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Posts from the Traffic Enforcement Category


To Tackle Anti-Bike Bias, SFPD Must Start With Knowledge of Traffic Laws

At a heated community meeting last month, a bike commuter asked SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford whether he could expect to continue safely treating stop signs as yield signs. Sanford had instituted a crackdown on that behavior, and some ticket recipients said they were told they had to put their foot down at stop signs. Sanford confirmed to the crowd that that requirement does not exist, and insisted that his officers didn’t enforce it.

Photo: mikaela_carolyn/Twitter

An officer from SFPD’s Traffic Company stops a bike commuter on Market Street. Photo: mikaela_carolyn/Twitter

Sanford then called over Traffic Company Sergeant Frank Harrell, who was in another conversation a few yards away, to consult as an expert on bicycle traffic laws.

Harrell walked over and told the crowd, “The law says that the bicyclist must come to a complete stop and drop one foot.”

In a roar, the group erupted, “No!”

“This is the problem,” one man said to Harrell. “You guys don’t have the rules right.”

Ignorance and misinterpretation of traffic laws among SFPD officers — even the supposed experts — is a sign of the anti-bike bias that pervades the department.

Bike advocates and attorneys say officers routinely fail to accurately cite the laws they enforce against bicyclists, and even fabricate justifications.

“It comes up all the time,” said Michael Stephenson, an attorney who estimates officers have wrongly cited a law in about a third of the bicycle crash cases he’s investigated at Bay Area Bicycle Law (more than 1,000 of them).

Miles Cooper, a bike injury attorney who was there when Harrell falsely cited the stop sign law, said it’s “a classic example of the huge institutional biases that have to be overcome in order for cyclists to be treated as equal on the roadway.”

SFPD Sergeant Frank Harrell speaking to the crowd at Park Station. SFBC/Flickr

SFPD Traffic Sergeant Frank Harrell speaking to the crowd at Park Station. SFBC/Flickr

Cooper was one of dozens who recounted experiences with anti-bike bias at the SFPD at a City Hall hearing two years ago. Supervisors called the hearing after the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was killed on her bike by a truck driver at Sixth and Folsom Streets, and was initially blamed by police who asserted that the onus is on bicyclists to pass to the left of right-turning vehicles.

The SFPD later found that the trucker was at fault for failing to yield when making a right turn, but only after video of the crash was found by a staffer at the SF Bicycle Coalition. Although the botched investigation sparked outrage and brought political attention to the issue of police bias, the trucker was never charged by the District Attorney’s office.

Leah Shahum, who was executive director of the SFBC at the time of the hearing, now heads the national Vision Zero Coalition. “It’s not surprising that Vision Zero is raising questions and debate about long-held practices around traffic safety,” said Shahum. “This is happening around the country.”

SF is seeing “a realignment of thinking of policies and on-the-ground practices in really significant ways,” she said. “It’s not unusual that there will be individuals within those departments who perhaps don’t fully understand the shift that is happening, and may resist and hold on to ideas from the past.”

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Mayor Lee Vows to Veto Bike Yield Law

Updated at 6:46 p.m. with image of Mayor’s veto letter at the bottom.

Mayor Ed Lee has vowed to veto the “Bike Yield Law” put forward by six supervisors. Assuming the mayor follows through, it will take a vote from eight of the 11 supervisors to override him.

Mayor Lee and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, seen here riding Bay Area Bike Share in 2013, have missed the point of the Bike Yield Law. Photo: Aaron Bialick

In a comment to the SF Chronicle, Lee showed that the point of the ordinance remains beyond him:

I’m not willing to trade away safety for convenience, and any new law that reaches my desk has to enhance public safety, not create potential conflicts that can harm our residents.

So the mayor’s spin is that the majority of supervisors want to “trade away safety for convenience.” How tone-deaf.

The Bike Yield Law, of course, is all about safer streets through the efficient allocation of law enforcement resources. By legitimizing the normal practice of bicyclists yielding at stop signs — even the SFPD captain who cracked down on rolling stops does it! — the ordinance would help urge police to focus enforcement on violations that actually hurt people.

