Four weeks ago, on the southeast corner of 17th and Guerrero streets, 81-year-old Mary’s life was turned upside down.
It was around 10:50 p.m. Mary, who asked that her full name be withheld, had just walked her 16-year-old granddaughter home from work and was making the short trip along 17th Street back to her house. Coming the other way, on the Guerrero Street sidewalk, was a cyclist. The pair collided as they both emerged around the corner.
Security footage shows that the cyclist was not riding particularly fast, but the crash was still enough to knock Mary off her feet. Mary does not remember the moment of impact. She hit her head, broke her elbow, and shattered her hip in the fall.
“You’re not supposed to be cycling on the sidewalk,” said Mary, dazed, from the sidewalk. She was right; in San Francisco, it is illegal for anyone over the age of 13 to ride their bike on the sidewalk, but they often do nonetheless.
A bystander grabbed a towel from the nearby 500 Club to staunch her bleeding, and the cyclist climbed off her bike to help. She called Mary’s son and held the towel against Mary’s head until help arrived.
She had been on the sidewalk, the cyclist explained, because the light on her bicycle broke and she did not feel safe riding on the road. But four weeks into a painful recovery, Mary is frustrated that she had been cycling on the sidewalk under any circumstances.
“The accident should not have happened,” Mary said. “She should have been walking.”
Mary had to have her hip replaced immediately after the accident, and stayed for several weeks in the Jewish Home nursing facility, taking part in physical therapy four times a week. She started using a four-point cane to walk to the bathroom and back just last week.
“You don’t want to know what I am having trouble with,” Mary said. “Little normal things you don’t think about.” Mary has had to figure out how to eat with only her left hand and finds buttoning up clothes difficult.
Mary’s fees have largely been covered by Medicare, but there are plenty of costs, like her initial stay at the hospital, that fall outside the coverage. A routine follow-up to her hip surgery left her $100 out of pocket simply for the transportation costs.
“If it were a car accident, the car insurance might cover the costs,” said Peter, Mary’s son. “But with a bike, it doesn’t seem as straightforward.”
He said they currently had no plans to try and get compensation from the cyclist. The cyclist has not been in touch with Mary since the accident but wrote over email that she is “incredibly grateful that the pedestrian is recovering.”
Although riding on the sidewalk is illegal, no charges have been filed in this case. In 2018, a cyclist pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter in a case in which the cyclist ran a red light and collided with a 71-year-old man who later died from his injuries.
Peter added that he had noticed bikes and scooters mounting the sidewalk a lot more since the accident. And Mary knows two neighbors who have also been knocked by bikes, although they escaped any serious injury.
Dangerous collisions between cyclists and pedestrians are unusual, said Marta Lindsey, communications director for WalkSF. The majority of vehicle accidents in San Francisco are caused by cars and they often have more severe consequences. In 2020, Vision Zero data shows that there were 30 vehicle-related fatalities in San Francisco, and only one involved a bike and a pedestrian. In that case, it was the cyclist who died.
But less severe cases are often left out of the data, Lindsey said, and the relative irregularity of these accidents does not make them any less impactful for those involved.
“We want to be a city where we are doing everything we can to make walking safe and desirable for everyone,” Lindsey said. She added that the elderly and the disabled are at greater risk than most: “For those groups, any sort of big fall can be a big deal.”
Formerly very independent, Mary is worried that she may never entirely get back to her old self. She moved back into her home on Tuesday and wants her experience to warn people of the risks of riding on the sidewalk.
“Bicyclists don’t get it. They think they’re in total control,” she said.
“This is a lesson.”