As I mentioned in a previous post, I was really ecstatic about the implementation of the Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) and I think it is a sign that bicycles are less marginalized in SF than previously. Having the bike shares lends great legitimacy to the whole bicycle movement. It’s not just obligatory bike lanes going down. Now, the city is backing and putting actual bikes on the road.
Just riding this bike around town branded with its official Bay Area Bike Share logos, I feel that I get more respect from motorists. Now if these anti-cyclists get angry at us like they often do, while riding these bike shares they would be putting the blame on the city too. We’re no longer fringe outcasts in the mean streets of SF. We are now officially backed by the government, consummated in the coolness of a celeste green color.
Right on the day it was launched, Nellie and I couldn’t wait to get on one. We had tried City Bikes in Copenhagen and it was a terrible system, but of course it was implemented in 1995. My workplace has a free bike share system but it is rarely used due to its campus location on hills. So, I was hoping for a better overall system.
We just wanted to test out the bikes so we got the 24 hours pass. The 24 hours or 3 days pass is inconvenient because you would have to buy it at the kiosk, not online. You would have to first to stick your credit card to purchase, it gives you a 5 digit code on a small piece of paper, and enter it into the keypad on the rack. Then you have five minutes to pull out a bike from the docking station (if you don’t undock your bike within the grace period, repeat the process), then when you want to get a new bike at the next kiosk you would have to do the process all over again. I thought it was annoying. However if you purchase the one year membership of only $88, you just swipe the key fob (which they mailed to you) over the keypad and you get the bike instantly.
So we set up a test ride around South of Market (SOMA) to get lunch, errands, shopping and dinner in the end. We got the bikes at Townsend and 4th St kiosk across from the the Caltrain station, and rode toward the Embarcadero because that was the safest route to get to Financial District for lunch. It took us 25 minutes to get to the kiosk at Market and Battery St close to Specialty’s, our lunch place. On the way there, we passed 5 other stations!
It was a little exhaustive pedaling the 50 lbs (23 kg) clunky bikes for 25 minutes but it was very comfortable. They absorbed shocks very well from cracked pavements and potholes. We felt safe riding them, even without helmets. It’s probably due to a few reasons; the upright position you’re sitting provides a better all around view of the surrounding; the stability of the bike from the weight and fat tires; high visibility from the bright celeste green color; and the bike can’t go that fast. These bikes should fit anyone from 5 ft (1.5 m) to over 6 ft (1.83 m) tall. Moreover, I like that the seat post has markings on it to help adjust the next bike you rent to your specific height quickly.
The nice thing is that we just dock the bikes without having to find a pole (bike racks are rare in the Financial District) to lock them. We walked 2 small blocks to get lunch at Specialty’s. That was a nice one hour lunch and felt pretty relief that we didn’t have to worry about leaving them outside. When we were done, we walked another small 2 blocks to get to another kiosk at Market and Sansome St. We stick our credit cards into the machine to get the 5 digits code again to get the bikes. That is about the only hassle we experienced all day – swiping our credit cards to get the 5 digits code and entering on the keypads.
Then we rode for a few blocks to Union Square for shopping. We docked the bikes at Market and 4th St. We usually don’t take our bikes to Union Square because of bad experiences. I have two friends that got their saddles stolen. Also in our first few months living in SF our bikes were stolen in the vicinity, albeit we used cable locks. Even though now we have u-locks, but we still don’t want to take any chance.
After shopping we walked to Howard and 3rd St to get some photos for this blog. We wanted to get some cool looking people and their bikes going home from a long day’s work. Howard St is a one way thoroughfare going from east to west, and it has a high volume of bicycle commuters. Then we rented the bike again to get dinner at Tin’s (our favorite Vietnamese restaurant in the city). It was pretty cool to ride down on Howard St with a bunch of bike commuters.
Tin’s is located on Howard between 5th and 6th and guess what, a BABS kiosk was nearby. Wonderful! Dropped off the bike at Howard and 5th St, and walked half a block. After dinner it got dark, so we returned to the same station, picked up the bikes and rode almost 2 miles (3.2 km) home passing one other bike share station on the way.
