Wreckless Riding

3669112397_e02ec6a72d.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel.

In 1978 I was a field manager for an environmental group’s canvassing operation and was driving "my crew" in an old beat-up Volkswagon from one suburb to the next. From about 3 p.m. we’d visit every house in a given area, knocking on doors seeking donations and support, ending around 8:30 or 9. One time I was in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill or one of those Contra Costa bedroom communities, and I did a typical San Francisco rolling stop at a stop sign in a quiet residential neighborhood. Sure enough I was stopped by a squad car and given quite a lecture on how San Francisco behavior was unacceptable out there in the ‘burbs.

I remember this periodically as I roll down Shotwell in the Mission, zipping into and out of intersections with 4-way stops, always making sure I don’t end up on the front hood of a car that barely hesitates as they roll through the stop signs (San Franciscan motorists are notorious for the rolling stop). I’m on a bicycle of course, taking the smaller Shotwell instead of Folsom with its bad pavement and narrow lanes, or the wider South Van Ness with its fast-moving traffic, or even instead of Harrison, which is a nice, bike-lane bearing boulevard just two blocks to the east. Some friends pointed out a few years ago that Shotwell had the advantage going north because A) it was recently paved; and B) it has 4-way stops which means a cyclist can sail down the slope into the former swamplands (from 19th to Division, Valencia to Harrison was largely wetlands before urbanization), rarely having to stop.

My cycling behavior dates back to childhood when I commuted by bike across Oakland to 6th grade, and learned the basic rule of thumb for safe city cycling: No one sees bicyclists! Therefore, to be safe, you must always make sure you are in the parts of the street where you cannot be hit, preferably away from moving cars, and not too close to parked ones either. The best, safest place to be? On the other side of a red light, where the street is mostly empty of traffic.

So like Pavlov’s dog, I learned how to ride evasively and defensively by being quick and assertive on the streets, and always flowing towards the emptiest places. Forty years later, I have been well-served by this approach, remaining a wreck-less rider all these years, in spite of what some motorists and even some cyclists might consider reckless riding. And no, I don’t wear a helmet, and never have. I don’t oppose anyone using one if they want to, but I feel perfectly safe riding through the streets, fully responsible for my own safety, and a helmet does not enhance that safety in my experience. (Obviously there is a subset of bike accidents in which one’s head hits the ground or a vehicle hard, and a helmet can be very helpful in those cases. But there are many more accidents that mangle other parts of the body, often resulting from bad road design or maintenance, indifferent and hostile motorists, and yes, sometimes, unsafe cycling.)

_1.jpgPhoto by Chris Carlsson.

I’ve been cycling daily in San Francisco for over 30 years. I was there when Critical Mass started, riding in it since it began in 1992. Where I used to ride around in a state of relative isolation on city streets, these days you are often riding in small groups of a half dozen or more cyclists, sometimes being overtaken by faster riders, often passing slower ones. Tellingly, the zippy ride north on Shotwell has necessarily slowed down with the incredible increase of cyclists in the Mission. I have had at least a half dozen near misses with other cyclists in the past year on Shotwell, as we all barrel into intersections assuming that we’ve beat the cars who are approaching the intersection, but not always remembering that there might be a cyclist doing the same thing from our right or left.

In 1996 we surveyed Critical Mass riders about general opinions, and conditions in San Francisco, and I remember one eloquent response from a guy who wrote us to say that this was the "Golden Era" of cycling in San Francisco (the mid-1990s) because there were no rules, no controls, and we had complete freedom on the roads. He predicted that as Critical Mass and other pro-cycling efforts succeeded in the coming years, a big increase in cycling would require us to become more predictable, law-abiding, and generally calmer. And sure enough, we’re here now.

I credit and thank the many motorists in San Francisco who approach intersections cautiously, pause and look back before veering into a right turn to make sure there are no cyclists in their blind spot, and who cheerfully yield to us as we hurry through stop signs with only a glancing pause. I appreciate that a lot of drivers understand we’re conserving momentum and it’s easy for them to brake and wait, and makes no sense for cyclists to behave like automobiles.

I wish everyone behind the wheel understood the different experience that cyclists have, instead of the petty anger and frustration directed towards cyclists for "breaking the law." If only the DMV test included a cycling test, so you couldn’t get a driver’s license without also riding a bike on different kinds of city streets for a half hour. Instead, the DMV provides its handbook to all, wherein it counsels:

* Drivers must:

– look carefully for bicyclists before opening doors next to moving traffic or before turning right.

– safely merge toward the curb or into the bike lane.

not overtake a bicyclist just before making a right turn. Merge first, then turn.