Supervisor Scott Wiener explained it to the Chronicle:

When you have a cyclist that is approaching an intersection at a slow speed, cautiously and not violating anyone’s right of way, it doesn’t make sense to be ticketing them. That’s not creating any kind of danger. That’s not hurting anyone. That should not be the focus of law enforcement…

If the cyclist is blowing through the intersection and not entering slowly and cautiously, they absolutely should get a ticket. But when you look at what is causing injury and death on our streets, it’s not a cyclist entering an intersection at a few miles an hour.

So far, Lee’s legacy on safe streets and sustainable transportation is mainly one of obstruction, and this case is shaping up no differently. But if the experience with Prop B is any guide, Lee might come around to the Bike Yield Law after everyone else has already embraced it.

There’s growing recognition at City Hall that San Francisco will make streets safer by acknowledging the need to update a flawed law. As Wiener told KPIX, the Bike Yield Law is an example of how “San Francisco frequently lead[s] the way and lead the nation in terms of smart, progressive, forward-thinking policies.”

If Mayor Lee really cares about safer streets, he won’t stand in the way of an effort to bring traffic law into the 21st century.

Updated 6:46 p.m.: Supervisor John Avalos tweeted this photo of Mayor Lee’s letter explaining his opposition to the board:


The “Bike Yield Law”: It’s How Captain Sanford Rolls, Too

Even John Sanford is not immune to practicing the safe, common-sense ethic that most people on bikes use to negotiate stop signs. SFPD’s Park Station captain is the latest officer to be filmed within the Park District executing the completely normal practice of slowing and yielding, and not necessarily coming to a full stop, during a ride with bike advocates last month.

As SF Weekly reported, Morgan Fitzgibbons of the Wigg Party posted video today of Sanford’s rolling stop at a stop sign on John F. Kennedy Drive’s parking-protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park. It’s exactly the sort of safe behavior that John Avalos and five other supervisors want to legitimize with a “Bike Yield Law” ordinance, after bike commuters reportedly received tickets for similar behavior during a crackdown instituted by Sanford.

“I just wanted to show this was normal behavior, that even the poster child for the bike crackdown shows on a bicycle,” Fitzgibbons told SF Weekly. The assertions from Sanford and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr that it’s dangerous to allow people on bikes to safely roll through stop signs “are just so silly,” he said.

Chief Suhr told KQED this week, “Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop.’ They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say ‘slow down.’”

Fitzgibbons had refrained from posting the video until today because he worried it would seem like an act of undue shaming toward Sanford. But in an email conversation I had with him yesterday, he changed his mind after I put it like this: If even Sanford does rolling stops, who doesn’t?

“After thinking about it we realized he has nothing to be embarrassed about — treating a stop sign as a yield sign is a perfectly normal, safe, reasonable thing to do,” Fitzgibbons wrote in a post on Facebook that featured the video. “If he wants to be embarrassed by his own hypocrisy, that’s his problem.”

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KTVU Stays Classy With Fearmongering Segment on “Bike Yield Law”

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What KTVU’s sensationalistic bike coverage lacks in integrity, it compensates for in consistency. The Fox affiliate’s segment on the proposed “Bike Yield Law” yesterday kept the bar low in manufacturing controversy, featuring a bedside interview with a single mother recovering from injuries after being hit by a bicycle rider earlier that day.

KTVU’s segment on the “Bike Yield Law” featured a single mother who was injured by a bicyclist, but the crash had nothing to do with the proposed policy. Image: KTVU

KTVU reporter Amber Lee glossed over the fact that the bicyclist who hit 36-year-old Virginia Melchor “wasn’t going through a stop sign” when the crash occurred in Golden Gate Park. The segment introduces Melchor immediately after showing Supervisor John Avalos explain that under his ordinance, people on bikes who fail to yield “will still have to be held accountable.”

