Changing Perceptions, Changing Our Streets: A Guide to Bicycle Diplomacy by Nancy Botkin

Artwork by Andy Singer
We recently received a phone call at the SFBC office. "I live on Cabrillo Street and someone just put a flyer in my mailbox about bike lanes," the caller said. "I want you to know that there's no way I'm supporting bike lanes. Bikes are very dangerous. We already have too many bikes on the sidewalk. I've almost been hit while walking. I don't want any more bikes on my street."

Comments like this can seem irrational (doesn't the caller understand that bike lanes would get bikes off the sidewalk?), but they demonstrate the fact that some people think bikes are a nuisance and stereotype all cyclists as scofflaws, based on the behavior of a few.

While cyclists may find such attitudes ironic, given the fact that we put up with frightening and offensive behavior from motorists on a daily basis, the fact remains that people who negatively stereotype all bicyclists are unlikely to support bike facilities. And if we're going to succeed in implementing the citywide Bike Network, we're going to have to do more to address these negative perceptions.

As a cyclist, you've no doubt already had one of these conversations with a motorist, where you're put in the position of defending everything annoying that any cyclist has ever done. And you're probably going to be having many more of these conversations, (we hope), as you attend bike network meetings around the city, talk with your neighbors and coworkers about bicycling, and become all-around bicycle ambassadors. So we thought we'd discuss some of the most common bike-car complaints we contend with day after day to help you the next time you are trying to explain bicycle behavior and to justify the need for better bike lanes, signs, timed lights, etc.

We are in an exciting transition period in San Francisco, as we are about to leave this era of relatively few bicycles and bicycle lanes and enter an era where bicycling in the city is far more commonplace. During this time--as motorists try to adjust to more bikes on the road, every cyclist is a bicycle ambassador. Although not everyone is going to get on a bicycle, we need everyone to support bike facilities on our streets.

What we hear: Bikes always ride on the sidewalk, endangering pedestrians--especially seniors and the disabled.

What you can say: Some cyclists may ride on the sidewalk in situations where they perceive that riding on the street is more dangerous. Therefore, we need to provide a safe place for cyclists to ride on the street. Although riding on the sidewalk is one of the more dangerous activities for a cyclist due to cars entering/exiting driveways and the lack of visibility at intersections, many cyclists are still fearful of the streets.

What we hear: I've never seen a cyclist stop at a red light!

What you can say: Everyone knows that cyclists must obey all traffic signals, as must motorists and pedestrians. All cyclists don't just blow through red lights, as is the stereotype. Many cyclists have told me that they stop at red lights, carefully check for cross traffic, then go through the red light in order to get ahead of traffic on busy crowded streets. Although this behavior is illegal and can be annoying to motorists, cyclists may feel that they get a buffer of safety away from cars by moving separately from the rest of the traffic. It's another reason we need bike lanes.

What we hear: It's so annoying when bikes "block" the traffic lane by riding in the middle. Bikes should get out of my way because they are slower!

What you can say: Cyclists must stay out of the dangerous "door zone" and are permitted by law to take the lane when it is not wide enough for a car and bike to ride safely side by side. In these situations, cars must move at the speed of the cyclist until it is safe to pass. Yet again, it will only help motorists when there are more bike lanes on our streets!

What we hear: Why don't cyclists have to stop at stop signs?!

What you can say: Because cyclists can slow to almost a crawl at stop signs, many cyclists prefer to yield, rather than come to a complete stop and lose all their momentum. Many cyclists have told me that although not following the letter of the law, they are following the intent of the law as long as they use common courtesy to let people with the right of way go first. Cyclists do legally need to stop at stop signs and to understand that the vehicle (or bike) on the right has the right of way.

What we hear: I'm afraid I'm going to hit a cyclist at night--why do they always ride without lights?

What you can say: Cyclists have been taught to feel invisible and to act as if no one can see them. Many cyclists feel that it doesn't matter if they wear lights, it only matters that they can see the cars. However, it is just as critical for cyclists to be seen (by cars and peds) as it is for them to see. The law requires a front headlight and rear reflectors, and we feel a rear blinky light is important, too. Fortunately, recent technological improvements have made bike lights not only more effective and reliable, but also more affordable. We obviously need to do more citywide to make cyclists feel that they are not invisible.

What we hear: I'm not going to support you bicyclists because I can't stand Critical Mass.

What you can say: Critical Mass is a monthly happening, completely separate from the SFBC, which is a nonprofit organization. The SFBC can take neither credit nor blame for Critical Mass. Some SFBC members may participate in Critical Mass, as they do in other rides. Whether you agree or disagree with the actions of Critical Mass, it has done a lot to empower cyclists and bring attention to our issues.

OK, ready now for your next community meeting? Go lobby for that bike lane in your neighborhood and help us build the citywide Bike Network!