It was such an easy and pleasant experience with the bike shares at our finger tips. Most bike share stations are located in SOMA (and Market St.) which I think is wonderful. SOMA is such a large neighborhood with some sketchy areas and shops/eateries that are located far apart. Walking could be long and dangerous, so bike shares help in these kind of situations. Moreover, these bikes are available 24/7 any time you need to be transported. You can’t count on taxis and buses during odd hours. Now you may not need to buy a new bike since these bikes are available. It’s almost like you have your own bike but without any maintenance to worry about. Pretty cool, eh!
Even though we didn’t encounter many issues with the system as would be expected at its start, the BABS system can certainly be improved. Here are some of the things that may help:
– There must be a way for kids younger than 18 y.o. to use them besides having their parents or guardians be around to borrow them for them.
– I find the process of checking out bikes for the short-term 24 hour or 3 day memberships to be inconvenient as I explained above. Since it’s part of the public transit system, I think it would be great to be able to use the Clipper card with it.
– Why do all bike shares weigh so much? Nellie has a hard time picking up the bike onto the sidewalk.
– Having a built-in lock would be a nice addition I think. What if you need to make a quick stop in between stations, like for a quick coffee? Maybe, a cup holder to go with your coffee?
– They should put a map near the handlebars visible from the seat of the bike that shows where the locations of the kiosks or a smartphone app to display availability of bikes.
– When they expand this next year, hopefully they will put a few stations in other neighborhoods such as the Mission District, Dog Patch, and Mission Bay.
– In addition to SF and the cities on the peninsula having bike share stations, Oakland should have them too!
More related posts:
Finally today is the day the bicycle community feels some legitimacy! I feel so proud that a bicycle is incorporated into the public transit system.
The Bay Area Bike-Share ceremony started at 10:30 am today at 4th and King St. Caltrain station. Here are some photos from today’s ceremony. It wasn’t until noon that the bike shares could be used by the public.
She was the celebrity of the day. Our celeste green Bay Area Bike Share. She got so much attention, deservingly.
Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco was there to speak at the ceremony with Jane Kim, Scott Wiener and John Avalos (3 of our Supervisors) in attendance.
Jared Blumenfeld, a bike commuter and an EPA official (appointed by President Obama) spoke convincingly of why bicycle is good for transportation, good for business, good for livability, etc.
Mayor Ed Lee leading the bike share caravan back to City Hall.
Our police chief, Greg Suhr on a bike? Maybe now he can understand how it feels to be a bicyclist. I would love to see more cops on bikes.
Right at noon time is this first happy customer at the Townsend and 4th St. station.
By riding around town today, I can already tell bike shares are going to be very popular.
For those of you who don’t know what’s the point of having a bike counter- well, it’s the same thing as doing a survey/poll. After data collection, Market Street may be justified in getting more bike infrastructure investment (crossing fingers) and a traffic mobility reassessment. Plus, it’s cool to see the numbers increase in real-time for all those bicycle boosters and data geeks out there.
The bicycle counter is located on the south side of Market St. between 9th and 10th Sts. to count bicyclists heading eastbound. Market Street has the highest amount of bicycle traffic in San Francisco, so it’s a no brainer to have it there.
Let’s take a look at the historical data on bicycling in SF and then at the numbers coming from the counter:
SF boasted an increase of 71% in bicyclist counts between 2006 and 2010. Unfortunately, in the last 5 years SF saw the same rate in bicycle theft. These two data sets sort of correlate with each other.
Additionally, bicycle trips account for 3.5% of all trips in 2010, an increase from 2% in the year 2000. But have these numbers gone up since 2010? I am still waiting and eager to see data showing that jump because everywhere I ride, I see a lot more bicyclists.
But it’s also possible that the percentage of trips made by bicycle remained the same even as the number of bicycle trips went up, because it also seems like there has been a large uptick in car trips (and congestion) which many have observed in the city. So after accounting for that, the percentage of bike trips may sadly still remain at 3.5%.
