’ve passed, say, a broken-down bus whose driver is trying to reattach it to the overhead wires. Yet I don’t think of myself as particularly aggressive. I don’t run red lights, and I stop at stop signs. I’m not thrill-seeking; squeezing through pinch points is par for the course when riding on certain streets. Nor, for that matter, is anything I’ve done remarkable by the standards of San Francisco cycling, with or without kids involved.

Our son waits for the left turn signal to merge from the Wiggle to Fell Street on a recent Sunday. He was singing to himself when I took this picture.

Our kids have adjusted to city traffic even better than we have. My daughter occasionally taps on the windows of cars that pull up next to us at a stop, just to say hi. We’ve often held conversations with drivers and passengers at intersections; in many cases they’ve pulled up within a few inches specifically to talk to us: “Did you know your daughter is sleeping in the back?” “Where did you get that bike?” My son is unperturbed by traffic that I still find intimidating, and we have had to convince him not to do his tricks (“Look! I can put both feet off to one side!”) Kids are allowed to ride on the sidewalk, and because he’s aware that he tends to weave a little going up hills, he peels off our little peloton to the sidewalk when we head uphill so he has some room, and then slips back between us at the next curb cut when the ground levels out again. Along the Wiggle, there is a merge point where bike traffic is shunted across the travel lane into a dedicated bicycle left turn lane that runs in the middle of the road for a full block, and he cheerfully navigates this lane with cars rumbling by a few inches away on either side.

Our son learned to ride on these streets and sidewalks in our neighborhood.

Normal is what you’re used to, and after the first couple of months of riding I never thought about any of this until my mom came to town. I wanted her to have a chance to ride the mamachari, her first spin on an assisted bike, and one that was her size to boot. I figured we could ride a little on (what I perceive to be) our quiet neighborhood street, which is where my daughter rides her balance bike. No problem, right? She was worried about the traffic. “What traffic?” I asked. By traffic she meant there were cars. There were cars driving on our street, maybe 3-4 every minute on a quiet afternoon. I said we could walk down the hill to the park and ride there, in the parking-protected bike lanes. I didn’t realize when I made this offer that she meant she wanted to ride someplace with no cars at all. It turned out that by her standards even the Panhandle path, which is completely separated from cars, was too busy (and I didn’t even consider taking her there because the access points to the Panhandle are too heavily trafficked).

Usually I feel pretty good about these parking-protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park (even though cars park overlapping the buffer zone).

So I took my mom down the hill, and she gamely got on the bike. And every time a car came within five feet of her, which was basically constantly, she was so frightened that she fell off. Even the parking-protected lanes freaked her out. She asked me to ride ahead. It turned out that this was because at every intersection, she dropped the bike when cars pulled up alongside. All of the drivers who saw this politely stopped, waited for her to get back on, then moved forward as she did, and of course she would fall off again as a result. When I figured out what was happening I felt like such a jerk. By that point my mom was drenched in fear-sweat and trembling and begged to walk the bikes home. She was terrified to ride in the city. She barely got a chance to try the assist. She liked it though. That was the only redeeming feature of the whole experience.

So hey, I’m a lousy kid! I sent my poor mom into a tailspin of terror. My only excuse is ignorance. I had no idea. I guess people really can get used to anything.

This is my normal route to work. Cars stop in the bike lane for school drop-offs; riders have to weave around. This registers as “annoying” now.

Whether people should have to get used to anything is a different question entirely. There is something deeply wrong with this city if its streets are terrifying to strangers, if they’re something that you have to get used to. And it’s not being on a bicycle that’s the issue: my mom won’t drive in San Francisco either. The result would be nearly the same: sure, she wouldn’t fall down behind the wheel of a car (yes, I’m a jerk) but she would still end up trembling and terrified. There is just so much going on. Drivers, particularly weekend drivers from out of town, get overwhelmed: on the way home from work on Friday night, I watched a distracted driver nearly roll his car over a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk (we talked after the oblivious driver had passed; he was shaken but fine). I can now spot suburban drivers out of their element pretty quickly and take evasive action, but why should this be necessary? A far better solution is many fewer cars moving much more slowly.

