City Planner Hurt by Driver Making Illegal Right Turn at Market and Octavia

Eastbound Market Street at Octavia Boulevard. Photo: Bryan Goebel

John Billovits is all too familiar with the perils of one of the city’s most hazardous intersections for bicyclists. For the past decade, he has traveled through the Market and Octavia intersection on his daily bicycle commute. As a senior planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, Billovits was also the project manager for the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, and fought against building the Central Freeway touchdown on Market Street.

Right turns for eastbound drivers on Market Street are prohibited at Octavia because they present a danger to bicyclists and pedestrians. Allowing the right turn would also create a huge traffic queue on Market Street, causing congestion on the city’s most important transit and bicycle corridor. Billovits outlined the case for banning the right turn in this 2003 memo [pdf].

Drivers who have made the illegal sudden turn south onto the freeway, where there is a bike lane and pedestrian crossing, have caused numerous right-hook collisions over the years, leaving dozens of people hurt. Two people, a pedestrian and a bicyclist, have died from injuries suffered in collisions caused by drivers at the intersection.

Yesterday, Billovits became the latest victim. As he was pedaling his Bianchi Volpe through the intersection around 9:25 a.m., on his way to work at the Planning Department, a German tourist behind the wheel of a rental car made the dreaded right turn and sent the 49-year-old flying.

“I just kind of plowed right into it, and bounced off the car, flew over it, and landed on the concrete, kind of head first, on the other side,” a shaken Billovits told Streetsblog, just hours after being released from the hospital yesterday. “I had a helmet on, which is a sturdy helmet, and so it felt pretty good. I just kind of crumpled over to the side, and it happened really quick.”

“It doesn’t appear right now that I have any kind of broken bones, or broken back, or anything like that. I’m a little achy. I have to wait to see how my body reacts,” Billovits explained, adding that doctors are monitoring him for a concussion. “I wouldn’t say I’m seriously injured. I’m not broken down. I’m at home, you know. They brought me home this afternoon. I think I’ll be okay.”

Billovits wasn’t riding fast “because I’m not much of a speedster person,” and he always slows down because he gets off Market and takes the McCoppin Street cutoff for bicyclists. After the collision, he found himself conscious, but lying injured on the pavement, directly under the no right turn sign.

“I can’t imagine a situation where a citation would be more blatantly called for, you know what I mean? Somebody lying under the sign and a car there at an angle, obviously just made the turn, you know?”

But there was no citation issued. “Impairment is not suspected. No citation issued at this time,” a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, wrote in an email to Streetsblog. He described the collision itself in cop talk that seems forgiving of the driver, with no mention that the turn was prohibited.

A small white Chevy sedan driven by an adult female, resident of Germany, made a turn from eastbound Market to Octavia on ramp to US 101.

An adult male bicyclist traveling eastbound Market Street contacted the Chevy, ejecting the bicyclist.

The driver of the car remained on scene.  The bicyclist was transported by ambulance to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Impairment is not suspected.  No citation issued at this time.

Billovits described the driver as distraught and apologetic. Beyond that, Billovits, who was in shock, didn’t really understand what was happening around him as he was being treated and hauled away. He has no idea where his bicycle landed, but it was loaded in the ambulance.

“I really am not aware of what transpired there, besides me just getting carted away,” he said of the police investigation. “This hasn’t happened to me before like this, but it was a little confusing. I’m in an accident and they took a report with a piece of paper that says I can request a copy of the report in writing in 7 days.”

At one point, the SFMTA had proposed removing the bike lane, and merging auto and bike traffic. The ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/01/16/hundreds-rally-to-save-marketoctavia-bike-lane/##SFBC loudly protested, though,## and ultimately the plan was shot down. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/people/sfbike##sfbike##

Lax Enforcement

As this latest case illustrates, drivers routinely get away with causing collisions and injuring bicyclists and pedestrians at Market and Octavia without so much as a slap on the wrist.

On the engineering front, the SFMTA has tried a number of fixes, and the latest — a concrete median with signage and soft-hit posts — has certainly improved the situation, but not enough, said Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

“We call on the SF Police Department to step up enforcement at this known problem area, and we urge the city to add camera enforcement at Market-Octavia to better deter drivers from behaving illegally on San Francisco’s busiest bicycle and transit route,” she said.

Last September, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, AB 2729, that would have allowed the SFMTA to install an automated traffic enforcement system at Market and Octavia to photograph infractions and issue citations to drivers who make the illegal right turn. In his short veto message, Schwarzenegger said current law already allows the city do it.

