San Francisco's Death Machines
The “wiggle” is a stretch of roadway in San Francisco that allows cyclists to avoid some of the nastier hills separating the city’s east and west ends. On the west end, it dumps out onto a flat, green straightaway known as the panhandle, which ends at Golden Gate Park.
Long before anyone outside of a few messengers knew what the wiggle was, there was a stenciled bit of art on one corner of the panhandle, just before coming to one of several traffic lights. “Death Machines Ahead,” it read, in a foreboding crimson meant to heighten the impending danger cyclists face from automobiles.
That sign more or less typified cyclist's attitude toward cars.
But today’s death machines, according to a number of city residents, are of the two-wheeled variety, specifically the kind with no brakes.
They’re called fixed gears, and yes… they make absolutely no sense in a city with near-vertical drops of the kind San Francisco is renowned for. I should know… I rode one here for years. And I never hit a soul.
At a recent press conference in City Hall (convened following the death of Sutchi Hui, an elderly Chinese pedestrian who was killed by a cyclist last week) a member of the SFPD’s traffic division noted in response to a question that, “fixies are VERY hard to control.” Frankly, I doubt he’s ever ridden one. The reporters in attendance, meanwhile, all seemed to have it out for the cycling community. None looked to be part of it.
But my point here is not to talk about fixed gears. What I’d like to share with anyone interested is some very general, unscientific observations made during my own commute home the other day from South of Market to the Richmond.
I have been riding in this city for close to twenty years. (I no longer ride a fixed gear, by the way.) I’ve been in numerous accidents and near-accidents, and by far the overwhelming majority have not come as a result of my own indiscretions but rather because of the carelessness of pedestrians and drivers both.
Doors, jay-walkers, speeders, California rollers… it reads like a bad sushi menu.
I ride slow these days. I’m in no rush. I stop at the lights and come to a near stop at stop signs. What I saw yesterday demonstrated to me that the anger directed at the cycling community here is completely out of proportion to the danger we represent versus that which we face on a daily basis.
• 8 – The number of jaywalkers. When you’re cycling down the street, and a person jumps off the curb, you either collide with them or veer into oncoming traffic. Neither option is appealing.
• 6 – The number of pedestrians walking against the light. (Should we start offering licenses to pedestrians, as has been suggested for cyclists?)
• 4 – The number of doors that swung open in front of me as I came slowly meandering down the lane. No apologies were forth coming, only a bewildering and unsurprising obliviousness from the drivers.
• 5 – The number of cars that failed to make a complete stop at stop signs.
• 2 – The number of drivers I saw on their cell phones while driving.
Seems to me the numbers speak for themselves. Yes, there are unruly and dangerous cyclists. But does the bike riding population here deserve the level of vitriol that is now being directed at them? I don’t think so.
For every bike out there that is one less car drivers have to deal with. The city saves on road repair expenses, medical bills from would-be accidents and a slew of other benefits. Rather that jumping down out throats, the city should honestly be thankful our numbers are rising.