We all share the city. But people are still not safe sharing it with cars.
How we can create safe spaces for people to ride bikes based on my experience riding in the city.
Riding my bicycle is my main means of transportation. The San Francisco Bay area has a great number of cyclists and the number is growing every day since people are looking to bicycles as an alternative means of transportation during the Coronavirus pandemic. Riding bikes is healthy, cheap, and fun. As the number of people riding bicycles increases, the need for more space for other means of urban transportation increases as well.
I have been riding for more than 3 years and I used to commute to my office every day before the pandemic. I’ve shared the bike lanes with parents riding their e-bikes to take their kids to school. I’ve never worried about sharing the road with buses, electric scooters, electric bikes, one wheels, skateboards, you name it. However, it was different very with cars. I always felt we, cyclists, are in the way of cars and not actually sharing the road with them.
Drivers are taught in driving schools that they should yield to people and bicycles, but I don’t think that’s what happens in the reality based on my own experience. In a car-centric world, it seems like the rule is "the bigger and faster you are, the more priority you have in traffic". And I usually yield to cars to pass because I don’t want to fight against a vehicle that’s way bigger than me.
Whenever I ride, I always wear a helmet, stay in the bike lanes or stay close to the curb while riding on a shared road, give a turn signal beforehand, and respect the traffic rules. We're all subjected to respect the traffic rules. But there's more to do if you're sharing the roads with cars:
“Even in places with relatively comprehensive networks of bike paths and lanes, to use a bike for transportation will require learning how to ride as safely as possible in traffic. This means knowing the rules of the road and signaling and so forth, but more than that it means maintaining a vigilance and awareness about what the cars around you tend to do.” — John Herrman, The New York Times
Even following all these rules above, I still got hit by a car while riding my bicycle on a street with a shared road sign in San Francisco.
The wrong mindset
After I got hit by the car and fell on the street, I hit my leg pretty badly and I limped to the sidewalk even though it was painful for me to move. My first thought was to get away from the road and avoid another car hitting me. I never got into an accident with a car before and the truth is that it can happen at any time, anywhere, no matter how much experience you have riding in the city.
I went to the hospital in an ambulance, then I went home. After all these events, it was hard for me just to accept the accident and say "it happens". I tried to find reasons to understand why it happened.
After thinking about the type of questions I was asking myself, I realized that I was trying to find what I did wrong and blaming myself as a cyclist for getting hurt. But what could the driver have done to prevent the accident? This is the mindset that I believe needs to change because cyclists are not in the way of cars, we’re sharing the city with them.
When an accident happens and people get hit by a car, it will often hurt the cyclist no matter who’s right or wrong. It seems obvious but it clicked to me when I was laying down on the asphalt feeling a lot of pain and the driver was safe with no injuries. For me, it was an insight that we shouldn’t try to justify why it happened and we should fight for the right to ride safely in the city and learn how to not let traffic violence happen anymore.
How to prevent bicycle-car collisions from happening
Invest in technology
There are car and bicycle company initiatives helping to prevent bicycle and car collisions, according to The Tech That Might Help Cyclists and Cars Coexist Safely article from the New York Times. They are studying and developing car systems that would detect bicycles around a car and devices that connect bicycle-to-vehicle (B2V) communications. Although those are great projects and can help to reduce the number of accidents, this is still not going the right way because the efforts are still focused on car improvements and a culture that prioritizes cars over bicycles while sharing the city streets.
Create safe spaces for biking
A few hours before the accident happened, I rode my bicycle to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Streets that cross the park such as the JFK Dr and Overlook Dr are currently closed to cars due to the slow streets program implemented when the pandemic started. I saw many people of all ages riding their bicycles, running, practicing sports, and doing many other outdoor activities. It feels so safe to ride there.
Even though the park is being used by people, there's still pressure to open it back again to cars. A public rally in favor of keeping these streets closed for cars happened earlier that morning. It’s important to consider the needs of people with disabilities and physical mobility to have access to the park and they should be able to have access to it as well, but I’m not sure why the city should open the streets to all cars again and increase the chance of accidents. We can prevent accidents from happening if there's no or minimal contact with cars along the park. Now I reached my main point:
More importantly, build more protected bike lanes
Comparing the solutions of investing in technology for cars and bicycles sharing the streets and the closures of the streets for cars, there's a mid-term and better solution: separate bicycle traffic from car traffic by building dedicated and protected bike lanes. Dedicated bike lanes are the primary method of addressing bicycle safety, according to Kyle Wagenschutz at People for Bikes, an advocacy group, and accidents wouldn’t happen so often if there’s minimal or no contact with cars. Separate bicycle and car traffic is the safest option since bikers won't share the streets with cars and compete for space and cars will still be able to use the same streets.
