Breaking the Cycle

Marin County has a program to protect bicyclists. In S.F., we keep killing them.

Bicyclists were outraged; Kamena was simply depressed.

"I turned to my husband and said, "Another cyclist has been killed.' And I told him, "Somebody should be able to do something about this.' He's a psychotherapist, you know, and he said, "What is the District Attorney's Office going to do?' I said, "You know, there are things we can do.'"

So, as her profession prescribes, she investigated. "I did the kind of poking around I do with child abuse and that sort of thing," says Kamena.

She asked Chief Assistant District Attorney Mike Gridley to get people in the bicycling community to talk with her. She enlisted the support of Tom Weisel, the S.F. venture capitalist who has long been a backer of bicycle racing. She held meetings with the Highway Patrol, County Sheriff, and local municipal Police Departments. The Marin County Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, declared safe roadways as a basic right.

The California Highway Patrol put "Share the Road" signs on all Marin County byways over which it has jurisdiction. Sheriff's deputies slapped "Share the Road" bumper stickers on their vehicles. Weisel swung a meeting with financial representatives for bike racing champion Lance Armstrong and got permission to use the sports star's image on a "Share the Road" poster to be placed about the county. Kamena helped get funding for increased sheriff's patrols on the western side of the county, where a deputy ticketed the motorist who'd honked and swerved at me.

"Whether you are driving a car, you're a bicyclist, a pedestrian, riding a horse -- we have to realize the road is there for everyone," Kamena says.

The changes are a fitting homage to Ross and Krone, says Debbie Hubsmith, director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.

"It's tragic that it takes terrible events to create change," Hubsmith says. "But I think those deaths -- and Chris Robertson's -- will take respect on the roads to an entirely new level."

I realize San Francisco is a very different place from largely rural Marin County. It's a city of 800,000 with more and more increasingly angry motorists clogging the city every day. Worse, our public officials don't enjoy the kind of small-town collegiality that allowed Marin's "Share the Road" program to take such quick strides.

Here, the police bicker with the DA; the DA bickers with the mayor; and the Department of Parking and Traffic doesn't seem to get along with anybody.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan did say he's interviewing witnesses to the death of Chris Robertson. Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano spoke at the Hall of Justice bicycle rally two weeks ago, saying he'd work to make it easier for citizens to obtain information about investigations into traffic incidents. Mayor Willie Brown has shared sympathetic words with Snyder, the Bicycle Coalition director.

But more than anything, I wanted to talk with Police Chief Fred Lau. I wanted to tell him about the Marin County sheriff's deputy who stopped the harassing flatbed driver two months ago, then ask him if anything like that could ever happen here. I wanted to ask him if Chris Robertson might become a martyr for bicyclists' rights, the way Cecy Krone and Kirk Ross did in Marin County.

Ever since the summer of 1997, when police appeared to run amok at a Critical Mass ride in the city, police and bicyclists have found themselves at odds. Then, an army of police cars lurched into action as if responding to a hostage crisis, arresting office workers as they trundled their bikes down Market Street, confiscating bicycles and packing cyclists into paddy wagons. I wondered if Lau thought there might ever be a day when the police officer who bemusedly watched a motorist go berserk at me on Page Street a couple of months ago would feel compelled to slap the miscreant with a malicious mischief citation.

Astonishingly, Chief Lau claimed there would be.

He said that since Robertson's death he's asked the DA's Office for advice on instructing cyclists on how to perform citizen arrests of unruly motorists. He acknowledged that some officers may have been biased against cyclists when filing incident reports in the past. He said he's thinking about making training films for officers unfamiliar with cyclists' rights on the street.

"I'm going to have my folks look at programs in Marin County, the East Bay. We might look at programs in other countries also. China, for example -- there are millions of bicyclists out there. We've got to think outside of the box," Lau said. "We're all coming to understand that bicyclists are not the enemy. We have to have a clearer understanding that there are too many cars on the road, that San Francisco streets are getting too congested, that existing fuels are getting too expensive, and people are choosing to use alternative transportation.

"There's more and more bicyclists, there's more and more need to get the cars off the street, and the Police Department should cooperate in that."

If Lau were to follow through on these thoughts, that would be an amazing transformation indeed. It would be a dream, really -- one where a department that has created the impression of idly overseeing streetside bedlam suddenly awoke with the mission of making San Francisco a city safe for bicycling.

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