Now let’s take a look at the numbers coming from the bike counter:
First, the counter only collects data on Market St. and possibly has some glitches. It’s been reported that not every bicyclist gets counted, that vehicles are sometimes counted, and that there’s a 5% error rate (source).
Nevertheless, according to the bike counter posted on the SFMTA’s website, the number of bicyclists that were registered has jumped from an average of 2,032 per day in May to 2,715 in August (excluding outliers) within 4 months. Although the number of daily riders is small, that’s a 25% increase! In addition, the August weekday count of 3,132 almost tied with Bike to Work Day’s count of 3,231 which is incredible! Many people that came out to ride for BTWD are not regular bicycle commuters and perhaps now, these occasional riders have become regulars!
The increase could have also been due to the warmer months. But I doubt it has much to do with that because the climate in SF is pretty mild all year round, and it’s been especially warm throughout this year so far.
You’ll notice that there is no data for the months of June and July. It’s possible that when the counter was shut down for the Market St. repaving back in June, the counter was also re-calibrated and fine-tuned (we don’t know for sure) affecting the counts for May. So the count could have already been at the same level as in August and there might not have been an actual increase.
It’s too bad that during the months of June and July, there was no data input. If it wasn’t turned off for the re-pavement, it would have told us more about the change. For example, a slow increase would confirm the 25% increase from May to August.
If there really was an increase, it would be great to see it continue in this upward trend. Maybe this road will soon eventually outdo Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge as the busiest bicycle corridor in the nation.
What a very sad last week it was for the bicycle community. Amelie Le Moullac of 24, was on her way to work last Wednesday morning. She was riding her bike on a striped bike lane going straight on Folsom St. in the SOMA neighborhood when a truck driver made a right turn on 6th St. and killed her. It was the driver’s fault but of course he wasn’t cited.
Since 2011, the last five bicyclists’ deaths had all resulted from colliding with truck drivers at intersections in San Francisco. This seems like a common theme here. This is all too familiar when cycle tracks are not put in. I hear these kinds of stories coming from London as well. 50% of cyclists’s deaths in London involve trucks. The reason I think is that cities like London and San Francisco are very auto-centric and both have a rapidly growing bicycle culture. However, both have dysfunctional bike infrastructure which is composed of striped bike lanes. As a result, cyclists are forced to share roads with motorists. In just about any city with this kind of set-up, tragic fatalities with motorists are bound to happen.
The street Amelie was a riding on is a one way thoroughfare with 4 lanes. This is one of many streets (pretty ridiculous for such a small and dense city) in SF which are very suitable for large trucks to be on. The construction frenzy in the city has also brought in dozens and dozens of these trucks. Add to the fact that truck drivers can’t see you because they sit 8 ft/2.4 m above ground with a huge blind-spot on the driver’s right side.
Either reduce speed limits on these kind of roads (and enforce it), ban all right turns on red lights, or put in real bike infrastructure. Bicycle commuters are going to take this route because it is one of 2 routes (from the central neighborhoods) with some sort of bike facility that leads to downtown. It’s unfortunate that we have a long way to go to have safe streets throughout SF for bicyclists. Since our city is not going to implement any of these soon, the responsibility to be safe is on us bicyclists. Below are some tips that may help you to be safe.
1. Always look over your left shoulder moments beforehand when crossing an intersection.
2. Don’t speed through intersections, prepare to stop.
3. Be visible to drivers by being out in front at a junction when waiting for a green light.
4. Listen for loud trucks if you can. I know the city can be very loud a lot of times.
5. Be assertive and take the whole lane if you have to. You have the legal right to.
6. And always pass to the left of a vehicle to avoid a right hook, this is when a car merges suddenly to the right to make a right turn sandwiching the bike rider between the car and the curb.
Rest in peace, Amelie.
