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.


Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

4 responses to “The traffic problem

  1. I’ve thought about this. Some countries paint their bicycle lanes blue, tis may help but I don’t think it’s enough. Other countries plan for bike lanes when they build roads and have a single file row of bricks to separate the bike lane from traffic lane (and even special bike traffic lights, etc.); this is probably too much to hope for—- What I think might be ‘doable’ and needed is not the ideal but probably USA unrealistic idea of lining bike lanes bricks — but lining bicycle lanes with some sort of ‘rumble strips,’ — or ‘reflector bumps,’ or reflective *Bott *dots (I’ve read are common in California). I think car drivers need this because they need sensory feedback and something like reflective Bott dots would give them Audio and Visual feedback when they stray over into the bike lanes. — Most driver don’t want to hit bicyclist; it’s just most often they literaly don’t see us or don’t think of bikes as part of ‘traffic.’ — Of course it may be more expensive than many cities would like; it would be a big lobbying effort to make real. But something needs to be done. We need to establish the fact that Bikes are part of traffic…(I’m into the usual tokens of Visibility and also wear a reflector vest, and have a Whizzzz Windmill Bicycle Reflector (designed by the Finnish Red Cross and whichI like, it makes the visibility of the bike wider and I think that helps).
    By way of ‘accident credentials,’ I’ll add that about once every ten years I’ve had a crash. 1. Broadsided by a car making an illegal left turn; broken collar bone; 2. Squeezed by extremely fast & heavy traffic onto a badly designed sewer grate; broken front tooth 3. Crashed into a driver’s car door suddenly swinging open and finally, 4. thought I was going to die when spinning like an air hockey puck across a tram track intersection in Europe; don’t ride like a foreign idiot on wet tram tracks was my lesson learned: i.e. an extra level of alertness good to have in foreign environs. — So, uh, stay safe and happy riding to us all.

  2. Hi there,

    I stumbled onto your blog by way of this post. I’m a native San Franciscan…grew up in the inner Mission before it was cool. I never learned how to ride a bike as a kid….I mean, my Dad bought me one from Valencia Cyclery when I was about 6, but because our neighborhood was very dangerous back then, I wasn’t allowed outside to practice and I never learned how to ride it without the training wheels.

    Fast forward to now and I’m 30 years old and just learned to ride a bike this past summer…go me! So now I can balance…but I’m terrified. I am just now getting to where I can ride the Panhandle confidently. I do ride in GG Park in the bikeways sometimes…but much like your mom, I find that I FREAK when faster cyclists zoom past me or when joggers run the wrong way in the bike lane….or worst of all, when we get to an intersection and I have to merge with the turning auto traffic. It’s like a panic attack…I’m positive I’m going to get killed! 😛

    I want so badly to transition to being a bike commuter, as I don’t have a car and MUNI is such a time (and money) suck…..but how do you learn not to be completely terrified out there?

    Thanks for your blog and any insight you may have on beating the traffic fear! 🙂


    • I think that the best you can do is keep doing what you’re doing. When we started riding I was much more fearful. There were lots of moments when I rode to the sidewalk and walked the bike. Confidence on the streets is something that’s come over time, but even so there are streets where I choose not to take the lane or where I always make a Copenhagen left turn. And there are still streets (Geary!) where I would never ride.

      You can probably build confidence around other bikes and pedestrians along the Panhandle, where there are no cars (and where any fall would be into the grass), and on Sundays in Golden Gate Park when the streets are closed to cars. Once you’re okay with having other bikes whiz by, you can try the JFK protected lanes to get comfortable merging with cars sometimes. And from there to quiet neighborhood streets, and so on.

      All that said this isn’t really your problem, it’s an infrastructure problem. You shouldn’t have to get over the fear of being run over by cars, because riding shouldn’t feel risky. Unfortunately San Francisco isn’t there yet. But in our experience it was worth learning to ride in traffic, because it has been such a pleasure to ride, even when I’d prefer there were fewer cars around. But it did take some patience before we were ready to ride everywhere.

  3. gillian

    Wonderful post. I live in Newcastle, NSW and the masses are both terrified to and appalled that some people choose to ‘risk their lives’ in traffic. Personally, (and I have to exclude the time my friend got run over from behind by a truck whilst we were cycling through a roundabout in peak hour, but let’s call that an infrastructure and road-culture problem!), I really love cycling in traffic. It’s sort of an exercise in one-mindfulness – a single-minded alertness I don’t get any other way. I love the feeling of nimble-ness and freedom of passing through stalled cars, their drivers going stale in their stillness. Thanks for this post 🙂

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