Creative Solutions for Safer Streets by Dave Snyder

Photo from City of Portland Office of Transportation
Colored bike lanes are just one of the many innovative concepts for bike improvements that will be part of the Bicycle Network plan process. Many other innovations will become standard if the plan meets its potential to change the way bike facilities are constructed in San Francisco: continuing bike lanes across intersections; narrowing car lanes to below-normal widths; using highly reflective paint; changing bike lane dimensions and requiring signage to prevent dooring; reducing motor vehicle speed limits to 15 mph on some streets; installing bold and large stencils to remind motorists that bicycles have the right-of-way; and requiring wider-than-normal bike lanes.

Defining new standards for accommodating bicycles safely in San Francisco is one of the first things the bike network consultants will do as they develop the plan. It is key to creating a safe network because current official standards are not designed to encourage bicycling in a dense and crowded city like San Francisco. They give no guidance to engineers regarding appropriate compromises between bicycles and automobiles. They generally provide minimum levels of safety, without reference to cyclist security or comfort, rather than preferred treatments.

Two examples of how new standards will help:

Improved standards could help prevent dooring, a collision which occurs approximately ten times a week in San Francisco, often resulting in injury and at least once in the past decade, a fatality. We know that cyclists should ride about 12' from the curb to avoid a suddenly opening car door, but current bike lane standards do not address the importance of encouraging bicyclists to ride in this zone. The SFBC has heard several reports of dooring injuries on Valencia Street, for example. If bike lanes are striped where there is not room to keep cyclists away from car doors, should aggressive signage be required to remind motorists to check for bicycles before opening doors? Should bike lanes be redesigned to include an arrow telling cyclists to keep away from parked cars? Should standards be different on streets with metered parking and high parking turnover compared to streets with only long-term residential parking?

Another example is Laguna Honda Blvd. Without guidance from standards, city traffic engineers have designed bike lanes that do not provide cyclists with the degree of safety and comfort that meets the goals of the Bicycle Network: safe and comfortable for people from the ages of 8 to 80. Although the bike lanes are slightly wider than they have to be according to the standard, so are the traffic lanes. The engineers even included a median in the center of the street, a typically suburban treatment almost unheard of in San Francisco. The result, predictably, is a street that encourages very high-speed car traffic. SFBC attempts to get wider bike lanes and narrower car lanes (and hence, slower speeds, greater safety, and more comfort) failed. We had no standard to refer to, and we could not take the issue to the Board of Supervisors because specific lane widths are not within the direct jurisdiction of the Board.

The new standards in the bicycle plan will allow us to argue about the underlying standards to the Board of Supervisors and set the stage for improved bicycle safety as a matter of routine engineering.