I have ridden most if not all of SF major streets and they always require my full attention. When you are riding into a major intersection, you have no protection. The only protection you have are the red traffic lights on either side of you. You hope that the stacked cars on both sides are aware of the red lights or the car next to you doesn’t right-hook you. You feel almost naked and you need to hurry across. What a scary moment.
You aren’t over-analyzing in these situations because almost 50% of all crashes happen at intersections in urban areas. Most of these accidents involve motorist-pedestrian and motorist-bicyclist, and of course they usually result in fatal injuries. In addition, 3 of the 5 most dangerous intersections in San Francisco for cyclists are located on Market St., a major corridor for all modes of transportation.
The most dangerous intersection in the city is at Market St. and Octavia Blvd. which had 10 pedestrian or cyclist accidents last year. The reason is that there’s a wide 101/80 freeway ramp to the left with very heavy traffic.
At the bottom right corner (see image above) is a bicycle path and that is where drivers make illegal right turns onto the freeway ignoring the no left turn sign and concrete island, resulting in many pedestrians/bicyclists crashes.
In April of this year, a couple of green bike sharrows were installed here. A nice improvement but it is not visible enough to motorists. Green crossing also needs to be installed on the opposite side of the street. Recently, a red light camera was approved to be installed there as well. I hope these measures will help.
Bicyclists are as vulnerable as pedestrians and pedestrians get crosswalks, but I don’t see why bicyclists do not get their own “crossbikes”? Even better if crossbikes come with their own traffic lights, but that is wishful thinking.
Let’s take a look at another major intersection on Market St. This stretch has 6 car lanes, while Van Ness Ave. (cross street) has up to 7 car lanes and again leads to the 101 freeway a few blocks away. So by any definition, this is another dangerous intersection for cyclists. This section has a green protected bike path on Market St. and it disappears for a long distance of 75 ft./23 m. You feel safe until you enter into this no man’s zone.
SFMTA is not going to install bicycle traffic lights anytime soon, SFPD doesn’t enforce traffic violations, and red-light camera installations require a lot of money and state approval. So what would be a simple and cost-effective measure to implement? Similar to the concept of green painted bike lanes- cyclists need to maximize their visibility on the roads.
Look to Copenhagen for that easy fix. All you need is paint and a bike stencil. No parking removal, road dieting or traffic reconfiguration to worry about- and you wonder why the SFMTA still hasn’t implemented this in all major intersections.
H. C. Andersons Blvd (west to east), a 10 lane boulevard intersecting a 5 lane street, is a huge crossing in Copenhagen. It is common to see blue paint “crossbikes” at large intersections such as these. Would you feel safer riding through this intersection with blue paint the entire way through?
If you don’t believe this measure could work because it is in Europe. Well here is an example closer to home: A 2-hour plane flight north of us, Vancouver, Canada is doing this exact thing. On Dunsmuir St., it has a true bi-directional cycle track and when it meets a wide cross street such as Seymour St. (image above), a green “crossbike” is marked at the intersection. This green paint is to alert drivers to pay attention to bicyclists and the green marking also guides bicyclists through safely. This measure also makes pedestrians safer.
This is a cost-effective safety measure to implement and I hope the SFMTA is working to install these on every intersection with a wide crossing.
I thought about how the street-scape of San Francisco can be not very interesting to look at especially when riding on a bicycle with full view and senses. Have you noticed that the colors of most of the vehicles resemble the same colors as the cement-paved sidewalks and the gray and dark colored asphalt on the road? Pretty dull right? It also doesn’t help that every street is filled with rows and rows of parked cars. Even MUNI buses and light rail trains feature in the same boring gray color. Although, I do enjoy looking at the vintage streetcars, they are not that ubiquitous around SF.
If the sidewalks are not paved with large square slabs of concrete (boring), it is paved with somber dark red bricks like those you can find on the sidewalks of Market St. Moreover, most of the building layouts are too perfectly rectangular and square and not made to human scale. Not pleasantly stimulating. Not to mention, this city needs more trees… large lush ones. And what about flowers? I think our city is beautiful but where are the flowers to complement it. Nonetheless, we do have beautiful views of the water and the rolling hills, but that depends upon where you are.