Melchor’s crash is as tragic and unacceptable as any. But it has nothing to do with the ordinance. That didn’t stop KTVU from exploiting it.

KTVU didn’t bother to consult any experts on traffic law and street safety, but did feature SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford and his binder full of complaints about bicyclists.

Sanford cited anecdotes, not traffic injury data, to justify his crackdown on innocuous bike violations at stop signs last month, which he called off after protest at a community meeting. Although Sanford’s views seem to be evolving, he told KTVU that “giving cyclists the opportunity to roll through stop signs can be very dangerous.”

But the point that continues to be missed by Sanford, KTVU, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, and Mayor Ed Lee is that failure to yield to pedestrians would remain illegal. The ordinance would simply codify the idea that SFPD should not direct its enforcement resources toward the vast majority of people on bikes who slow down and yield at stop signs. They are not the ones injuring people like Virginia Melchor.

Police data does show that drivers hit about three pedestrians a day, on average. And the number of people injured in traffic who need to be hospitalized for more than 24 hours is much higher than previously thought. Health Department researchers recently found that those cases occur every 17 hours, on average.

Those stories don’t make the cut at KTVU. Instead the news team is all about harassing bicyclists without helmets and hyping scandals like bike-share, 27-cent parking meter fees, and the re-purposing of handfuls of parking spaces. Improving public safety on SF streets doesn’t rate.

You can see why KTVU might be threatened by an ordinance like the Bike Yield Law. If San Francisco’s laws actually aligned with the safe, common-sense way that most people bike, there would be one less thing to sensationalize on the evening news.


SFPD Chief Suhr Misses the Point of the “Bike Yield Law”

SF Police Department Chief Greg Suhr doesn’t seem to grasp the point of the “Bike Yield Law” proposed by Supervisor John Avalos.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr. Screenshot from SF Bay Guardian/Youtube

“Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop,'” Suhr told KQED today. “They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say ‘slow down.'” Suhr added that anyone who violates the letter of the stop sign law “will be cited.”

If only it were so simple. Here’s the problem: California’s stop sign law is based on the unrealistic expectation that people ride 30-pound bikes exactly like they pilot 3,000-pound cars. Just about everybody who gets on a bike, including SFPD officers (see the video below), treats stop signs by slowing down and yielding to others with the right-of-way.

There is an ethic to biking safely at stop signs, and it’s more like the “golden rule,” as Avalos put it, than the letter of the current law. Idaho updated its stop sign law in 1982 to reflect that, and bicycle-related injuries there have dropped since. As bike commuters demonstrated on the Wiggle recently, strict compliance with the stop sign law by people on bikes would result in absurd traffic queues — and no one would be safer for it.

“Our traffic laws have not changed since the mid-20th century, but the way people move around our cities has,” SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick said at a press conference introducing the Avalos ordinance today. “What the Bike Yield Law does is move our city into a leadership position in the 21st century.”

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Majority of Supes Back the “Bike Yield Law” to Be Introduced Tomorrow

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The “Bike Yield Law” proposed by Supervisor John Avalos is poised to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors Avalos, Breed, Wiener, Kim, Mar, and Campos have all signed on as sponsors of the "Bike Yield Law." Photos: SF Board of Supervisors

Supervisors Avalos, Breed, Wiener, Kim, Mar, and Campos have all signed on as sponsors of the “Bike Yield Law.” Photos: SF Board of Supervisors

The ordinance urges the SFPD to let bicycle riders safely treat stop signs as yield signs. Avalos plans to introduce the ordinance tomorrow, and it has support from six supervisors — the majority needed to vote it into law. It’s unclear if it has support from SFPD officials.

The latest endorsements come from Supervisors David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar, joining early sponsors London Breed and Scott WienerThe six co-sponsors plan to hold a press conference at City Hall before tomorrow’s board meeting.

At the event, SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick will speak about “the need to provide SFPD the direction and clarity that they deserve in order to achieve Vision Zero and safer streets overall,” according to an SFBC press release.

