On August 14th, 24 year old Amelie Le Moullac was killed while riding her bicycle in a bike lane eastbound on Folsom at 6th St. She lost her life when the driver of a large truck made a right turn from Folsom onto 6th, crushing Amelie in his wheels in the process.
Meanwhile, sitting on a shelf somewhere in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s building was a plan for a redesigned Folsom Street featuring two-way traffic and upgraded bike facilities that would have made it much more difficult for the tragic confluence of events that ended Amelie’s life to have occurred. That plan has been sitting on that shelf for years.
Shortly after the incident, the San Francisco Police Department showed up to the scene, drew some circles on the ground, and spoke to the driver of the truck who had pulled over after the collision, determining that he was not impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Soon, the media descended. When asked if the driver would be cited for any traffic violations (making a right turn from anywhere besides the right-most lane of a street, in this case the bike lane, is a violation of California Vehicle Code 21717) or charged with a crime, representatives from the SFPD indicated that while the investigation is ongoing, it was unlikely there would be any citations or charges - it was just an accident, they said. Just an accident, just like the other two times a bicyclist had been run over and killed by a truck driver on our city’s streets this year – just an accident.
Before making that determination, the SFPD of course did the most basic of police work by walking around to nearby businesses to check and see if perhaps the incident happened to be recorded by a security camera. Certainly such footage would be greatly helpful in determining exactly what happened at that fateful moment. Alas, none of the cameras were on or trained on the site at the moment of impact.
Or so they claimed. In fact, not a single member of the San Francisco Police Department engaged in this bare minimum of investigative work, this most basic effort to honor a young woman’s life by attempting to determine what actually happened that morning. They showed up, saw a big truck, a mangled bike and a dead body, and said “Eh, just an accident. Fuck this, let’s go get some coffee.”
The reason we know the SFPD lied about checking the nearby security camera footage is because San Francisco citizen Marc Caswell actually did walk around to the local businesses to see if perhaps there were any the police might have missed. When Mr. Caswell asked if the police had come around to check the tapes, every business owner said no. No – the San Francisco Police Department did not care enough to check the local security cameras even though they knew that was a valuable enough investigative technique that they actually lied and claimed to have done it. It turns out the incident was in fact recorded by a camera belonging to the Golden Auto repair shop located on the opposite corner of the intersection.
Appalling, I know. But there’s more. On Wednesday morning, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition organized an event at the location where a week previously a young woman’s life was taken. The event was part memorial for Amelie, with friends and co-workers in attendance, and it was part rally, a hopeful attempt to incite the SFMTA to dust off that old plan to fix Folsom they’ve been meaning to get around to one of these days, and implement it a few years more quickly than their normal pace.
In truth, the rally was aimed at our Mayor, Ed Lee, the only person in this city who, with no more than a brief consideration for the safety of people walking or biking in this town or a vague awareness of the most fundamental issues threatening our planet and society, has the ability to instantly remedy the misallocation of funds and the broken, time-consuming, upside-down decision-making process that comes standard at the SFMTA, a trick turned through that magical quality possessed by nearly all mayors who aren’t plainly puppets for tech moguls and development-types – that thing called leadership.
While members of the coalition and Amelie’s grievers were talking to passersby and collecting signatures to put names of support behind this no-brainer solution, Sergeant Richard Ernst pulled up and parked his squad car in the bit of bike lane on Folsom that was the spot of Amelie’s last unlabored breath. Directly adjacent to his squad car blocking the bike lane during morning rush hour was an empty parking spot.
When asked why he chose to park in a busy bike lane instead of choosing to park in the empty parking spot, Sgt. Ernst indicated he wanted to make a point. When participants in the memorial responded that they would be happy to speak with him if he would only move his illegally parked vehicle as it was creating a dangerous situation at a location that saw a biker killed just a week ago. Sgt. Ernst indicated it was his “right” to be there.
You see, the point that Sgt. Ernst wanted every griever at that memorial to understand was that it was Amelie Le Moullac’s own fault that she died. What’s more, Ernst insisted that the other two cyclists who have been run over and killed by trucks on our city’s streets in the past 6 months were both at fault, and if anyone else shared the blame for the senseless loss of three lives it was the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for not properly educating cyclists about the mandate to pass to the left of a turning automobile on the occasion one actually follows CVC 21717 (this despite an extensive and ongoing public education program implemented by the SFBC).
For 10 minutes, Sgt. Ernst refused to move his illegally parked car (which, should be noted, was not in fact an actively turning automobile) until he felt his admonishment was thoroughly received, creating a highly dangerous situation for dozens of cyclists by forcing them into traffic (yes, around to the left) during the morning rush-hour commute. Satisfied, Ernst eventually drove off, leaving a scene of anger and confusion in his wake.
