Mary, 81, suffered extensive injuries after being hit by a bike on the sidewalk. Illustration by Molly Oleson

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.

The corner of 17th and Guerrero St. Photo from Google Maps

“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.”

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Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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34 Comments

  1. I’m a cyclist who’s horrified to see fellow cyclists riding on the sidewalk, and I think the proliferation of scooters there has encouraged this behavior.

    At 72, I feel vulnerable when I’m walking to a crash such as this, and I often try to stop the cyclist and point to my gray hair and say, “I’m not too chickenshit to ride in the street. What’s your excuse?” Some cyclists are actually abashed; others not so much. Scooter riders challenged on the sidewalk have been universally arrogant and nasty.

    1. Fran, as a fellow cyclist I agree wholeheartedly. I also will say something snarky if I see cyclists riding on the sidewalk. They cyclist should do the right thing and at the very least cover Mary’s costs.

  2. One of my biggest pet peeves. And if you say anything to them they get angry and foul. I see this EVERYDAY. I voted for bike lanes and pay property taxes. Can we start beat cops again and shut this down? I do confess I like to mock them and ask if they are toddlers that need training wheels because the street scares them;) Sadly I did see a toddler get knocked down by one these lazy selfish riders. I was once a member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition maybe they could start looking at their menacing members? Would go a long way to make the public better to cyclists;)

    1. Although I generally agree with your sentiment, cyclist should not be on the sidewalk, it isn’t always because they feel unsafe in the street. Our roads aren’t designed for cyclist and sometimes to go the correct way the cyclist will need to go out of their way, around an extra block for example, to do the right thing. Of course what they should do is either go the right way or walk their bikes on the sidewalk. I say this to highlight how unfriendly our streets are to cyclist. We need to remedy that.

    1. I totally agree. The victim should sue the cyclist and get compensation for physical injuries that could be life lasting. I myself was a cyclist who was cut off and hit by another cyclist and that resulted in a collision and a concussion that took months to recover from. I lost consciousness and the subdural hematoma that was caused by this accident kept bleeding for months. I lost my balance for a whole year. And I was wearing a helmet.
      Like most accident victims, I don’t remember how it happened. I lost consciousness and I woke up in the ambulance half an hour later. My husband who was behind me tells me that this woman cut me off and caused the accident. When he got to the scene, she was sitting on the curb crying. I never saw her and of course, she didn’t make any attempts to follow up and find out about my fate after the accident that she had caused. I’m sure the cops who arrived at the scene didn’t even take her name. People don’t realize that for old people, that is 50+ years of age, any hit to the head could be deadly. It’s just unconscionable for the City not to hold these careless cyclists accountable.

  3. It is horrible along the Embarcadero, where there are bike lanes – but still cyclists and scooters go whizzing by on the sidewalk. Scares the crap out of me. They should be fined.

    1. The Embarcadero, water side, isn’t a sidewalk by definition. It is a multi-use parkway though motorized vehicles are verboten.

    2. That’s an exception. Embarcadero is not a sidewalk – it’s a shared pedestrian and cyclist path. There is plenty of room for everyone, just remember to look both ways if changing direction.

      1. On days of peak usage, there certainly is not enough rooms for pedestrians, bicyclists and scooters. I’ve had so many near misses on the Embarcadero and it isn’t due to me being careless or using my phone. I will say that it seems to mostly be tourists on bicycles and scooters causing the problem, but it is a problem.

        Bicyclists do not get to decide or have a voice in what is safe and best for us pedestrians, just as automobile drivers should not get to decide or have a voice in what is safe and best for bicyclists.

    3. I believe that pathway is run by the Port of San Francisco so it falls outside the typical city ordinances. I would love to see a proper bike lane installed the length of the Embarcadero, but it’s still a start-stop hodgepodge on both sides of the street. Until it isn’t, many cyclists are going to chose the sidewalk.

      But elsewhere I 100% agree. It absolutely boggles my mind how many people ride up and down Mission sidewalks where they’re rarely more than a block away from a bike lane.

