Crash on the Hairball as Dangerous Conditions Persist

The "Hairball" bike path.  Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The "Hairball" bike path. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Streetsblog readers may recall that last summer tipster Dan Crosby told us about a hazardous situation on the Cesar Chavez bike bridge under the 101, in the middle of the not-too-affectionately named “hairball.” In a follow up story, Streetsblog reported that the bike bridges had been mostly cleared up, but also feared that it wouldn’t last.

It didn’t. The homeless encampments and debris returned.

And during the holidays it finally happened–Crosby crashed his bike, exactly where he was afraid it would happen. In his own words, from an email to Streetsblog:

So I wondered if I was being hyperbolic before when I said the encampments on the bike bridge were going to cause an accident. Well, they just did. I hadn’t biked that way in some time, since I just moved and have been off for the holidays anyway. But today I did, and it was as bad as it ever was. There were tents more than halfway across, and then just as I was going by (not too fast) somebody stepped right in front of me. I swerved and my handlebar caught a shopping cart and I went down. I, and my bike, are scraped up and hurting but not seriously injured. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hit anyone else, but I didn’t stick around because five people immediately descended on me. I’m pretty sure they were trying to help but I was quite scared.

Streetsblog caught up with Crosby shortly after the crash. His hands were still a bit bruised, but he’s recovering. That said, he stopped biking for several weeks. When he started biking again, he decided to check out the hairball bridge. “It’s by far the worst that I’ve ever seen it. There are many tents blocking almost the whole width of the bridge. Even walking I would have had to squeeze, and that tiny gap had people standing in it,” he wrote in a follow-up email to Streetsblog. “Separately from the collision possibility, it’s just terrifying. If any of those folks are ill-intentioned you’re basically defenseless.”

Crosby now just avoids the area altogether; it’s a sad reality that cyclists in San Francisco always have to take an educated guess on which route best minimizes the risk of a serious collision.

This time there seemed to be an equal number of tents on Caltrans property and SF property. Photo: Streetsblog

Streetsblog toured the hairball again this afternoon. At this point it seems as if the encampments are spread equally across Caltrans property (the dirt below the ramps) and city property (the bike ramps). There’s also what looks like a commercial freezer blocking half of the westbound bike bridge. One of the homeless volunteered that it’s used to make ice cream, before uttering something guttural and incomprehensible, punctuated by the phrase, “white boy.” Crosby said the above photos actually look much better than the last time he passed through. He added that the freezer is a new addition to the obstacle course.

Streetsblog got this from the city: “Under the freeway at the Cesar Chavez area has been refuge in stormy weather for at least 20 years. A staff member of mine just reported this condition to me today (she squeezed through the bike path as well),” said Sam Dodge, Deputy Director of the Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing for San Francisco. “I have notified the Homeless Outreach Team, MTA, Public Works, and CalTrans to help. It currently is not a safe place for bikes nor those seeking shelter on that path.”

In addition to the tents and garbage, there's what looks like a commercial freezer on the path. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
In addition to the tents and garbage, there’s what looks like a commercial freezer on the path. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

It’s a shame that sometimes even when the city builds separated bike infrastructure, it can become unusable. Given the danger of a collision–not to mention getting attacked by someone who is mentally unstable–it’s intimidating enough during the day. At night, it would be foolhardy to ride here. Streetsblog flagged down a passing SFPD car on the eastern end of the freeway maze. The officer said there’s a special detachment that regularly clears off the bike path. But, as discovered in the previous post, they just move to the Caltrans property below the bridge. Then Caltrans will come through and chase them back to the bike bridge. Although today it seemed as if the camps were evenly distributed across both properties.

Homelessness does, indeed, seem as insurmountable as it is tragic. It’s just difficult to understand why Caltrans and the city can’t work together to provide services and encourage the encampments to stay off the bridge. At some point this game of whack-a-mole has got to stop, hopefully before someone is seriously hurt or killed.

Do you ride the hairball? Have you seen any changes between the summer and now? Or have you adjusted your commute to avoid the area completely? Comment below.

  • Dexter Wong

    If bikers are avoiding this area, I’d imagine that pedestrians would too.

  • Chris W

    Item 7 on the SFCTA-CAC’s agenda ( this week includes $80K for the Hairball. It’s not much but it’s a start. Please come to Wednesday’s meeting or go to the SFCTA Plans and Programs meeting Feb 14 and speak out on behalf of improving the Hairball.

