New Sharrows on Sutter and Post Streets Not Popular with Cyclists

Sutter-3_1.jpgA bicyclist makes her way up Sutter Street just after the evening commute. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Pedaling up Sutter Street toward Leavenworth from his dentist’s office during the height of the Wednesday evening commute, Dan Nunes is riding in the transit-only lane for his bike trip home, despite the new sharrows recently painted in the center lane to his left. There, drivers often zoom by at alarming speeds, breaking the 25 mile an hour speed limit, narrowly avoiding crashes, and treating the three-lane arterial like a highway, especially as they make the descent down the hill on Sutter just past Leavenworth.

For Nunes, and many other cyclists, riding in the center lane is not an option, even with the beckoning of the white sharrows.

"I think it’s just asinine. You’re trusting the car coming behind you not to hit you," he said. "It’s about avoiding contact with the cars so riding in the middle lane with cabs, with tourists looking at buildings, I mean, come on."

Sutter Street cuts through several of San Francisco’s densest neighborhoods and commercial districts, and along with Post Street one block south, serves as a major east-west connection for bicyclists. Those streets also serve Muni’s 2-Clement and 3-Jackson, which have dedicated transit lanes that are sometimes clogged by drivers cued up to turn right.

The SFMTA recently installed the sharrows on both Sutter and Post
Streets (Bicycle Route 16) as part of its Bike Plan directive to add 75
miles of new sharrows on bike routes across the city. Where Sutter and
Post intersect with other bicycle routes, the sharrows have been painted
in two lanes so drivers can more readily expect cyclists, and cyclists
can position themselves to turn, according to the SFMTA.

Plans are also in the works to paint sharrows on short sections of
other streets with transit lanes, including Clay Street from Montgomery
to Battery, and Stockton from Sutter to Post.

Nunes said he is an experienced urban cyclist who has been riding in the city for about six years, as long as he’s lived here, and since the new sharrows were added on June 1, he hasn’t seen a single cyclist in the center lane. "If you get capped in the middle of the street and go down, the next car behind you is going to run you over."

Even the city’s lead traffic engineer, Jack Fleck, who is retiring
today after a 25-year career at the SFMTA, told Streetsblog he wouldn’t ride in
the center lane. 

Sutter_Street_1.jpgA cyclist navigates his way through the mess of auto traffic on Sutter Street during the peak commute.

"The rationale is really dictated by what we’re legally allowed to do," said Damon Curtis, the SFMTA’s Livable Streets Implementation Manager. "There’s a transit lane on the curb and the first available traffic lane is the middle lane. We cannot legally put sharrows in the transit lane."

Riding your bike in the transit lanes is illegal, but the current law, according to the Bike Plan’s section on bicycle and transit policy (PDF), is a little foggy. Any substantive change to it would also require a change in state law. From the Bike Plan:

Under local law as written, bicycles could use the transit-only lanes, because the SFTC prohibits "vehicles" from using the transit-only lanes, and bicycles are not classified as "vehicles" under the CVC (Sections 231 and 670); however; San Francisco can only exercise the powers in this area that are delegated to it by the state under CVC Section 21. State law only authorizes use of transit-only lanes for "public mass transit." Changes in designated transit-only lanes may be legislated by the SFMTA Board of Directors by amending the SFTC, but a change in state law would be required to allow bicycles to operate in transit-only lanes.

Picture_18.pngWhat a bike-bus lane might look like in San Francisco. Source: Alta Planning and Design/Parisi Associates from 2003 Bike Plan design guidelines report.

The Bike Plan does call for the SFMTA to experiment with bikes in transit lanes. Other cities around the U.S., and the world, have lanes that accommodate both buses and bikes, such as Paris, Madison, Wi., Vancouver, B.C., Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. But even if state law were changed overnight, the agency isn’t prepared to do it this year.