The Post Street bike route switches from sharrows to bike lanes. I see families riding this route fairly frequently on school drop-off mornings.

It may not sound like it reading this, but I feel much safer on a bike in difficult situations than I do in a car. I am not trapped in a lane. I can run up onto the curb or between parked cars if I feel threatened. In the worst case scenario, I can move onto the sidewalk and walk the bike. With rare exceptions, I do not travel on streets where traffic moves fast anymore, which inevitably merge with streets where traffic moves slowly, at which point there are collisions. We do rent cars occasionally, but I avoid it when I can because in a car, we are stuck in traffic. If a distracted driver becomes a threat, there is simply no place to go. Given that the current street design makes collisions inevitable, I’d rather be riding in a bus if we have to get involved. The bus always wins.

We ride on the Webster Street bike lanes to take our son to school. If our timing is good we meet other Rosa Parks families en route and make a bike train. If not, we wave to friends in cars.

Like everyone else I know who travels regularly by some mode other than a private car, I have always been a big fan of what advocate Gil Penalosa calls 8-80 streets: streets that feel safe to anyone from ages 8 to 80. Yet I never really understood what that meant until last week on a bike with my mom. I thought it meant things like the parking-protected lanes in Golden Gate Park where I like to ride with my kids, where they can bob and weave without risk of being run over. But those kinds of tricks with paint are the tiniest part of safe streets. In a parking protected bike lane my mom was still afraid. Riding with my kids, neither of whom is even eight years old yet, led me to underestimate the need for safer streets. My kids are fearless. They have adapted.

This is a safe street: on Sundays (and Saturdays from April to September), JFK Drive is closed to cars.

I realize now that safe streets are something else entirely. They would save us from ourselves. I’m glad I can navigate the streets of San Francisco as they are now on a bike, but I’m appalled that I didn’t remember that it was something I had to learn. If I hadn’t ridden with my mom last week, I would never have realized how much more change is needed.

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

How wide is a bike lane?

What you see is not always what you get.

I was reading an article about bike lanes recently, which claimed that the newest bike lanes in San Francisco (on Kirkham Street) were 6 feet (183cm) wide, which is the new city standard.

It also claimed that most of the existing bike lanes in the city were 5 feet (152cm) wide, which I’ll admit, I thought was cracked. I ride in a lot of bike lanes in this city, and I would eat my helmet if they were all 5 feet wide. Time to take out the tape measure!

After stopping in various awkward places around my commute, I concluded that bike lanes are the opposite of trees: the older they are, the narrower they are.

  • On Arguello and Sacramento north of Golden Gate Park: 4 feet (122cm) travel width
  • New JFK bike lanes within Golden Gate Park: 5 feet (152cm) travel width
  • According to the article above, the new Kirkham bike lanes: 6 feet (183cm)–I didn’t measure

The protected bike lanes on JFK Drive rarely feel crowded.

My feeling is that the narrowest 4 foot lanes are by far the majority within San Francisco right now, although admittedly I don’t ride as much South of Market, and they’ve striped a lot of lanes down there in the last few years. If the lane has a marker reading “BIKE LANE” or a picture of an un-helmeted bike rider you’ve hit a 4 foot lane for sure, although some of them have been repainted with a helmeted rider. I would guess the odds of these lanes being restriped to a greater width are pretty slim. Most of the attention right now is rightly concentrated on creating new lanes and expanding the network.

Why does it matter? Two major reasons: car doors and traffic.

In the new JFK bike lanes, 5 feet of width is plenty: they’re right against the curb and cars park on the left, they’re protected from the door zone with a buffer zone, and so there is plenty of space for me to ride alongside my son, or for another rider to pass us.

In the 4 foot lanes in the city, and even some of the new 5 foot lanes things can get hairier.