  • jd_x

    This is why I hate going to the 22nd Caltrain station. The City can put beautiful, safe protected bike lanes on Cesar Chavez, but it’s all trumped by the Hairball (and Pennsylvania from Cesar Chavez up to 22nd, which I have no idea why the city maintains two automobile lanes instead of removing one and creating a protected bike lane). Last time I rode westbound on the bicycle/pedestrian bridge a week or so ago, it was so packed with homeless tents and garbage that I almost had to dismount to get across parts. Does SFMTA really think this kind of crappy infrastructure is going to get people out of cars and walking or bicycling?

    The whole Hairball needs to be redone. They need to keep Cesar Chavez level and add protected bicycle lanes and sidewalks and get rid of these bicycle/pedestrian bridges which have always been nothing but homeless camps (not to mention forcing bicyclists to cross heavy traffic using a “beg” button which is ridiculously unresponsive).

  • Seth

    i’m not sure what you mean by “why Caltrans and the city can’t work together to provide services and encourage the encampments to stay off the bridge.” Do you want the city and Caltrans to offer all these people permanent housing? Ask the campers nicely to leave and not come back? Don’t forget – services are voluntary. I don’t mean to be rude but clearly homelessness is a complex situation and we are in a crisis in SF and it seems, as you said, insurmountable.
    I ride the hairball daily and have seen SFHOT officials and have seen DPW, PD, and Caltrans clear the areas – but it just squeezes the balloon as noted in the article. The weather affects where people set up also. I generally stick to the southern (non-elevated) path as it leads to the same access point and is a little less claustrophobic.

  • Guy Ross

    Isn’t coming by at odd times – throwing anything on the path into a garbage truck the most effective way to deal with this? Yes it sucks having the scavenged ice cream freezer taken from you but something needs to change here for all parties.

  • nolen777

    The bridge is bike only and clearly marked as such, though it is true that I haven’t seen the usual number of people walking on it anyway since it became a permanent encampment.

  • nolen777

    The most helpful DPW person I spoke to in one of my many 311 calls explained that any clearing-out has to happen in two phases: the police make the people move, and then DPW can come to clear the things out later. Often days later. Which obviously doesn’t work when the people are back within hours.

  • Guy Ross

    I understand the need to have both the police and the sanitation there coincidentally. Really, there is no other way to do it. Thanks!

  • TransBayTube

    I navigate the connection between the mission and Bayshore daily. It seems that some cyclists, including myself from time to time, will just brave the roads (southbound Potrero to Bayshore and northbound Bayshore to westbound Cesar Chavez or northbound Potrero). Some of the time that’s fine, but weather and or excessive traffic will cause me to take the paths under the hairball. Most of the time those two paths are at clear, or at least half clear and it looks like folks camping there are attempting to be courteous of those pathways.

    The city (or Caltrans), has seriously beefed up the fencing in many places around the Hairball to prevent the homeless from camping out under the bridges and ramps. The homeless want to stay dry (I also want them to stay dry), so they camp on the paths and then we get a situation where crashes happen. It’s sad all around.

  • Cameron Newland

    My girlfriend rode her bike through there and one of the homeless people’s pit bulls charged at her, barking and threatening to bite. Luckily, the owner was able to pull the dog back before anything terrible happened. My girlfriend is too frightened to ride her bike through the Hairball after this incident.

  • murphstahoe

    How long do you think SF would allow campers to set up shop in tents in the middle of Cesar Chavez, blocking motor vehicle traffic?

    These tents are placed in a traffic artery.

  • Seth

    as noted in this article, past articles, and something I can verify from personal experience – the campers are asked to move regularly. the problem is they have no good options to go to so those who decline services just end up getting shifted around. Of course an encampment in a higher visibility, higher dangerous location like the middle of CC would prompt more consistent action from SFPD – but those humans are still going to go *somewhere* so no solution is really present.

  • FuelForThought

    Good to see this article. I have used this bike path every day for the past 3 years. A few tents started on the bridge back in August 2016 and made for a dangerous situation for cyclists. With full darkness and rain, and many more tents and homeless walking around, it is challenging not to hit someone/something when crossing by bike.

    I have started riding Cesar Chavez UNDER the freeway instead of taking the bike bridge. This is not ideal for most cyclists as you are riding next to cars driving >40.

  • FuelForThought

    I have seen on multiple occasion DPW and SFPD clearing encampments jointly. On Folsom near 16th and on Division near Potrero. Does not mean that this is always the case but it can be done.

  • Felix T

    Hi, I’m someone who cycles, volunteers for my local Bay Area bike-advocacy org, and supports building and maintaining bike infrastructure. I am also an RN that works with homeless people here. As a member of your core audience, let me gently suggest that this post has some problems.

