Raised Bike Lanes: A Solution to Help Taxis and Cyclists Share the Streets

Valencia Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Amsterdam. Photo: ##http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2011/07/fietsen-van-amsterdam-bikes-of.html##Preservation Institute Blog##

I was recently rolling down the 14th Street bike lane when a man standing on the far side of the Guerrero Street intersection flagged down a taxi that had just passed by me. I saw where this was going: The taxi driver stopped next to the bike lane, and the man stepped quickly into it to open the door, without a glance to check for bicycle traffic.

Fortunately, I was prepared to slow my downhill descent and make a safe stop well before running into this man, but not without feeling some fight-or-flight adrenaline. The man and the driver looked at me speechlessly when I said, “Seriously? Have a safe day,” before continuing on.

Dangerous and frustrating situations like that are a routine part of using San Francisco’s bike lanes. In fact, since the vast majority are striped between parked cars and moving cars, or curbside without protection from traffic, taxis are actually legally allowed — and instructed — to stop in the bike lane if there’s no better place to pull over.

Marc Caswell, program manager for the SF Bicycle Coalition, teaches a class for the SF Municipal Transportation Agency where taxi driver applicants learn the law and best practices on how to negotiate with bicycles. If no parking spot is available, or it’s not practical to pull around the corner, Caswell tells students that loading in the bike lane is the safest and most legal option, compared to directing taxi passengers to step into the bike lane.

“If there is not a bus stop, there is not a fire hydrant, there is not a side street, and the driver does need to pull over and pick up or drop off, say, on a busy corridor even like Valencia Street, [loading in the bike lane] is legal and it is the safest thing to do,” said Caswell. He did note, however, that drivers legally “can’t stay there, they can’t double park there.”

A taxi driver unloads a passenger into rush hour bike traffic at Market and Gough Streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Take a trip down a street like Valencia during business hours, however, and the number of cars shutting down the bike lane makes it readily apparent that “stopping” privileges are widely abused by drivers, taxi or non-taxi. And it’s highly questionable whether or not taxis are adhering to the rules laid out on their SFMTA-issued bumper stickers, which feature the figure of a person with a cane leaving a taxi and read, “This vehicle authorized to enter bike lane when necessary.”

Taxis were issued bumper stickers in 2011 declaring that they're allowed to enter bike lanes "when necessary." Photo: ##http://uptownalmanac.com/2012/02/new-taxi-bumper-stickers-boasting-right-obstruct-bike-lanes-adds-insult-impending-injury-0##Uptown Almanac##

According to the SFMTA memo [PDFissued to taxi drivers along with those stickers in October 2011, loading in physically separated bike lanes like those on mid-Market Street should be an “absolutely last resort,” and taxis may only enter them to drop off “disabled or elderly customers who require direct access to the curb.” Pick-ups are only allowed when the dispatcher tells a driver that “the customer is disabled and must be picked up at a location that is next to a separated bike lane.”

While San Franciscans who are intrepid enough to brave the streets on a bike today may be able to handle routinely being forced into lanes with motor traffic, such conditions certainly won’t convince families, children, and older San Franciscans to take up biking for transportation.

There are design solutions, however, to safely accommodate taxi loading on busy streets with bike lanes: Raise the bike lanes at or near curb height alongside the sidewalk and include a strip of buffer zone between the bike lane and parked cars for loading and unloading. Such designs are already options in the developing plans for Second and Market Streets, and they would allow car passengers to open doors and access the curb without conflicting with bike traffic. Similar designs have been used on streets in cities like AmsterdamCopenhagen, and Berlin, which have significantly increased their bicycling rates in recent decades. Chicago is aiming to start implementing raised bike lanes within the next year.

Valencia Street. Photo: ##http://sf.mybikelane.com/post/index/7670##bbond, MyBikeLane##
Berlin. Photo: ##http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/06/27/this-is-what-bike-safety-looks-like/##Aaron Naparstek##

Raised, protected bike lanes sounded like a promising solution to a taxi driver who identified himself only as R.C., whom I interviewed for a separate Streetsblog research assignment in October 2010. R.C., who said he rides a bike and had been driving a taxi in SF for 11 years at the time, liked Market Street’s bike lanes, which have posts to separate them motor vehicles.