"We are really interested in that study. Unfortunately, we don’t have the staff to take it on this year," said Bridget Smith of the SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets Division. "So we came up with some work plan priorities and worked them out with the [Bicycle Advisory Committee], other bicycle advocates, the Mayor’s office, and it’s not on our work plan for this year, but it is something that’s really important to us."

Even though many bicyclists feel safer in the transit lane, Dave Snyder, the former SFBC director who now oversees the nascent Transit Riders Union, said it’s important the SFMTA put sharrows in the most unorthodox places to remind drivers that cyclists have the right to be there.

"I don’t think that putting sharrows in that lane to the left of the bus lane is really a satisfactory facility for the kind of city we’re trying to build. It’s not intuitive if it doesn’t work for most people. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see they’re putting them way out there in the middle of the street. I think that’s a good sign," said Snyder.

Snyder would like to see the SFMTA figure out a "grandma-friendly" route for the corridor, and feels nearby streets like Geary, O’Farrell, Ellis and Eddy should also be bike routes. Although Geary isn’t ideal for riding during peak hours, Snyder said there’s enough room in the left lane for sharrows. He once convinced the SFMTA to widen the left lane on Geary from 11 to 12 feet for this reason.

For now, bicyclists like Todd Oppenheimer will continue to take Sutter Street. Oppenheimer, a prominent freelance journalist who works near the Giants ballpark, commutes from the Richmond District three days a week on his bike, the other two by car.

He said the new sharrows in the center lane prevent bicyclists from getting doored (it’s happened to him three times), but like many others, he won’t be taking that lane.

"I can’t believe that [drivers] are going to get it. Maybe they will eventually. But they’re going to honk at us, they’re going to be pissed. It’s going to take awhile."

Sharrows_2.jpgThe sharrows double up approaching intersecting bike routes.

  • souper

    CBrink

    The situation you describe is rather akin to the drivers’ dilemma of how to deal with tailgaters.

    If you are driving at the limit, and someone comes up behind you, maybe too close, maybe flashing lights, maybe honking their horn, there are really only two responses.

    1) The obstinate one which says I have a right to here and he’s breaking the law, so I’m just going to stay here and block him out of spite.

    2) The flexible one which says that he is being an ass, but I don’t want an ass on my tail, so I’ll do the decent thing and move over and let him get out of my way.

    The first is what you are advocating and is escalatory and more dangerous; the second is safer, more curtious and preferable.

  • Chris

    I just moved here from NYC and I’m shocked and disappointed at the lack of progress SF has made regarding bike lanes. I feel safer riding my bike through Midtown Manhattan at rush hour than I do on a residential street in San Francisco. And you wonder why SF bicyclists have a bad reputation — you need to be extremely aggressive to stay alive! In New York, not only is there a more extensive network of clearly marked green bike lanes, but they are creating more and more PROTECTED bike lanes each day. Sharrows? We don’t need more sharrows we need clearly marked bike LANES. Sharrows are empty gestures that do absolutely nothing to improve safety — they simply reiterate the fact that motorists must yield to bicyclists, it’s not much different than putting up a sign. I saw those sharrows the other day on Sutter street and was completely dumbfounded when I learned they were new! How could time and resources be wasted to do something so illogical that accomplishes nothing in terms of improving conditions for bicyclists? We should direct that time and money towards designing a network of dedicated green bike lanes that get more people biking because they feel safe. It’s amazing what a bit of paint can do! We do not have to spend a ton of money. There is so much potential for San Francisco to become a true biking city. A city that leads the way and sets standards. But right now, NYC is leading the way and SF is falling behind. New York is taking this very seriously and all government agencies seem to be behind making it happen very quickly which is very exciting and inspiring. We should be implementing all of it here, without delay and work towards becoming the new model! Until then, I guess I’ll be riding on the sidewalk!

  • marcos

    @Alex, well then we have a conflict. Is the proper approach to a conflict for advocates for one party to fold tent and side with the advocates of the other party to a conflict, or is it to advance the interests of their constituency towards an equitable compromise where each party gets some?

