Tag Archives: 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

Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

This is a street designed for traffic.

I recently started reading paper books again, the kind found at the neighborhood library, rather than scanning the digital library and downloading books without having to leave the relative comfort of home. The paper library is still substantially more diverse than the digital library, with a much broader selection of non-fiction in particular, although admittedly it appears to offer less in the realm of evangelical romance novels (which are surprisingly difficult to identify based solely on title and cover art; this is why now I only download books that have gotten a good review somewhere, sometime).

Even though we rarely drive, it still really ticks me off that drivers park their cars right in our driveway, like, daily. Drivers who are really committed can even block the bikes.

While in this less ephemeral realm I picked up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in quite a while. For a long time I have accepted that getting on an airplane is the psychological equivalent of locking myself into a small prison cell, and I have prepared myself for flights accordingly. I drive more frequently than I fly (every week or so rather than every few months) but I hadn’t really thought before about how putting myself in a car is somewhat equivalent. I also only recently learned that cyclists call drivers “cagers,” which has a certain dark accuracy.

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

Vanderbilt discusses the many illusions of driving, including the expectation that early merging is more efficient than late merging, and the efforts of traffic engineers to reprogram people who resent late mergers and create traffic jams to force them out of merged lanes (I used to be one of these people). Even more fascinating was the illusion of queuing in traffic, where whichever lane you pick appears to be moving more slowly than all of the others. Ultimately, it turns out that they’re all moving at the same speed, but because everyone ends up waiting far longer than they end up passing—that’s what makes it heavy traffic—no one perceives the underlying equity.

This made me realize that one of the pleasures of cycling is never having to queue except at stop lights. Speaking as someone who cycled in Copenhagen, where bicycle traffic is thick, I can testify that this benefit is not an artifact of only having few riders on the road. Part of this is undoubtedly another counter-intuitive discovery by those who study traffic: slower speeds lead to faster movement; below certain speeds, there are no traffic jams. The rest is just inherent.

This is a street designed for people. Drivers complain that parklets are “too close to the road.”

It was particularly terrifying to read about just how awful most drivers are, which is something you can often ignore in the car because you’re busy being an awful driver yourself: trying to settle down kids, program acceptable music, talk to passengers, talk on the phone, or worse yet text. But I definitely notice it as a cyclist and pedestrian. Given that there is no feedback that all the dangerous things drivers do are dangerous until they actually hit something, why wouldn’t most drivers believe they’re doing a good job? Even when they do hit something, the fact that it doesn’t happen every day makes people believe the non-collision days are more meaningful. And my friends who work at power companies tell me that even people who hit utility poles argue that the pole was at fault (“It was too close to the curb!” or if seriously drunk, “The pole was in the road.”)

My husband is not a MAMIL

It was painfully familiar to read Vanderbilt’s discussion of how women end up creating and suffering in the worst traffic because of what is referred to as “serve passenger” driving. Taking the kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping: these trips involve the most traffic—school pickup and dropoff zones are particularly notorious—because everyone needs to do them at the same time, and they are the least compatible with ride-sharing. And that’s before even mentioning parking. This is why there are dark jokes about the kinds of hardcore cyclists (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, or MAMILs) who are able to commute the way they enjoy because their wives are doing all of the errands by car.

Doing errands by bike means never having to look for parking.

Although my husband handles his own dry cleaning and many other household tasks, he does far more business travel than I do, and when he’s away I do almost everything alone. This is part of the reason we’re in the market for a new family bike, and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed that the market for bikes like these is so thin. I think there are more models of Trek Madone alone than there are family bikes of any brand. (I only recently learned that the Madone is a model of racing bike made by Trek that costs like $5k, and there are apparently a million versions, all of which sell like Big Gulps.)

My son will grow up riding his bicycle for transportation just like I did.

In my personal experience, when I transitioned to commuting primarily by bike I actually saved time, not to mention frustration, because I avoided so much traffic en route. In addition, as a working parent there is almost no other time to exercise. But it’s not possible to do these kinds of errands—picking up two kids at two different schools, etc., with a mountain bike or even a so-called commuter bike. You need something that can haul non-traditional cargo, like cartons of milk, kids themselves, and whatever fragile and emotionally significant popsicle-stick-and-cotton-ball art projects that they want to bring home unscathed.

At the end of this book, I understood why Vanderbilt apparently transitioned to riding a bicycle and public transit. I would have done the same thing if I hadn’t already. Public transit is unequivocally safer and the majority of research suggests cycling is as well (although people find this difficult to believe, or at least “not where I live!”–urban people insist they’d ride if they lived in the country where there’s less traffic, rural people insist they’d ride if they lived in the city where there are bike lanes, etc.) And either option is dramatically less grueling than driving.