While local legislation cannot supersede the state’s stop sign law, Avalos’s ordinance would set a “San Francisco Right-of-Way Policy” that would “make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.” In essence, it would legitimize the safe, practical way that people on bikes normally treat stop signs, which has been legal in Idaho for 32 years.

Avalos announced his plans to introduce the legislation last month after SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford called off his letter-of-the-law crackdown on bike commuters rolling stop signs. In an interview with Streetsblog, Sanford seemed hesitant to support the bill, saying that police already use discretion in prioritizing limited enforcement resources.

Support from the SFPD will be crucial for the non-binding ordinance to hold sway over police traffic enforcement priorities. The SFPD’s lagging compliance with its own “Focus on the Five” campaign against the most dangerous driving violations is evidence of how difficult it is to change police practices, even when it’s official department policy. Most SFPD stations have only begun to move toward the enforcement target set in January 2014.

The press conference announcing the “Bike Yield Law” ordinance will be held tomorrow on the steps of City Hall at 12:30 p.m.


Northern Station Leads Rise in SFPD “Focus on the Five” Citations

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Image: SFPD via SFGovTV

SFPD traffic citations issued for “Focus on the Five” have hit an all-time high of 32 percent, as the SF Examiner reported earlier this week.

The rate of tickets issued for the five most dangerous driving violations in this year’s second quarter was up 34 percent compared to the same quarter last year, according to stats presented by SFPD Traffic Company Commander Ann Mannix last week. The numbers show a dramatic improvement over last year’s period, when tickets to people walking and biking increased at a far faster rate.

While Richmond Station’s “Five” rate of 63 percent is still the only one to exceed the SFPD’s 50 percent mandate, several other stations are leading the way. The largest increase was seen at Northern Station, where “Five” tickets jumped 125 percent to a rate of 41 percent.

Northern Station Captain Greg McEachern doesn’t seem to share Park Station Captain John Sanford’s fixation on addressing complaints about innocuous bike violations. In a July interview with Hoodline, McEachern explained his take on the situation Page Street, a popular bike route which runs through both districts:

I’ve gotten feedback from the community about traffic concerns in the Page Street area, but not in particular about bicyclists coming through. What I always tell my officers when we do our enforcement is that we don’t target any specific entity of traffic—pedestrian, bicyclist or a vehicle. What we do is we respond to a location and we look for what violations are occurring.

We don’t focus on any one specific thing—what we’re trying to do is save lives. I think everyone would agree that there are violations of traffic laws by everyone; we’d be naive if we thought that it didn’t happen by all groups. We focus on what we feel we need to focus on to make sure that collisions go down, and that we reach the Vision Zero goal of reducing fatalities by 2020.

It’s worth noting that the officers who reportedly cited bike commuters passing to the left of the car queue on Page were part of SFPD’s Traffic Company, not Northern Station.

Three other stations have reached “Focus on the Five” rates above the average: Ingleside is at 38 percent (a 30 percent increase from the same quarter last year), Taraval is at 40 percent (a 94 percent increase), and Bayview is at 33 (a 10 percent decrease). The Traffic Company’s rate rose by 100 percent, to 31 percent.

Sanford’s Park Station increased “Five” tickets by 41 percent, to 28 percent, and reportedly issued no tickets to bicyclists during the quarter from April to June, which preceded his bike crackdown.

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SFBC, 3 Supervisors Say Law Should Let Cyclists Treat Stops as “Yield” Signs

The SF Bicycle Coalition announced its “unfettered support” today for a “Bike Yield Law” that would enable cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and cautiously roll through when there is no cross-traffic.

Until now, the SFBC has had no official position on the stop sign law, focusing instead on the message that police enforcement of bicycle riders who harmlessly roll through stop signs distracts from efforts to enforce violations that actually hurt people.

But when SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford attempted to crack down on bike commuters at stop signs earlier this month, the idea of changing the current law gained steam. After his first bike ride in many years, Sanford told Streetsblog that he can see how the “bike yield” practice can make sense, and that police already use “subjective” discretion in their enforcement. Last Thursday, he took a ride with a group of bike advocates to make amends.