    Cycling on the sidewalk is not legal, but the evidence shows that it is not markedly dangerous to pedestrians either, at least not as dangerous to pedestrians is cycling on the street through dangerous conditions is for cyclists. Does it scare some pedestrians? Sure. Does cycling “legally” down Polk or Van Ness from City Hall to the Mission scare me as a strong cyclist? You bet it does.

    Again, so long as our advocates prefer to accommodate their friends who are advocates for other legitimate constituencies instead of advancing our interests, we’re going to see inequitable outcomes.

    So long as dangerous conditions are maintained by the City, then that is going to elicit illegal yet safer compensations on the part of cyclists.

    -marc

  • CBrinkman

    Hey Souper, I interpret, as per the bike snob, honking to mean: Hi little cyclist. I see you. Don’t worry, I see you and I won’t run into you. So I stay where I feel safest. In the center of the lane. If what that car driver is really doing by honking is to bully me out of the lane which he is not supposed to be driving in – oh – whoops, my misinterpretation.

    Happy pedaling.

  • bosky

    @ Chris

    Have you seen: http://www.connectingthecity.org/ SFBC is working on it but it takes time. Fortunately the injunction has been lifted.

    @Marcos

    Were you at the Noe Valley Pavement to Parks meeting? the one where the opponents would not allow the planners to speak? When the planning department attempted to reach out but was yelled at by a pack of wild dogs? Like 4 year-olds having tantrums? I was. That is not a civic meeting that you should be proud of. It is that type of meeting that hinders progress.

    Also please remember that most of the people working in the city departments live in the city. They bike in the city, they take transit, and some drive. They are not aliens from outer space imposing themselves on the city to bring it to impending doom.

    @Peter

    On bus only lanes:

    Bus only lanes are important because they allow the buses to travel efficiently which makes them a more attractive transportation option. Faster buses => better incentive to take buses => less cars => safer streets for bicyclists. The important thing is to take a multi-pronged approached to reducing automobiles. With the highly congested city, it’s harder for the MTA to justify shutting down traffic lanes to make more room for cyclists. At the end of the day, we are not going to convert all san francisco’s residents into cyclists. They haven’t even come close to that in CPH despite all the infrastructure.

    The overarching concept I think we need to work towards is unity in the streets between cars, bikes and peds. Sometimes I drive, mostly I bike, sometimes I walk. They are all appropriate for different circumstances. The us vs. them mentality is toxic for change.

    lastly – for the record i think bikes in the bus lane is legit at times.

  • bosky

    haha i totally didn’t realize this post was from this summer. my bad.

  • Lynne

    There is one cyclist using the center sharrow lanes on Sutter and Polk – me. I live at Sutter and Gough and ride Post and Sutter everyday. When the sharrows were first painted, I was skeptical, like most everyone else it seems. But then I figured, why not try it before condemning it. To my surprise, I find I not only like it, but I prefer it to the bus lane. I take the lane. Vehicles approaching from behind have two lane options for passing me. I don’t have to dance the busses, me passing them, them passing me, me passing them….slowing down the bus. And I don’t have to deal with vehicles turning left as I go straight.

    Have I ever been honked at while in the center lane? Yup. Once. Have I ever been honked at when in the bus lane. Yup. Many times. Does traffic slow down to pass me? Yup. Do some drivers just patiently drive behind me? Yup. Did it feel weird at first? Yup. But as I continue to reeducate myself that riding as far as possible to the right is actually not always the safest place to be, I’m finding more places like the middle lanes on Post and Sutter that make city cycling easier.

    Have you ever met someone who thinks you are crazy for biking in SF because they are convinced it is not safe? Not true, as attested by the thousands of cyclists who take to our streets daily without incident. Cycling in SF? Riding down a center lane with a sharrow? Don’t knock it until you try it. See you from the middle.

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