“I think bike lanes are a good idea, but because I drive a cab, when someone throws a flag up, you’re so hungry, you just turn quick to get that flag,” he said. “And if you don’t look before you do that, there’s some guy on a bike that you just cut off.”

When asked if he would like to see the Market bike lanes raised to curb height, R.C. said, “That would definitely be better than it is. But that’s gonna cost someone some money.”

Athan Rebelos, general manager of DeSoto Cab Company, is more skeptical about whether the design would play out well in San Francisco. Despite having “spent some time” in Copenhagen, he said he thinks Americans are generally just too disobedient of laws and street designs.

One proposal for half-raised bike lanes in the ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/2012/11/29/planners-refine-ped-upgrades-protected-bike-lane-designs-for-second-street/##developing plan for Second Street##. Image: SF Department of Public Works
Copenhagen. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/16nine/3493667260/##Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize##

“A lot of these things play out really great when you put them on paper, and draw them out,” said Rebelos. “I love the idea, but if it’s something that’s really going to work, I have severe doubts about that, because you’re going to have trucks unloading, you’re going to have emergency vehicles, and you’re still going to have the paratransit problem.” (It is worth noting that Copenhagen and Amsterdam certainly haven’t shooed all vehicles out of their bike lanes, but calmer streets seem to make the problem less dangerous when it happens.)

In the meantime, Caswell continues to teach 50 taxi applicants at each of his classes, which take place twice a month. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency expects to have 1,200 to 1,500 new taxi drivers on the streets this year.

Rebelos said it’s hard to determine how much they’re learning compared to those who haven’t taken it, since only new taxi drivers are taking the class. He pointed out that to reduce the danger of doorings, companies like DeSoto have installed stickers and mirrors on doors that remind passengers to look for bikes before exiting.

Check out our Streetfilm from last year where American transportation planners visited the Netherlands to look at bikeway designs:

  • These classes for taxi drivers are like fighting gravity. Separated bike paths (raised or not) are like self-watering flowers. “Mixing zones” are poison ivy that ejects rocks.

    Good analysis – and great comparison between infra. at top. What is being planned for 2nd Street – if turning is also separated – seems like the way to go. Unfortunately this means many designs already approved and being implemented are just so much old school weeds. I would join a lawsuit against the current plan for western Cesar Chavez.

    “I thought [the Dutch raised lanes] were wonderful,” he [Chicago Transport Commish Gabe Klein] said. “They make a lot of sense. The interesting thing is, I think when we were in Utrecht, when I showed [local transportation planners] pictures of what we’re doing here, they broke out laughing, not like they were making fun of us but almost in an affectionate way. And I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ And they said, ‘It’s just interesting to look at these pictures of your bike lanes because this is exactly what we were doing forty years ago.’” – http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/04/08/elevating-the-conversation-raised-bike-lanes-are-coming-to-chicago/

  • Yes! Let’s have these, please. I don’t know where the Market Street re-do is at right now, but I know raised cycle tracks have been looked at. I think they’d be great- attractive, useful and safe.

  • Sprague

    Although I agree that raised and separated bike lanes make for safer and more pleasant cycling for more riders than the status quo, a lower cost and quicker solution to improve cyclist safety would be parking protected bike lanes a la JFK Drive on wide streets (like Market east of Castro, Valencia, Folsom, etc.). With political will, the bike lane and the parking lane could swap places (with paint, signage, and soft-hit posts to designate the rearranged street space). This could be an interim solution to enhance safety and make more riders feel comfortable cycling in SF. As it now stands, even streets like Valencia (in part with their surprisingly high volume of large semi trucks and corporate shuttle buses) often don’t feel safe for regular bike commuters.

  • Looking at the infrastructure that we actually have in SF today (and after some reflection), I support the ‘extension’ of the bumper sticker that Marc Caswell is teaching the taxi drivers: Pull all the way over to pick up/drop off, even if it’s blocking the bike lane.