When I was first hired at my university I went to a talk for junior faculty by a senior professor (who later won a Nobel Prize) about how to balance work and family. Although many of the things she did were not possible for me (e.g. having her first child at age 45—too late already!) her strongest advice was, “Kill your commute.” Do whatever it took to move close enough to work and school that almost all your time was spent doing something you valued (research, patient care, spending time with kids) rather than something you didn’t (driving, or more likely, sitting in traffic). And we took that advice. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small apartment in San Francisco that cost over 50% more per month, and my husband, after a long stint of unemployment and underemployment, found a new job within city limits. We slogged through the San Francisco public school lottery. (And we did all this before we had bikes. Between the hills of San Francisco and the absence of family bikes nationwide, cycling wasn’t an ambition for us at the time.) It was a long road, but our lives are infinitely better for it.

Streets can change. People can change.

Most people wouldn’t have to move and sell a car and change their jobs and their kids’ (pre)schools to change their commutes, as we did. And some of the best changes, which involve transforming streets themselves, are not individual decisions but collective decisions: removing parking, adding bike lanes, creating parklets, developing bike share programs, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roads. But having seen the result of changes like these, in our own lives in San Francisco and after visiting cities like Copenhagen and even Paris that have implemented them, those changes are most assuredly worth it. They scale cities back down to human size. Calming streets is really calming people. It takes the stress out of living.

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Filed under advocacy, cargo, commuting, Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

I didn’t kill the Breezer (phew), but even so

I had to walk the Breezer to the shop with my daughter in the backpack and the rear wheel seized up. It was exhausting.

So the good news is that I didn’t kill the internal hub on the Breezer. The bad news is that I have apparently been, entirely unintentionally, straining the bike well beyond its limits with the loads I’ve put on it. Our bike shop was concerned that the frame wasn’t meant to take that kind of weight and would eventually break. I have learned that this actually happens sometimes. Yeah. Oops. At a minimum they were sure I’d kill the hub eventually. The Breezer is a great commuter bike, but it has limits.

Here is the sobering summary from my brother-in-law: “You realize you carry more on your bikes sometimes than would fit in a SmartCar, right? I was just thinking yesterday that while you are not at all aggro, you may be the most aggressive cyclist I know in terms of what you are willing to try with your bike (you make full face mask downhillers look like wusses).”

He has obviously never met the mom who carries six kids and the shopping, and who makes my typical load look like a grocery bag full of paper towels. Admittedly she’s riding a bike designed for that.

My poor Breezer, asked to carry loads it was never meant to bear.

Anyway, there was, shall we say, strong advocacy from both our bike shop and family members that I should get a real cargo bike and stop trying to force my Franken-bike to do things it was never designed to do. Matt expressed similar concerns when he called from China. It is something that I had begun to suspect already, as I was trying to flag a cab in the Tenderloin and wondering whether I’d ever be able to ride the Breezer again.

Having proven that I’m up for riding fully-loaded through the seasons even on what is evidently a wholly inadequate bike, I am willing to consider bikes that are much more expensive than I would have a year ago as a primary bike. Also I learned what people pay for mountain and road bikes used only for entertainment value, which: whoa. For reasons of structural stability, I have been encouraged to learn to love the top tube. I’m also sure I want an electric assist.

Wanted: a cargo bike that can handle both hills and sand dunes

So we are now in the market for a new cargo bike. I’m not at all sure what kind. I was putting off another bike until finding out whether I’ll get the new position my department recommended, which is equivalent to my current position but with much more job security. At the last check-in, my department chair was optimistic that the university would offer a verdict “maybe even as soon as 2013.” Given that timeline and the fact that I thought the Breezer would carry two on child seat+trailer-bike for years to come, I wasn’t exactly scouring the market for its replacement. But circumstances conspire.

Two kids, now aged 3 and 6.5, too much traffic for them to commute solo, serious hills, a not-very-wide basement door (fortunately walk-in) and many pinch points and narrow bike lanes are the main issues we deal with when riding our bikes in San Francisco. I welcome any suggestions for bikes that could handle the challenge. Long, narrow, and assisted was one person’s summary of the best bike for me, and I suspect that’s right on.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

SF Pride: another year, another disaster

Breezer and trailer-bike: seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t work out that way.

We have struggled with getting to the SF Pride Parade for years. One year we stupidly tried to drive there: it was a disaster. Last year we tried to take Muni instead: it was also a disaster. The trains are packed, and the route is a long way for kids to stand, and we couldn’t get a return train, so we ended up carrying the kids through the downtown crowds to find an alternate way home. This year I thought I had it figured out: we were going to ride the bike. We were meeting my in-laws downtown: they would watch my daughter while my son and I were in Japanese class, then we’d all walk over post-Dykes on Bikes to watch the parade (the noise of Dykes on Bikes freaks the kids out, and I’m not much of a fan of it either).