So, I thought I would try to seek out some bright-colored bikes in SF, being that this blog is about bikes. I chose pink bikes because it is difficult to spot anything pink these days besides dresses for bride’s maids and clothing for baby girls. That sort of stuff you know. By sharing images of pink bikes maybe it can help more people visualize how pink would look on bikes; and if someone could see how cool pink is for a bike, they might have the courage to buy not just a pink bike but more colorful bikes in general. Hopefully, with enough of them on the streets, it would make the street-scape a little more colorful and interesting to ride in.
I am not just talking about pink Hello Kitty bikes. That would be too expected.
The pink bar tape matches the beautifully welded pink aluminum frame.
White and pink complement each other.
I have seen a couple of these PUBLIC step-through bikes around town. Lovely!
I think the dog wants to run with this cool looking pink Bianchi vintage steel bike.
I love Mixte frames, even better in pink color!
You could see this pink Townie blowing out bubbles at every social bike event in the city.
This is probably the best looking fixie in San Francisco.
And pink can also look good on a Brompton folding bike. It is pink and definitely hot!
Be bold and choose pink!
In a past post, I discussed how e-bikes can assist people who live on San Francisco hills and that there is a variety of different styles for just about anybody. Now I want to introduce you to the “mini velo” which I think can be another perfect city bike for SF.
These mini bikes are very popular in Japan, South Korea, and some other Asian countries. You can see in this video which mini velo and folding bikes are celebrated in this annual event in Japan. They are popular there because their living spaces are small, the urban environment is very dense, and their people tend to be more petite and have a smaller stature. But I don’t think having a smaller stature has that much to do with riding these mini bikes because folding bikes (sometimes even smaller than the mini velo) are pretty popular with all demographics around the world. Moreover, many frame sizes vary from 47 cm to 55 cm, big enough to fit a 6 footer.
I have tested two mini velo bikes- one from SOMA Fab and another called Mercier Nano. Both are extremely fun, comfortable, and shifting with their retro shifters was simple. They are zippy and can stop on a dime.
A friend of mine commutes to work with the Mercier Nano about 12 miles one way and occasionally takes public transit with it. Because the bike is smaller than a standard bike, they are easier to take onto transit.
This bike is very affordable at just under $300 USD from bikesdirect.com.
You might ask, “Why not get a folding bike instead of a mini velo?” The difference is very apparent. Many folding bikes also come with 20″ wheels identical to mini velo’s, but the difference lies within the frame. Because mini velo is not foldable (no break in the frame and neck) they don’t flex. Rather it’s pretty stiff and it gives you a softer bounce when going over bumps. When you are climbing hills or riding over long distances, folding bikes start to flex more than you would like. Secondly, the handlebar is of the same width as a regular sized one so it’s more comfortable and easier to handle than a folder. Finally, the drivetrain components are of the same as a 700c bikes. This may explain why I feel like the mini velo rides closer to a regular bike than a folding bike. They are lighter than folding bikes too, another advantage. Because many of the components are identical to a regular size bike, you can obtain it at most bike shops or online stores. Accessories are similar too. For example, you can mount a Wald basket on the SOMA Fab Mini Velo. And yes, they are cheaper than average folding bikes as well as regular size bikes.
Because they are in the low 20 lbs (9.1 kg) and under 4.5 ft (140 cm) long, they are easy to carry up stairs, turn corners through narrow hallways and can probably fit into the space next to your apartment door. On a crowded train such as the BART, you needn’t be afraid of hitting your fellow passenger with it. Don’t worry about the front rack of a MUNI bus because it can accommodate 20″ wheel bikes. And with the front wheel off (install quick release skewer if it doesn’t come with one), it will fit nicely in a trunk of a moderate-sized car.
The only thing people may feel adverse to about the mini velo is the awkward geometry of the frame, but I am sure that feeling will go away once people see it more frequently and get used its looks. I now find it to be very cute with a few retro elements thrown in like the frame, the quill stem, and the shifters.
