I got a chance to vacation in San Francisco earlier this month. I took my bike up on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, did a lot of sketching, rode Sunday Streets, and had fun exploring SF’s bike facilities. It’s no surprise that San Francisco is way ahead of Los Angeles in terms of implementing lanes and other bike facilities… but that’s a low standard… L.A. is, frankly, way behind the times with very few bike lanes, no bike lanes in the city’s core, and no experimentation with facilities not yet streamlined by the car-centric MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices – the big official book that tells engineers how to give lots of space to cars everywhere all the time.)
My first morning in the city I biked down to the offices of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and bought a copy of the city bike/ped map… which is excellent, very useful, but I think from 2009 and already somewhat out-of-date! A good sign that new facilities are being implemented frequently.
Overall, I really enjoyed riding in S.F. When I pulled up to a stop, I would frequently be joined by 2, 3, 4+ cyclists. It felt like a group ride… but it’s just the way people get around. Cyclists tended toward very practical bikes – lots of racks, panniers, no lycra, and fewer fixed gears than L.A. (probably that’s due to all the hills there.) Riders I saw were young, old, rich, poor, skinny, fat, all races, female and male.
Sometimes when I write an article about a new bike facility in L.A., I cruise around for 5-10 minutes, keeping an eye out for cyclists using the facility… and though I can’t remember a time when I had to feature only empty shots of a bike facility (see the LADOT website for those), occasionally it takes a few minutes to get a good photo. In S.F., I found that it took no time at all. Especially on Market Street and the Wiggle, one can take photos all day and more often than not there’s an approaching cyclist (or four) using the facility.
There are plenty of bike lanes in San Francisco. I don’t know the overall total, but it’s clear that the San Francisco has implemented lots of standard of 5′ bike lanes on very useful streets. Right in front of where I was staying, on Polk Street less than a half-dozen blocks from S.F. City Hall, there were bike lanes. On the Polk lanes I noticed two interesting small touches that I haven’t seen before.
The Polk lanes have small diagonal markings that show the door zone. In the above photo, there are four of these visible. The most prominent is directly above the letter E in BIKE. I’ve never seen these before and I don’t know how well they work… but one issue that is brought up in L.A. cyclist circles is that when bike lanes are placed next to parked cars (more than 90% of the existing and planned bike lanes in L.A. fit this description), a portion of the lanes are in the door zone. Some cyclists (especially beginners) will ride too close to the cars, and some cyclists collide with car doors opening. I tend to not be overly concerned about this issue, because, all things considered on a given street, I think that cyclists are safer in a bike lane than in no bike lane (and this is borne out by this often-cited Cambridge MA study)… but nonetheless, the less dooring that happens, the better.
I didn’t see any other door-lane treatments like this during my three days in S.F. … so I am curious to hear if it’s a pilot, and how S.F. cyclists think it’s working. I would be interested in maybe trying this in L.A. in a situation where there’s the greatest dooring risk – ie: where we’re squeezing in a bike lane in a minimum- street-width situation in a commercial corridor with fairly high-turnover on-street parking.
Just further down Polk (actually visible in the earlier photo) there’s a construction site that extends into the street. The construction has displaced the sidewalk onto the bike lane, and displaced bikes into sharing the car lane. This situation occurs in Southern California… I was going to say that it’s common, but it’s really only as common as bike lanes are… which isn’t all that common. When it occurs in L.A., there’s generally no consideration whatsoever for cyclists, who are forced to merge left. In S.F., cyclists still are forced to merge, but there’s at least a sign telling drivers and riders that bikes are allowed full use of the lane. It may not be bike-perfect (ie: someday I’d like to see a car lane removed during construction) but at least cycling has been considered and legitimized.
MARKET STREET GOES GREEN
Despite green pavement marking being used all over Europe, and really well in places including Long Beach, Portland, New York City, etc., there’s no green lane markings on the ground yet in the city of Los Angeles. (Department of DIY sharpen your brushes!) Similar to Long Beach’s focus on their downtown and Belmont Shore, San Francisco has done much of their most compelling bike (transit and pedestrian applies here too) interventions on their most central spine: Market Street.
