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Some months ago, as I rode my bicycle home along Crissy Field in the Presidio, a man rode up beside me and introduced himself. Sean Breward was riding to the Sunset home he shares with his wife and their two sons, and we spent the rest of our ride chatting about families and favorite rides. I ran into him again June 21, and we had another enjoyable chat. He told me he often reaches out to fellow pedaling commuters.
"I started bike commuting when [Dianne] Feinstein was mayor," he says the next day by phone. "I just naturally loved it. It's just one of those things I'm blessed with. ... I ran into you yesterday. I ran into another person today and had a conversation. It gets you out there, and you can talk to people. If you stop to talk with someone in a car, you get the finger, or shot."
Soon, San Francisco may rework its streets to allow thousands more such chance encounters. On June 22, state Superior Court Judge Peter Busch heard final arguments in a five-year-old lawsuit alleging that bike lanes harm the environment by causing cars to slow and produce smog. Busch asked for proposals from both sides on how to resolve the case, and will soon issue a ruling about whether he will lift a 2005 bike-lane injunction and allow the city to paint 34 miles of new bike lanes and 75 miles of on-street bike routes called "sharrows."
After years of civic angst and fortunes spent on environmental consultants, lawyers, traffic planners, engineers, and neighborhood outreach specialists, the new cycle network aims to make the city safe enough for novices to give bike commuting a try.
But Breward fears the effort may end up somewhat wasted. Like any traffic route, a bike lane is useless if it's blocked. And parked or stopped cars illegally obstruct the most popular bike routes during rush hour. "I think making new bike lanes is a joke without enforcement," he says.
For the past couple of years, Breward has fought this perceived blight, attending public meetings; sending letters; collecting video evidence; and urging politicians, bureaucrats, and nonprofit advocates to get cops to cite motorists who block bike lanes. Scofflaws include valet parkers, motorists stopping at stores, and drivers waiting in line for gas, all of whom commit what the S.F. Vehicle Code says is a $100 infraction by blocking cyclists' lanes during rush hour.
He got nowhere.
But in his failed quest, Breward discovered that residents of this city are sometimes more taken with political gestures than with actually getting things done. One hundred new miles of bike lanes, after all, makes for a marvelous gesture, irrespective of whether they work as planned.
"With unsafe conditions, you're sending people out on a siren's song where they think it's supposed to be safer," Breward says. "It's just too dangerous."
For years, the ARCO gas station at Fell and Divisadero, one of several Bay Area service stations owned by franchisee Larry Armstrong, has been popular for its cheap gas. But lately it's become notorious as the site of a weekly protest against a purported safety hazard to cyclists.
A route cyclists call the Wiggle — a series of left and right turns following an old riverbed that connects Hayes Valley to the Panhandle — is an east-west artery for bicycle commuters connecting eastern San Francisco job centers to the western bedroom neighborhoods. But as the route nears Divisadero, cyclists typically encounter rush-hour drivers illegally blocking the bike lane, waiting for a pump.
"On Fell Street, the traffic is really heavy, and it's going really fast, and it's dangerous," protest organizer Josh Hart says.
The city plans to fix this problem by removing five parking spaces along Fell and repurposing them as a special "petrol lane," designed to keep cars queued against the curb, out of cyclists' way.
From a public policy standpoint, that solution is absurd. Parking spaces in San Francisco these days go for $200 to $300 per month. This minimum $1,000 per month gift in perpetuity to Armstrong — a reward for encouraging his customers' behavior — will make this deadly stretch of road safer only when the line doesn't exceed five cars. But on many days, it does.
But it's absurd mostly because it's a build-around created so police don't have to enforce the law.
Over the years, I've ridden by that gas station around 500 times and seen cars blocking the bike lane many times, but I've never seen a cop issuing tickets. Breward says the same thing about his 200 or so trips past the same point. One of the protesters even sent me a video showing police telling them to get out of patrons' way — without bothering to cite the motorists blocking the bike lane behind them. That's nuts.
"We do enforce traffic laws," police spokeswoman Sergeant Lyn Tomioka said when I asked her about the dearth of tickets issued. "I understand they are blocking the traffic lane. It is the cheapest gas in town, and they're not leaving their vehicles in the lane unattended."
Irrespective of what Tomioka says, cheap gas does not obviate the San Francisco municipal traffic code. But according to a May civil grand jury report, Sharing the Roadway: From Confrontation to Conversation, there's more to the San Francisco road-anarchy problem than indifferent cops.
The study, undertaken with the aim of seeking peace between motorists and bike commuters, suggests cyclists and bicycle activists need to grow up and end what has become a habit of precious doublespeak on the subject of traffic enforcement.
Everyone knows bike messengers ride like upstream-swimming salmon on one-way streets. But did you know the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition — whose official position supports greater enforcement of traffic laws — actually published a primer teaching cyclists how to weasel out of moving violations? (It was apparently removed from the Bicycle Coalition's website after grand jury members outed it in their report.)
Everybody knows some Critical Mass participants run stop signs and otherwise flout traffic laws. But did you know employees of the Bicycle Coalition — whose official mantra is "We're not Critical Mass" — can be found participating in the ride almost every year?
We've all seen cyclists who are apparently indifferent to the rules of the road. But did you know that the very few who actually get cited complain so insistently that cops have all but given up on enforcing laws that govern — and protect — cyclists?
The report notes that S.F. police issue fewer total traffic citations than other cities, and that they all but ignore cyclists. Of 100 citations issued to cyclists, as many as one-third of the riders claimed they were unfairly targeted. Meanwhile, just 1 percent of S.F. motorists file complaints in response to a traffic ticket.
Rather than get an earful of biker beefing, cops mostly look the other way. According to the report, fewer than 1 percent of recent moving violations were issued to cyclists, even though the S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) estimates that in 2008, San Franciscans took 6 percent of all trips by bicycle.
In such an environment, it's hard to vigorously argue for increased enforcement of laws protecting cyclists from motorists. And, indeed, bike advocates have not made that a priority.
"At this point, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is working with the MTA to find the right solution long-term," says interim executive director Renee Rivera, when I asked whether her group had asked the SFPD to cite rush-hour gas customers blocking the bike lane at Fell Street. She said she was unaware that such drivers can be fined $100.
The real "right solutions" involve law-enforcement equity between bikes and cars. That means busting red-light-blowing cyclists and keeping bike lanes free of stopped cars.
"There's not one single sign anybody can show me in San Francisco saying it's illegal to park in a bike lane," Breward says. "But you throw a rock near a major automobile commuter lane and you hit a No Parking sign. And if you park there, they've got a tow-truck army to get your car out of the way."
Anything less for our city's impending 100 miles of new bike routes, and they'll become a multimillion-dollar feel-good gesture that fails to bring safety — and sociability — to our streets.