  4. I was hit by a bicyclist as I was crossing with the walk light, Valencia at Octavia, one foot on the sidewalk, one foot off. Knocked me over cold, bruised rib and severe concussion. Hit and run, didn’t even stop to help. Thank God another pedestrian saw it happen and called it in. I got a ride in the ambulance to General and woke up strapped to a gurney hours later in the ICU. Thank god I had insurance through Cobra or it would have run me a bill of 10k. Apparently bicyclists hitting pedestrians happens often enough in the city that Kaiser has a code for it. I commuted by bicycle for 12 years in the city, never rode on the sidewalk and hate it when I see it happening. It really is a recipe for disaster. Is there a place to donate to help out with Mary’s costs?

  5. 17h Street has had a bike lane for years. The fault is 100% with the cyclist. If there is a problem with your bike that makes you feel unsafe, walk over to 16th St and take it with you on the 22-Fillmore.

  6. I think a lot of these “incidents” don’t get reported and as such the numbers don’t reflect what is actually happening in the street. I see a lot of bikers running stop signs, blowing through controlled intersections where the motorist had the right way. It seems they just don’t care and think they are the saviors of the world and think they should be put on a pedestal.

    1. I can’t stress enough understanding the right of way and traffic rules. It’s necessary to make things flow smoothly.

    2. Look up Idaho Stop. Your perception isn’t accurate. Bicyclists need to assert right of way to be seen. Or else cars turn into them and claim they didn’t notice.

      1. An Idaho Stop, where cyclists can treat STOP signs as a YIELD sign, is not legal in California. Cyclists at intersections with STOP signs must stop, not yield. Cyclists frequently “whizz through” STOP signs, not even giving lip service to a yield. In his message to the California State Assembly, vetoing proposed Idaho Stop legislation, Governor Newsom noted that “… since 2015, there were 3,059 crashes involving bicycles at an intersection in which the primary collision factor was a failure to stop at at stop sign… bicyclists were determined to be at fault 88 percent of collisions resulting in fatalities and 63 percent of those involving injuries.” Many cyclists have an obligation to modify their behavior before this type of legislation can be reconsidered.

      2. It’s kinda hard for a bicycle to “assert right of way” against a 2,000+ lbs car ? That is not a good idea. Stop. Wait until it is safe, then go. Seems like SFPD doesn’t enforce any moving violations these days, car, bike, scooter, nothing.

    3. Sounds like your not a cyclist and you don’t understand what it takes to be a cyclist here. The Idaho stop was a hairs breath from being legalized here, it passed both chambers of the legislative branch but was not signed into law by Newsom. Bills like this have been passed in other states and it’s only a matter of time until it is legal here. My advice, learn how to interact with cyclist. Maybe take some time to be a cyclist to understand what they go through. Will make you a safer driver.

  7. Mary is a dear neighbor of mine. In our many discussions about the traffic conditions on Guerrero, especially the speeding and red-light running, she expressed fear of exactly what eventually happened: a collision with a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk. It’s incredible, though it no longer surprises me, how common it is to see bicyclists, scooters, and especially SKATEBOARDERS using the sidewalk as if it is their private domain. I’ve also NEVER seen a cop even stopping someone doing this and at least issuing them a warning. Violations like this may be viewed as “low priority” by cops too busy dealing with other “more important” issuess, but the result of this complete hands-off policy is plain to see, and Mary has suffered the consequences of the city’s inaction.

  8. I’m sure there is a reason why this wouldn’t be feasible, but why isn’t there some way to make cyclists carry insurance. Or maybe a entity like the DMV for cycling? I too am older, walking in my city shouldn’t be hazardous to my health.

    1. Certainly would make it a more legit form of transit if it was taking this seriously. As a cyclist, I am not opposed to this.

  9. The streets are made for cars. The sidewalks for pedestrians. Bikes, scooters, skateboards, rollerskates need a network of protected bike lanes. It will be good for everyone except the cars (sorry cars).

  10. The city and SFMTA don’t get it. The new bike lanes are a hindrance. There’s a lot of issues with traffic planning in SF.
    Also I’ve seen more pedestrians walk out into traffic not paying any attention to the traffic light.
    I’ve been riding bicycle for over 20years in SF, not hit a person ever.
    People need to learn to pay attention to the world around, instead of their smartphone, and act smart.

    I hope Mary recovers soon. Riding on the sidewalk on 17th is unnecessary, because 17th St is relatively chill with regular bike lane and narrow sidewalk.

