Recently, I’ve found myself getting into numerous debates online about the behavior of bicyclists on the streets of San Francisco. There seems to be a prevailing view, held by a wide variety of people – drivers, pedestrians and even cyclists – that the majority of people on bicycles act in a way that is totally inappropriate and are a general menace on the road. This view is espoused on message boards, at public meetings, and in our private conversations. “I have never once seen a cyclist stop for a pedestrian on 15th St” “60% of cyclists ride disrespectfully” “The majority of cyclists in the Mission don’t yield when they should” and on and on. This view always struck me as peculiar, considering that I am a cyclist and I try to be respectful on the road and most of my bike riding friends are really good people. It just didn’t seem to add up.
Then, the other day I was riding on the Wiggle when I saw a cop pulling over two cyclists for not stopping at a stop sign as they took a right turn off Waller onto Steiner. These riders were obviously not bad riders… just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was the final straw. I decided to spend my afternoon at four different intersections on the Wiggle to simply observe how cyclists were riding and to see if people were right when they say the majority of cyclists ride like assholes. While I do not pretend that the data I gathered in one day can definitively rest the case, what I observed is that the idea that the majority of cyclists are disrespectful and bad riders is a complete and total myth, and, moreover, that the people who take the actions of a very small minority of cyclists (and this minority does indeed exist) and let it stand for their view of all cyclists are displaying a new, disturbing form of bigotry in our society – what I call transportationism. This bigotry is not to be taken lightly – it wrongly pits citizen against citizen and actually contributes to cyclists being denied the basic right to safety that any class of people should expect. My hope is that this humble essay will help shed light on this insidious element in today’s society and help to empower people to stand up and call out this prejudice wherever it arises.
Before I describe the data, a word about stop signs. I, like most free thinking people, believe that the law which requires cyclists to stop at all stop signs is a bad law. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike understands the importance of momentum in the physics of bike riding. To expect all cyclists to stop at stop signs is living outside of reality, and is akin to expecting that there should be no marijuana smoked in this country, as it is against the law. Because a law exists doesn’t make it a good or just law, and simply having this law on the books reflects the profound lack of consideration for bicyclists in today’s cities. If you would like to learn more about this issue and what is termed the “Idaho Stop” (basically treating stop signs as yield signs for cyclists), please watch this video.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I observed on Monday 2/6 from around 2:45-5:15 pm. I spent 30 minutes each at Scott and Page, Scott and Haight, Waller and Steiner and Duboce and Steiner. I chose these intersections because I felt there was a lot of opportunity for conflict between cyclists and other forms of transportation (and other cyclists).
I gave each cyclist a grade from 1-4. A 4 meant that I felt you did everything you needed to do at the intersection (remember this was judged based on treating stop signs as yield signs as they should be) – this means you yielded the right of way where appropriate, you signaled if it was appropriate, and you overall did what you were supposed to do.
I gave bikers a 3 if they didn’t do anything that I felt was inappropriate, but there was some room for improvement. Riders got docked for not signaling where appropriate, trying to catch the flow of traffic at a stop sign but being a little late getting through the intersection, and other judgment/close calls that I felt they still generally acted appropriately. For example, when turning right from Haight to Scott, a cyclist who didn’t signal to let the car traveling northbound on Scott know they were turning got a 3 – they didn’t really do anything wrong (because that right turn doesn’t really put the cyclist into the same space as the car) but a signal would have been helpful just to let the driver know what your intentions were.
A cyclist got a 2 when I felt it was a close call but they were in the wrong. The most common instances here were trying to move through the intersection with the flow of traffic but not really being close enough for it to have been a good decision and crossing through an intersection only to have to yield to pedestrians on the other side (particularly on the left turn off Steiner to Waller). I also gave riders a 2 if I felt they altered a pedestrian’s pace in trying to squeeze past them (I honestly didn’t see too many of these).
A cyclist got a 1 if they rode like a fucking asshole. Typically this meant blowing through a stop sign without much regard for whose turn it was. I actually saw a cyclist (on a fixie) enter the intersection at Duboce and Steiner with WAY too much speed and then slam into the back of the car he was trying to swoop in behind when that car stopped to let pedestrians cross Sanchez. He got a 1.
So what did I observe? I’ll break it down by intersection (I actually recorded which direction each cyclist was headed, but for ease of understanding the data I’ll just do raw numbers for the intersection as a whole – I will say this: every time I gave a cyclist a 1, he/she was coming downhill).
Scott & Page (2:47-3:17) – (1) 2, (2) 2, (3) 11 (4) 71
Scott & Haight (3:22-3:52) – (1) 1, (2) 0, (3) 9, (4) 65
Waller & Steiner (4:10-4:40) – (1) 0, (2) 6, (3) 14, (4) 106
Duboce & Steiner (4:46-5:16) – (1) 2, (2) 1, (3) 11, (4) 147
If you add up all 4 intersections you get the following figures:
(1) 5, (2) 9, (3) 45, (4) 389
If you consider 1s and 2s to be inappropriate behavior and 3s and 4s to be appropriate behavior, you get a percentage of 3.125% inappropriate riders and 96.875% appropriate riders.