Earlier this year, Ammiano sent a letter [pdf] to the state Attorney General’s Office requesting a legal opinion on the issue. Eight months later, Ammiano has still not gotten a response, said Quintin Mecke, the state legislator’s communications director. A phone call to the press office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the former San Francisco District Attorney, was not returned.

“It is frustrating that after many months, we are still waiting on an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office as to how best to do this,” said Shahum. “We hope this unfortunate incident will spur state and local leaders to act with more urgency to improve safety on San Francisco’s streets.”

From Billovits’ perspective, there shouldn’t be any turn movements at all at Market and Octavia because “there’s just too much going on.” It’s a case he made 11 years ago.

“I wanted to get rid of both the turning movements, the right hand off and the right hand on,” he said, before reflecting on yesterday’s collision that left him injured. “It’s just so ironic after all the stuff we’ve been through with that, to be lying there and lying under the (no right turn) sign, more or less.”

  • mikesonn

    Very good possibility that they did change it. And Nav Systems don’t always update as quickly so maybe that is an issue. However, this street design has been in place for long enough that Google should of been changed well before a couple hours ago and Nav Systems need to get their act together as well.

    Then again, there is no excuse if the GPS sends you the wrong way.

  • Xander

    Impairment is not suspected.  No citation issued at this time. What a farce, two people lost their lives due to this exact, same illegal manuver. you would think the very least the cops could do would be,oh,  I don’t know, their job!!! Write ’em a frickin ticket! Take down all their info so the injured party can sue they ass!

  • Enf

    Is Google Maps really still directing you onto the freeway that way?  I can’t get it to give me the wrong directions.  (If it still gets something wrong about the intersection, please use the “Report a Problem” link to get it corrected.)

  • NoeValleyJim

    Hey I got a letter back from the Chief, or at least his secretary. These letters really do make a difference. I cc’d my BoS rep, Scott Weiner. He knows who I am, since I have volunteered on his campaign.

  • Masonic will be the death…

    I know I am going to sound like a fatalist here, but after the ride home I just had I feel comfortable in saying no amount of engineering is going to fix this city’s car/bike/ped safety issues.

    After watching a car and bike have a drag race with each other as they blew through a stop sign at Central and Hayes at speeds that would have killed the pedestrian the duo barely avoided. I watched a suit and tie with head down, and headphones on walk right across Masonic (yeah, a five lane wide road) mid block through traffic, and then flip out at the driver who might have been speeding, but still managed to get his car stopped and avoid sending the J-walker flying. Those two examples are just the most agregious. There was the car who HAD to swerve over and cut off a train of bikes on 17th because one bike used a bit of the lane to pass another. There was the horn honking Mini flipping out on a girl crossing 17th at Dolores with the light because the Mini NEEDED to make a right turn on the red. There was the Jeep Grand Cherokee that NEEDED to run the red light at 16th and Sanchez, only to be stuck behind a grip of cars at Market.

    Now I know Fridays are the worst evening ride of the week, but this is just getting ridiculous. None of us show the others any respect. This lack of respect cannot be engineered. I am not just pointing the finger, with beer in hand I have been sitting here for a good while thinking of all the times I pushed it and gave another, either car, bike, or ped the slight because where I was going was more important than them at the moment.

    I also don’t think I am the only one to have ever done this. This is why it is important for the SFPD to actually get involved with the quality of life issue that is roadway enforcement. During all this I saw a cruiser literally parked at the corner of Central and Hayes with the driver yapping away on his cell, did he try to chase down the offending car and bike? Nope he just kept talking away. I had seen a cruiser parked at 17th and church, and another parked at Steiner and Haight. The familiar theme? All were just sitting there idling with both officers inside chatting it up. Our city streets are turning into a free for all, whether it be self important drivers, cyclists, or walkers, and no amount of intersection engineering can change that. 

    If the SFPD are out on the street in a cruiser, or on a bike, or motorcycle and not on their way to another call their priority should be traffic enforcement. It is obvious that we as a society, myself included, are no longer capable (if we ever were) of sharing our streets and treating our fellow road users with safety minded civility. Citations are a good start. I wonder how many of the incidences I witnessed would have taken place if our police had a better reputation of proactive law enforcement?

    I cannot help but believe people are opportunists, we try stuff we shouldn’t because we think we can get away with it. It would be nice for the SFPD to remind us ALL (autos, bikes, and peds) that we won’t always be able to get away with an unsafe and illegal maneuver, and do it honestly and fairly as apposed to focusing on one group while ignoring another because one happens to be in the focus from current events.

    End rant, and time for another beer.