There is a list of what bicyclists must do too, including having access to some freeways and being allowed to use left-turn lanes. Unlike the Golden Era of cycling where we could and did go anywhere, in any direction (as plenty of bike messengers and those of us who ride like them still do), the DMV admonishes that bicyclists

– must ride in the same direction as other traffic, not against it.

– must ride in a straight line as near to the right curb or edge of the roadway as practical-not on the sidewalk.

– must ride single file on a busy or narrow street.

None of this particularly corresponds to what is good for cyclists, but does conform to how motorists want cyclists to behave. It underscores how out of kilter the licensing process is with the current reality of cycling and street usage in San Francisco. Now that we’re having four blocks of Valencia redesigned, with wider sidewalks to suit more pedestrians, let’s hope a more thorough rethinking and redesign of city streets can follow. If we can move towards dedicated street space for bicyclists, like in Copenhagen, Montreal, New York, Berlin and other great cities, maybe we’ll be able to claim that mantle too.

Until then, bicyclists, you’re on your own! Your safety and survival are your responsibility, not the motorists who can’t or won’t see you.

  • Oaknative

    Excellent point. I think cyclists will increasingly have to look out for one another as their mode share increases. When it comes to rolling stop signs, I advocate just backing off the pedals, giving the intersection a quick glance. First in, first out. Even if the first in is a motorist or pedestrian. If there’s anything I respect, it is right of way and safety.

  • ZA

    Good points, but I’d add that where the law and facilities are deficient, always always always ride with the follow extensions of the Golden Mean:

    1. Safety First. Let Nasty BMW Man race to the next red with fuming impatience, because you’ll have a gentle coast right through the light change. I’d like to say “If in doubt, Yield” – but very often taking the lane is the surest way to maximum safety for you *and* the driver.

    2. Politeness. Everyone expects the Monolithic Mad Cyclist, no one expects Polite Rider. Catch ’em off guard. On the occasion (ahem) when I ride a block on a sidewalk, I never exceed or try to overtake the speed of the pedestrians in front of me, and I try to engage them in conversation. Especially the cute ones.

  • Paul

    I have the experience of being a cyclist, motorcyclist, and driver in the city. I commute on my bicycle at least 3x a week across the same routes, and I know exactly why folks love to barrel through intersections on their bikes and flip across lanes… I’ve done it myself when I’m on my bicycle…

    But while riding my motorcycle, I’ve nearly been clobbered half a dozen times by some insane cyclist running a stop or ignoring a red light. If people want to plant themselves across the hood of a car or plowing into me on my bicycle, it ruins my afternoon. Someone slamming me while I’m on my motorcycle is going to get me seriously hurt and is utterly non-consensual.

    Please people, don’t forget us the poor motorcyclist, who is going to get fucked up by insane biking. “Share the road” is the call of the bicyclist, but there are too many assholes out there who want to own the whole road and are willing to take the rest of us down their darwin-hole with them.

    When you’re going to do something against the traffic rules, at least slow the fuck down!

    Golden age of cycling? Anarchy? Only works if you don’t care about anyone else.

  • This is a nice description of your personal perspective, and pleasant to read.

    One clarification I’m sure you didn’t intend to omit:

    “not always remembering that there might be a cyclist [or pedestrian] doing the same thing from our right or left.”

    I grew up on Shotwell Street, and I love that it’s quiet and the traffic is relatively slow. And I love that more and more of that traffic is on bikes. But what I really love is that it feels safe to cross the street as a pedestrian, and that safety depends on cyclists being aware of and prepared to stop for pedestrians.

  • K.

    I don’t drive and I’m all for biking, but this article – like most bikers – pretends that pedestrians don’t exist.

  • Let me just say for the record that pedestrians are the priority users of all urban space. Cyclists absolutely have to make all efforts to be courteous and deferential to pedestrians… I often spend time in Critical Mass exhorting folks to walk through, and for the cyclists to “let the pedestrians through”… this works pretty well most of the time, and is obviously one of the ongoing problems in town, a lack of courtesy (across the board). Thanks to the commenters who have scolded me and reminded everyone of pedestrians’ priority.

  • Elizabeth Creely

    Chris, happy to see you lay claim to not wearing a helmet. There seems to be some controversy about not wearing one, for reason that seem spurious to me. The most spurious claim being that a helmet-less bicyclist= a rogue bicyclist, someone who doesn’t care about their safety and is, therefore, less likely to care about the safety of others. Which seems pretty damn silly on the face of it.
    I have also heard that not wearing a helmet is bad PR for the cycling community…
    I wear helmets for my bike commutes in the city (and for longer rides I do), but sometimes, when I’m in the city and the sun and the wind are just right…I don’t. And I certainly don’t feel that leaving it at home puts me in a more roguish frame of mind!