Letting bicyclists treat stops as yields would entail changes to city ordinances and state law, which the SFBC refers to under the umbrella of the “Bike Yield Law.” The organization wrote in a statement:

The Bike Yield Law clarifies that people biking absolutely have to yield to people walking, but no one should waste time cracking down on people biking safely. The SFPD deserves this clear direction on how best to keep our streets safe, and that is the goal of the Bike Yield Law, which we support.

The SFBC plans to throw its support behind an ordinance proposed by Supervisor John Avalos, which Supervisors London Breed and Scott Wiener plan to co-sponsor, that would “make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.”

But for now, there’s no broader campaign to change the state stop sign law, which is more challenging. California Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder told SF Weekly last week that while the current law is “inappropriate,” the organization’s energy is focused on creating safer streets.

A similar law has been in effect since 1982 in Idaho, where it’s been credited with reducing injuries and clarifying expectations between drivers and bicyclists. Idaho’s law also allows bicycle riders to proceed through red lights when safe, and Paris adopted a similar law last month.

In the Bay Area, there was an effort in 2008 at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to endorse a “bike yield” law, on the tails of an (unsuccessful) effort in Oregon to change its law. But the MTC legislation stalled and was never approved. MTC staff wrote in a 2007 memo [PDF], “Allowing cyclists to roll through takes the ambiguity of the law away and allows law enforcement to focus on more serious violations.”


Signs of Lax Enforcement of Car Restrictions on Market Street

SFMTA parking control officers posted to instruct drivers not to turn on to Market at Eighth Streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SFMTA parking control officers posted to instruct drivers not to turn on to Market at Eighth Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Nearly two weeks in, the bans preventing private auto drivers from turning on to most of lower Market Street have, by all accounts, made the street safer and more efficient.

But at an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting this week, member Gwyneth Borden noted that officers posted on Market “don’t seem to be as vigilant as one might like,” particularly during the evening commute.

Enforcement is provided by SFPD officers posted at some intersections, in addition to SFMTA parking control officers (who can’t ticket moving violations) stationed to provide guidance.

While there are no stats available yet to evaluate Borden’s observation, I also noticed two separate instances at Market and Eighth Streets last week where SFMTA officers posted at the corner weren’t paying attention to oncoming car traffic. On two different days when I passed through the intersection, I stopped to get photos of the officers facing traffic to help illustrate the enforcement for a post. But both times, I watched the officers talk to each other for several minutes without looking for turn ban violators.

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SFPD’s Sanford Explains His Evolving Views on Bicycling and Traffic Priorities

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John Sanford rode a bicycle yesterday for the first time in an untold number of years. Then, he sat down for nearly two hours to have an insightful discussion with a couple of his staunchest critics. Streetsblog’s recorded interview with Sanford is posted at the bottom of this article.

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The new-ish captain of SFPD’s Park Station is taking strides to build relationships and learn from safe streets advocates after his short-lived crackdown on innocuous bike violations at stop signs last week, which led to dozens of protesters packing a community meeting Tuesday.

By the end of the hours-long meeting, Sanford announced an end to the bike crackdown (at least for now). After listening to compelling explanations as to why people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs, he also promised to refine his enforcement efforts to account for differences between bikes and cars. (Supervisor John Avalos has since proposed it as a policy.)

Sanford paused the bike crackdown after two days, and then reached out to me and the SF Bicycle Coalition for one-on-one meetings. At Tuesday’s meeting, he told the crowd that his intention was to “get the attention of the cyclists. I think we got the attention of the cyclists.”

I caught up with the captain yesterday after Katherine Roberts, a longtime advocate for safer streets in Cole Valley, invited me to tag along on a neighborhood walk that Sanford had arranged with her. Roberts planned to point out the daily dangers of using crosswalks on streets like Stanyan, where drivers routinely fail to yield to pedestrians.

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