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.