  • “…[it] makes no sense for cyclists to behave like automobiles.”

    I hope that someday our laws will reflect this reality.

  • tim modok

    Thanks for a very thoughtful article Chris. We really DO need dedicated through fares for bikes in SF. I esp like the approach Amsterdam takes with special bi directional lanes, with raised curbs between sidewalks and auto traffic exclusively for bikes along most ordinary streets. & yes pedestrians do have to be aware when crossing these special lanes. I recall walking out of an electronics store carrying a large box containing a new editing monitor, after just arriving in Amsterdam. I walked out onto the sidewalk and almost walked directly into the heavy bike traffic, but thank goddess my friend grabbed me in time. Would’ve really ruined the day for several of us!

  • Deborah

    Hi Chris, I have to say that we see things differently on this issue.

    I live in Copenhagen, Denmark – a city where approximately 36% of the population uses bikes as their main form of transportation to and from work. It is my experience, that if biking really has chance of being a sustainable transportation alternative it must be a safe alternative, otherwise most people understandably won’t embrace it.

    Of course, a major part of safety is making the kind of bike infrastructure investements that we have here, like elevated bike paths that are seperate from the street (not the bogus solutions like in many U.S. cities that consists of painting a line and that’s it), where necessary separate traffic lights for bikes and cars, parking facilities and other details I won’t go into here.

    But if biking is to be a true alternative it must children and old people – and completely seriously, I think it is important to set a safety example for children when biking, liking not blazing through red lights. It must be for careful, middle-aged women like me that has stopped biking to work during *rush* hours (I have the priveldge og being able to walk to work in 50 minutes) because I couldn’t take the stress ofof the all to often near, serious accidents because of reckless, impatient cyclists.

    Actually, I think we nedd to slow down and take it is easy much more in life. I know you are writing about biking in a different, much more care dominant reality, but I just can’t embrace the kind of bike culture you seem to promote.

    Deborah

  • Deborah

    I just noticed a few confusing typos – sorry. should read…

    ‘But if biking is to be a true alternative it must ALSO BE FRIENDLY for children and old people’

    ‘It must ALSO be for careful, middle-aged women like me’

    ‘I know you are writing about biking in a different, much more CAR dominant reality’

  • ZA

    @ Deborah –

    “I know you are writing about biking in a different, much more care dominant reality, but I just can’t embrace the kind of bike culture you seem to promote.”

    All solutions are local. I think it’s grand that Copenhagen now has the facilities for a bicycle culture that the majority of your people demand. But consider what it took to get to that point, the political will, the steps, experiments, and corrections along the way. San Francisco, for all of its cycling popularity, is still in the nascent steps, where the bicycling culture is overlaid with athletic, individualistic, combative, fatalistic, and class values.

    In the end, despite the feuding, there’s actually wide agreement about the end objective. Drivers don’t generally want to mow down cyclists, and cyclists prefer safety of law and facilities. Cyclists and drivers both generally want and need a good public transit network.

    But to get to that end is a chicken-and-egg situation. SF will not get segregated bike boulevards until a plurality of road users demand it, over the objections of parochial interests unwilling to compromise. In tiny SF, those interests range from shopkeepers, to multinational corporations, to residents rich and poor, owners and renters – all of them have valid concerns, and a few have no concern other than pure obstruction. How do you get the plurality? By going through the epically slow process of getting paint on asphalt to attract the numbers of existing and new cyclists to use, to learn better road rules, to demonstrate to new neighbors what is possible and mutually beneficial, and to demand the steady improvements until we get our own version of ‘Copenhagen’ with hills.

    The only forces like to accelerate this pattern are seismic, and historically in my city, that means a rebuild that is usually entirely undemocratic, which probably won’t be bike-friendly. Chinatown’s history is instructive in this scenario.

  • soylatte

    @Deborah — with all due respect, you don’t know what you are talking about. Try riding in SF for a year, and see if you still stand by your post. You write about “reckless, impatient cyclists”. Yes, I dislike that too. But the article was NOT about them. A lot of times in this city, a cyclist obeying the law means getting yourself into cringeworthy situations no sane, experienced rider would recommend doing. I think old hands who run a stop sign DO set a great example to young riders… in this town your best bet is to put as much space between you and that speeding pick-up truck with the driver on his cell phone, as you can. If this means running a red light with no cross traffic, then be it. The whole “Vehicular cycling” thing is more an ideology than a practical, safe solution given the circumstances we face in American cities.

  • Chris, thanks for this…. and also including the historical bit about the swamp.