With a week’s worth of clothes and books to haul for my son, and his newfound desire to ride, the obvious choice for the trip was the Breezer with Bobike Maxi plus trailer-bike. I loaded up the front basket with my son’s stuff, piled on the kids, and within a block of home, realized that the tires needed a lot more air than they had to handle that kind of load. We turned around and went back. While I was getting the pump, the bike fell over. I’m not sure whether to blame the wheel stabilizer (which isn’t that stable even with the basket unloaded) or the kids for this one, but it turned out to be no ordinary fall.

By the time we hit the Panhandle, the Breezer was making a buzzing noise every time the wheels turned. When we investigated it appeared to be a bent fender. So I tried to whack it back into place with moderate success and we continued on. Everything seemed okay until we got to the Tenderloin, when the gears started grinding and the chain fell off. I don’t enjoy putting the kids on the sidewalk to watch drug deals while I futz with a bike, but I didn’t have a lot of options. Mother of the year! When I got the chain back on, I realized that the damage must have been much more severe than I’d realized—the gears kept grinding and it was hard to shift. But we had little choice at that point: the buses we passed had broken down, and we’d hit the street closures by that point anyway, so there was no other alternative.

Yet another electric bicycle spotted at Golden Gate Park: I wish I’d had one on Nob Hill.

We finally got to Japanese class (late) and afterward, were all so exhausted that we skipped the parade and went out to lunch. I thought about trying to get home another way, but there were no cabs available around the parade route and transit was much too packed to allow us to board with a bike and a trailer-bike (maybe not even without them). I figured that if I’d made it there I could ride home.

My in-laws told me the parade was now over, so I assumed we could ride down Market Street on the way home, which is mostly flat, sparing my gears. This turned out to be totally not true; the parade just keeps going. So I headed up Nob Hill. About halfway to the top the chain fell off. And fell off. And fell off. I ended up walking up the rest of the hill and back down, figuring that I could manage the downhill Polk Street bike lane. But by the time I got there, the rear wheel had completely seized up. I was in the middle of the Tenderloin with a broken bike and a preschooler who desperately wanted a nap. I needed a cab.

This was a bike-friendly cab: it had the new “don’t door the bicycles” window sticker.

Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin during the Pride Parade was harder: every cab that passed was already carrying a fare. I also wanted an SUV cab big enough to haul the Breezer and trailer-bike if possible, because leaving them in the Tenderloin would mean that I’d probably never see them again. Two very nice older gentlemen who’d been hanging out on a stoop helped me, but it still took almost a half hour. I have never been happier to see a car than when an empty SUV cab finally stopped for us. The driver helped us load the bikes and agreed to ignore the fact that my daughter was going to have to ride without a car seat. I have never given anyone a bigger tip. “You’re a long way from home,” he said. “It’s not that far with a working bike,” I said, “But right now, it definitely is.”

I still have no idea what happened to the Breezer (I have an appointment at the bike shop tomorrow). My guess is that whatever it is will be expensive. I am trying not to think about that right now. Sunday made my brush with road rage last week feel like meandering through Golden Gate Park during a street closure. I have never been more miserable or exhausted on a bike ride. And I can’t help feeling disappointed by the Breezer. I worry that our needs for a bike (the ability to haul up to two kids plus cargo) are beyond its capabilities. It’s really a commuter bike and not a family bike.

This man was handing out leftover Pride parade balloons to all the kids. Very exciting!

I almost couldn’t bring myself leave home after all of that, but we’d agreed to meet our Big Dummy-riding friends from school for Sunday Skate in the late afternoon.  Once we got there, we had a great time. My daughter loves their youngest daughter, and we ended up riding to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The only downside of the whole evening was that everyone else was out on bikes as well, so the nearest parking was a half-block away. Oh, the humanity.

I sometimes think that the number of bikes I have now is a bit excessive but I’m reconsidering.  If I didn’t have another bike, I wouldn’t have even left the house that afternoon, let alone by bike, and I was glad that I did.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, family biking, San Francisco, traffic, trailer-bike

Road rage

Usually my commute to work is a quiet and unremarkable affair. Either something happened while I was in Atlanta or this is National Road Rage Day, because I have never had a commute like the one I had today before. At every stop sign I stopped only to be passed by a speeding car that barely slowed, driver honking frantically, as they spun directly in front of me to make a right or left turn. The fact that I caught up at the next stop sign/stop light without breaking a sweat or even trying hard only served to further enrage them. But the fact that bicycles are faster than cars in traffic is not news in San Francisco.