  • mikesonn

    Wow. Really well put. The blame lands on us all. Rode with Murph up EMB this evening and you see it all – peds, bikes, drivers. Doesn’t matter. We can point the finger, blame the other “mode”, but in the end we all end up trying to screw the other over for that extra second of saved time. Not worth it.

    I almost rode in my first CM tonight, but I passed in light of all that has happened in the last month. I’ve been stopping at lights/stop signs, giving a thank you to drivers that obey the law, a nod to peds that give me the right of way. Really, we are all just trying to get from A to B alive.

    “time for another beer”, indeed. Prost.

  • Andychow

    I don’t think it is realistic to expect such crashes would go away merely by “enforcement” or signage. There should not be bike lane in that segment to give a false appearance that this intersection is safe for cyclists.

    I don’t think the tourist was intending to hit the cyclist. I don’t know what mistake/misjudgement she made, or what she didn’t see at that moment. I think good traffic engineering should take account of some level of mistake/misjudgement and avoid these. The current traffic flow takes little account and there’s too much reliance to signage. (Consider that many curves in most ghways you could drive slightly faster than speed limit and not flip over or go off the road for most cars)

    The tourist could get punished but regardless of it she most likely would never drive at that intersection or make a right turn again. You can’t pre-punish the next driver who will make a right turn at that intersection.

  • Charlesknottltd

    The geniuses who thought replacing the central freeway with the on/off ramp crossing surface streets from Market to Fell created this cluster fuck. Of course people are going to turn right from Market to get on the freeway because the only other way to get on it is to join the thousands of people on Oak waiting to turn right on Octavia and spend the better part of an hour in traffic.

  • Peter Tannen

    I
    sure hope you are OK, John. The false sense of security for cyclists
    and bicyclists at this intersection is why I strongly opposed the right
    turn restriction when I was the DPT Bicycle Program Manager. I think that the sign “Watch for prohibited right
    turns” sums up the current situation very well.

  • Masonic will be the death…

    In other words. 

    I hope you are OK, John, But really you being hit by a driver pulling an illegal maneuver is your own fault because surely you have a false sense of security.My fellow drivers and I cannot be expected to actually follows signs and the law, so this bike lane should be removed and help to speed up my commute, for as you know as a cyclist you really have no right to any part of the road or even an established bike lane if it inconveniences me.So in summary John, get better, but you really brought this all on yourself.

    Cheers,
    Peter Tannen

  • Andy Chow

    Re: Masonic will be the death

    The reason that the intersection is particularly dangerous is that the cyclists get hurt regardless of the driver’s intent. Some people make the right turn because they didn’t know, or that they know and think they can get away with it. More signs and citations won’t help change the fact that someone got hurt.

    One thing that I can’t understand is that why some in the cyclist community want to keep the bike lane given the dangerous record? I think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to share the lane (while still making right turns illegal). Because of the lane is going downhill, the cyclists can travel faster and perhaps keep the car traffic just a little bit slower. If someone decides to make an illegal right turn, at least the cyclists would be far less likely get hit.

    For me, it seems those who insisting on keeping the lane is doing so because they think any lane elimination as a concession to the evil automobile empire.

  • Odm2

    One thing that I can’t understand is that why some in any community want to keep the freeway given the dangerous record? I think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to share the streets (while still allowing people to get wherever they need to go safely). Because the freeway only saves a few minutes even (just at peak hours), the drivers can travel at a reasonable pace and perhaps keep bike and pedestrian traffic a whole lot safer.

    For me, it seems those who insisting on keeping the freeway is doing so because they think any freeway elimination as a concession to the evil safer streets empire.
    P.S. Without the bike lane, a whole lot less people would ride bikes on Market and illegal right turns would be a whole lot easier and therefore encouraged. Lose-lose.

  • Odm2

    No, the other way is to “USE GOUGH”, just like the sign says. Yes, touching the freeway down at Market was a mistake – it should’ve been much farther back.

  • Odm2

    I think it was Caltrans that insisted on this design, not the Planning Department. Did you see this article? http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/07/19/mccoppin-street-from-streetcar-hub-to-the-central-freeway/

  • Andy Chow

     The freeway and the bike lane alone themselves aren’t hazards, but that particular design of the intersection is. As for the merit of the freeway it is a separate discussion. I am not a fan of the current freeways in SF (on and off ramps are too close, too much inter-regional traffic through downtown). On the other hand, because our transit situation is worse (look at how awful Muni is), people ended up driving more than they should.