The cross-section of Market Street varies quite a bit. It has a few differing excellent treatments along most of its length. There are wide very active sidewalks. The city runs vintage streetcars the length of Market. For many stretches, cars are de-prioritized. At a lot of intersections, cars are required to turn right while cyclists, buses and streetcars can continue straight. More bike features detailed below, but the overall effect is a truly shared multi-modal bustling boulevard with plenty of bikes, pedestrians, buses, streetcars and automobiles, too – all getting along pretty well.
There are protected bike lanes:
These are separated by “candlesticks” plastic posts – a bit cheap and quick, but effective in this setting.
Here’s another smart green treatment: dashed green merge areas, leading up to green bike boxes:
This one takes a bit of explaining (and it was brand new when I was there this month – in the above photo, the green was just painted and the white stripes not in yet.) As cars and cyclists approach an intersection where cars turn right (often right-turn-only for cars), a conflict emerges between cyclists proceeding straight and cars turning right. In this merging zone, the green bike lane becomes dashed – and see below for the bike box treatment at the intersection:
At the end of the dashes (though not shown in this photo above, similar boxes are at the end of the dashes, trust me), there are green bike boxes. Bike boxes are an exotic species for most L.A. readers (though there are a handful of them in West Hollywood and Long Beach, they’re easy to miss.) Bike boxes basically designate a space at intersections where cyclists can pull out in front of cars. This means that the bicyclist are easier to see and that cars can turn without hitting bikes going straight. These boxes prevent collisions and give cycling a tiny bit of priority at intersections.
The Market Street boxes help cyclists continue straight at intersections, avoiding collisions with right-turning cars. They also appear to get some cyclists (this wasn’t entirely respected during my observations) to stop before the crosswalk, hence avoiding some bike-ped conflict.
TIFFANY STREET BIKE BOULEVARD
There aren’t many bicycle boulevards in San Francisco – I think partially due to there being fewer bike boulevard quiet street opportunities in dense cities (and I think many of the quieter streets are hilly!) I did check out this one on Tiffany Street, located conveniently at the south end of the Valencia Street bike lanes.
Apparently Tiffany used to get a lot of cut-through traffic. The city put in a choke point where bikes can go through and cars can’t… and ouila!! quiet bike-ped friendly street. It showed me that these bike boulevard traffic-calming features may make the most sense at the entry points to corridors… some day we’ll get these in Los Angeles (meanwhile find cool ones nearby in Long Beach and San Luis Obispo.)
San Francisco is, of course, fairly hilly. There’s a bike route there called “The Wiggle” that connects Market Street with Golden Gate Park. What makes the Wiggle great is that it avoids various hills.
The Wiggle has a few different treatments – mostly just sharrows and signage, with a one-block bike path (on Duboce at Market), and a few blocks of bike lanes on its northwest end (mainly on Fell Street near the Golden Gate Park panhandle.)
What’s innovative on the wiggle is a really smart left-turn-only bike lane. The left turn it faciliates is from northbound Scott Street onto westbound Fell. I’ve described it as best I can, but it may be difficult to picture… maybe also watch this Streetfilm which shows off the Wiggle.
As riders go north on Scott Street, they come to a green bike box at the intersection of Scott and Oak Street.
The bike box allows cyclists to shift over to the left, getting in position to make a left turn one block north at Fell. Here’s the bicyclist-eye view:
For one block between Oak and Fell, there is a one-way left-turn only bike lane:
Here’s another shot of the Scott Street bike left turn lane:
What I think is impressive about this is that not only is there a bike lane, but also an adjacent sharrow. Cyclists use the spine of the Wiggle, and peel off at various points. On this street, I observed most cyclists turning left onto Fell, but a few continued straight, so the street supports bicycling options, instead of forced channeling of cyclists into just one trajectory. It makes me think of those inane voices that say L.A. doesn’t need a bike path on the L.A. River because there’s already a parallel bike path on the Orange Line a half mile away. San Francisco seems to be better at planning a network where one day a cyclist takes Fell west to get to the gym and the next day she takes Scott north to get to the movies.