These described events are no doubt abhorrent, but the question stands – who was responsible for Amelie Le Moullac’s death? Did Amelie try to sneak by the truck as it was turning from the right-most lane, the bike lane, or did she get right-hooked in an illegal maneuver? At this writing there is no way for the public to know – the discovered footage was sent from the auto shop through Supervisor Jane Kim’s office to the SFPD and Amelie’s lawyer.
In truth, the particularities of the collision are almost inconsequential. If the truck driver made an illegal maneuver, he should be charged with vehicular manslaughter or at the very least cited for a traffic infraction and made to see his day in civil court. But at the end of the day, the driver made a mistake that occurs millions of times every day around our city (the education around this law for drivers and bicyclists alike sparked by this incident may end up being the only ray of light to grasp onto in this whole mess). If the driver broke a law, we can all recognize that his error was decidedly human, and we should not forget that he too has been through an ordeal. Even if the truck driver performed an illegal maneuver, far bigger crimes have been revealed.
For starters, the San Francisco Police Department should be charged with the crime of allowing a deep and profound prejudice for cars and against bicyclists to prevent them from honoring this woman’s life, let alone their responsibilities as paid public servants, by performing the most basic of investigative techniques like checking nearby security camera footage, and then willfully lying to the public about performing said techniques because if anybody even suspected they neglected to check the cameras it would, you know, look pretty bad. Of course this incident calls into question how many other “investigations” into bicyclist and pedestrian deaths have been criminally botched by those who have sworn to “protect and serve” us.
Unfortunately, the SFPD are not unique in their propensity to treat the lives of those killed by automobiles while walking or biking as not worthy of basic human respect. Our society is witnessing a total collapse of our justice system when it comes to holding drivers of automobiles accountable for their actions while in control of a highly dangerous piece of machinery. The message has been sent loud and clear: if you want to kill somebody in America and get away scot-free, simply get in your car and run them down.
What’s more, this profound bias is not limited to our “justice” system; unchecked prejudice and out-and-out bigotry against cyclists runs rampant in all corners of our society. Make no mistake about it – the primary reason the loss of Amelie Le Moullac’s life was not worthy of the basic human decency that is a proper investigation is because at the time of her death she happened to be riding a bicycle.
Every single officer who touched this investigation should be fired, or at the very least suspended without pay immediately, and the SFPD absolutely must convene a task force to investigate whether inherent prejudice within the police force is regularly obstructing the pursuit of justice with respect to automobile collisions with bicyclists and pedestrians (hint: the answer is yes).
As for Sergeant Richard Ernst, he should be charged with, at best, being wholly insensitive and unnecessarily and willfully endangering the lives of cyclists, or, at worst, being a raging anti-bike bigot who chose the worst possible time to out himself as someone whose entire sense of reality is blinded by deep-seated hatred.
Perhaps if there were fewer cops like Sgt. Ernst, people who are more concerned with jumping to biased conclusions and blaming the victims than they are in actually investigating these cases, more drivers would operate their multi-ton vehicles with a healthy respect for the inherent hazard and a bodily fear for the legal repercussions of abusing such a privilege (note: a great many drivers do indeed possess this respect, but anything short of all is unacceptable and there are 40,000 bodies a year to prove it).
We’ll give Sgt. Ernst the benefit of the doubt and assume he actually drove to Folsom and 6th with positive intentions but is simply astoundingly tone-deaf when it comes to matters involving the recently deceased in addition to being ignorant of the difference between demonstrating a legal right-turn and illegally and dangerously parking an automobile in a bike lane. He should be suspended without pay and made to undergo sensitivity training.
The cumulative actions of the SFPD over the past two weeks are no doubt reprehensible and exemplary of the worst of our society, but their guilty actions all happened after Amelie Le Moullac was killed. They were not directly responsible for her death. That responsibility falls squarely on the SFMTA and our Mayor, Ed Lee.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, the department that has for over a decade been sitting on a roundly lauded plan to improve the layout of Folsom St so that this kind of collision would be magnitudes of order less likely, should be charged with failing wholly and completely to perform their basic duty of engineering safe and efficient transportation solutions for the city of San Francisco.
Here’s the SFMTA’s fundamental failure: when it comes to making decisions about the design of our streets, they are far more concerned with engaging in a time-consuming hyper-democratic process than they are with actually making the best choice for meeting our city’s transportation needs.
This commitment to hyper-democracy at all costs means projects sit on shelves and people die while the traffic engineers who should be whipping out urgent upgrades for our 20th century infrastructure are busy conducting dozens of community meetings over multiple years for even the most menial of improvements. Instead of being freed up to use their years of education to make decisions about what’s best for our city’s transportation needs, the SFMTA traffic engineers are reduced to being exorbitantly paid survey takers.
That’s right – even when the MTA gets around to taking on a project in the hopes of bringing a particular street into the 21st century, the ultimate decision about what actually gets implemented is decided not according to what satisfies our 40 year old City-Charter-mandated Transit-First principle requiring all means of transportation that are not the private automobile to be prioritized, not according to what is safest and best for the citizens of a city whose density is growing by the hour, but by democratic vote of everyday people who have little to no education in the complex science of traffic engineering.