    I don’t know whether cutting 1/2 block of bike lane would discourage as many bike riders as you suggest. I think it is worth testing to see the impacts. Because of the existence of a lane, it is expected that the bikers would use that lane only and not trying to take a car lane (which they could do without the bike lane). You are asking from the bikers to put too much faith on signs and laws to keep drivers from making the right turn.

    Could drivers still make the illegal turn without the bike lane? But if those illegal moves are made to pose less risk for cyclists, then it is worth considering. It is like dirty needle exchange. It doesn’t make taking drugs legal, but reduces the risk of transmitting blood diseases.

  • Odm2

    Andy,

    The reality is we won’t ever see any significant amount of bicycle traffic with everyone 8-80 years old riding down Market without a protected bike lane.

  • Masonic will be the death…

    Andy,

    Your presumption that somehow without a bike lane everyone would be safer is completely baseless. Bike lanes have HAD to be installed all over the city in response to the well proven fact that auto drivers are unwilling to accommodate a cyclist whether they are travelling faster or not. Every bike lane in the city has at its root a story of cyclists being killed, hurt or continually harassed by unsafe and unaccommodating auto drivers. Have you ridden down any marginally busy streets in this city without bike lanes or sharrows? It is like having a giant target on ones back. Without the designations auto drivers feel they have the right to NOT accommodate a cyclist.

    The bike lane stays. A new sign where the yellow marker is needs to be installed, and an intersection camera to enforce the right turn ban. Cue “police state” nonsense.

    I guess because murders happen, and sometimes go unsolved, we should really quite making it a crime, right?

  • Andy Chow

    Bike lanes are in general OK except at that intersection. While bike lanes elsewhere work the way they’re intended, this one has plenty of injuries and fatalities.

    I think the incremental increase of risk by sharing lanes at that intersection outweighs the risk currently faced by cyclists of illegal right turns. Signs have proven to be insufficient. Cameras and citations only punishes after the fact and won’t help prevent right turns, especially by those who aren’t familiar with the streets and those with rental cars. (I’ve seen tourists driving the wrong way on a one way street, among many other things)

    Part of crime prevention is action that can be taken ourselves. For example, not to place valuables visible to the public (like leaving a laptop visible in the backseat of a car, etc). Does that make theft any less illegal, no? But it prevents theft from happening, rather than having to deal with it after the fact. Would you want to provide good locks and secure places to park your bike or would you count on the police to catch the thief and returns the bike to you after the fact?

  • Masonic will be the death…

    Right so with no bike lane, and presumably no curb divider to try and prevent cars from making the illegal right turn, cyclists are just then supposed to preventively move to the left side of cars in the half block leading up to the intersection as to make sure they aren’t inadvertently cut into by a car (again making an illegal maneuver) to then cut back across the same train of cars to be on the right side of autos to continue to use the rest of the bike lane? 

    So in in one block you suggest it is safer for bicycles to cross over a lane twice and go without any lane protection. Really?

    This is safer how?

    How many cars let you cross in front of them, and then cross back in this city.

    Your suggestion sounds absurd and with further thought of its practical application sounds really absurd. 

  • Andy Chow

    How would anyone know how effective it would be unless it gets a trial run. If a car were to try to make an illegal move, it would more likely to move towards the curb. The cyclists would be more likely to take the whole car lane (especially when the direction is downhill, where cyclists can move faster with less effort).

    I am not suggesting cyclists to switch to the left of the car lane, but take the whole car lane. There’s one more lane cars can use to the left if they want to get past all the bikes for just 1/2 a block.

  • Guest

    John Billovits is the latest bicyclist to be harmed by the intersection design he successfully lobbied for.  In his 2003 memo, Billovits argues that  NO RIGHT TURN signs and a raised median would render the illegal right turns that precipitated his collision “highly unlikely.”  Unfortunately, he was wrong.  If Billovits wants to find someone to blame for this unfortunate situation, he should look in the mirror.

  • peternatural

    A more productive place to look would be to one’s left when entering that intersection.

  • Anonymous

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus So you want to have a trial forcing bicyclists out of a bike lane into traffic, and you don’t think there have been trials for that?!

    And further, how about a “trial run” of cops and/or red light cameras actually enforcing the illegal right turn? How about painting the concrete green all through as well as before and after the intersection? How about a trial run of slowing traffic down in this section via speed bumps right before the intersection so that they are going very slow making it easier for bicyclists to avoid any car that does illegally turn right? How about continuing the white lane at the right side of the road that indicates the end of the lane right across the intersection (no dashing)?

    There are a lot of ways to reduce cars making illegal turns at this intersection, but yours is just about the only one that is inherently biased against cyclists.

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