At one stop sign a scooter rider passed me on the right to jump in front of me in queue as I was making a left turn. When I caught up to her at the next stop light, she had moved (illegally) into the bike lane to jump the queue of cars at the light. I rode up to her and said, “It’s very rude to go around me on the right just to jump the line.” She looked shocked that I had pierced her bubble and ran the red light to get away from me. On the bright side, she stopped poaching the bike lane. Instead she swerved into oncoming traffic to get ahead of cars.

As my dissertation adviser used to say, “These people eventually fall of their own weight.”

On the last leg to work, which is on a quiet residential street, I was puttering away up the hill when I heard frantic honking behind me and a revving engine. So I stopped and looked. “What?” I asked. Directly behind me a woman in a giant SUV appeared to be screaming curses (soundproofing: it works both ways) and waving me toward the sidewalk. “I’M SUPPOSED TO TAKE THE LANE,” I said loudly and slowly. Continuing to honk, she swerved in a screech around me and drove off… to the stop sign 100 feet ahead (which she ignored, granted). San Francisco residents will not be surprised that two small children were sitting in the back seat of her SUV.

A pedestrian on the sidewalk stopped dead in disbelief. “You were right!” he yelled to me. “F#@% that lady!”

I’ve never seriously considered a helmet cam until today. If I had had one, I wouldn’t be kicking myself now that I didn’t get photos of all these people’s license plates. None of them should be behind the wheel of a car.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Taxis and bicycles

Oh look. A taxi parked on the sidewalk. Quelle surprise.

I have issues with taxis.

I am glad that taxis exist. They have bailed me out of more than one emergency “your kid is sick and you need to come right away” situation, as well as out of occasional public transit failures in multiple cities. I take cabs to the airport when I’m on business in other cities. The world would be a much more difficult place without them.

That said I kind of hate taxi drivers. They are often rude, and they frequently ignore the rules of the road. I never know, stepping into one, whether I will end up feeling like I’m on a death ride. And when I’m riding my bike, driver rudeness is the least of my worries. When I see a taxi on the road I immediately tense up, waiting for a swerve into the bike lane or a dooring or an unmarked turn into oncoming traffic.

This is the world's most loathsome bumper sticker.

San Francisco made my irritation with taxi drivers even more extreme last year, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency allowed taxi drivers to officially occupy the bike lane, ostensibly to pick up passengers who were disabled. Over half the cabs in the city now sport the blue bumper stickers advertising this new liberty, which I have learned the hard way to read as: “I’m going to do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.” I have seen taxis with these bumper stickers parked on the sidewalk. A couple of weeks ago I watched a taxi with that bumper sticker swerve directly in front of me, at which point the passenger opened the door, leaned over, and vomited into the bike lane. No photo: this is a family biking blog. Parking in bike lanes is a given. Everyone does that. But taxis can’t get tickets for it anymore, and those blue stickers are like a “neener-neener-neener” right in my face every time I have to cut into traffic around a parked cab in my lane. I hate those bumper stickers. Thanks for nothing, Muni.

Objectively, I realize that taxis that do these things are the minority, but oh, what an annoying minority they are.

And then yesterday, when I was riding mid-afternoon to a meeting, I happened across two other bike riders on my route—a woman on a road bike and a man on a cruiser. These riders were casually blowing through red lights and stop signs, swerving through traffic and into crosswalks to avoid even the slightest loss of momentum, and all of this despite the fact that they were riding even more slowly than I was. And I ride pretty slowly on my way to an afternoon meeting in dress clothes, because I refuse to show up at a meeting sweaty. I get mistaken for a student often enough as it is.

Suddenly I thought, “Oh my god! These riders annoy everyone else on the road the way that taxis annoy me! And I am guilty by association!” These bicycle riders are the reason that pedestrians stop me in the street about once a week to thank me for my complete stop at every 4-way stop sign intersection. I am not kidding. Last week one person clapped.

Taxi drivers and bicycle riders: we are ugly bedfellows, all of us damned by association no matter how we behave. I cannot begin to imagine the cultural shift it would take to make me start trusting taxis to behave like even normal cars, and that is a not a very high standard. Which means it must be equally impossible for most drivers (and most people are drivers) to imagine bicyclists behaving like something other than spoiled children.

There are a lot of parents like me who would be willing to ride their bikes with their kids if it seemed like something respectable people did—I talk to these parents every week. They would never run a red light any more than I would: my kids are on the bike! But why would you want to start riding a bike if you hate bicycle riders who ignore the rules of the road? Those are the riders people see—how could they not? I hate those riders and I was actually riding a bike when I saw them. Who would want to start driving if it meant being scorned like a cab driver? I hate riding in the vicinity of cabs even though most of them are driven by responsible people.

How do you change an entire subculture of people behaving badly? Change the law or change the culture, but something would have to change. Right now, for both taxis and bicycles, there is a critical mass of scofflaws.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, traffic