Even after the MTA has spent multiple years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the planning phase for street redesigns, the ultimate solution is typically, like in the recent case of Polk St, so watered down as to be not worth the considerable effort in the first place. When, not if, the next bicyclist or pedestrian is killed or seriously injured on Polk Street, you won’t need to look at security camera footage to know who is responsible.
With respect to the particular case of the highway conditions that pass as city streets in SOMA, the urgency to create solutions could not be more heightened. Starting this week, the city will finally be unveiling a bike-share system that promises to unleash hundreds of novice bicyclists on the SOMA and Financial District streets where the stations are concentrated.
Perhaps it is a good thing that our bike-share system is embarrassingly small (350 bikes to NYC’s recent 6,000 bike launch) as it is clear our city officials won’t be getting around to creating humane conditions on those streets any time soon. When asked at last week’s Bicycle Advisory Committee hearing about the possibility of the MTA taking fast action to at least throw down some green-paint to create safer conditions in SOMA, an SFMTA employee indicated the funding within their $1.3 billion budget was simply not available. It seems they’ve spent too much money on surveys.
The truth is the majority of people who work at the SFMTA are sincere and smart and actually desperately want to make the changes that are required to create safe conditions for people walking and biking. Even the SFMTA’s Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, the man who is supposedly empowered to manifest the kind of culture shift within the MTA that is decades past-due, is eager to live up to his responsibility to the people of San Francisco – at this year’s SFBC annual Golden Wheel awards, Mr. Reiskin was among the hundreds of people who rose for a minutes-long standing ovation for Janette Sadik-Khan, Mr. Reiskin’s NYC contemporary, who over the last four years has implemented hundreds of miles of separated bikeways throughout the five boroughs, most assuredly without the aid of years of community meetings.
What Ms. Sadik-Khan did have at her disposal that Mr. Reiskin does not, is a strong-willed Mayor in Michael Bloomberg who understands the importance of creating safe conditions for people walking and biking, which brings us to the biggest criminal of all.
We hesitate to attach the honorarium “Mayor” next to Ed Lee’s name. The title of Mayor is typically reserved for the most important leader of a city, and while Ed Lee may sit in Room 200 in City Hall, he is by no stretch of the imagination a leader.
While real mayors all over the country, from Bloomberg in New York to Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to R.T. Rybak in Minneapolis and even to Greg Ballard of Indianapolis and A C Wharton of Memphis, are leading their cities into the 21st century by prioritizing the implementation of safe infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, Ed Lee spends his days figuring out what he can do to make more money for the tech moguls and real-estate developers who put him up for office.
At a time of unbelievable transformation around the world, a time when cities everywhere are going back to the drawing board to figure out how to keep pace with the demands of a new century, Ed Lee’s self-professed big legacy project is moving a basketball team 5 miles across the Bay. This is a man who is dangerously and criminally out of touch.
If Ed Lee cared we’d have a police force that actually investigated the nearly 1,000 incidents every year that saw a pedestrian or bicyclist injured or killed by a car driver on our streets. If Ed Lee cared we’d have an SFMTA that allocates more than 1.5 percent of their budget for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that serves nearly 40 percent of all trips. If Ed Lee cared we’d see as many DPW crews re-striping our streets as we do cranes constructing housing for the nouveau rich he is welcoming with open arms. If Ed Lee cared we’d already have a two-way Folsom Street. If Ed Lee cared Amelie Le Moullac would still be alive.
You would think that even if Ed Lee does not care about the safety of people walking and biking on his city’s streets, he might care about upholding the historical legacy of this great city he is supposed to be leading. At a time when our planet faces unprecedented challenges in the form of climate change, peak oil and the myriad other planetary crises, the city that gave the world the Beatniks and the Hippies, the Gay Liberation Movement and the Digital Revolution, the city that has always shown America the way forward to a new and better society is too busy counting its money to be bothered.
By refusing to lead our city to a more sustainable and resilient future through fostering a significant move away from dangerous, carbon spewing automobiles and towards walking and biking, Ed Lee is not only responsible for the death of Amelie Le Moullac but he is responsible for the death of the very Idea of San Francisco.
So what crimes were committed in the death of Amelie Le Moullac? If you want to pin this on the truck driver or Amelie you’ll have to wait for the tape to come out, but you, like Ed Lee, would be failing to see the bigger picture. The truth is the biggest crimes in all of this were committed by members of the SFPD, the SFMTA, and, most egregiously, Ed Lee. The worst part is unless something big changes, these crimes will be repeated every single day for as long as this writer cares to forecast. In all the tragedy of the last two weeks, at least these charges have been brought to light – if, for now, only informally. One thing is for certain: the future, whether short-term or long, will no doubt bring convictions.