The Realities of Riding a Bike in California, Part One

Recently I moved from Dallas Texas to Mill Valley, California which is just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. While there are many things I love about riding here, there are just as many things I hate, bike lanes being one of them. Many of the bike lanes I’ve experienced here are Door Zone Bike Lanes, DZBLs, consisting of a bike lane installed adjacent to parallel parking. It looks something like this:

Bike lane along Bridgeway, a busy thoroughfare in Sausalito, CA. Photo by Joshua Hart.

In less than four weeks I have been in so many hazardous bike lane situations that I have lost count. They are fraught with danger, these bike lanes. Some are relatively obvious, such as debris the bike lane, parked cars in the bike lane, drivers side doors opening while you pedal along in the bike lane, and cars turning right at intersections without checking for traffic in the bike lane. There are also some less obvious hazards such as getting cut off by a motorist who suddenly sees an open parking space and jacks their car into it without remembering there was a bike lane between him and that parking space. Or getting cut off by a motorist turning right to enter a driveway or parking lot, especially the motorist who has just realized THIS was the parking lot and quickly brakes then turns into the lot.

I find it ironic that for the two years that I lived and rode in Dallas, Texas, with all it’s busy streets and cyclist-hating rednecks, I hardly ever felt like I was in danger of getting hit by a motor vehicle. The streets where I rode in Dallas had no bike lanes, I rode on the road in a lane just as any other vehicle. Yet here I am in Northern California, well known for it’s cycling culture, and I am absolutely convinced that I will be hit by a car here. Pretty much every time I ride my bike here I encounter at least one situation which could have resulted in a collision had I not been riding alert and defensively, aware of potential dangers. Now I suppose you could argue that one ought always to be riding alert and defensively, and you’d be correct. I agree, knowing what potential dangers exist and how to avoid them is a very important element of bicycling safety. However, I think minimizing these dangers by not creating hazardous conditions in the first place is equally important.

California has a mandatory use law that states that if a bike lane is present, cyclists must use it. The law does allow cyclists to leave the bike lane under certain conditions, one of them being to avoid a hazard. Lately I have wondered if I am riding on a street with a bike lane, which I have come to view as hazardous by their very nature, I am legally justified in taking the lane with the rest of traffic since the hazardous condition that exists is the bike lane itself. Personal experience has taught me that I am far safer driving my bicycle as a vehicle on the road with the rest of traffic, than I am riding in any bike lane. Hmmm….now that I think about it, that sounds vaguely familiar…

“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” – John Forester

Door zone bike lane on Bridgeway in Sausalito. Photo by Joshua Hart.

  1. Keri said:

    Thank you, Shelly!

    You have provided a valuable look at how a person’s perspective is completely different when they know 1) how easy and uneventful it is to just drive your bike like an equal road user and 2) the dynamics of what causes conflicts and crashes and how bike lanes exacerbate them.

    Years ago, when I learned to be more assertive on roads without bike lanes, my problems on those roads went away. It then became undeniably clear that all of my bike-v-car conflicts were occurring on roads with bike lanes (even though those made up less than 10% of my travels).

    It really should shock the conscience that this is what we’re using to lure novice cyclists onto the road.

    I would be so miserable in a city completely infested with bike lanes that I would probably trade my bicycle for a motorcycle. That would be a huge loss to me. But I do not want to be a second-class citizen, forced to endure hazards or face harassment (and possible citations), so I won’t chose a vehicle that makes me one.

    • Keri said:

      Shelley! (sorry, I misspelled your name)

    • I agree, Keri. I recently heard the argument that studies have shown a majority of the public will only ride bicycles in facilities that are separated from the rest of traffic. Therefore, it is in the best interest of cyclists to create these segregated facilities so that more people will be encouraged to ride their bicycles. I found myself thinking, “So in order to get more people on bikes you will create and then relegate us to a hazardous riding environment?” I must have missed the part where this is in my best interest.

      Recently, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency adopted a policy that will allow taxi cabs to load and unload passengers in bike lanes. Wow. First we’re forced into bike lanes and now they will be filled with officially-condoned hazards. Awesome.

      My questions stands: If I am legally allowed to leave the bike lane to avoid a hazard, do I have to ride in the bike lane at all if the hazard I perceive is the bike lane itself?

      • Keri said:

        I would interpret the law that way, but I doubt a police officer would and a judge might be iffy, too. Make friends with a lawyer who’s willing to write a motion to dismiss if you get a citation.

        I can’t think of any other vehicle driver who must live in fear of having to defend defensive driving in court when refusing to operate in harm’s way.

        BTW, studies about what will get people to ride are self-fulfilling nonsense. Surveys are only as good as the questions asked, the questions are always skewed to confirm the desired outcome of the asker.

        And then there’s the Whack-a-Mole principle.

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