    Homelessness is a problem that, like poor bike infrastructure, can be attributed to people in power making policy decisions much more than to the individuals who are directly impacted. In the case of the community living in that zone, there have been people homeless there fore decades. Why? Because there is a massive housing crisis in the Bay Area attributable to structural factors, taxation policies, housing policies, systemic racism, building codes, etc ad-nauseum. Also, because CalTrans and the City and County of SF have forced people out of nearby encampments and into that zone. They literally have nowhere else to go.

    There’s a very rigorous sociological study of homelessness in that neighborhood ( that was conducted over a ten year period, that can elucidate the history well, including the fact that most of the homeless people in SF are actually local to the area: their parents lived and worked here, and they were ultimately un-housed by numerous factors including gentrification and de-industrialization. In a sense, when you want a homeless person to move out of that neighborhood, you are likely targeting a true SF local, and prioritizing more recent and more wealthy arrivals.

    So I’m not sure what you’re proposing in this post, but if you’re advocating just moving people out, I hope it’s because you also advocate robust funding for low income housing, mental health treatment programs, etc.

    It is important to also specifically interrogate the idea that innocent cyclists are at risk of assault from those mentally ill homeless people. There is no evidence for this fear: in fact, homeless people are routinely assaulted by non-homeless people – it’s easy to find anecdotes in the news – you will find little evidence for the converse situation. Likewise, people who are mentally ill are no more violent than the non-mentally ill. Homeless people are enormously vulnerable and die on average up to 10 years earlier than housed people, so contributing to demonization of homeless people by implying they are likely to assault commuters is frankly offensive.

    When you consider that homelessness is much more prevalent among people who have had childhood trauma, and among African American and Native American communities, I hope you’ll consider what it means to target homeless people as a “problem”.

    Homeless people are hit by cars at a very high rate (One recent example: ( You could make livable streets an issue that is in solidarity with our most vulnerable citizens, instead of creating an enemy in a powerless minority.
    Streetsblog: You can do better.

  • nolen777

    I’m the person injured in the crash.

    I have a great deal of sympathy with the homeless and I do contribute to organizations trying to help them. I absolutely agree that we should be giving the homeless better places to go.

    When you fall in an accident caused by others’ illegal behavior, and you look up from that accident to see those same others rushing over and standing above you, it’s scary, and you want to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone else. And if I’d been (legally!) riding a bit faster, I’d have hit and probably hurt someone else when he stepped in front of me. I don’t want that either.

    This post wasn’t about moving the homeless out of a neighborhood. It was about them camping in the middle of traffic. If you’re concerned about how often they’re hit by cars, surely you don’t think that is ok? Better to be hit by bikes, I guess, or to cause me to be hurt?

  • voltairesmistress

    To me the situation and solution seem pretty straightforward: have police remove campers two or three times per day until this transportion artery, the only safe passage for bicyclists and pedestrians, is understood as a vital pathway that cannot be occupied by anyone fo any reason. We don’t have to solve homelessness in the Bay Area or the nation to eliminate this one area where camping makes passage dangerous. There are many other illegal places to pitch tents, places that, however much they might irritate or disturb the sensibilities of passerby, do not put bicyclists and pedestrians in danger of collisions and injury. The Hairball does not get this treatment, because no motorists use it. It needs to be considered as a road that cannot be obstructed, for public safety reasons. One can be kind or cruel, understanding or unfeeling toward homeless persons, but attitudes are irrelevant here: it is cut and dried a safety issue.

  • HayBro

    It’s been an ongoing problem for a long time and it’s only getting worse. Last time I passed through, I was almost attacked by one of the camper’s pit bull, after zero provocation.

    This is a key passageway for people to travel and it needs to be kept clear and safe.

    I grew up here and have never wanted to move out of SF until recently. The number of drugged out, drunk, aggressive, and/or mentally ill people my family and I pass everyday on the streets while walking, biking, or taking Muni is out of control. My wife drives as much as she does because of this.

  • mx

    I agree this is a problem, but simply throwing away people’s belongings, especially people without a whole lot of belongings in the first place, is not the answer.

  • A A

    What would be an alternative route for bicyclists between the Mission and the Bayview? Thank you.

  • murphstahoe

    I lived in Noe Valley/Castro for 10+ years and rode to Caltrain daily.

    You can take 17th into Potrero Hill and ride around, or you can climb over Potrero Hill but that is an extremely steep gradient. I guess there is also going up 18th (?) to the pedestrian bridge over 101 into Potrero Hill but again this involves some very steep gradients. To the South you can take Cortland which also has a steep gradient, not as bad as Potrero Hill but still a grunter. There aren’t a lot of options, the best is 17th but when I lived on 29th it was pretty annoying to take that circuitous route

  • Fearful Pedestrian

    How about fixing the lights lights? Multiple street lights have been out there for months. I have called it into 311 several times with no result. Apparently SFPUC is responsible but responded that they cannot fix the lights because the conditions are not safe for their workers to enter the site.

