Commentary: The 7th Street “Quick Build” Is Not a Protected Bike Lane

City and advocates celebrate SF's quick-build strategy, but let's not miss the point of protected infrastructure

This is not a protected bike lane. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick
This is not a protected bike lane. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

At this year’s Golden Wheels, the head of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Brian Wiedenmeier, celebrated the speed at which protected bike lanes were added to 7th Street, from Townsend to 16th Street. Mayor Breed also praised the project, which piggybacked on regular repaving, in a post on Medium:

Prior to this week’s policy change, the SFMTA would have gone through months, or even years, of outreach and legislative process before deciding to install a protected bike lane, which means we would have lost this opportunity to take advantage of this construction to immediately make our streets safer.

I finally got a chance to ride on it last week. And, to be frank, I’ve never felt so unsafe on supposedly “protected” infrastructure. That’s because I was sandwiched between moving trucks and cars (see lead photo) with no true protection.

First, what about the intersections?

SFMTA officials told Streetsblog that 7th would include a quick-build protected intersection. And indeed, it does have protection, kind of, sort of, as seen in the image below, at Townsend. But even here, notice the safe-hit posts are recessed away from the lines that are supposed to lead motorists around the turn.

SFMTA's first stab at a low-cost protected intersection, 7th and Townsend
SFMTA’s first stab at a low-cost protected intersection, 7th and Townsend

That’s not how you do a protected intersection.

The point is to force motorists to take turns slowly and carefully, not ask them nicely with gently curving lines and straws. The turn should be as close as possible to 90 degrees, with a curb, bollards, a planter, or even just a naked chunk of concrete placed at the corner to make sure that happens. Forcing slower, tighter turns offers better sight lines and gives motorists, pedestrians and cyclists more time to react. That makes crashes far less likely and, when they do happen, less damaging.

A heavy concrete planter is one way to make a crossing safer without waiting for new pavement. Seen here in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Don’t ask motorists to make careful turns. Make them do it. Would you prefer to travel through an intersection protected from turning cars by a concrete planter like this one in Portland, Oregon, or behind the silly straws in the image above it?
The protected intersections around Lake Merritt use more robust-looking bollards on the edge of the turn, not withdrawn with a buffer that still invites motorists to make fast, careless turns
The protected intersections around Lake Merritt use more robust-looking bollards on the edge of the turn, not withdrawn behind a painted buffer that still invites motorists to make fast, careless turns

Meanwhile, Townsend is the only “protected” intersection in the whole fast-build project. All the rest use SFMTA’s usual–and incredibly intimidating–“mixing zones,” which require cyclists to cross paths with right-turning car and truck drivers. And then cyclists are sandwiched between vehicles as they approach the light, as in the lead image and below.

A mixing zone on 7th. Right turning motorists and cyclists are supposed to zipper across each other's paths. It's not safe.
A mixing zone on 7th. Cyclists are disgorged into a confusing mix of painted lines, where they’re supposed to merge past motorists turning right

Again, in typical SFMTA fashion, even the paint disappears in the intersection–which you could see more clearly in the photo below if not for the motorist who nearly swept through the front wheel of my bike.

IMG_20190821_135213
The intersection with Mission Bay Drive is especially bad

At least the crossing gate for the trains has a protective curb.

Bottom line, plastic is not protection.

Let’s get it straight: safe-hit posts, or “silly straws” as I like to call them sometimes, are not protection. They can be used to help demarcate where motorists are supposed to load or park near a parking-protected bike lane. But in that set-up, it’s the parked cars, not the straws, that are doing the actual protection. Other than that, while safe-hit posts are a better visual reference than just a line perhaps, they still depend on the attentiveness and care of motorists not to slam into cyclists. When I rode the 7th Street lane, the driver of a grey pickup truck came dangerously close, with two wheels in the bike lane, as he mowed over the line of straws. I got my camera out in time to catch him nicking the one in the photo below, before he returned fully to the vehicle lane.

I know it's "quick build" but is this really the best "protection" we can do?
I know it’s “quick build” but this is not a protected bike lane. Notice the grey pickup truck running right over the post.

If a pickup truck driver can motor over these posts and into the bike lane, without any fear of damage to his truck, how is this a protected bike lane?

Oakland has show us the way (not that Oakland does this frequently either). See the picture below of Clay Street in Oakland. These barriers can be put in as quickly as safe-hit posts. In fact, San Francisco does this kind of treatment–but for some reason only for temporary sidewalks.

The temporary bike lane on Clay Street between 12th and 11th. That's a physical barrier--cheap, easy to install
The temporary bike lane on Clay Street between 12th and 11th. That’s a physical barrier–cheap, easy to install. Filled with water or sand to absorb an impact from a motorist.

Indeed, the 7th Street bike lanes were updated quickly–SFMTA got that much right. But put something solid and substantial between motorists and cyclists before you call it a protected bike lane.

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