Getting back to the Wiggle… Heading north on Scott, cyclists turn left onto Fell Street. Fell is a one way street, with a (green) bike lane on the left. Most bike lanes are on the right lane… and though that one-way left-hand bike lane configuration is at length frowned upon by the city of Los Angeles bike plan [page 3-38 here], the leftside one-way street bike lanes are really successful in SF and NYC. A left side one-way bike lane next to parking conlicts with a passenger-side door zone instead of a driver-side door… so, because most cars don’t contain passengers anyway, there are fewer door conflicts on a left-side lane than a ride-side lane on a one-way street.
Here’s an image of the Fell Street one-way left-side bike lanes:
The photo shows the green left-side one-way-street bike lanes as the green ends. The green becomes dashed where bicyclists and left-turning cars share the lane.
Though I don’t know of anywhere where L.A. needs a left-turn bike lane… I think that there are lessons to be learned from the Wiggle. What it taught me is that a few, relatively minor interventions placed at the most-needed strategic locations in a corridor/route can make the entire length very bikeable. In L.A. we do almost the opposite. We tend to only put the bike facilities where they’re easiest and sometimes leaving gaps where they’re most needed. The Reseda Blvd bike lanes come to mind… where Reseda Blvd gets near the 118 Freeway, the lanes disappear, leaving cyclists to fend off drivers accelerating onto on-ramps. Then, beyond the freeway, the street quiets down a bit and the bike lanes resume.
In Los Angeles, it can take years for an exasperatingly poor pilot project to get implemented. The example that comes to mind is that, in September 2005 sharrows were approved for use throughout the state of California. The city of L.A. gave lip-service to a sharrow pilot project expected to be done in 2008. Then followed huge numbers of lame excuses and finally a year ago, in June 2010, the city implemented its first sharrows, at excessive cost, and with no media or driver education… Going through these sorts of cumbersome exasperating processes to get less-than-optimal facilities implemented can lower bicyclists’ expectations. Biking in San Francisco (Long Beach, New York City) shows me that these great facilities are possible, and can happen fairly quickly where there’s a modicum of vision and political will.
Many bicyclists and even some bike activists in Los Angeles aren’t very familiar with what a bike lane looks like, because they just don’t exist on most L.A. streets – and especially in L.A.’s most population-dense core neighborhoods. And that’s just bike lanes – awareness is much less for other facilities. Bike corral
s and sharrows are here, but are so rare that most folks aren’t familiar with them. Protected bike lanes, bike boulevards, bike boxes, and other really great bike facilities just don’t exist here. The dearth of bike facilities in Los Angeles leads to reduced awareness and this leads bike activists to being inarticulate in even knowing what to ask for. Biking in San Francisco (Long Beach, New York City) can help give L.A.’s bike activists on-the-ground knowledge of how real bike facilities work… and help us understand what tools can be most appropriate where.
All that’s pretty cerebral, though. There’s a more fundamental visceral reason to travel to places like San Francisco, New York City, and Long Beach. Bicycling around S.F. this trip, I felt comforted… I felt like the city actually wanted me to be safe. San Francisco can and should continue to do more, but the city’s configurations of lanes, boulevards, and more already says that bicycling is legitimate… bicyclists are welcome.
After biking for three days in San Francisco, I returned home to L.A. It took me a few days to readjust to the thick-skinned damn-the-torpedoes attitude that’s pretty much required to bike on L.A.’s streets. Let’s learn from other cities and change that.
(I plan to do one more San Francisco post – looking at some of the new public spaces that they’ve created: parklets, mini-parks, etc.)