    Regarding Berlin, be careful what you wish for:

    * Many separated cycling paths are in former pedestrian-priority space on busier streets which have done nothing to reduce space for automobiles (no “road diet”). Fortunately in Berlin, unlike many other German cities, there is generally no requirement to ride on the cycle path.

    * Many of the immigrant cyclists (really, mostly from Europe and N. America) have no skills, training or experience. Their lack of these things combined with laziness about enforcing pedestrian space means many ride on the pavement (sidewalk), not even using their bells, etc. I only mention this because I wonder if SFBC or other groups in the Bay Area have a proactive cycle-training program for newbie cyclists. By “pro-active” I mean things like they tell you about a class when you start new phone or other utility service, or get a library card… or that an employer is required to give you training if you want it. I have a vague understanding that this is part of the assimilation protocol in the Netherlands; I feel it something Berlin (and Germany) really needs. (I do not mean that a license will be required.)

    I think that people think that it is mainly tourists doing all sorts of wacky things, but I am not sure this is the case. Also making it worse is that many people have crappy bikes with thin tyres not suited to the not infrequent cobblestones around here… so, again, they ride on the pavement because it is more comfortable FOR THEM. (I suppose the equivalent in SF would be really good brakes?).

  • ZA

    @ Todd Edelman

    I will second your opinion about tourist riders. After a friend shattered her arm after collided with a French tourist paying no mind to what side of the road she was on, yapping with her kids behind her, it’s clear to me that the bike rental companies in SF need to be A LOT MORE proactive about educating their customers about common road rules and SF cycling realities.

    This really can’t be left to a waiver of liability, multilingual pamphlets with diagrams and a 3 question quiz (oral) completed (not about correct/incorrect, but about getting customers to stop and think, and actually read the brochure) should be a regular part of doing business.

  • “I think old hands who run a stop sign DO set a great example to young riders… in this town your best bet is to put as much space between you and that speeding pick-up truck with the driver on his cell phone, as you can.”

    Should I run the red light because I want to put as much space between my tiny car and the big rig behind me? I mean, if one of those things hits me, I’m dead.

  • soylatte

    @Spokker: Should I run the red light because I want to put as much space between my tiny car and the big rig behind me? I mean, if one of those things hits me, I’m dead.”

    What do you refer to as your “tiny car”? I will venture to imagine that it is orders of magnitudes heavier than the bulkiest touring bicycles, and thus able to create much greater havoc if you do make a mistake. It also gives you a lot more protection than a bike. With larger vehicles comes larger responsibility. Which by the way is another reason your analogy falls flat. Big rig drivers in my experience do tend to focus when driving on city streets more than your run of the mill minivan driver. There are exceptions, but the ones I encounter usually drive slowly on busy streets and are alert. In contrast, these days I’m now almost shocked when I see a driver in a minivan *not* busy texting or checking iPhone or whatever.

    I do not like to run red lights or make a sport out of it. If at an intersection there would be a stoplight for bikes which would give us 10-20 sec of headway before letting cars through, I would obey it. That’s all it would take. Of course, car drivers would never agree to wait a few seconds longer in order to keep everyone safer.

  • @ZA: To be clear I was not talking about tourists, but immigrants.

    Tourists – in particular those who don’t ride in their home countries – will invariably contribute to some problems, but also don’t want to sit around and take a cycling safety class.

    The best thing we can do for them is to make their experience as soft as possible, e.g. banning cars, e.g. “We love tourists and don’t want to see them get hurt, so we are banning private cars in the City”, says the Mayor, increasing profits to hotels, restaurants and Amtrak.

    I worked at a bike rental company at the Wharf/N.Beach in 2000 and we had very few tourist crashes. Probably car rental operators see more incidents relative to amount of use but of course their customers have shells.

  • g

    If bicyclists are going to run red lights or break other traffic laws the main idea should be to be so aware of what’s going on that you don’t get in anyone else’s way, don’t stop anyone else’s flow, other bikes, peds, buses, motorcycles, etc.

    This involves a high level of awareness, that I don’t know can actually be taught. But for me at least that is the potential beauty of riding a bike.

  • “Of course, car drivers would never agree to wait a few seconds longer in order to keep everyone safer.”

    You generalize. I do it every single day.

  • Now these are the cyclists I like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU4nKKq02BU

    They give me hope that there can someday be peace between cyclists and drivers. Their other videos are really quite impressive as well.

  • mike

    @ Deborah said: Actually, I think we nedd to slow down and take it is easy much more in life.

    I completely agree…what’s the rush, everyone? You havin a kid? Chasin a crook? Late for…nothing?

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