Tag Archives: traffic

Yes, you can legally ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in San Francisco. Sometimes.

Recently, there was a bit of media kerfluffle about bicyclists! In San Francisco! Riding on the sidewalk! Which is illegal! Except that it turns out that it’s not necessarily illegal. In San Francisco, riding on the sidewalk is actually mostly illegal, but not completely. It’s worth knowing the rules.

I have ridden on the sidewalk in other cities, where it is legal to do so anywhere, and I will admit: when the roads are unsafe, which is often, it is a huge relief to be able to decide, “To heck with this. I’m taking the sidewalk.” I can’t think of a single US city that has a bike network that is complete enough that no one would ever feel endangered while riding on the existing bike “infrastructure.” In contrast, even five year olds feel safe riding bikes in Copenhagen. Ours did.

This is totally legit.

This is totally legit.

I get why San Francisco looks askance at bicycles on the sidewalk. There are a lot of people on foot in San Francisco, and the sidewalks can get crowded. What that really means is that the sidewalks should be wider, and there should be protected bike lanes, so there’s room for everyone to move safely, but this is not the world we live in yet. That said, since I was hit by a car, there are times and places when I look at the road, then look at the sidewalk, and decide it’s not worth the risk of being technically legal. So for example, on the half-block of California Street between Presidio and the driveway to my office, I often ride on the sidewalk. That’s because California Street is basically an urban freeway and there is not even a painted bike lane. I also feel completely justified riding on the sidewalk to get to a bike rack, because duh. If cars can cross the sidewalk to get into a garage then I can cross it to get to a designated bicycle parking spot.

There are a lot of places in San Francisco, however, where you don’t have to decide whether it’s safer to break the law, because there are times and places where it is perfectly legal to ride on the sidewalk. Here are the ones I know about.

  • You are a child. It is always legal to ride on the sidewalk if you are a little kid. I have heard conflicting reports about whether it is legal for a parent to accompany a child riding on the sidewalk. It is sort of a pointless exception if it’s only legal for unaccompanied kids to ride on the sidewalk, and parents are supposed to ride on the street, but I’ve long since given up expecting laws that relate to bicycles to make sense.
  • You are riding along the perimeter of the city (mostly). Starting along the Embarcadero at the eastern edge of the city, up north from there through Fishermans’ Wharf and Fort Mason, west along Marina Boulevard and into the Presidio through Crissy Field: it is legal to ride a bicycle along the sidewalk at the water’s edge anywhere here. These are designated bike routes and sometimes even marked (for example, a bike lane is marked on the pavement on the Crissy Field path, although the markings are usually covered with sand from the beach). West of there is a shared bicycle-pedestrian path all down the western edge of the city along the Great Highway. There are some parts of the city’s perimeter that I don’t know about. At the southeastern edge of the city in Bayview/Hunters Point we’ve never found an obvious path along the waterfront, and based on our experiences around India Basin, which seems to be blanketed in broken glass with cars parked blithely in the street and on the sidewalk, it wouldn’t be the most fun place to ride. On the other end of the income spectrum, there’s a little gap between the Presidio and the Great Highway at Sea Cliff. I doubt that it matters. The few times we’ve ridden around that neighborhood I felt perfectly safe riding on the street, as it seemed probable that the ample private security forces up there would immediately surround any car moving at more than about 15mph.
  • You are riding east-west through Golden Gate Park. Although there is now a parking-protected bike lane along part of JFK Drive, there are still metal plates set into the sidewalk all along JFK Drive indicating that it is a shared bicycle/pedestrian path. The same plates mark Kezar Drive and various points where bicycle/pedestrian paths enter the park from Fulton on the north side and Lincoln on the south side. The Panhandle, which stretches east of the park from Stanyan to Baker, also has a shared bicycle/pedestrian sidewalk on the north path.
  • You are riding along Mission Creek. I have never actually seen this marked anywhere, but local bike shops swore that it was a shared path.

I have heard that there are other places where it is demonstrably legal to ride on the sidewalk, such as a crossing under 101 where bicycles are instructed to take the sidewalk, but I have no personal experience. I know it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in the places listed above because I’ve ridden them, but I’ve hardly ridden everywhere in this city. Any other places where it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in San Francisco?

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco, 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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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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