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.

  • What reason would he have to do so? Drivers routinely cross the center line to pass stopped vehicles.

  • Anonymous

    Any law professor will tell you to avoid citing a statute and then stating “It seems pretty clear…” There is no clarity whatsoever here; you are merely projecting your own bias onto reality.

  • Right. A boycott and a Critical Mass action on Polk Street will win you a lot of friends in Polk Gulch.

  • Polkstreetwalker

    She says the motorist stuck the bike. More like the bike struck the motorist. Slanted story. Not even sure why im reading this article.

    On another note. Driving a car is a privilege that can be taken away by the court system at any moment in time if the driver is not practicing safe driving practices. I believe the same laws should effect bicycle riders. I also believe since we have such a higher rate of bicycle riders were going to need more bike cops out there issuing citations.

  • Anonymous

    Ian and Ryan, Adding on to Aaron’s comment: the hit-and-run driver could easily have been passing a bicycle too. Why presume the bike crossed over the center line? That’s not a stretch.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know what happened since I wasn’t there. But if the oncoming car hit the cyclist, either the car or the cyclist crossed over the center line. The person who crossed over is at fault. Having a bike lane on that street would make no difference if there wasn’t enough room to maneuver around a vehicle blocking the cyclist’s progress.

    In this case I don’t understand the relationship between the accident and having a bike lane on Polk street.

    I’m a cyclist too, and have crossed center lines to get around stalled traffic and turning cars. I understand it happens as well as the risks involved. I almost always go around on the left hand side of right-turning cars, even if there is a bike lane, simply because I’m much more likely to get pinched on the right than on the left by an oncoming driver whom I can watch more clearly and who has a better chance of seeing me.

  • Anonymous

    I also believe since we have such a higher rate of bicycle riders were
    going to need more bike cops out there issuing citations.

    Last week you said we don’t need bike lanes because nobody will use them

  • Anonymous

    The person who crossed over is at fault.

    Additionally, the person who left the scene is at fault for hit and run, which carries a much stiffer penalty than improper lane usage. And it’s pretty clear which party committed that offense.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely, but they’re separate events. Even if the oncoming driver stays at the scene, the cyclist is still going away on a stretcher.

    The drift of the article seems to be that this accident wouldn’t have happened had there been a bicycle lane. That’s silly. It happened because the street is narrow and the bike and the oncoming car got too close to one another. Cyclist always loses in that situation, whether or not they are at fault.

  • Anonymous

    Polk Street is the only practicable north-south route for bicyclists in that entire part of the city, yet it is extremely dangerous–as shown by injury accidents like the hit-and-run covered here. Alas, Polk’s hateful merchant-motorists have battled successfully to prioritize motorists’ convenience over bicyclists’ safety. That’s the drift of this article.

  • Anonymous

    Or you could say that bicyclists have failed at prioritizing bicyclist’s convenience over customer access. It’s all a matter of perspective.

  • Anonymous

    Every parallel to Polk is either equally dangerous–or more so. Safety from harm like the hit-and-run accident in this report is not merely “convenience,” just as subsidized in-road car storage isn’t the same thing as “local access.”

  • Greg

    You are correct – the blowback against bike lanes on Polk was caused by many folks’ perception of who is on bikes in SF. How was that perception created? Were folks raised by parents who taught them from an early age that bikers are bad?

  • Greg

    More lights are useless – the lights there now are ignored by bikes 90% of the time and by peds much of the time. Cars ignore the lights also but much less often. I see on average 200 bikes per day run red lights .

  • Mario Tanev

    I keep hearing it repeated that a bike lane would not have prevented this and it’s absolutely false. A properly separated bike lane with its own light cycle would mean that a bicyclist could pass on the right without getting pinched and without a conflict with drivers. There would have been no need to pass on the left.

  • Ryan Brady

    Yeah, I wasn’t agreeing with Ian. “O_O” indicates surprise or disbelief.

  • Neil

    Mario, nobody is proposing separate lights for bike lanes and, if they existed they would no doubt be totally ignored anyway.

    What nobody is considering here is a third possibility – the bike merely waits for the vehicle to complete it’s right turn, and then proceeds safely. Impatience caused this accident. Weaving in and out of traffic to maintain a slightly higher average speed is inherently dangerous.