However, I actually think that doesn’t tell the whole story. I would say 20-30% of the riders that I gave a 4 to encountered an intersection that was free and clear. These people could have been the worst riders in the world and there was no way for me to observe that because they didn’t engage in any conflict. Therefore, I feel it appropriate to throw out 30% of the 4s which leaves us with 272.3 “4″s (I’ll just round down to 272). When we recalculate based on 331 riders observed in conflict, we get 4.23% 1s and 2s and 95.77% 3s and 4s. Over 95% of the riders I observed in situations where they were confronted with other people/cars/bikes acted appropriately. Hell, even if you fault people who received a 3 for not being perfect, you still get 82% of the riders acting perfectly appropriately when faced with conflict.
Before I get on my soap box I’ll even throw in more caveats. This study was done in the afternoon – I imagine if I were observing in the morning when people were in more of a rush I’d have seen worse behavior from cyclists (and cars and pedestrians, which, by the way, I observed but I could only record so much information). As well, I am one person and my perspective is not infallible. I honestly tried to rate cyclists objectively, even critically, but I can imagine some sort of observer’s bias. Additionally, I think the very fact that somebody was standing at the intersection observing what was happening may have brought out better behavior from cyclists (although I was trying to be inconspicuous and, no, I was not wearing my wig…). There were even some times when I was a little distracted by talking to folks and might not have accurately judged how a cyclist performed. All of this is to say that I think there needs to be more and better data collection in different places and times all over the city.
However, despite all of these caveats, I think we can safely say that the reality is that a very large majority of cyclists are very good riders. I’d even suspect that the amount of “bad behavior” is probably more or less evenly spread across all forms of transportation (check out this video of an NYC intersection and see what conclusions you draw). And yet only cyclists have to endure the ubiquitous experience of having someone stand up at a public meeting and spew vile bigoted hatred toward all of us, as if we all act like the one guy who ran into the back of the car at Duboce and Steiner. What’s more, everybody in the room tolerates this person and many shout words of encouragement. Towards what other class of people would this activity be tolerated in today’s society?? I’m not naive enough to think there aren’t racist people in the world today, but at least we’ve gotten past the point where racists think it’s ok to stand up at a public meeting and openly display their bigotry. And yet nobody bats an eye when someone spreads blatant misinformation about cyclists at an MTA hearing or on facebook or anywhere else. I, for one, will not be tolerating this anymore. MLK had it right when he said an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I’ll surely need to develop more data to support my position (I’m also keen to start collecting information regarding how many cyclists wear lights), but I will no longer tolerate being discriminated against simply because I ride a bicycle. Transportationism is wrong, it is rampant, and it is one of the major reasons the city refuses to create safe bike infrastructure that is so desperately needed.
All of this being said, I would feel I wasn’t upholding my end of the deal if I didn’t try to do something about the very small minority of riders who act like assholes and ruin it for the rest of us. I guarantee every single person who witnessed the crash at Duboce and Steiner (including one member of the MTA’s Board of Directors who happened to be there) went home that night thinking “Wow we really need to do something about these out of control cyclists.” Therefore, I’m going to finally follow through on an idea I’ve had for a long time. I’m going to get a referee’s jersey and go out on the Wiggle during rush hour. I’ll bring a whistle and some yellow and red cards. Every time I see somebody act inappropriately I’ll blow the whistle, call the foul and show the card. Will this solve the problem? Probably not. But it will definitely help and it sounds fun.
What will significantly help the problem is if we can enact some sensible laws on our roads. When you have garbage laws governing the behavior of cyclists (like demanding they stop at every stop sign) then you are going to get garbage behavior. When the laws make no sense it’s really tough to build a campaign around better bicycling and respecting the rules of the road. If the Mayor and the MTA would take the logical but bold step of adopting the Idaho Stop rules here in SF it would do wonders for engendering a feeling of responsibility for upholding the law. Of course if they actually tried to go through with this sensible bit of policy, it would no doubt bring out a downright convention of bigotry at any public hearing on the matter.
I think what’s more realistic is slow but steady progress. I encourage anyone to come help me gently (or humorously) encourage good riding along the Wiggle, but I think most of our work comes in even smaller doses. Of course it remains incumbent upon each of us to make sure we’re out there riding respectfully, ringing our bells with good nature and, yes, putting a foot down when it is called for. But we can also do more to remind our fellow riders that they represent all of us, and calling out the bad riders when we see them. What was almost as bad as the guy running into the back of the car on Duboce and Steiner was that there were multiple cyclists present and not one of them said a word to him (I was trying to retain an air of scientific detachment). If you see somebody being a bad rider, call him/her out. It might make both of you mad for a little while, but if the community remains vigilant we’ll all be better off in the long run. That’s one good thing about cyclists – you can usually count on them to be thinking of the bigger picture.