    It’s insane to stop and pick up/drop off across the bike lane. If a taxi pulls all the way in to the bike lane, such as car 1202 on Valencia above, they’re going to make it improbable for a bike to try to pass on the right (+) and also get out of the main traffic lane enough so a bike can safely pass them on the left (++) as is the natural instinct of any auto driver so they’re not honked at by vehicles behind them.

    The dangerous thing I’ve seen too often, especially on a 4 lane street, is when a taxi/double-parked-vehicle pulls over just a smidge: passing on the right is just dumb but some will try especially because there isn’t enough of the lane on the left of the vehicle to pass there without having to move into the left lane which means navigating all the other traffic that is also angrily moving to the left lane.

    I was miffed about the bumper stickers going on the taxis initially because I felt they were vaguely promoting it beyond the special case, but i now endorse this as the best way for us all to share the street if the stopping vehicle really pulls right enough.

  • Lets be honest. Raised bike lanes are not meant to share the street with Taxis, but to reserve more of that space to that mode of transportation. If the intention is to actually share then taxis should occupy the bike space some of the time (and vice versa) and that’s clearly not your agenda here. You want to treat bicycles and automobiles like different genders, therefore requiring segregated facilities like restrooms. Only a few occasions that there would be shared facilities.

  • This comment is an internet top 10

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Exactly right.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, great journalism. I think the concept of separated (and ideally raised) bicycle infrastructure is absolutely necessary for good urban design (at least on heavily-trafficked streets). Hence, I think this issue needs a lot more attention so it’s really great to see such a well-written article on the issue (I’ll be sure to reference it in the future).

    I’m utter perplexed as to why SF can’t do a better job rolling this out, especially in light of the “transit first” and “20% of trips by bicycle by 2020” official policies. It’s a real shame, and a real testament to the entrenched car-centric thinking that, even in light of climate change and all the other forms of environmental destruction ravaging the planet, that we can’t just move past car-centric thinking and just make our cities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. If we could just do so, the city would be more healthy, more resilient, more friendly, and ultimately more livable, so we would all be better off. What are we so afraid of?

  • Anonymous

    This made me miss Berlin so much! Great article, I’m looking forward to seeing some design improvements in SF. Places like SoMa, market, etc. have more than enough space to make this possible. Another added benefit is how distanced pedestrians are from cars, almost no exhaust and less noise. You barely notice that there are cars in Berlin on a lot of streets.

  • bourbon

    Taxis are the least of the problem. Pretty much everybody else who has a car in SF uses bike lanes to double park without any thought to cyclists’ safety or even existence. Really fucking annoying and disrespectful. And of course, there is never any enforcement of existing laws.

  • This is a total no-brainer.

  • bicicletera

    On a somewhat related note, my experience with De Soto cabs doesn’t make me think they’re looking after biclysts’ safety.

    http://bikingsf.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/222/

  • Grego

    Separation via a raised bike lane decreases safety and mobility for cyclists by restricting them to the upraised lane. They then have diminished ability to move over to the main lane to bypass obstacles (puddles, glass, misplaced pedestrians) or to safely pass significantly slower riders.

    Intersections become more hazardous as right-turning car drivers aren’t as aware of cyclists’ presence. Sightlines are also diminished by parked cars on one side and trees or sidewalk fixtures on the other. Raised/separated bike lanes are more difficult to clean properly, and so they won’t be, just as on JFK, San Jose, and any bike/ped overpass you can think of. They’re very expensive to implement relative to any other type of bike lane. And so forth.

    What’s the argument _for_ this type of infrastructure? “It’s safer, except at intersections”?

  • Grego

    Separation via a raised bike lane decreases safety and mobility for cyclists by restricting them to the upraised lane. They then have diminished ability to move over to the main lane to bypass obstacles (puddles, glass, misplaced pedestrians) or to safely pass significantly slower riders.