    If you know a vehicle is turning right, why would you ant to pass on it’s right? Passing generally should happen to the left, but only when it is safe to do so and does not involve crossing the center median. This cyclist took a risk but it’s not clear to me how a bike lane helps as vehicles have to use a bike lane to turn right.

  • Neil
    Separate lights for the southbound protected bike lane, south of California Street, are included in the SFMTA’s plan for Polk [PDF].

    For people obeying a bicycle traffic signal, see rush-hour traffic on the Panhandle at Masonic Avenue (seen here on Bike to Work Day):

  • Elizabeth

    I am suggesting separate lights for pedestrian and bike crossing from cars turning right. Places that are safer for bicycles and everyone else have this. Some of us do not want to pass on the left as it never seems safe, but I am not suggesting that others should not if they feel comfortable doing it. i do not and never will. It distresses me that lights would be totally ignored and discourages me from riding my bike in the city.

  • Elizabeth

    Cops on bicycles are a great idea. There are only two in san francisco total and they have suicide watch on the golden gate. The police would have better perspective on safety if they could experience bicycle conditions for themselves.

  • mikesonn

    There are more than two in SF and they are usually downtown or in the parks.

  • Ryan Brady

    Technically, they could have both been in lane and had an accident. Apparently the driver’s side mirror broke off? Wheels could have been on the right side for both driver and cyclist for the driver’s mirror to hit the cyclists left arm/handlebars.

  • It’s not “merchants” vs “cyclists” here. There are folks on Polk (merchants included) who want the street improvements, which are designed to make things safer for all road users.

  • The misperception was created by a well-documented but little-known process called observer bias. A person will stand there watching motorist offense after motorist offense without noticing them, but should a bicyclist come by and do something wrong, it is the collapse of civilization (qua George Bernard Shaw).

    The real icing on the cake is that the bicyclist doesn’t even need to be doing anything wrong. Entirely legal things such as taking the lane, or merely existing, can elicit exactly the same response.

  • Where did you get your “when a cyclist is passing a vehicle” factoid? Doorings and right-hooks are the far bigger problem, and why passing on the left is actually safer.

  • We did this in August 1997 but it was NOT called Critical Manners. Critical Manners was a thing that came lately and was entirely separate from Critical Mass.

  • I think it was pretty clear that the story focuses on one person in opposition. It ended by acknowledging that the opposition “claim[s] to represent merchants.”

  • Last time I went up Polk with Critical Mass, folks on the sidewalk smiled and waved while we rang our bells.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Every time you question a cycletrack God kills a kitten. So stop it!

    You don’t hate kittens do you? Or DO you?

  • Neil

    And yet, Jym, anyone reading this website might draw the same conclusion in a different way i.e. that cyclists discount their own law-breaking but focus unduly on that of vehicles.

    Bias confirmation exists, but it’s a problem for both sides of the debate. The prevailing assumption in these comments is that this cyclist was innocent and that the fault was with the driver or the infrastructure.

    But what if this cyclist simply pulled out recklessly and got hit? Why am I am not hearing that possibility here? Bias, ya think?

  • That’s because you’re all so adorable.

  • Greg

    Jym never said that observer bias doesn’t apply to both “sides” here. I am aware that we see and hear things in a way to confirm our opinions. Having this awareness I try hard to see both sides and keep an open mind. I have come to agree many points the Bike Coalition makes (parking and driving is underpriced for example). But I don’t see 80% of cars running stop signs and red lights. 80% of bikes do. Such view is not created due to observation bias. Stand on a street corner and count. Bikers are a problem in SF in the way they bike and their attitude. This has caused most non-bikers to not support biker causes.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not up on my emoticons.

  • gneiss

    Greg – this is exactly my point. What “attitude” do you ascribe to “bikers”? I’m a 46 year old Dad with a 6 year old. Do you think I have the same attitudes and values as everyone else that rides? Have you actually spoken to people who ride bicycles in a non-threatening abusive ‘get off the sidewalk’ kind of way?

    Also, think about any types of confrontations you might have had with other motorists over perceived bad behavior – how well did those encounters go? I’d say many people, regardless of their method of transport, react poorly when confronted with their bad behavior.

