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.)
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.