    Its especially dangerous (traffic wise) on the South side (not the bridge with the tents on it). The crosswalk across the off-ramp from 101 to EB Cesar Chavez is completely dark. Cars have a hard time seeing you due to the curve even if the lights were on. One time I was nearly hit trying to cross, by a car traveling at high speed from the off ramp. Since the bike bridge is one-way, there was no other way to get where I was going.

  • Fearful Pedestrian

    San Jose to Alemany

  • Frank Kotter

    You are posting on a website tasked with providing transportation alternatives, not services and quality of life issues for the homeless – although Streetsblog often advocates on the homeless’s behalf as there is logical crossover. I feel your closing comment of them ‘doing better’ is misplaced: Someone setting up an obstruction on a dedicated, elevated and fenced bike-way is a problem for which there is no grey area.

    Secondly: You make it sound like there is no option for the homeless in the area. They are setting up a tent. This means the only option they need to be supplied with is 25 square feet of ground space. This exists all around this bike-way. I get that insecurity is a major issue for the homeless and that being on a protected narrow road which is fenced provides protection – that is the whole point, but for cyclists, not squatters.

    I guarantee you that the readers of this site agree with you on 95% of issues surrounding transportation AND the homeless. To drive one of the only available wedges into the argument might not be very fruitful.

  • Seth

    when police “remove” campers they don’t magically disappear. they go somewhere else (like, the other side of the hairball on potrero towards 26th, or over to Utah St, or along Rolph park, etc) then come back to a better location. these are HUMANS who exist. dedicating our already stretched thin police to come out multiple times a day en masse (it would require over a dozen officers to deal with the campers on both sides of the hairball and the elevated roadway) is unrealistic.

  • Boo

    I also have an outstanding 311 ticket with regards to lighting. Past 5 it’s pitch black down there and a bike light is not enough when there are people and all their stuff frequently blocking the path.

  • Boo

    Exactly. No one would tolerate someone setting up an encampment in the middle of a street. Why is this any different?

  • FuelForThought

    Well said. While I have no sympathy for the folks who feel that they should not have to see homeless people on their way to work, when camps become dangerous for bicycle traffic and make a public resource difficult to use, those camps need to be removed.

    Sorry for your collision, I hope you recover and make your story known to the power that be at City Hall.

  • FuelForThought

    There are plenty of tents on the streets in the mission. Folsom near 17th St., Mission and 15th.

  • voltairesmistress

    I think your comment illustrates why it is so hard in San Francisco to take effective, common sense actions regarding anything to do with problems resulting from homelessness. It is so easy to accuse people of inhumanity toward houseless individuals or say the police have other, higher priorities. But in this case, neither thing is true: yes,these campers are humans who can and will camp somewhere else; and yes, police action for an immediate safety issue is a priority. I find your argument in this case, groundless.

  • Corvus Corax

    I have nothing to add as you have all commented so well and with such caring and careful sensitivity. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I clicked on the link, feeling sure that this subject would attract the likes of _____, and _____, and even ______, with their hateful and horrid comments. They may yet descend like a hoard of biblical locusts, but so far this has been the most intelligent and to-the-point discussion I have seen on streetsblog. Thank you all.

  • nolen777

    Thanks! I wasn’t badly injured, though my hand hurt enough where I fell on it that I did go get x-rays. Nothing broken.

  • Seth

    you’re misconstruing my argument. there is already police action in the area – i see it regularly, several times a month. you feel SFPD should be there 2-3 times a day. Not only is that completely unrealistic (manpower, budget, crime response prioritization, workforce flexibility, etc), it won’t solve the problem. Encampments shift, move around, and return. SFPD would have be a constant presence, all the time in perpetuity to actually ensure no encampments return to the hairball – but likely the “residents” would have just set up shop just around the corner, and the problem hasn’t really been resolved.
    Considering the complexity of the homeless situation in SF, i find your statement that the solution is “straightforward” to be, in this case, groundless.

  • voltairesmistress

    And I find I have misconstrued nothing in your argument, but it bothers you that I and others disagree with you. You are full of excuses and broad arguments for why nothing can be done about a very particular, dangerous situation. Frankly, many citizens who are very willing to spend money and make better policy, and support shifts in police priorities , and want to do real work to help reduc homelessness are sick of this bullshit argument you make — nothing works, it is all so inhumane, etc. If the hairball is unfixable for bike users, then let’s tear it down. Anything to stop your endless droning on about how we cannot fix one thing until we have fixed everything and homelessness is brought to zero in our city and everywhere else. I despise your reasoning.

