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Commentary: Latest Crash on Valencia Stems from SFMTA’s Core Failings

Friday's crash is part of a fractal pattern of failure on safety

The aftermath of Friday’s crash, courtesy of FriscoLive415. Note the SFPD station on the right

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.

A driver made a sudden U-turn across the center-running bike lane on Valencia Street at Sycamore, striking a cyclist and sending him to the hospital last Friday. Here is video of the aftermath from Friscolive415 on twitter:

Friday's disturbing incident was just the latest on a street that's seen more crashes than ever. As regular readers are well aware, I pleaded with SFMTA not to install a center-running bike lane on Valencia. I still find it inexcusable that the city reran a failed experiment and hurt people unnecessarily. But it helps illuminate everything that's wrong with SFMTA's culture.

Let's give SFMTA staff the benefit of the doubt, and say this wasn't always primarily about preserving merchant parking and that they legitimately thought the center-running bike lane would be a profound safety improvement. Anybody who knows anything about center-running bike lanes knows that a major danger they present is from drivers making sudden turns across the lanes, as this photo montage from Washington D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue shows:

A montage of D.C.'s center running lane with drivers continually turning across it. While some of this has improved with the addition of small barriers, the intersection danger remains to the point that D.C. is now planning to rip the lane out. Photos: WABA

Obviously, SFMTA officials knew about this problem. Jamie Parks, at the time Livable Streets Director at SFMTA, worked on a study of the Pennsylvania Avenue lane picture above. And that's why SFMTA decided to install plastic bus curbs to deter such driver behavior. I thought the curbs were grossly inadequate, but they do at least illustrate that SFMTA engineers and officials already understood one major problem they would face.

So why is there a gap in the bus curb in front of the police station parking lot at Valencia and Sycamore, where the crash happened? Everyone who rides Valencia frequently has seen cops and other motorists turn across this opening. It was a matter of time before someone was hit here.

Another random driver cutting across the break in the bus curbs by the police station. Image: FriscoLive415

There wasn't a break when the Valencia lane was first installed around this time last year. Below is the design for the bike lane and clearly there was never intended to be an opening for the driveway of the police station:

The SFMTA designs from March, 2023.

SFMTA installed the bus curbs in June without the gap—and removed some of the newly installed sections shortly afterwards to make the opening for the police parking lot. “This gap in the bike lane has been a contentious aspect of the design that we’ve opposed because it would invite exactly this kind of illegal behavior,” the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's Christopher White told the S.F. Standard. “It has been maintained at the insistence of SFPD.” White also said a scooterist had been hit at the same location.

Note that SFMTA does months or years of public outreach when bike infrastructure is installed, but is happy to water down or remove it without telling anybody.

A low-rez video capture of the bus curbs in front of the police station in June of 2023. They weren't there for long. Image provided by Luke Bornheimer

The bus curbs were chosen specifically because they can be mounted by emergency vehicles, including, obviously, police cars. So why was it necessary to remove them in front of the police station parking lot, if, when leaving the station with sirens blaring, cops can just drive over them if they need to turn left? SFMTA refused to comment.

This follows a pattern with the agency. The streets are SFMTA's authority. And if SFMTA staffers believed, as apparently they did, that these curbs are needed to deter dangerous turns across the bike lane, then the only appropriate answer to a request to remove them for the convenience of police should be "no." Instead, SFMTA's engineers ignored the obvious safety problem and ripped out the bus curbs.

On Friday a cyclist was spitting up blood and went to the hospital as a direct result of that decision. We're seeing the same pattern in West Portal, where SFMTA officials are going along with another dangerous compromise at the behest of a group of drivers. They do this again, and again and again, and then try to blame the ongoing carnage on egregious drivers. But bad drivers aren't going away. It's SFMTA's job to design streets that minimize the damage they cause. It's SFMTA's job to veto dangerous roll-backs and exceptions.

What's wrong with the culture at SFMTA that engineers don't do their jobs?

SFMTA's most recent studies show vehicle and bicycle counts slightly down on Valencia since the installation of the center-running lane. Collision numbers, meanwhile, are higher. The agency can spin that all it wants, but it means people have literally been sent to the hospital, and arguably one to his grave, because of the center-running lane. It's good that curbside protected lanes are coming to replace this travesty, but it was all so unnecessarily tragic.

Friday's crash was just the latest result of this fractal pattern of failure on safety. I hope Jeffrey Tumlin and the rest of SFMTA leadership will draw the correct lessons and really contemplate the core cultural and personal failings that allowed it in the first place.

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