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Commentary: Don’t Bike on Valencia

I don't know how else to put it: if you ride a bike, stay away from the street. Take BART, the bus, walk... do what you must, but don't ride a bike on Valencia Street because it's unsafe

5:16 PM PDT on June 28, 2023

A motorist using the bike lane on Valencia to overtake. Bus curbs will make it so cyclists will have no way to escape such situations. Image: from Tim Courtney’s bike camera

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Streetsblog readers are sending a steady stream of reports of terrifying close calls on Valencia Street, in addition to two confirmed crashes, thanks to SFMTA's botched roll out and deadly center-running design.

An injured cyclist on Valencia going to the hospital. It's clear they won't be the last. Photo: Dylan Yep

The latest comes from advocate Tim Courtney, who was riding his bike on the center-running lane when a motorist used it overtake traffic congestion. Imagine the results when drivers do the same thing from both directions. Or if the driver was drunk or a tad more aggressive. Imagine what happens when the bus curbs are installed and motorists will have no problem continuing to use the bike lane, but cyclists will be unable to do an escape maneuver.

Things are so egregious on Valencia that it's attracting international attention. The founder of the Copenhagenize blog and consultancy Mikael Colville-Andersen took time out from his charity work in Ukraine to blast SFMTA-Director Jeffrey Tumlin's center-running plan. This Tweet below was in response to a question about whether the crashes were a result of bad roll-out or a bad design.

He told Mission Local the design is "the worst infrastructure I have ever seen anywhere in the world."

I'd say it's a title competitor.

I was in Leipzig at the Velo-city conference when the installation began. More than one Dutch transportation expert shrugged and told me something to the effect of "if San Francisco isn't interested in international best practices, there are plenty of other cities that can benefit from our experience."

But for readers who think they know better than the Dutch and the Danish about how to design safe streets, I want to point out something I thought would be obvious about a center-running bike lane. It's illustrated by Courtney's video: putting bike lanes in the center of the street increases the likelihood of a car-versus-bike head-on collision. When those happen, cyclists don't often survive. That's why in those rare situations where a center-running bike lane is necessary, such as in New York on approaches to some of the city's bridges, they use giant concrete barriers.

A short section of center-running in Manhattan on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Instead, SFMTA is installing bus curbs that create reverse permeability: cars have no problem driving over them (as seen in the Tweet below) but cyclists will be trapped. This alone should have been enough to make the plan a non-starter.

But Tumlin pushed through his plan, convincing even many advocates that this was the only option because things had changed politically after the COVID pandemic. Recall that in 2020 the city was ready to move forward with a plan to extend the Dutch style, protected bike lane pilot between Market and 15th, only with protected intersections as well. The only thing that really changed politically, as best I can interpret from background conversations with city officials, is that Mayor London Breed, understandably overwhelmed with the many crises facing San Francisco, gave Tumlin carte blanche at SFMTA.

The man is, if nothing else, incredibly persuasive. Tumlin tried to convince me to be "open minded" about center running as long ago as 2019 (obviously before the COVID pandemic, parklets, and all the other excuses he gave for abandoning the Dutch-style plan). But I had no idea he fetishized the idea to such an extent that he'd push it through in a wholly inappropriate circumstance: on a merchant corridor such as Valencia.

Yes, they also use them in Barcelona--which has a similarly paltry bike mode-share to San Francisco--and some countries in South America. But conscientious planners emulate what works the best for mode share and safety, not what doesn't. In other words, when the Dutch and Danish tell you something is a bad idea, have the humility to listen.

SFMTA officials and even the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition have made it clear they're okay with trying it anyway and "iterating" with the design. I don't know how else to interpret that, except to mean that they are literally okay with experimenting with the lives of people who bike, including children.

That is not remotely okay.

At the SFMTA board meeting last April, Tumlin and SFMTA staff made it clear they won't replace the lanes even if people are seriously injured and killed, but rather will continue to "iterate" and adjust. That's just evil: good, off-the-shelf Dutch and Danish designs are intuitive and self-enforcing and don't require an adjustment period to prevent serious injuries. In fact, that's an underlying principle of Vision Zero.

There's no learning curve to save lives with proper infrastructure, as this photo from NYC illustrates. Photo: Julie Margolies via West Side Rag

Given all this, and as more blood is spilled on Valencia and the close calls mount, I implore readers: don't ride on it.

Take BART or the Muni 14 through the Mission. Or walk. Or patronize businesses elsewhere. But don't bike on Valencia, even if it means--and I can't believe I'm writing this--taking a car instead.

I don't want to write a big exposé about another victim of SFMTA's incompetence. I've written enough of those.

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