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).

Without a protected bike lane, conditions on Polk Street force cyclists to mix it up with traffic. Photo: 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.

  • WikkedWoman

    One week day morning I watched a 20 – 23 year old woman riding a bike on
    Polk Street. Her right hand was holding the right handle bar. She was
    reading her smart phone in her left hand, she was helmet-less and she blew
    through the red light on Polk and Sacramento.

    Gee I am choosing to use a vehicle that can go fast and offers zero personal protection even if all parties: car drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists abide by the laws all the time there’s a higher chance of a personal injury occurring what could I do to reduce my risk? If San Francisco bicyclists were really interested in improving their personal safety when riding bikes in this city they would all wear helmets any time they road their bikes even though its legally optional for folks over the age of 18. Why wouldn’t you wear a helmet? Motorcyclists seem to have no problem doing it.

    Until all bicyclists wear helmets all the time on their bikes in San Francisco its impossible to take your demands of let us have our bike lanes to improve our safety seriously. Wearing helmets seems like no brainer. I don’t have a clue why anyone riding any vehicle like a bike in a city like San Francisco wouldn’t wear a helmet.

  • Anonymous

    One Sunday morning I watched a motorist make an illegal left turn in front of oncoming traffic and take down a bicyclist–me. I required surgery for two broken bones and endured months of physical therapy. I haven’t worked since, because employers don’t like how long I have been out of work. The motorist fled the scene of his crimes.

    Until all motorists follow every law every time, we must not take any demand for car parking or infrastructure seriously. Not committing hit-and-run injury accidents seems like a no-brainer–I don’t have a clue why any motorist would choose to do so.

  • Anonymous

    41000 occupants of motor vehicles are killed in collisions annually, many of them via head trauma. Wearing a helmet seems like a no brainer – yet not only is it optional but the only drivers wearing helmets are NASCAR drivers.

  • Look, Greasybear—is it okay to call you “Greasy”?—City Hall is supposed to make the safety of cyclists—a small minority even here in Progressive Land—its priority even though it’s having serious problems just running our bus system? City Hall is supposed to make riding a bike in a major American city safe? In fact Polk Street is not a particularly dangerous street. None of its many intersections make the city’s most dangerous intersection list. Other people—the majority of people in SF—may actually have different interests and priorities than redesigning city streets to serve primarily the interests of cyclists.

  • Elizabeth

    I am very sorry that happened to you, and hope you will regain employment soon. Have you recovered physically since the accident?

  • Anonymous

    “cyclists—a small minority even here in Progressive Land”

    You must be happy. It used to be a significant minority, now cyclists are turning their bikes in and are a small minority. Huzzah!

  • Walk Eagle Rock

    Improving safety for people cycling tends to improve safety for all while increasing the accessibility of streets. Therefore I reject the argument that the proposed improvements benefit solely a “minority.” (By the way, living in a democracy, what’s wrong with implementing measures that benefit minorities?)

    You’re speaking as though people are choosing not to cycle based on a neutral streetscape but this is not the case. People are not bicycling because conditions are unsafe and unpleasant. Bicycling is the most accessible mode of travel only second to walking (people in wheelchairs can use and benefit from quality cycling infrastructure too, btw). If we are to build a city for the “majority” then we ought to invest in cycling since people of all ages, incomes, and abilities can cycle comfortably when quality infrastructure is there.

    Why encourage cycling? Frankly, we have no choice. This isn’t my opinion, it’s the truth. With a growing population, limited space, and declining environment, the best thing we can do is invest money into a mode of travel that is both efficient, accessible, and doesn’t harm the environment.

  • The cure to observer bias is data, by which i do not mean anecdote vs. anecdote. Fact is, the data is clear that motorists are the greater problem by orders of magnitude. I answered a question about perception with this reality in mind. Gainsaying it with an anecdotal scenario doesn’t really change the reality.

  • I don’t see 80% of bikes exceeding the speed limit. 99% of cars do. Oh, but that’s not worth bringing up because it’s just normal. So let’s get back to made-up numbers about STOP signs.

  • Anonymous

    According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 34,080 traffic fatalities, up 5.3 percent from 2011 to 2012. Don’t know where you got that 41K figure; out of your ass I suspect.

  • Dan

    They are easily identified by the Save Polk Street signs in their windows.

  • Anonymous

    Any idea who the merchant in the story was?

  • Henry

    Some offending businesses are not identified by SPSC signs, and some non-offending businesses are, unfortunately. Hopefully there’ll be more information at tomorrow’s meeting.

  • Anonymous

    There would be no need for the bicyclist to cross over the center line if the driver was turning right (unless the bicyclist was driving a 4′ wide cargo bike, or the driver making a right turn was doing so from the center lane. The question is whether or not the oncoming driver that hit the cyclist was also passing a turning vehicle, and if so, did he cross the center line? There has been at least 3 occasions for me where northbound drivers have crossed over the middle line at Polk & Pine when I was riding southbound.

