Mixed messages

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

7 responses to “Mixed messages

  1. Reblogged this on Kitesurf Bike rambling and commented:
    The frustration of being a cycling parent with a social conscience in a sea of cars

  2. I agree with you. Here in Seattle, is is actually legal to ride on the sidewalk, but you must yield to pedestrians – which only makes sense. I’m surprised to hear San Francisco does not allow it.

    In regards to your comments on conflicts with cars. After riding over 15,000 miles in urban, city conditions and after being sideswiped twice by cars and car-doored by another; I follow the rule “Take Possession of the Lane”. As a cyclist, I strongly believe it is safer to be aggressive in riding fully into the lane so cars can not easily force their way by. Sure, this frustrates some drivers, but I would rather have someone see me and be mad than fly by and sideswipe me again (or worse) oblivious to my presence.

    As far as separate bicycle infrastructure, I would caution against separate bike lanes located next to parked cars, or only on one side of the road. Seattle tried these separate bike lanes recently and like has been shown in many European cities, the separate lanes are far more dangerous than shared lanes where the cyclists are more visible – especailly at intersections.

    • Did you know I got run over when I took the lane to make a left turn, after I moved out of a lane protected by parked cars? (At a stop sign?) I am so over the vehicular cycling option. I prefer barrier-protected lanes on both sides of a street but am happy to take protection of any kind as North America transitions–once the space is set aside it can be optimized over time. The good news about building protected infrastructure of any kind is that it gives everyone options. If you want a separated lane, there it is, and if you like taking the lane, that’s still an option too. And all the research that I have read (and I read a lot, my browser opens in PubMed) is pretty unequivocal that creating a separate space for cyclists is the safest option.

      • goetzendaemmerung

        The presence of segregated infrastructure tends to make it very difficult to take the lane, though. There’s a stretch on my regular road into town where I usually cycle along the road beside (not in) a terrible two-way raised cycle track. The kerb isn’t dropped at the point where I would potentially join this raised lane, and I’m not willing to jump my bike 5 inches up onto a kerb in heavy traffic at a busy junction in order to join a bikepath which is substandard anyway (minimal space shared between two-way bike and pedestrian traffic on a nice, wide road.).I get overtaken by MUCH tighter margins on that stretch of road (beside the bike path) than when I cycle in the other direction on the other side of the very same road (the side that doesn’t have a cycle track because two-way cycling is mandated on the other side.) And I’ve noted the same effect pretty much everywhere there are cycle tracks or lanes.

      • I agree that separated infrastructure isn’t designed to let people wander on and off at will. If you like to take the lane, I think it’s a reasonable expectation that you do only move over at intersections, or more reasonably, that you not move back and forth at all.

        I do think it is interesting that you feel there is a point at which drivers act too aggressively for you to feel comfortable sharing the lane with cars. You might consider that “cars are being too aggressive” will feel very different to a 7 year old or my 70 year old mother, and that even the other side of the street that feels “safe” to you would still feel very scary to them. That said, I think that there are good reasons to advocate that any populated area enforce much lower speed limits for cars than are currently allowed, whether or not there are bicycles sharing the road, a cycle track next to the road, or no bikes on the road at all.

      • Yes, I am aware of your “accident”, in quotes because of the egregious behavior of drivers, no reflection on you.

        I think a lot of people will agree with your viewpoint in that separate lanes are safer. It seems so obvious.

        However, after many years of riding in the city, I don’t subscribe to that philosophy. You may have seen this already, but some very good discussion of the subject is available at these links.

        My feeling is that in urban conditions, with many intersections and driveways to cross, the separate lanes shield cyclists from drivers attention. They forget we are here. Thus making the crossings at intersections and driveways even more unsafe.

        Thanks for the discussion and I appreciate the forum for cyclists education you are providing.

        I also admire your “come back” and increased activity. i was injured too, when I was car-doored, although not nearly as badly as you were in your accident. So I can appreciate how tough it is to climb back on the horse that bucked you off.

      • I come at this from the perspective of riding with my kids. They are not experienced riders and the protection afforded by a segregated lane makes it possible for them to ride without going unseen even by a driver right behind them (they are small and under the normal windshield view) or falling down into automobile traffic, which still happens sometimes. They might be run over by a bicycle if they fall over in a separated lane, but that won’t kill them.

        I find that drivers are no more or less likely to ignore bicycles coming out of a driveway into a segregated lane or into shared traffic. And as far as intersections go, the bicycle-only light cycles on San Francisco’s separated bicycle lanes make crossing intersections more safe rather than less so. In addition, some of the fears people have about drivers and separated infrastructure reflect that such lanes are new and unfamiliar in the US, not that they are inherently flawed. I come from this having ridden in Copenhagen, where there is both extensive separated infrastructure and where drivers are quite attentive.

        I realize that there are individual advocates who feel very strongly that separated lanes are unsafe, but the weight of the evidence is, as I stated, pretty unequivocal. Nonetheless, anyone who prefers to ride with auto traffic can continue to do so with or without separated infrastructure. The beauty of separated infrastructure is that it provides options for everyone, rather than just the strongest and most confident riders. I notice that people who advocate for vehicular cycling are men with a lot of riding experience, and that people who refuse to get on the road without separated infrastructure tend to be parents, children, and seniors. I would like to see a lot more of the latter groups of people riding.

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