San Francisco is a deadly place for bikers. I should know. I've gotten into two bike accidents already—and I just moved here in August.
The city often lands in the top five of lists of the most bike-friendly places in the country due to its gorgeous bike paths, new bike-sharing initiative, and ever-growing biking population—but there is much room for progress in before the city will be truly bike friendly. As a Chicago transplant, the roads of San Francisco feel more dangerous than the ones back home. It's not just the hills—San Francisco's roads are less safe. I've been biking for years and have never had any major accidents before now. Last week I was hit by a motorcycle, and the week before that a double-parked car. Let's review.
Scene One: It’s 2 pm on a sunny Tuesday and I am biking down Illinois Street in the Dogpatch to meet my friend around 23rd. It’s a beautiful bike ride for a new resident. It's a transitional neighborhood that shows the rugged industrial side of the city. An example of this gritty-yet-agreeable personality is the old streetcar tracks that weave through the road. With larger gaps between the rails and the road than similar tracks downtown, such rails are a hazard to bikers. Cross one at the wrong angle and you’re bound to fly over your handlebars. Which I did. Right into a double-parked with flashers on that was blocking the bike lane. There was an open parking spot right next to it, but this driver favored the laziest possible option. Lucky for me, I wear a motorcycle helmet when I bike (not one of the over-the-face helmets, more like what the Hell’s Angels wear). In the case that I wasn’t wearing my biker gear, I might have been concussed. At a minimum.
Scene Two: Last Wednesday during evening rush hour, I'm biking down Battery and stopped at Pacific, near my office. I was waiting at the light while a guy on a motorcycle was on my left, crossing the intersection perpendicular to me. He sped up to get through the intersection just as his light was turning right, just as I started pedaling through my green. We both saw each other and tried to slow down and swerve away. It didn't work. We smashed into each other halfway through the intersection. We were going slowly, but it was still a collision. The motorcycle fell on me. The carbon frame of my bike was crushed under the weight of motorcycle, and my left foot was stuck somewhere in the jumble of metal.
While I sat in my apartment this weekend, unable to leave due to my severely contused left foot, I wondered whether these incidents were my fault, the fault of the motorists, or of the broader system. It may be the last option—but maybe my midwestern breeding has made me a bit too nice.
But the signs of the dysfunction are all over this town. The woman on the BART not making room on the bike rack during rush hour. The biker who rolls through a stop sign without slowing or looking. The man opening his car door without looking and hitting a biker—a move known as “dooring” that can be fatal to cyclist and pedestrian alike, and is punishable by a $1,000 fine in Chicago. (Indeed, nearly a quarter of all bike accidents in Chicago in 2011 were incidents of a motorist hitting a biker with their door.)
Looking at data collected from the California Highway Patrol about bike accidents in San Francisco, it looks like a near one-to-one ratio of bikers and motorists at fault in bike accidents. As Willie Brown said this past weekend, everyone is to blame—pedestrians aren't looking where they're going, motorists are driving erratically, and many bikers are making their own rules on the road. But, unlike Brown, I don't agree that bikers and drivers should be held to the same standard of behavior. A distinction should be drawn between a person on a metal frame pedaling through traffic, and a two ton vehicle hurtling down the road.
This is not to say there is no progress being made for bike safety and bike infrastructure in San Francisco. The Wigg Party is pushing for the official establishment of the Idaho Stop, which, if passed, will be a significant step to defining the particular role of the bicycle. The city has many initiatives to improve bike amenities as well. Unfortunately, the most recent progress has been a reaction to tragedy, and it appears that it will be years before genuine improvement to the biking infrastructure reaches fruition.
On the other hand, Chicago, a city which is only bikable five months out of the year, has made vast improvements of the past three years alone. From opening their BABS equivalent, Divvy, to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Bike 2015 Plan, which is already under way. A key component of this plan, beyond building a better infrastructure to accommodate the reality of increasingly bike-populated streets, is education. While San Francisco is indeed making steps to improve the surface on which a biker is traveling, little has been done improve the culture on the streets.
On an everyday level, people who commute can make an impact by simply adding another second to every bike/car/pedestrian interaction. That extra moment to think about what another person is doing and where they are going can be the difference between getting in an accident and reaching a destination. In a city where bike trips have already increased by 96% since 2006, this basic consideration of one's surroundings is mandatory.
I still bike every day, despite my accidents. I don't really have much choice. Biking turns an hour-long commute into a half-hour one. Biking introduces me to this city—in good and bad ways. I go slower now—mostly because I don't trust anyone on the road—but also because I'm second-guessing my own impulses. I'm making complete stops at every stop sign, practicing more pronounced signaling—hell, I even got a bell for my bike. In San Francisco, if I want to survive, it's what I have to do. But I can't do this alone.