Do We Have Special Responsibilities As Bicyclists?

Responsibility Will Bring Support
by Ira Hankin

A tragic event occurred on April 13th around 6:45 pm. A female pedestrian was walking in a crosswalk on the Embarcadero with a green signal. She was hit and knocked down by a 48-year-old bicyclist who ran his red light. The pedestrian was rushed to the hospital and was in a deep coma for several days. It turned out that the victim was the wife of the general manager of KGO Newstalk Radio 810, one of the most anti-bike voices in the Bay Area. After this incident, I heard talk show host Ron Owens calling for mandatory insuring and licensing of bicyclists in the city. And caller after caller added criticisms of bicyclists. I was deeply saddened by the pedestrian being so seriously hurt and by the on-air response that followed.

The purpose of this article is not to preach from some moralistic standpoint about obeying the law but rather to make the streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

When I cycle and walk around the city I always take notice of other cyclists - I feel an affinity with those cyclists. So when I get to an intersection I am aware of how courteous cyclists are to others and whether they are following the traffic laws. And sadly I must agree with the many critics of bicyclists in the city: that many bicyclists are rude and do not observe the rules of the road.

Bicyclists in San Francisco desperately need public support if we are to get safer streets. We need that public support to sway local politicians to vote for physical improvements and the accompanying funding for new bike lanes, traffic calming and increased bike parking facilities. And we need the public to support and vote for ballot measures such as the Saturday closure of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park.

So this is why I am appealing to my fellow cyclists to stop disregarding others on the roads and at least make an attempt to follow the traffic laws. The way I see it, when a bicyclist runs a red light or a stop sign past a bunch of waiting cars it is an insult to the other users of the road. At stop signs I suggest coming close to stopping (the same speed as a "California Roll"), making eye contact with the other vehicles at the intersection, then proceeding through. And at a red light bicyclists must stop. After stopping, if no one's coming or if it's late at night for safety reasons, then proceed. Many bicyclists say traffic laws are not suited for bicyclists, and in many instances I agree, so let's work to change the vehicle code through legislation. We can use the SFBC and the California Bicycle Coalition to make appropriate changes. But until then, if we want safer streets, we must better co-exist with other users of the road.

Others' Hostility Not Our Problem
by Anna Sojourner

Lately I'm hearing cyclists pressing the argument that we could win friends and influence people by behaving well. This proposition takes various forms—that smiling at drivers will win us friends, that riding without helmets damages our reputation by making us appear too incautious to be taken seriously. Some argue that we should demonstrate our responsibility in order to earn safe roads.

This is an oft-recycled sentiment. For instance, Nation of Islam members dress nicely so non-Muslims will be open to their point of view. During Gay Pride month a few years back, a group spray-painted sidewalks with the words "Lesbian Avengers: We recruit." I argued at length with a woman who feared that lesbians would never be taken seriously if they committed vandalism. I countered that lesbians are never noticed unless they do outrageous things.

So here we are in the SFBC, arguing about an artificial split placed on bikeists from both inside and outside our group. There is a pervasive conception of two types of bicyclists: those critical massing, messenger-types who break all the rules and spoil it for everybody, and the grown-ups who play the game and actually deserve new bike lanes.

There is a desire among some cyclists to prove to the world that we are tax-payin', votin', kid-havin', moderate-drinkin' people who like a leaf blower as much as the next guy. While bicyclists are not being taken seriously by society at large, let's not make that our problem. Factionalizing our already incoherent group doesn't gain us anything. Until there are bikes everywhere all the time, drivers will always be outraged by cyclists. In this country the car is king, a message reinforced every day on the ever-widening highway, in shrinking pedestrian facilities, on television. Cyclists disrupt the notion of automobile dominance (and, infuriatingly, fly by the poor sods stuck in traffic). This outrages a populace who have every reason to be incensed: they are immobilized in a small box, bound in traffic, and society offers them little choice. I'd be pissed off, too. Are we responsible for their anger?

There is no reason to believe that certain behaviors will win us respect from motorists when the respect we are accorded is negligible to begin with. I wear a helmet and I think you should, too. But lots of drivers don't wear safety belts, an action that is arguably much more unsafe than biking without a helmet. Yet no one views that as representative of anything, except perhaps the viability of the Social Darwinism hypothesis. Trying to control the behavior of other cyclists is an insurmountable task. Instead, let's chastise the police who reflexively blame the cyclist in every road death. Let's humiliate public officials who build auto-centric cities. Let's demand that the city stop coddling drivers who block sidewalks and bike lanes. Let's educate our friends and co-workers about our rights. But let's not bother pointing the finger at other cyclists.