Commentary: Hey SFMTA, Stop Calling Everything a “Protected” Bike Lane

Calling bike lanes with safe-hit posts "protected" makes as much sense as gluing the posts to the front bumpers of cars as a way to protect cyclists.

Sorry, that's not protection. Photo: Streetsblog
Sorry, that's not protection. Photo: Streetsblog

On bike to work day in 2019, Mayor London Breed declared that the city would rededicate itself to building protected bike lanes. There have been legitimate improvements–such as on the Embarcadero. But it’s hard to really say how many miles are getting built, because SFMTA frequently refers to post-and-paint bike lanes as “protected.”

Take, for example, Evans Street and its supposedly “protected” bike lanes. Advocate and writer Kyle Grochmal, a friend of the safe-streets movement if ever there was one, tweeted the following, referring to Evans as having protected bike lanes, at least on parts of it:

The need for street sweeping aside, Grochmal knows that two-pound plastic posts, as seen in the above image in the tweet, don’t afford a lick of “protection” against an errant driver in a two-to-ten-ton automobile or truck. But we’ve all heard such sub-par installations called “protected” by SFMTA and other DOTs so many times that it’s easy to find oneself gaslighted into repeating the misuse of the phrase. I’m sure there are examples in Streetsblog itself.

Paint and plastic posts in San Jose. Note the cyclist has sense enough to stay well clear of the motor vehicle lane on this garbage, unsafe design. Photo: SJDOT
These paint and plastic posts in San Jose constitute another “protected” project that is not actually protected. Photo: SJDOT

Another recent example: this week it was reported in Mission Local that SFMTA has admitted they will not build a project on Valencia Street by the end of the year. Moreover, people still want the city to build the parking-protected bike lanes they designed and presented in 2020, not the now-twice-rejected center-running unprotected lane SFMTA officials pretended was a new proposal. But in this case too, as seen in the tweet below, SFMTA’s Jeffrey Tumlin called the “center running” design “protected,” even though–in addition to all the other absurdities of the design–all it had in the drawings were plastic posts.

There are several dictionary definitions of the word “protect,” but when one is talking about bike lanes presumably it means “to shield from injury or danger.” A safe hit post doesn’t do that; not any more than paint alone. Calling such lanes “protected” makes no sense.

Some confusion occurs because of quick-build, parking-protected bike lanes. Those use soft or safe-hit posts too. But the posts are not there to protect cyclists–they’re there to mark where drivers are supposed to park. The row of parked cars do the actual protection (a small portion of the supposedly “protected” bike lane on Evans is actually parking-protected, but not most).

7th Street. Another bullsh*t "protected" bike lane. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
7th Street. Another bullsh*t “protected” bike lane built right next to moving cars. Note the pickup driving right over one. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Safe hit posts also can be helpful as a last visual warning to a motorist that, hey, you’re about to run into the concrete barrier of a real protected bike lane. Note in the picture below from New York: behind the van’s rear tire, there are a couple of soft hit posts evidently not noticed by this distracted driver.

From Streetsblog NYC. A concrete barrier protected bike lane stopped this motorist from endangering cyclists on Flushing Avenue just west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. That's a fact. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov
From Streetsblog NYC. A concrete barrier protected bike lane stopped this motorist from endangering cyclists on Flushing Avenue just west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

One might argue that plastic posts can be used as a template–kind of a demonstration of how things should be arranged–as long as the plan is to quickly replace them with concrete and steel. But only properly protected bike lanes, using concrete and Dutch-tested designs, save lives, even on the most dangerous stroads, as NACTO recently reported about Fremont’s concrete-curb-protected lanes.

Last month San Francisco voters gave a mandate to build safe bike infrastructure, including real protected bike lanes and intersections. And if the continued delays on Valencia and the compromises on Evans come from the S.F. Fire Department, they should not be allowed to veto safe street designs.

So no more excuses. SFMTA needs to install real protected bike lanes and intersections on Valencia, Evans, Battery and Sansome. And they need to stop gaslighting about paint and plastic.

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