The cyclist on 26th Street careened right into Connie Weber, a retired security guard, and took off.
“I didn’t get the chance to really holler at him or anything, because it just took me by surprise,” said Weber of the incident that took place between Shotwell and South Van Ness.
As San Francisco’s bike culture continues to grow — the number of cyclists increased 58 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — so have the complaints about bikers riding on sidewalks. Riding on sidewalks is illegal and punishable by a $156 ticket after a rider turns 13-years old.
But during any weekday morning or evening rush it’s easy to see bikers on the sidewalks of Mission Street — one of the worst, according to Weber.
Interviews with pedestrian and cycling groups as well as police make it clear that they’re unlikely to disappear soon. For the most part, the city is relying on law enforcement and a few education programs to get riders off the sidewalks. But easy solutions are hard to come by in modern cities designed for autos and buses.
San Francisco Police Department spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield described the city as undergoing a transitional period to make it more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians. The San Francisco Bicycle Plan will increase bike lanes to 79 miles from the current 45, but the new lanes are unlikely to be finished before 2014.
Here in the Mission, Valencia’s lanes were completed in March of 1999, and 17th Street’s will be increased in width, to connect the Castro, Mission and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.
Within the next year, bike lanes will also appear on Cesar Chavez, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Leah Shahum wrote in an e-mail. Shahum is excited about plans to add bike lanes to Folsom Street in the Mission.
There are no plans, however, for a bike lane along Mission Street, and given the street’s high volume of car and bus traffic, plus the fact that Valencia is just a block away, Shahum said that she would be surprised if that idea moved forward.
Cyclists on the sidewalk are primarily motivated by fear — they feel the city streets are too unsafe, said Pi Ra, senior university director from the SoMa-based Senior Action Network, which advocates for pedestrians’ rights.
In 2008, Senior Action Network surveyed 225 members and non-members and found that 10 percent said they had been hit by a bicycle in the two previous years. Ra said a more informal survey of some members last April showed that had not changed.
Accident reports for 2010 from the SFPD’s Traffic Company show 19 bicycle/pedestrian accidents in San Francisco, and 19 as of August of this year. The figures do not include unreported accidents. The city saw two bicycle fatalities in 2010, and two so far this year, according to Dangerfield.
In response to cyclists who say it is okay for them to ride on the sidewalk if they do it safely, Ra compared riding a bike on the sidewalk to driving in bike lanes.
“If you can [cycle on the sidewalk] safely, then I can drive a car in the bike lane if I do it safely.”
When it comes to enforcing bike laws, police officers usually go out in teams, advising and citing bicycles.
“One citation goes a long way,” Dangerfield said. “They’re going to immediately tell their friends they got cited.” The lieutenant believes that as the word spreads it sends the message to a lot of people to be more careful.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to enforce the laws against riding on the sidewalk, Dangerfield said.
“You don’t want to chase someone on a bicycle.”
And when an officer catches an offending cyclist, other problems can ensue.
“As a police officer, what do you think these guys say to the officers?” Dangerfield said. “‘Why aren’t you catching rapists?’ ‘Why aren’t you out getting murderers?’”
Sometimes police officers ride on the sidewalks themselves, as shown in the video above.
This is uncommon, Dangerfield said, but he defended the practice, adding that police officers are specially trained in how to ride on the sidewalk to assist in apprehending suspects. Part of this training involves learning how to control the bike by braking constantly — almost like walking on the bike.
“As someone who’s been through the course myself, I now ride my own bike different as a result,” he said.
Education and advisement are the main methods police use to try to keep cyclists off the sidewalk, Dangerfield said.
The SFPD collaborates with the SF Bicycle Coalition to get the word out about bike safety issues. The coalition holds free classes and hands out safety materials such as the flyer pictured above.
The group’s next bike education class for adults in the Mission is on Oct. 25 at 16th and Dolores.
At a community police meeting last month, Capt. Greg Corrales said that his six motorcycle cops would be more vigilant regarding bicycle violations.
Ra suggested that police target people who know better — the people who commute to and from work — rather than the weekend warriors who tend to bike outside the city.
To do this, he suggested blanketing key bicycle-riding corridors of the city with flyers for a month, then pushing heavy law enforcement from late March through May — traditionally the time people get back on their bicycles at the end of the rainy season.
Walk San Francisco’s executive director, Elizabeth Stampe, wants the city to think bigger than citing offending cyclists, and redesign the streets. She believes that other city streets should be put on Valencia’s “road diet” of wider sidewalks, bike lanes and timed stoplights. According to Stampe, any car or bike that travels on Valencia will hit nothing but green lights — as long as they’re ambling along at 13 mph.
“It makes cars travel at a much safer speed. A more human speed,” Stampe said.
Stampe has yet to observe someone riding on the Valencia sidewalks since its bike and pedestrian-friendly redesign. Of the 771 bicycles counted at 17th and Valencia in the city’s 2010 Bicycle Count Report, 10 –- 1 percent –- rode on the sidewalk.