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Can't We All Just Roll Along? 

There is a way bike riders and car drivers can more safely coexist, and help the environment.

Wednesday, May 7 2008
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To envision the future he'd like to see, architect Robin Levitt shows a small downtown crowd of transportation geeks a selection of postwar photographs of Berlin and Copenhagen. During the 1950s, these cities rebuilt their streets, sidewalks, and buildings to accommodate automobiles, just as American cities such as San Francisco did. Predictably, automobiles soon replaced other modes of transportation.

"After the war, both these cities took on the American model of building roads and automobile infrastructure," Levitt said during a presentation last week at the nonprofit think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR). "As a result, bicycling declined in both of these cities, and they ignored the bicycling and pedestrian environment."

However, following the 1970s OPEC embargo, many European leaders redesigned their cities, inviting back the old ways of getting around by creating space for bicycling, public transit, and walking. As a result, Levitt said, about 15 percent of commuter trips in Berlin are made by bicycle; in Copenhagen, more than 33 percent are.

American cities never exited their 1950s automobile course; even in the West Coast bike capitals of San Francisco and Portland, barely more than 3 percent of commute trips are made by bicycle, while the percentage is far lower elsewhere. Americans rarely use public transit, so we consume three times the oil Europeans do. And during the next two decades, statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggest that gap will widen further, with U.S. petroleum use increasing by 28 percent, while European use grows only 11 percent. Environmentally conscious San Francisco is surprisingly moving with the U.S. mainstream; notwithstanding myriad eco-initiatives, city commuters are taking fewer of their trips by public transport, according to Snyder.

This is the continental energy gap economists refer to when they say Hillary Clinton and John McCain's proposed gas-tax holiday is pandering foolishness. The last thing America needs is politicians' encouragement to get in their cars.

Is it possible for Americans to get their heads around anything else? Unlike Europeans, most Americans — even in San Francisco — seem to see bicycling as dangerous and even irresponsible. This perception is enhanced whenever news reports quote police officers blaming bicyclists for collisions with vehicles in which they are injured or killed.

Last week, a San Francisco statistician examined the data behind this phenomenon and discovered a possible solution. Eight years ago, law enforcement in Marin County — where San Francisco cyclists take their afternoon and weekend rides — approached bike safety as a major public policy issue, and undertook a coordinated effort to inform police agencies of motorists' responsibility to share the road. Today, Marin is the only Bay Area county where police are more likely to identify drivers as the culprits in collisions involving bikes and cars. This suggests the possibility of a virtuous cycle where safety for bicyclists becomes a public priority, more people take to riding rather than driving, and accommodating cyclists becomes even more pressing. Americans might even take the same detour away from petroleum dependency that Europe took following the last oil crisis.

San Franciscans have stayed in their automobiles for a variety of reasons. Our public transit system is falling apart, and a long-proposed bike-lane network is stalled in an environmental review process.

But rarely talked about is the popular public perception that once someone straddles a bicycle, he becomes a rogue.

The urban youth fad for brakeless, fixed-gear bicycles, in which a single cog is attached to the rear wheel so the rider cannot coast, has enhanced the idea that bike riding is the pastime of irresponsible people. Bicycle messengers riding against traffic and commuters rolling through stop signs only contribute further to this idea. I believe police should cite lawbreaking cyclists and motorists with equal fervor; just such a policy was a central tenet of Marin's "Share the Road" campaign, and S.F. cyclists know not to blow stop signs once they're across the bridge.