Moreover, wouldn’t it be nice if we all could say that San Francisco is one of the greatest bike-friendly cities in the US?
So what can we do to have more protected bike lanes?
Report bicycle accidents
If we collect data to support the number of car-bicycle collisions that happen in certain locations, the city can prioritize projects to redesign that area to build protected bike lanes and be safer. How the Feds Could Keep the bike boom rolling is a great recent article from Bloomberg that details how federal laws can help to take the issue from local governments and scale it to a national issue that could give resources and better support to tangible changes. David Zipper, who's a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, shared in the article a project idea on how to do make the protected bike lanes happen:
A good place to start would be collecting and publishing updated national information about cycling collisions, something that isn’t easily accessible. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) could require states to submit annual High Injury Network maps that show corridors where a disproportionate share of cyclists and pedestrians are killed or suffer a serious injury. These maps could then be overlaid with street infrastructure such as protected bike lanes to reveal the most dangerous stretches — and build support for safer redesigns.
Moreover, we can contribute to the data. The University of Berkeley has a project called Street Story, an online platform that allows residents, community groups, and agencies to collect community input about transportation crashes, near-misses, general hazards, and safe locations to travel. I've reported my car-bike accident and I'm hoping it will help to gather data on cycling accidents in San Francisco and support initiatives that might require inputs from its residents.
Street Story: A Platform for Community Engagement
Share stories about where you've been in a crash or near-miss, or where you feel safe or unsafe traveling using our…
Support local bike advocacy groups
If you ride your bike in San Francisco, you probably had to ride on Market street. It is the main street that connects most streets to the SF downtown area and it is one of the busiest streets in the city. Therefore, it was chaotic to ride there since it was always busy with cars and public transportation traffic.
Better Market street was a project that has been advocated by activists for 10 years until it was approved in 2019. It was a result of years of work by organizations such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which fight for bike riders’ rights in the city and help to promote safety in traffic. And as a result of the increase of bike riders in the city due to the coronavirus pandemic, Market Street went car-free in January 2020 as a result of the Quick Build and it is now safer for essential workers who need to go to their work locations despite the pandemic.
Market Street Improvements by the City & County of San Francisco - Better Market Street - San…
San Francisco Better Market Street is the exciting collaboration of five key city agencies and community partners…
Unfortunately, the Better Market Street project has been changed recently by the most recent city’s revised proposal. The new update removes dedicated and protected bike lanes from the original project approved previously. It means bike riders will have to keep sharing Market street with paratransit, taxis, and commercial vehicles. It means there is no progress on the safety of bike riders that commute to work in SF downtown and use Market street daily.
Those are recent updates so we can still help to change it. If you live in San Francisco, you can participate in Live Public Meetings through Zoom and help to support bike advocates who will represent the resident's interests. Follow those groups on social media and show your support online.
Invest time to educate yourself
I ride my bicycle more than I drive cars (which I rent if I need one). A few days ago, I drove by the same street I got hit by a car in the accident I mentioned in this article. I saw bike riders passing on the same share road. Biking in the city has brought me freedom and I don't plan to stop riding even after getting hurt.
I recommend reading the comic book If you want to get away with murder, buy a car: Crash course, by Woodrow Phoenix. This book can help you to understand and feel how it is like for pedestrians and bikers to share a car-centric city. It goes beyond exposing data and facts about car-bike and car-pedestrian accidents, it's a provoking conversation to drivers to think about the meaning of driving and sharing a city.
Last, Go Vote
I hoped you have voted on the 2020 election. The current administration supports car-centric initiatives and it won't make it easier to approve regulations that incorporate improvements on protecting cyclists from cars.
My bike accident story might be just one more number in the statistics but I hope I could have helped you to get informed and think about what means to share the city with others. Ride safe!