    Intersections become more hazardous as right-turning car drivers aren’t as aware of cyclists’ presence. Sightlines are also diminished by parked cars on one side and trees or sidewalk fixtures on the other. Raised/separated bike lanes are more difficult to clean properly, and so they won’t be, just as on JFK, San Jose, and any bike/ped overpass you can think of. They’re very expensive to implement relative to any other type of bike lane. And so forth.

    What’s the argument _for_ this type of infrastructure? “It’s safer, except at intersections”?

  • Clearly. Just look at how deadly the streets of Copenhagen have become: http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/ECE965600/copenhagen-road-deaths-close-to-0/

  • shark

    Growing up and going to school/University in Germany where bike lanes are raised I have to say that they are not the perfect solution either. In a raised bike lane right next to the sidewalk you have to constantly deal with pedestrians who mostly without realizing walk into your path. Also, and this is more dangerous for cyclists, when you go through an intersection, any car turning right is even less likely to see you. With the bike lane being part of the road-design the car passes the cyclist before turning and is therefore more likely to pay attention. If the cyclist is on a lane on the other side of the parking cars car drivers don’t see them and therefore don’t pay as much attention when they turn.

  • Anonymous

    The idea behind raised bike lanes is kinda why we have sidewalks for people, especially in dangerous areas. It’s still scary dealing with turners, but it sure beats competing with cars for space.

    Did you read the article? It gives a personal example of a type of behavior that would be avoided with separate and raised cycling infrastructure, namely a car/taxi driver can’t park in the bike lane and either cut you off or force you into oncoming traffic. That’s a big win for me. The separation makes cycling less stressful for a lot of people because we wouldn’t be breathing exhaust as directly and we wouldn’t have close calls of cars sliding by or large trucks/busses roaring past inches away. Most people who cycle regularly are used to that, maybe, but that’s not most people in the city. If we want cycling rates at the levels proclaimed by the city charter and the 20% by 2020 resolution then we need separate (possibly including grade separate) bike infrastructure. In some ways grade separated is cleaner because it doesn’t get all the grit and broken leaf debris kicked up from the cars in the same way that traditional bike lanes do. Though there are still risks involved in crossing and avoiding obstacles and that may require some innovative solutions (just like when you’re a pedestrian, especially in SF) I think for arterials and other dangerous areas, that separate bike lanes are useful and necessary for more people to enjoy cycling.

    I don’t understand the critique that there’s *less* space with separate infrastructure, because it never feels like there’s a lot of space when I’m getting cut off by a taxi driver or trying to get around a double parked car. I’d much rather ring my bell and slow down to avoid a pedestrian in the raised bike lane than slam on my breaks to avoid a car. Most bike lanes on the road give riders about 6 inches between moving traffic and the door zone, I’d much rather have even a modest 2-3 feet that’s grade separated. I could safely get around slower cyclists, avoid pedestrians, and even handle any *gasp* puddles that might crop up in a city where it rains 10 times a year.

  • Anonymous

    An easy fix would be to forbid parking close to intersections (I know, less parking, boo hoo).

    I’d also like to point out that, in the current layout, drivers don’t reliably notice the cyclist they pass– with the all too common result of a right-hook.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. Ignorant drivers are already causing right-hook collisions with cyclists at intersections. At least with a raised lane between intersections, cyclists wouldn’t *also* have to worry about ignorant motorists obstructing the bike lane and flinging car doors into passing cyclists.

  • Ryan Brady

    Yup. I *rarely* have problems with cabs. They usually use their turn signals before entering the bike lane. My only irritation is that they tend to speed on streets like Valencia (only to get stuck at the next light).

    The real problems are drivers who double park in the bike lane EVEN just to drop off passengers, drivers who don’t adequately signal and merge right when turning, and drivers who do not leave any space between the front of their car and those in front of them who are properly turning right.

  • • A few years later, the city has put in its first raised bike lane. It’s on Market, not Valencia. It was deployed as a pilot, with allusions made to Vision Zero, along two blocks. It’s not protected by parked cars, or a curb, or a rain garden; instead it’s got a gentle bevel that anyone can drive onto.

    It was, of course, instantly put to use by cabs, gypsy cabs, and delivery trucks.

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