Hundreds of defiant bicyclists lined up single file here in July to protest, halting car traffic in a one-mile zigzag of streets known as the Wiggle that is popular among riders.
Motorists honked and heckled during their stalled evening commute, as cyclists crept along to make their point: that they want the common practice of treating stop signs as yield signs — rolling through them slowly and coming to a stop only if necessary — to be legalized, for practical reasons.
Law enforcement officials had threatened to crack down on cyclists who failed to stop at signs, and the Wiggle “stop-in” protest was in response to their threat. Still, the police made good on their warning, issuing 204 citations over two days in August. Not to be silenced, 100 cyclists showed up at a community meeting to vent, and the crackdown was suspended.
Angry confrontations among bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians are common in many cities, but tensions in San Francisco have been heightened with the introduction of a bill that would permit bike riders to yield instead of stop at stop signs (but not at red lights, which cyclists would still have to observe the same way motorists do). The proposed ordinance, backed by a majority on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, is expected to come up for a vote in December.
If it passes, Mayor Edwin Lee has vowed to veto it, telling The San Francisco Chronicle, “I’m not willing to trade away safety for convenience.”
If the supervisors prevail over a veto, San Francisco will become the largest city in the United States to pass a stop-as-yield law. Idaho and a few Colorado counties are the only places in the United States that permit the rolling stop, commonly called the “Idaho stop” because of its legality in the state since 1982. Paris adopted a similar law this summer.
And if bicyclists in this crowded and hilly city succeed, they are bracing for even more resistance from pedestrians and drivers fighting for space on San Francisco’s increasingly congested streets.
“It feels like the Wild West because there are so many people in the city right now,” said Morgan Fitzgibbons, a community activist who organized the protest at the Wiggle. “People say, ‘You are so entitled.’ But if anyone is entitled, it is the drivers who refuse to give up the privilege of having a parking spot. We have battle after battle, and nothing is ever solved.”
There is no shortage of clashes among those who travel by foot, on two wheels and on four. In August, a driver was surrounded by cyclists from Critical Mass, a guerrilla bike group that holds monthly rides that often snarl traffic; when the driver tried to escape, one of the cyclists used a bike lock to smash the car’s windows and hood. The episode was caught on video.
Just this month, a cyclist named Mark Heryer was killed while riding west on Market Street, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare, when he lost control and was run over by a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency bus, according to the police. That same day, another cyclist was struck blocks away by a truck towing a horse trailer. Most people agree that there is carelessness and fault on all sides.
“Cars turn and they don’t signal,” said Jean Kao, a co-founder of a startup who works in San Francisco. She said she felt safe riding her bike to the office, although she had experienced a number of close calls. But her fellow cyclists do not always have the best judgment either, Kao said, adding, “I see people trying to pass buses and I think: ‘Whoa. That is not safe.’ ”
John Avalos, the San Francisco supervisor who introduced the ordinance and a bike commuter, said the measure would not condone reckless behavior but instead allow police officers to focus on more serious violations. A friend of his was recently issued a ticket after 11 p.m. for rolling through a stop sign at an empty corner along the Wiggle.
“Two blocks away, people are getting drunk in bars and falling into the street,” Avalos said. “That is where we should be spending our resources.”
Avid bicyclists across the country say the Idaho stop is the de facto practice in most places, though not legal. Those who are following the proposal in San Francisco are eagerly anticipating the outcome, curious if this liberal bastion will finally be the place to break the barrier against such rules.
The issue is so divisive, said Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, that few politicians are willing to take it on. In 2009, Oregon’s Legislature debated such a bill, but it did not pass.
“It became, ‘I don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole,’ ” Sadowsky said.
Injuries in Idaho — where cyclists also can proceed through a red light at an intersection after having stopped — have not increased since the law passed, said Stephen Clark, a program specialist at the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, proposals not only in Oregon but also in Arizona and Montana have failed to gain support, Clark said. He attributes this to the fact that cyclists and motorists do not always agree on how best to share the road. Perhaps, Clark said, things will be different this time.
“San Francisco is certainly on the cutting edge of a lot of things,” he said.
Still, everyone here agrees San Francisco has to better address the safety of its cyclists as more commuters take to biking to avoid the parking crunch and congested streets. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency estimates that 70,000 bike trips are made each weekday — a number that is rising — and it is the city’s goal to cut bike fatalities to zero by 2024.
“There is work to do in this area,” said Ed Reiskin, the executive director of the transportation agency, which is charged with overseeing the city’s bike lane expansion.
He conceded that San Francisco had been slow to act on goals set forth in its 2006 bike plan and had been trying to make up for lost ground since. This year, the transit authority has 15 bike-related projects scheduled.
San Francisco is the second most densely populated city in the United States behind New York, with water on three sides and little room to expand. In the late 19th century, it was dominated by cable cars, which gave way to streetcars and, later, automobiles that navigated the city’s steep hills. In the 1990s, bike culture blossomed, resulting in the rift that continues today.
Noah Budnick, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, supports the proposed ordinance but said he could see both sides.
“There is this ‘me first’ attitude, and it depends on whether you are riding a bike or driving a car,” he said. “Sometimes that can be the same person.”
Sadowsky, of the Portland bike group, suggested that a more palatable legal solution might be something akin to the way seatbelts are regulated — that is, making failure to stop at a street sign a secondary offense. That way, cyclists would not be ticketed for failure to stop, but if they were cited for another violation, the failure to stop would be added. That, of course, won’t overcome the ire aroused by watching someone else get ahead.
“In communities where street traffic is horrible, bikes move on through,” Sadowsky said. And that is frustrating for drivers idling in place, stacked 10 deep in a row, watching cyclists zip by.
“It’s not jealousy,” Sadowsky said of motorists’ disdain for cyclists. “It’s more like: ‘Why are you whining? You already have it made.’ ”