Outrage Over Bicycling Deaths is Not Enough

Kate Slattery and Heather Miller died Wednesday while riding their bikes in San Francisco. Photo: San Francisco Bike Coalition.
Kate Slattery and Heather Miller died Wednesday while riding their bikes in San Francisco. Photo: San Francisco Bike Coalition.

The deaths of Heather Miller and Kate Slattery, two more people killed riding on San Francisco’s dangerous streets, has left the entire safe-streets community rattled and heart broken. Cycling advocates took San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and SFMTA head Ed Reiskin to task for a tone-deaf press conference held Thursday about the carnage. The mayor said he was “outraged” at the deaths. Reiskin said to the Examiner that “the best bike infrastructure in the world would not have prevented these collisions.”

There weren’t enough facepalms to go around.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Lee said the city’s tireless work and the millions of dollars it has spent to make streets safer was undermined by the “incredibly irresponsible actions” of the drivers involved in the crashes.

Was Lee talking, perhaps, about the “millions” that went to build infrastructure (paint and plastic posts) such as this:

IMG_20160625_173102
San Francisco’s bicycle infrastructure is defeated by its own employees. Photo: Streetsblog.

By the way, that’s a city owned Prius blocking the bike lane on Market at 9th.

Exhausted by last week’s cycle of horrors, Saturday afternoon I met up with my brother and went for a walk down Market Street to try and relax and enjoy the Pride celebrations.

As readers can probably guess from the photo of the Prius, it didn’t work out that way.

I watched cyclists struggling to merge into traffic to get around the Prius and I thought about the deaths of Mark Heryer and Thu Phan, who were both killed on Market Street not long ago, not far from this spot.

It was just too egregious; and too typical. My brother and I walked across Market where there was a group of SFMTA enforcement officers and SFPD standing guard. I asked them if they knew whose car it was and they pointed to this guy:

An SFMTA car parked in the bike lane on Market. Photo: Streetsblog.
This city employee parked his car in the bike lane on Market. Photo: Streetsblog.

I asked the man in the photo above if he was experiencing an emergency. He said “no.” I asked if that was his car parked on the bike lane. He said “yes.” I explained that on Wednesday two cyclists were killed in San Francisco, and that he was creating a hazard, and that lots of people had fought for that bike lane, which he was making useless.

I asked him to move the Prius.

He said “no.”

There were three SFPD officers standing there; two men and a woman. I explained what was going on. I identified myself as a journalist and an advocate. I asked if they could get him to move the car. The female police officer said his car was “exempt” and he was allowed to park there. I said “I believe you are mistaken, unless there is an ongoing emergency, which there apparently is not.”

My brother then asked if they minded if he took their photos. The female officer said “It’s a free country. Do you mind if we turn our backs on you?”

The three officers literally turned their backs on us and walked away. My brother continued to snap photos of these cops as they cowered behind some barricades and a tent on Larkin.

Three cops, two visible here, cowered from me and my brother when we tried to photograph them after they refused to take action to clear the bike lane on Market Street. Photo: Todd Rudick.
Three cops, two visible here, hid and cowered when we tried to photograph them after they refused to take action to clear the bike lane on Market Street. Photo: Todd Rudick.

For the record, the cop is mistaken about the car being exempted. From Robert Prinz, Education Director for East Bay Bikes:

The state code has exceptions for blocking any type of bikeway for the following vehicles only:
  • Utility vehicle drivers, while using warning devices and only when performing utility work
  • Garbage truck drivers, when actively collecting garbage
  • Tow trucks, when actively towing a vehicle
  • Newspaper delivery vehicle drivers (yes only newspapers, not general mail)

Of course, there’s nothing unusual about the behavior my brother and I encountered. Streetsblog reader and SFBC member Adam Long even has a Youtube channel of bike lane violations. And who can forget SFPD Sergeant Ernst, who intentionally blocked a bike lane with his cruiser so he could victim blame 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac for her own death at her own vigil?

As to Reiskin’s comment that no infrastructure would have saved Miller and Slattery because the motorists in Wednesdays’ deaths were running red lights and breaking the law, Miller was killed on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park. As the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition pointed out in their release: “the western section of JFK Drive does not even have sharrows, let alone protected bike lanes which could have prevented yesterday’s tragedy there.”

Proper protected bike lanes, with a steel rail, concrete barrier or a curb with a buffer, or various other treatments, would have saved Miller. In the case of Slattery, who was killed by a motorist who ran a red light near Seventh and Howard, it’s less clear that infrastructure could have prevented it. But what if the road was narrower at the intersection? What if there was a protected intersection and a design to give Slattery a shorter distance to travel? What if there were raised intersections and other hard-infrastructure in place to force motorists to slow?

She might have had a chance.

For that matter, what about the 50 dead cyclists recently commemorated in the Ride of Silence? What about the pedestrians and motorists who keep dying every week? Experiences in Europe show us that these deaths result from bad policy and bad infrastructure.

As the Bike Coalition put it in their statement, “Today, the people of San Francisco need Mayor Ed Lee, the SFMTA, the SFPD and other City leaders to recognize their roles in permitting tragedies like these to continue happening on our streets. Enough is enough.”

Tim Doyle, who was nearly killed last month by a San Francisco policeman who jinked his car into the bike lane, is still recovering from his own injuries. “I am feeling physically much better,” he said of last week’s deaths. “But mentally these fucking bike deaths really rattle the mind. It’s like a sick lottery of who dies.”

Of course the primary responsibility for Wednesday’s deaths is with the motorists who were driving criminally. Yet responsibility also lies with the lawmakers, law enforcers, and other bureaucrats who refuse to do their jobs to keep us safe. But the behavior of bad officers and officials isn’t created from the bottom. It comes from the top. When officers see their own mayor parking his car illegally to get a burrito, or a cup of coffee, why should they behave any differently?

My brother and I gave up on the Pride celebrations. He went to his office to do some work. I went home. It’s hard to enjoy a city where even the recent deaths of two beautiful people aren’t enough to get its employees to show a little decency, even on a day of pride.

The SF Bicycle Coalition is hosting a letter-writing station to help people voice their concerns to Mayor Ed Lee in wake of fatal traffic collisions. It will be held tomorrow, Tues., June 28, 2016 from 7:30 am to 9:30 am, at 7th and Folsom, one block from the site of one of the fatalities last week.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Two San Francisco Cyclists Killed: What Now?

|
The deaths of Heather Miller and Kate Slattery highlighted the obvious: San Francisco is not on track to Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024. That was echoed by Supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener, as well as advocates from the public who spoke at Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the SF County […]

NYC’s Tom Maguire Expected to Lead at the SFMTA, if Mayor Lee Lets Him

|
Ever since we broke the news that New York City’s Tom Maguire would be hired as the new director of the SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets Division, we’ve heard only positive reactions. If nothing else, there’s a lot of hype building for this promising veteran of the livable streets renaissance seen under Janette Sadik-Khan‘s NYC Department of Transportation. […]