  • Anonymous

    Saw one riding up Rhode Island on Potrero Hill a few weeks ago.

  • Anonymous

    Polk St is more than two car lengths wide on each side of the middle lane. There is no way the bicyclist would have needed to be anywhere near the middle, unless the right- turner was a shitty driver that didnt properly get all the way over to the right before preparing to turn, or, that the hit-and-run criminal was a reckless driver, in addition to a criminal

  • Anonymous

    Actually, I see 99% of cars blast through the stop sign on my street. Cyclists usually roll through it at 5mph, but cars average 20mph. When a kid gets hit while crossing the street, who do you think their parent would dread more: a toddler vs. 20mph SUV, or toddler vs. 5mph bike?

  • Anonymous

    Also, cars should be banned from turning left anywhere in the city, except at stop signs, dedicated turn lanes, and green arrow signals.

  • Anonymous

    it is either the fault of the right-turning driver, or the oncoming driver. It all depends on who was in the wrong place. Point is, each direction of trafic is about 2.5 car widths, or 5 car widths in total. If the right-turning car was in the right lane (as required by law), then there would have been at least 6 feet of lane remaining for the cyclist. Accordingly, the only other explanationis that the hit-and-runner drove over the midline.

  • Anonymous

    Fatalities have dropped in the last few years, but held steady around 41K for 25 years: 1982-2007.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year
    As a result, 41K has been the quoted number for quite some time.

  • Anonymous

    For cycling to be more accessible to a majority of residents, the city will need to fight crime, including robbery and theft.

  • Got it wrong again, Murph. The “significant minority” usage refers to misbehavior by what may be a minority of cyclists on city streets, while cycling overall represents only 3.4% of all daily trips in the city, which means it’s an activity of only a small minority.

  • Minority rights are supposed to be protected in a democracy, but a majority should rule on public policy issues like street design. Most trips inside SF are by automobile, and by Muni is second. Of course how we design our streets is a choice that we make. All these bike projects are based on the unsupported assumption that they will result in enough new cyclists to justify screwing up traffic for everyone else.

  • Anonymous

    Aaron, in the PDF you posted I couldn’t find any mention of lights or special signals for the bike lane.

    The panhandle light was installed because of the cycle / pedestrian crossing in a position where drivers are unaccustomed to encounter them — in the middle of a left-hand turn. Typically left hand turns are made from the leftmost lane. At the panhandle, there is an additional lane of cyclists and pedestrians to the left of the left-turning cars which never merges with the left-hand turn lane and continues straight. It was an unusual intersection and required a special signal because of it.

    Is the proposal is to add special signals like this for all right-hand turns on Polk street? Only those with existing signals?

  • Walk Eagle Rock

    But how does everyone not benefit from improved safety? These types of projects have demonstrated time and again to improve safety for everyone. Sure, it’s a bicycle centric proposal intended to increase the bicycle modal share (a worthy goal) as part of the approved SF Bike Plan while improving safety for everyone.

  • Yes, safety is a worthy goal, but City Hall has many other interests to consider. Otherwise it would put a traffic cop at every intersection on every street to enforce traffic laws. Most trips in the city are by car, truck, taxi, and bus, which represents a majority interest. And, as the Polk Street merchants pointed out, small businesses in the neighborhood also represent an important interest. And then there’s tourism, which is the city’s largest industry, and most tourists drive to and around the city in cars.

    Making it more difficult to drive and park in SF may please your special interest group, but it doesn’t necessarily further the interests of everyone else.

  • The PDF doesn’t mention signals explicitly, but it says “Separate turning vehicles from bike and pedestrian traffic at key locations.” SFMTA planners said it in a briefing, as well.

    The proposal, to my understanding, is to add these at each intersection along the southbound protected bike lane. If you look at the sample concept design, you see a right-turn pocket next to the bike lane, which would create an unacceptable risk of right-hooks if separate bike signals weren’t included.

    You can parse out these kinds of details with planners at the open house meeting tonight: http://sf.streetsblog.org/2013/07/15/sfmta-polk-street-project-open-house/

  • lego

    Thanks for expressing that you “don’t have a clue why”

    If you read the copious discussions of the pros and cons of urban bicycle helmet wearing, easily found with a google search, you’ll be better prepared to comment on this matter. Its a better practice to read up on things, consider it thoughtfully before commenting and revealing your ignorance at best and disseminating false beliefs at worst.

  • sebra leaves

    You must not talk to many drivers. No one believes that hype. Since the SFMTA has been running their congestion parking management schemes, traffic and parking have gotten worse. According to the congested parking theory we should be seeing less congestion, not more.

  • Anonymous

    Still waiting for you to acknowledge the facts which contradict your erroneous claim about the most common cause of car-bike accidents.

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