Do bicyclists belong on the road? The San Francisco 2009 bicycle plan

Bicycling is one of the greenest forms of transportation you could imagine.  Bicycles require minimal materials to build, require minimal space during use and other times, require minimum energy during use, and give riders exercise improving their health.   Yet bicyclists often have friction with car drivers and there is a competition in street use between mass transit, trucks, cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.  The question is which of those transit modes deserve prominence?  The modern street grid often makes it difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists, both very green transportation, while car driving gets the preeminent position.  In San Francisco the Municipal Transportation Agency recently voted to adopt the 2009 Bicycle Plan, a long awaited five year master plan to improve bicycle safety and convenience in the near and long term.

On July 1, 2009 KQED’s Forum program discussed this plan, audio is embedded below.  The debate offers an interesting lens through which to look at the issue in San Francisco and to extrapolate to other cities across the country.

There is a hierarchy of transit modes with pedestrians at one end, and cars, trucks and mass transit at the other end.  The question is where do bicyclists fit within this hierarchy, and what is the relationship between the users of the different transportation modes.

The bike plan is intended to make San Francisco more bike friendly.  However a lawsuit was launched which delayed the plan for years, the suit demanded that required environmental impact studies be conducted.  One of the litigants, Rob Anderson, was on the program to state his objection to redesigning city streets for the benefit of a small minority.  HIs claim is that the real alternative to driving is mass transit.

That is one position to take, that bicyclists shouldn’t be given any special priority and that perhaps some of the existing bicyclists should instead either be riding mass transit or driving.

The plan involves adding more bicycle lanes, adding special signal lights at some intersections for bicyclists, adding more bicycle racks around the city, and allowing bicycles better access to mass transit.  Another impact is loss of driving lanes, and loss of parking spaces.  The latter two obviously will affect car drivers and on-street transit.

This is another position to take, that bicycling is important enough an activity to support as official policy.

Bicycling has seen a large growth in San Francisco.  Judson True of the MTA claimed bicycling use has expanded by 42% over the last two years, and it’s not just for exercise but also for daily transportation needs.

A stated target audience are the “latent cyclists” who want to ride, and before they do want to feel safer on the road.  Adding bicycle lanes and other improvements stands to improve the odds a latent cyclist will become an actual cyclist.

San Francisco is famous (rightly so) for steeply hilly streets.  Hills tall and steep enough to be a bicycling barrier, you may think.  The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has mapped out the safest and flattest routes through the city, and publishes a map of them.

A big issue regarding bicyclists is the ones who ignore the law, blow through intersections, ride the wrong way down the street, cross illegally, etc.  Bicyclists are subject to the normal rules of the road yet obviously some bicyclists ignore the law and do whatever it is they want.  It’s irritating to others, it’s unsafe, and it’s clearly a subset of bicyclists who do this, tarnishing the law abiding bicyclists with their bad behavior.

The biggest safety problem faced by bicyclists is “the door zone”.  On streets where cars are parked the door zone is those 2-3 feet where a suddenly opened door would strike a bicyclist.  Bicyclists need enough room along the street to avoid the door zone while remaining out of the regular traffic lanes.  However one infamous intersection was mentioned at Octavian and Market.  The Streetsblog San Francisco had this to say about a recent bicyclist crash: “As we’ve written many times, Market/Octavia is ground zero in the debate over bicycle safety in the city. The MTA now says at least 18 crashes have been reported at the intersection in the last three years between cyclists and drivers making illegal right turns onto Highway 101.

In Silicon Valley where this writer lives and bicycles the conditions are different.  The streets are less crowded and there are more bicycle lanes already existing.  The Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority publishes a Bikeways map showing relative safety of different streets around the county.  The most dangerous places shown on this map are next to highway interchange on/off ramps where bicycle and pedestrian access is tricky.

Bicyclists do belong on the road, this is the law all across the country.   Pragmatism though points to the relationship between users of different transportation modes and that not everybody agrees as to their relative importance.  As in any relationship talking to each other may help, or may not, but pragmatism says it’s rather difficult to carry on a deep conversation with a car driver whizzing by at 35 miles per hour.  There we are, sharing the road, and unable to meaningfully discuss how best to do so.

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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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