But there's a significant difference in the ways cyclists inconvenience motorists by disobeying traffic laws, and the ways motorists routinely threaten cyclists' lives by doing the same. I've driven hundreds of thousands of miles, and never once felt personally endangered by the behavior of a cyclist. While I'm sure there are people out there who experience the roads differently, I think this is significant. Meanwhile, I've ridden my bike tens of thousands of miles, and find my life threatened by a law-breaking motorist nearly every day. When I ride in the center of a traffic lane to avoid smashing into a parked car's open door — as California law and San Francisco traffic policy prescribes — several times a week I'll be confronted by motorists attempting to run me off the road, play chicken, or otherwise take unseemly risks in hopes of being first to the next stop sign or, worse, "teaching" me not to get in their way. Many motorists seem to believe bike lanes equal car parking spaces; as a result, the bike lanes in this city are obstructed at a rate far greater than the rest of the street.

As a result, on nearly every block cyclists must merge left, provoking the rage of vigilante drivers. While this kind of behavior is as deadly as it is illegal, and while there are road signs all over San Francisco stating that cyclists may take a full traffic lane, many drivers don't seem to realize they're doing anything wrong when they try to force cyclists off the road. And most cyclists have stories about police officers who erroneously believe state law says cyclists should get out of motorists' way at all costs.

Bay Area statistics bear this out. Randall Smith, a recreational cyclist and owner of Peak Data Solutions, a Bay Area statistical analysis consulting firm, studied California Highway Patrol accident data from 1996 to 2007. After two Peninsula cyclists were killed earlier this year by a police officer who'd reportedly fallen asleep at the wheel, Smith read a Chronicle story that used the incident as a hook for a story suggesting that cyclists are usually at fault in road accidents: The story was headlined "Bicyclists blamed twice as often as drivers."

Smith dug a little further into the data and found that the Chronicle story included incidents where no driver was involved. He also found that cops were still about one and a half times as likely to blame cyclists as motorists for serious collisions.

Bob Mionske, a personal injury lawyer specializing in bike accidents nationwide, says this is consistent with his experience. "When someone mows down a cyclist, you don't get a story saying [drivers] need to obey the law," he says. "They say, 'There go those damned cyclists.'"

During the late 1990s, four such fatal crashes happened in Marin County in rapid succession. District Attorney Paula Kamena decided to take this on as a public safety problem. In 2000 she got area police departments, the sheriff's department, the Highway Patrol, bike coalitions, politicians, and community leaders to put together a bike safety program. "We just sat down and met every couple weeks," the now-retired Kamena says. "That's how it sort of just grew."

Cops and cyclists hung out at coffee shops to discuss safety. The CHP spent money to patrol especially dangerous highways. They all got together to make "Share the Road" posters and signs, which are now everywhere in Marin. And law enforcement got serious about citing motorists, and cyclists who broke traffic laws. Eight years after Kamena's epiphany, the results seem to show up in CHP data.

Smith's analysis of the CHP crash data seems to bear out Kamena's approach. Of the serious collisions in Marin County in which either a motorist or cyclist was blamed by an officer, cyclists were considered at fault 42 percent of the time. In the other eight Bay Area counties, bicyclists were considered to be at fault in 61 percent of serious collisions. In San Francisco, 53 percent of collisions were deemed to be cyclists' fault.

Nine months ago, the San Francisco Police Department made a training video to teach academy cadets and veterans about the rules of the road as they pertain to bikes. (A call to the academy was not returned by press time.) Observations of the city's bike-patrol cops, who often ride on sidewalks and against traffic without observing traffic regulations, suggest that not everyone got the memo. A viral video showing city cops ticketing cyclists while motorists in the background freely violated traffic laws added to the impression that police efforts to improve safety on the streets have been awkward at best.

But I'm encouraged by the effort. Educating police, motorists, and cyclists about traffic safety might be an important part of the route toward U.S. economic security, environmental sustainability, and a possible end to oil wars.

"What I think is interesting is the threshold after which it becomes common knowledge that bicycling is safe, responsible, and comfortable transportation," says SPUR's transportation policy director, Dave Snyder. "There will be a point when enough people ride bikes that the idea that we're a bunch of freaks, and that we're better off without bicycles because it's dangerous, will be forgotten."

About The Author

Matt Smith

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