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Bicycle Safety

Cyclist Injured on Polk Street Block Where Merchants Fought Protected Lane

On Friday at about 5 p.m., I came across a crash scene on Polk Street at Pine. A bicycle rider had been struck by a driver and thrown into another car, and he was being hauled away in a stretcher. As it happened, I was pedaling up Polk to meet with Lisa Ratner, a videographer, to get some shots of the dangerous traffic conditions on the street (stay tuned for that video later this week).

A screenshot from footage taken on Polk Street by Lisa Ratner.

I reached Lisa two blocks up at Sacramento Street, told her about the crash, and we headed to the scene, where the ambulance was ready to drive away with the victim. After the emergency vehicles left, one police officer remained, as well as one of the drivers who was involved in the crash (not the driver who struck the cyclist, however), and a shop worker from the adjacent corner store who said he saw it happen.

We began asking the two witnesses about what happened, while Lisa began filming shots of the intersection. At one point during the interview, the man who works at the corner shop told us that we could not film the street, attempted to block Lisa's camera, and told her to delete the footage she had taken. We told him several times that filming a public street is perfectly legal, but he wouldn't budge. He did only let up after we asked the SFPD officer to assure him that were allowed to film.

From the moment we began asking questions, and even before Lisa began filming, the shop worker seemed to be riled up about the crash, repeatedly insisting that the bicycle rider was at fault. Lisa didn't attempt to film him -- she later told me that she did not want to aggravate him any further because she felt unsafe. (The man told us that he believed we would misleadingly frame the driver as being at fault. I overheard him repeat this to a bystander behind us.)

I asked the SFPD today for official information on the crash, but department spokesperson Dennis Toomer said he didn't have any available. Here's what I pieced together based on accounts from the shop worker and the driver who was at the scene. Keep in mind that this crash happened on a block of Polk that is slated to get a southbound protected bike lane in the SFMTA's plan to improve safety on the corridor, though it will only start at California. North of California, plans include only a conventional bike lane southbound, and no bike lane northbound.

The driver said he was making a right turn from southbound Polk on to Pine (waiting for pedestrians to cross). The bicycle rider was passing to the left of his car when another driver traveling in the opposite direction on Polk hit him and knocked him into the car of the right-turning driver. The oncoming car's mirror was knocked off, and the driver fled the scene. The victim, a man who looked to be in his thirties, appeared conscious and was holding his head when I saw him on the stretcher.

Both the driver and shop worker at the scene said they believed the bicycle rider was acting illegally when he passed the right-turning driver, and that he should have stopped and waited behind the car. They said the victim should have stayed in the "bike lane," even though that stretch of the street had no bike lane, only sharrows. In either case, they were wrong. California Vehicle Code section 21202 states that bicycle riders may "[overtake] and [pass] another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction."

I repeatedly asked the shop worker whether the bicycle rider had crossed the center line into the oncoming traffic lane. The third time I asked, he stated that it didn't matter because the bicycle rider should not have tried to pass the car at all. If the bicyclist did not veer into the oncoming traffic lane, then the oncoming driver, who fled the scene, must have done so.

This is no isolated incident. Two people are injured walking and biking on Polk every month, on average. Here's the kicker: This stretch of Polk would have received bike lanes like ones installed south of Post and north of Union Streets in 2000, were it not for fierce opposition from merchants in that area, backed by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who later admitted he was wrong.

Even 13 years after the existing partial bike lanes were installed, however, it's clear that the anti-bike, cars-first mentality still dominates among those who claim to represent merchants on Polk.

The hostility Lisa and I experienced seems to exemplify that sentiment. The fact that a merchant would attempt to stop us from asking general questions and filming normal street activity speaks volumes. It's fully consistent with the aggressive tactics that opponents of street safety improvements have used to fight a redesign of Polk Street that would prevent these kinds of injuries, all to preserve a sliver of parking.

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