Nearly every day on my bicycle commute home, a driver swerves in front of my bicycle into the bike lane. Sometimes they see me, other times they’re not even looking. Usually I respond with explicit indignation. But sometimes I keep silent, because I’m actually not quite sure who’s in the right. We all know that cyclists thrive on the ability to self-righteously yell at inattentive drivers, so of course these moments of self-doubt would not stand. I decided to reach out to an expert to clarify some of the most confusing traffic I’ve encountered in the Mission.
The most common near-crash encounters on my daily route are usually the result of a driver’s poorly coordinated right turn across the path of a cyclist determined to keep going straight ahead at speed. Here’s how this should look:
I’m reasonably sure only a small fraction of cyclists and drivers know this is how it’s supposed to be done—and I’m ashamed to say I only recently joined that small group. But even armed with this knowledge, it’s difficult to navigate right-turning cars because they often move over toward the right but don’t commit to being in the bike lane, thus quite effectively blocking both lanes.
According to Kristin Smith of the SF Bicycle Coalition, in this case, it’s best to go around the left of the car since this common misunderstanding can cause a “right hook” type crash.
Slipping between the car and the curb is never recommended. If the driver moves over to turn when it’s already too late to abide by this rule, cyclists should slow down, ring their bell to alert the driver to their presence, but wait for the car to make the turn.
Especially on narrower streets, things can start to feel a bit dicey in close quarters with cars. To prevent impatient drivers from clipping cyclists as they pass them, the “Three Feet for Safety Law” goes into effect today. This state law stipulates that drivers passing a cyclist must allow for a three-foot cushion between any part of the car and any part of the bike before overtaking the cyclist. If they can’t do that because the street is too narrow, they have to wait until the road widens enough to pass safely or face a citation of up to $959 if a collision occurs.
When I ride along the commercial corridors, delivery trucks often park in the bike lane, making a tame morning ride more adventurous with the possibility of going flying over a dolly full of beer kegs. Irksome as this may be for us long-suffering cyclists, it’s perfectly legal.
According to Smith, here it’s the cyclist’s responsibility to signal his or her turn to merge into the main traffic lane outside of the reach of any doors and away from unsuspecting personnel. Nonetheless, “drivers parking in the center divider is certainly better than blocking the full bike lane on a busy bike route like Valencia Street,” wrote Smith. SFBC is also working to get more yellow zones for loading so bike lanes are left unobstructed.
On both commercial and residential streets, construction can also be very effective at squeezing cyclists and drivers into the same space. Often, I spot a sign saying, “Cyclists allowed full use of lane,” and proudly pedal into the middle of the driving lane and blissfully ignore the impatient drivers behind me.
But do I have the right to take up the whole driving lane even if there’s no sign granting me driver-lane asylum? Absolutely, says Smith.
“Sign or no sign, the law is that a person biking is allowed the full use of the lane,” she wrote. And anyone can report a construction zone without a safe bike route at sfbike.org/resources, and the Coalition will follow up to see that one is created.
But not every street has a bike lane. While it’s not a great idea to go barreling down Mission on your two-wheeler, Smith confirmed that you don’t legally have to do anything if someone tells you to ride elsewhere. If you’re going somewhere on Mission, you have to ride on Mission. But on Mission and other transit thoroughfares, you also have to do what I like to call the Bus Dance: The cautious bursts of speed and sudden braking involved in trying to guess whether the bus is going to pull into traffic ahead of you or if you can overtake it. Smith recommended patience, in that cyclists should simply take a breather and wait for the bus to pull far enough ahead that they are unlikely to catch up to it. If you do feel like racing a biodiesel behemoth, bikes should always pass on the outside, not curb side, of any bus.
Sightseeing and Alleys
For more leisurely trips, Mission Local has been known to recommend checking out the local sights by bike. Smith recommends that mural-gawkers and other bike-bound tourists should walk their bikes across crosswalks if it feels unsafe to pull out of an alley. Otherwise check both directions for traffic and re-enter (in the direction of traffic!), signaling any turns.
“Sightseeing by bike is the best, and we’re so happy to see more tourists on bikes visiting SF neighborhoods,” Smith wrote.
Finally, I was surprised to learn that a cyclist, upon dismounting his or her ride, by law becomes a pedestrian. Hoping to find some clever way to take advantage of this, I got a more philosophical response all of us who take to the streets would do well to remember:
“One of the things we try to really get across is that there aren’t cyclists and drivers and pedestrians; there are people who are biking, who are driving, who are walking,” Smith wrote. “That person isn’t a cyclist; they’re a mom who happens to be on a bike, so we are really careful with that.”