At the dotted line, the cyclists move left and the cars turning right (if there were any) move to the right before heading into the intersection.

These lanes are primarily to the left of parked cars, and an opened door can easily cut the bike lane in half, giving a rider an effective width of a 2 foot (61cm) to 2.5 foot (76cm) travel lane. Dooring incidents are relatively low on weekdays as San Francisco drivers are conscious of bike commuters. Dooring incidents are rampant on weekends when out-of-towners drive into the city and leave their doors hanging open in the bike lanes for no apparent reason, maybe to air out their cars. It’s a mystery, and they get angry when we ask them, politely, to stop blocking traffic.

These lanes are also striped to merge at intersections, allowing cars to turn right and bicycles to move left, which is why San Francisco doesn’t have the right-hook issues that other cities do. As long as everyone signals it is a little complicated but works fine: when the line becomes dashed, turning cars move right and bikes pass them on the left to go to the front of the intersection. (Moving forward in the intersection is a safety move to prevent a car further back in queue from turning right in front of a bicycle moving straight, the dreaded right-hook.) But this merge dance results in cars blocking the right half of the bike lane: once again, the bike lane effectively narrows to half its width whenever a car is turning right. Cars can’t usually pull right up to the curb for a right turn as they would when parking, or they’d run over the corner and pedestrians, so they’re partially in the bike lane.

When a bus moves into the right lane for pickups or turns, it takes some guts (and a narrow bike) to move to the left as suggested when heading straight.

Why does this matter? Most bikes can effectively navigate a 2 foot bike lane, but cargo bikes like our Kona MinUte can be more problematic; the bags on the side hang out several inches when full, making the bike up to 25″ (65cm) wide. I prefer to keep them in the folded position while I’m riding even though they can hold less that way. Then the bike is 16″ (40cm) wide, which is no problem (or I can fill one but not the other.) Matt typically keeps both filled but is actively looking for a better replacement for the stock bags due to their width. Can you put FreeLoaders on a MinUte?

I also had real problems getting the Yuba Mundo through these pinch points when it was visiting. For a long time I couldn’t figure it out: long-tail bikes are basically the same width as other bikes and we were using the front Bread Basket for cargo, so we didn’t have the MinUte rear bag problem. Why was I feeling caught at intersections all of the time and forced to stop behind turning cars (blocking other bikes behind me)? I hated taking the lane from the bike lane when the kids were on deck; cargo bikes are slow to start when laden, and drivers understandably get a little annoyed when riders swing in and out of the bike lanes. And I was the only bike doing it.

I only recently realized that my issue was the Mundo’s Side Loaders. To keep heavy loads off the ground or carry bicycles or give kids a place to rest their feet, the Mundo has two bars sticking out from each side of the rear deck, so the frame’s total width is over 20” (51cm). If you add a pair of full GoGetter bags, the bike’s width increases to over 35” (90cm). I didn’t even have the GoGetter bags, and 20.5” isn’t that much wider than an ordinary bike, but it was changing the way I rode. And yet: I didn’t feel like the Bread Basket in front, at 19″ (48cm) was the problem, even though it was almost as wide. And Yuba notes that the Side Loaders are supposed to be no wider than the rider’s feet on the pedals. Was it just that I couldn’t see the wide load in back?

Why does it matter? We are trying to figure out a new family bike, and width is apparently an issue. Most family bikes and cargo bikes are much wider than an ordinary bike. My problem, even if it was just perceptual, was the same problem people have with child trailers in San Francisco: at 28”-32” (70-82cm) they’re often wider than the space available in the bike lane, and as a rider, you can’t see whether they’re going to make it through. We have an additional issue: no trailer on the market would fit through our narrow basement door, which when opened is just shy of 28″ wide.

Could I handle a wide bike in normal bike lanes, when I arrived at intersections where the lane is cut in half? Would it be easier if the load were in front where I could see it? These are San Francisco problems, but they’re real for us.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic