Motorist Hits Cyclist in Valencia Street Bike Lane

One of San Francisco’s most popular bicycle thoroughfares was the scene of a crash on Tuesday, when an automobile incautiously pulled out of a parking spot and struck a bicyclist riding in the bike lane on Valencia Street near 20th Street.

2678873269_aa66065604_b.jpgValencia Street's bike lane. Flickr photo: mary jane watson
According to the police report, the driver “unsafely pulled out” and hit the bicyclist around 9:17 p.m. The driver admitted fault on the scene and said, “I pulled out, I just didn’t see” the cyclist. The cyclist was transferred by ambulance to San Francisco General Hospital with a laceration above the left eye and shoulder pain, the report said.

In an account of the crash posted on Mission Mission, Rachel, the bicyclist's girlfriend, wrote that she was riding single file in front of him, that they were riding  "as far left as possible" in the bike lane, and both "had lights on our bikes." She also wrote that as she passed the parked car, it "zoomed out after me and my boyfriend hit her front tire and went flying."

Her account of the injuries is similar to the police report's, though in greater detail. "He suffered multiple facial fractures, some stitches and a bruised shoulder and is damn lucky," she wrote. "Probably the worst part of it was being stuck in the emergency room of SFGH for 15 hours." 

A citation was not issued, though San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Lyn Tomioka said one could be eventually. “When this goes to Traffic, it may result in a citation,” said Tomioka. “They often do.”

The collision, which occurred through no fault of the cyclist, highlights the danger posed to cyclists by inattentive motorists. SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley said this particular crash likely could not have been avoided through any physical improvements to the bikeway. “Valencia Street is about to undergo quite a thorough transformation,” said Thornley. “The parking lanes are going to get a little bit wider so that the car doors won’t be right there against the bike, because right now that’s probably the biggest hazard on Valencia for cycling.”

While the wider lanes should help reduce dooring, collisions involving drivers pulling out would not be reduced. “None of the changes that are happening on Valencia would really address this phenomenon,” said Thornley. “I don’t know that there’s any facility that would deal with this.”

In the absence of greater driver awareness, even physically separated bike lanes might not be a perfect solution. “A separated bikeway, either as a channel that’s parallel to the standard street or as a swapped bikeway-parking lane, eliminates some of the hazards, but it potentially introduces new conflicts,” said Thornley.

“Conventional traffic engineers and transportation planners always point out that it seems like you’re going to be safer if you have a separated bikeway, but whenever you come to an intersection, you’ll still have the problem of paths crossing. And along the middle of the block, wherever there’s a driveway or any kind of interruption in the curb, there’s the potential for a car crossing that bike lane path.”

Bicycle infrastructure has a major role to play, but motorist education could be just as essential to preventing such collisions, if not more so.

“The bigger, softer, long term answer to this is much better education of motorists,” said Thornley.

“In European countries such as Germany, when a person goes and takes their driver license exam … if that motorist opens the driver door with his left hand, he’ll fail the exam just on that,” said Thornley. “Instead, you’re meant to reach over with your right hand so that your body turns and you are positioned to look out the window and even back to see whether there’s anybody coming.”

Though San Francisco’s new police chief George Gascón has uncertain livable streets credentials, as Streetsblog reported, the SFBC believes the door could be open to more effective street safety policing.

“The stings are okay, but that’s not really going to change the culture of how people behave on the streets,” said Thornley. “We need to actually look at having a street safety unit at the SFPD, and not just motorcycle cops, but probably some cops on bicycle, on foot.”

“We’re very excited at the prospect of a new chief because there are definitely topics, and this may be topic A, that we’ve been waiting to really engage and begin a new initiative on all sides in having real, meaningful prioritized enforcement on the streets.”

All of this may be cold comfort to the cyclist in Tuesday’s crash, but as the city moves to improve pedestrian and cycling facilities on Valencia Street and across town, the collision is a vivid reminder that driver education and awareness is an equally or more essential component to achieving greater street safety.

Thanks to Mission Mission for the first account.