    Also, your observations on stop light running are not data. I’d direct your attention to an actual study that was done in Portland where they analyzed behavior by bicyclists at stoplights: As for running stop signs – visit any neighborhood in the city sometime. I’d say motorist compliance is about the same as bicycles. They come to a full and complete stop *only* when there is other cross traffic or pedestrians. They just ‘think’ they come to a stop, but the wheels are still rolling. The fact that we need stop signs at every block shows just how colossally stupid motorists are that they’d blithely drive through them without looking for anything around them. After all, do you think there were stop signs on any block in the city before the advent of cars?

  • Anonymous

    I would think that technically, “in the lane” encompasses the whole vehicle, and not just the tires. Anyone know? Can’t find it in 10 minutes of searching.

  • Anonymous

    With friends like those – who needs enemies!

  • Anonymous

    I see on average 200 bikes per day run red lights

    Wait – you just told us that nobody bikes, now there is a swarm of them.

  • Anonymous

    But I don’t see 80% of cars running stop signs and red lights. 80% of bikes do.

    Please publish the detailed methodology of your study if you are going to insist that public policy be based on the results.

  • Yes, any neighborhood that rejects your agenda must be punished.

  • sebra leaves

    According to the cyclists I talk to, most accidents between bicycles and vehicles occur at or in intersections when the car is turning right. The best suggestion I have heard for avoiding collisions, from a cyclist, is for vehicles to merge with cyclists in the far right lane a few hundred feet from the intersection. (the way it works with bus and right turn only lanes). Bikes and vehicles should line up one at a time, and proceed through the intersection after stopping to wait for pedestrians. They would both be more able to see the pedestrians if they take turns and don’t pass each other at the intersection. Pedestrians would also be able to see them.

  • mikesonn

    According to drivers I talk to, most prefer meters because they increase turnover and they are able to find parking quickly and easily.

  • David Curiel Serret

    Just yesterday I was run off by a driver who rushed to “get” the parking
    spot she suddenly spotted on Polk; she did not use signals, nor even looked around, and I had to fall on the ground to avoid a collision. Then she started pulling back while I was still on the floor. When I got up she looked at like if it had my fault.

  • David Curiel Serret

    help us making Polk, and San Francisco safer for everyone. We need your
    support because we are facing a strong irrational opposition. Please

  • Addy

    Is there a published list of the merchants who have opposed the bike lanes? I simply won’t patronize them. The safety of people’s lives and the desire for convenient parking simply don’t exist on the same scale. I am considering buying a wedding cake from a business on this street but I’m going to avoid any merchants that think their parking interests supercede having decent north-south bicycle infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    Adequate bike infrastructure is a critical safety issue for San Franciscans who travel by bicycle, and like any citizen, we deserve to have our safety prioritized over others’ mere convenience. We worked within the system and the system failed us–so now it’s time for protests like Critical Mass. We want change, and we’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer.

  • Anonymous

    My bad. All I remember is that it worked as a tactic–really worked. I say we try it again this Friday when we get to Polk Street.

  • Anonymous

    Do you also see 80% of fatal and injury accidents involving a bicycle? No you don’t. And the reason you don’t is because every report and analysis of fatal and injury accidents in every city, including ours, proves cars are almost always involved in accidents that injure pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.

    So while it is an indisputable fact that motorists are by far the most dangerous road users, there is no general lack of support for car infrastructure like you claim there is for bicyclists and bike infrastructure.

    Bike-hatred is rooted in something other than an actual threat of bodily harm, and more in a lack of sympathy and antagonism for those who motorists and non-cyclists perceive as “the other,” as “them.” And that kind of bias should not be setting civic priorities when it comes to safety for all road users.

  • Anonymous

    I, too, would like to know which shop is poisoning our public sphere with this level of antagonism to bicyclists and those who show public interest in the safety of bicyclists.

  • Anonymous

    Your anecdote is in direct opposition with the facts as we know them, and it remains so no matter how many times you post it.

    Statistically, the most common car/bike collision is when a motorist “doors” a cyclist.

  • Bob Shanteau

    Aaron Bialick wrote: California Vehicle Code section 21202 states that bicycle riders may “[overtake] and [pass] another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.”

    Actually, that language in CVC 21202 says that once that exception is met, bicyclists are no longer required to ride as far right as practicable, meaning that bicyclists may then use travel lanes like any other driver (“mixing it up with traffic”, as the caption says).

    For more detail on how this works, see the article that Dan Gutierrez and I recently posted on the I Am Traffic page: “The Marginalization of Bicyclists – How the car lane paradigm eroded our lane rights and what we can do to restore them”