  11. I work on Van Ness. Even though they turned Polk Street into a bike lane the amount of extremely expensive bikes in fabulous gear cruising on the sidewalk to go down to the water is sick. If you call them out they just flip you off if they hear you at all.

    1. I agree there are a lot overdressed bike riders in all sorts of places, including on the sidewalk. But “they” didn’t turn Polk Street into a bike lane. The bike lanes that we were able to get after much advocacy are incomplete, and unprotected.

      When the Polk Street project was being developed, many businesses insisted they needed to have parking spaces in front of their narrow storefront or they wouldn’t survive. The most infamous of these is the late Ed Lee’s optometrist. North of Drs. Hiura and Hiura, the northbound bike lane disappears, except during morning commute hours on weekdays, until it disappears entirely north of Broadway only to reappear sort of several blocks further north.

      And that’s how it used to be. Now that street parking has been taken away for the expansion of the useable real estate for restaurants, the crappy partial occasional bike lane from Drs. Hiura and Hiura to Broadway no longer exists. “Shared” spaces parklets have been built into the street on multiple blocks. There is no longer a part-time northbound bike lane between Pine and Broadway thanks to this repurposing.

      SFMTA took back the bike lane (and a lot of parking spaces) for the benefit of restaurants. They never once thought about the bike riders who benefited from the lane. Janice Li (BART director and SF Bicycle Coalition advocacy director) thinks there is no transportation related issue in taking the bike lane away. No, really, she told me and one of Supervisor Peskin’s aides that in an email. SFMTA’s Safe Routes to School is also unconcerned that a bike lane to Galileo High School, Spring Valley Elementary, and other schools has been sacrificed to commerce.

      But it is not just bike lanes that “shared” spaces have taken over. Southbound Gough Street has lost its commute hour curb lane for the benefit of restaurants.

  12. While it is true that cars are more lethal than bicycles, as a pedestrian I have to make evasive moves to avoid being hit or even “close calls” with bicycles and scooters at least a few times each week. With cars it is about once a year, if that.

    But bicycle advocates will tie themselves into knots to avoid seeing the point of view of a pedestrian. This is one reason why I opposed the rolling stop. For all of us, pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, automobiles drivers, motorcyclists and other, we all depend upon each other’s behaviors to be somewhat predictable to make it all work. The rolling stop would ruin that, especially given the bicycle anarchy we have in SF.

    I think the answer is aggressive enforcement of laws by police (which may mean that all bicycles and scooters have a displayed license plate) and that scooters have their motors modified to limit their speed to 10mph or lower.

    It is not at all surprising that the equivalent of the pedestrian “walking score” in Paris was recently lowered because of the behaviors of bicyclists and scooter riders. I am not at all anti-bicycle and I support expansion of bicycle lanes, etc, in SF and getting rid of most cars is my dream. But I want to see changes in how many bicyclists constantly ride over the safety and concerns of pedestrians.

  13. As someone who has worked on Valencia Street for 20 years, I have seen my share of abusive bike riders. Run red lights, make dangerous maneuvers in front of cars, ride outside their lane, red use on the sidewalk, etc. The City has given bike riders such priorities, they should be made to obtain insurance if they ride in City Streets. They have all the perks and none of the duties.

    1. Megan, you’re awesome! I hate reading “staunched” the blood. “Given free reign” is my new pet peeve. Thanks for noticing!

  14. Bicycle advocates fail to quote the complete reason why the “Idaho Stop” reduces bicycle accidents. The reduction in accidents results in fewer single vehicle accidents i.e. bicycle only . Seems that the reduction is in when bicyclists stop or start they are prone to falling over. This could be due to the extreme adjustments they have made to their bikes to make then more suitable to the track than to the street.

  15. What gets me is that the cyclists decide what is best for the pedestrians. Coming up from behind, silently speeding, betting I won’t move to the right or left, betting I won’t turn the corner before they have passed. Legislation is at the state level but, from everyone I talk to, it’s time for licensing and insurance for bike riders.

    1. Bicyclists are spoiled out of control ” entitled ” to break traffic rules, run over and maim and kill people.

      Everyone who shares the road needs to follow laws.

      Sidewalks are for people walking, for their safety.

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