Breaking the Cycle

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

As I find typical of funerary events, noon in front of the Hall of Justice two Fridays ago was a beautiful moment to be outside; the air was unusually warm for early December and the sky glowed a stunning shade of bird's-egg blue.

Around 200 people had gathered to commemorate the death of Chris Robertson, the cyclist hit by a truck during a South of Market bicycle funeral procession last month. Speakers blamed the tragedy on police indifference toward aggressive automobile drivers.

"Right now, it's basic impunity for motorists," said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder to cheers from the assembled cyclists -- and poker faces from the half-dozen cops guarding the event.

As cyclist after cyclist waxed indignant at the top of the steps, saying things like, "We want the human being to be placed above the car and kept above the car," and, "People should be able to ride a bicycle without being killed," I noticed more than anything the beautiful light, the warm early winter air, and what a nice day it would be for a bike ride.

My mind freewheeled across the Golden Gate Bridge, up along Marin County's Panoramic Highway, dropped oceanward to Stinson Beach, then glided north alongside Bolinas Bay. I recalled pedaling that route two months ago on a day as golden as this, enjoying the sensation of speed and wind and fragrant air, when a flatbed truck swerved by honking angrily -- an event so common to Bay Area bicycle rides that I wasn't at all distracted from enjoying the sensation of spinning fast, smooth pedal strokes while watching water birds flapping in Bolinas Bay.

Suddenly, a Marin County sheriff's deputy raced up behind me, paused long enough to ask if the driver had sounded his horn menacingly, then sped off into the distance. By the time I caught him, he had pulled the flatbed driver over, and appeared to be writing a ticket.

I'd suffered plenty of dangerous bullying from motorists during my 150,000 or so miles of bicycle riding, but never, ever had I seen one of California's finest rush to my side.

Most of you by now have probably heard about the death of Robertson, the cyclist crushed beneath a big rig Nov. 17 on Fourth Street, near the China Basin Channel.

Ron Salkin, a friend of Robertson who was present at the accident and spoke to a group of reporters at the Hall of Justice rally, said a truck driver became enraged upon encountering a group of cyclists blocking his path on the evening of Nov. 17, and threw pieces of wood at them, then drove his truck into Robertson and crushed him under his wheels.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan has assured S.F. Bicycle Coalition leaders that his office is investigating Robertson's death, and will, if appropriate, file charges. Still, the appearance of law enforcement inaction gives bicycle riders another reason to feel they don't receive equal protection on city streets.

"I think this whole thing about, "Sorry kid, life on the streets is tough' -- that's bullshit," is how my friend Ted Dively sums up the general sentiment. For Ted, and the thousands of us who ride bikes in the city, Robertson's death is the most profane of a daily hail of life-threatening insults bicyclists suffer on San Francisco streets: cars illegally park in bike lanes, car doors open into bicyclists' path, motorists routinely attempt to force bicyclists off the roadway by swerving in front of us. In the eyes of many cyclists, these motorists imagine themselves to have the tacit endorsement of the police.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition keeps a detailed list of this kind of incident, which cyclists weekly call in to a car/bicycle-incident hot line, which the coalition later transcribes.

"... cyclist flipped onto trunk of car and into street, while bicycle was crushed. Called police several times. Police said they were on the way, but no one came. Cyclist went to Hall of Justice to fill out a report, police told him not to," reads a typical entry.

"BMW hit man riding bike and fled the scene. Police wouldn't take a report because the cyclist was not injured and the bike not damaged," says another.

Even when cops do the right thing, cyclists complain that it's hard to get the District Attorney's Office to prosecute.

"The message they're sending to the driver is, this is something they can get away with," says Greg Ptucha, who a month ago was hit by a red-light-running driver who attempted to flee the scene. Motorcycle shop employee Khosrow "Hoss" Khosrowmanesh had been standing at Pine and Polk when he saw a woman hit Ptucha and drive on. Khosrowmanesh ran after the driver and stopped her, keeping her from leaving until police arrived.

No charges were filed, though; Ptucha says he was told by a DA's representative that the case wasn't serious enough.

"That just says that she can go and hit another person. That's so stupid. It just reinforces her," said Khosrowmanesh. "I feel very sad about that."

In the afternoon of this New Year's Day, Marin County District Attorney Paula Kamena read in a local newspaper that Kirk Ross, a 42-year-old from San Anselmo, had been killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle on Nicasio Valley Road. Four months earlier, Cecelia "Cecy" Krone, 42, was killed by a drunk driver while taking part in a weekly group ride to the Nicasio Reservoir.

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.

Many times when I tell somebody I get around San Francisco by bicycle they respond as if I'd just explained my facility with the trapeze, or revealed I'm from a culture that eats insects. "Oh, I could never do that," is how they usually phrase this thought. "It's just too crazy out there."

Which is why it's so important to hold Chief Lau to his word. Every time a person is discouraged from riding a bicycle, he is denied one of the greatest pleasures of human experience. There's an incomparable Zen-like peace that comes from the side-to-side, then back-in-the-saddle rhythm of climbing a hill along, say, Nicasio Valley Road, where Cecy Krone and Kirk Ross were killed. There's an intense feeling of well-being I get after a morning ride in the Marin hills, pulling my bike into our offices on Fourth Street (a block from where Robertson was killed). The sensation of speed, the feeling of sunlight, and the smell of the bay are routine parts of getting around the city for cyclists. Other people deserve this experience, too.

If Chief Lau really, really made the streets safe for cyclists, and just a tenth of the city abandoned their cars, miracles would occur. Pedestrians would be safer. City buses would move more freely, and therefore arrive on time. It would become cheaper and more politically viable to build desperately needed housing, because it would be possible to build apartments without parking spaces. If twice that many people took to bicycling, S.F. streets would cease to be the moving mass of hostility they are now, and perhaps become more like, say, Havana, where the oceanside Malecon is a rolling, bicycle-mounted chat-and-flirt salon.

San Francisco would become the great city it has the potential to be, yet isn't because there are too many cars.

So call Hallinan's office regularly, asking for updates on his handling of the Robertson case. Write letters to Chief Lau, insisting he follows through on his stated commitment to making the streets safer for cyclists. Ask your supervisor to advocate for more bike lanes in the city, and for a bike lane on the new Bay Bridge span.

Then get up, go outside, and take a bike ride.

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