  • Felix T

    I’m truly sorry you crashed and agree that conditions are unsafe for biking. I would challenge you to consider that your fear of potential assault may not be supported by data or facts, and our fears in this arena are influenced by many irrational factors such as unconscious bias. I do believe it’s irresponsible of StreetsBlog, which seems to pride itself on evidence-based advocacy, to reinforce inaccurate and potentially harmful stereotypes about homeless people and people with mental illness.

    But most to the point, I am wondering what you would propose be done here? While there is clearly a problem, I’m not clear what StreetsBlog thinks the solution is. I hope they think the solution is a massive expansion in low income housing, mental health services, and substance treatment programs in San Francisco, which of course will require tax increases. But I wonder what they are suggesting with this post.

  • gastropedia

    Thank you for reporting on this in detail. I am a resident of San Bruno Ave in the Portola and a former daily bike rider, I have stopped in the last two years as it has become too dangerous to exit the neighborhood via bike since the encampments at Cesar Chavez grow and get more toxic. I rode there last a year ago, when I had a (minor) crash trying to pass a camp resident with his bottle cart. The cart fell on me, knocking me and my bike to the sidewalk with broken bottles falling around me. Just feet away were a group of men breaking down bikes for parts, accompanied by their unleashed pitbull. I got the hell out of there and never went back. I’m mom to a 2-year-old… I miss riding my bike but have too many responsibilities to visit that scene again! I spent 3 hours on the phone with CalTrans, the SF police department, and SF Homeless Outreach trying to express my concern, everyone basically said “Yeah the whole city has a problem.” Both CalTrans and SFPD acknowledged the jurisdiction issue at that location making it hard to patrol effectively and I can see this every day when I pass by in my car. One authority comes in and the tents move about 50 feet, then the other comes in and the tents move back. It makes me furious the city labels this a “stormy weather” issue when they know perfectly well what’s going on.

  • gastropedia

    The particular failure here is for SFPD, CalTrans, and city agencies to work together on the location. SFPD is only allowed to move people/things off city property. CalTrans is only allowed to move people/things off CalTrans property. And city agencies need to tailor programs to this neighborhood better so residents have better long-term options. They do not seem to be talking with one another so all solutions are partial.

  • gastropedia

    I’m sorry, please spend some serious time at this location —not just passing through— and it might be clearer to you. I’ve had multiple terrifying experiences in this location and I am not someone who fears crime generally. I work with a social service agency doing direct programming w residents of SRO hotels in the Tenderloin, jails, and shelter/temp residences through the city. I have NEVER felt as vulnerable as in that location the last few times I passed through in broad daylight… Not because people are homeless or because it’s dirty, but because it’s a trap. I fear for the poor folks living there as much as bike riders. Most of them are not breaking down stolen bikes, selling drugs, or attacking others. But a few are doing it totally unchecked down there.

  • nolen777

    Follow-up: Went by there today, only the second time since my accident. It’s completely impassable on bike, though most of the tents are on the east end of the bridge instead of the west. I guess that’s a small improvement, since at least you can see what you’re getting into and choose another route, but it’s unbelievable to me that they haven’t cleared this permanently.

    I’ve written to the three police captains whose districts come together right there, as well as the mayor.


Homeless on the Hairball Follow Up

On Tuesday, Streetsblog followed up on a report from Dan Crosby, a bike commuter who rides the hairball, about how the westbound bike bridge had become almost completely obstructed by the homeless. Streetsblog reached out to several agencies and the mayor about it. And a day later the encampment that was blocking the bike lane, […]
Advocates and city officials discussed the plight of the homeless on the Hairball last night in the Mission. Photo: SFBC

Bike Talk on Homeless and the Hairball

Melodie, a woman in her late 50s who lives in a camper along one of the streets leading into the Hairball, pleaded with city officials and advocates to just give homeless people some sanctuary and peace. “There’s no where else to go,” she said to a group of some 40 bike and homeless advocates who […]

Hairball Study Coughs Up Ideas, Memories

Click to enlarge. Bird’s-eye view of the hairball shows how much real estate it takes up and how it creates a daunting barrier between neighborhoods. Photo: “You can’t get there from here” is a joke phrase, but trying to travel through the Highway 101 freeway maze at Cesar Chavez/Potrero/Bayshore is no laughing matter. Four […]