As I have researched to find them here in the States, I found only four brands that are available here: SOMA Fab (discontinued, 2014), Mercier Nano, Biria, and Big Shot. Big Shot makes them for bike polo. I think it’s a great bike for the sport.
I hope they do become more popular so there will be more different brands offered here.
Anyhow, here are some that I found throughout Asia:
Celeste green chromoly frame with 16 spds from Bianchi. It weighs in at 23 lbs (10.8 kg) and costs about $640 USD.
This classic purple mini velo with Mixte frame from Montebello costs about $305 USD at Rakuten Global Market.
This is a cute one. It comes in pretty small sizes at 47 cm and 50 cm Tange frameset with 3 speeds internal hub at $545 USD.
The one above is a 2013 pink Bruno 20 designed by the Swiss. It comes with sizes from 47 cm to 54 cm and 16 speeds for $750 USD. If you like pastel colors, this brand has them.
GIOS Panto is a mini replica of a road bike. It comes with Shimano Tiagra, chromoly frame with carbon fork and 18 speeds. It’s too bad it still weighs in at 21 lbs (9.7 kg) and comes in small sizes of 48 cm and 51 cm.
Who says mini velos are cute looking only? The one above is pretty mean looking. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any info on it (Bannard Poseidon, updated 6/14/14).
Well, I hope you consider one when you are looking for a new city bike.
Finally, San Francisco is getting a bike share program which is launching next month. Hooray! You can now go online to purchase your membership.
It’s a pilot program starting with 700 bikes at 70 stations in SF and along the Peninsula- or to be more precise it is actually just in 5 cities (San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose). But SF gets half of all of the bikes and half of all of the stations. That comes out to roughly 10 bikes per station. If successful, it’s going to expand to other cities including expanding to more stations and bikes in SF for a total of 1,000 bikes (still too small!) in the future.
Here are some characteristics of the bike they are using that have struck me. I like the Celeste green color (easy to spot and gets motorist’s attention) and it’s refreshing. It has a step-through frame so both sexes and elders can get on the saddle easier. It looks like it may come with 7 speeds which I think is good for SF’s hills. It also comes with front and rear lights which are powered by pedaling, fenders for rain and chain guard to keep your pants clean. All in all, a typical bike-share bike which has been shown to work in other North American cities. Aside from the color, this bike is identical to the ones from Capital bikeshare in DC, Citi-Bikes in NYC, Hubway bikes in Boston, and Divvy bikes in Chicago.
The location of the stations are very good, all on flat land, and in high density areas where high tourism and business districts are. So, it looks like it aims to get visitors and workers to use them. It’s a great way to get people that are on the fence about riding a bike to actually ride one and good for short bicycle trips like running errands.
It also serves as a missing link in the public transit system. I am hoping that more people coming into SF to work or play will use the Caltrain/BART and pick one of these bikes to get to their designated spot. It looks like there is one docking station at the Caltrain station and one pretty close by as well, but by going with the assumption that there are 10 bikes per station, there would only be 20 bikes. This is clearly not enough. You may become reliant on bike shares, and one day you are stuck without one. I see thousands of Caltrain riders getting off at 4th and King St. and anyone of them can use them up fairly quickly. It needs at least 40 – 100 bikes at those two locations. As for the commuters coming into the Ferry Building and Transbay Terminal, I think they also deserve more than just one station each.
However, in other parts of the city, I think it will just about fulfill the level of need initially. For example, there are 9 docking pods on Market St. with a few other ones a block or two away. I think the spacing between pods are appropriate too. This area will serve the riders coming out of the BART stations well which are located along Market St. Moreover, there are people that don’t like to lug around a bike and a heavy lock, especially when they have to take them on MUNI buses. These bike shares would nicely fit the bill.
In addition, these bike shares can benefit cyclists who own expensive bikes that they don’t want to risk getting stolen when locking their bikes outside. I usually don’t like taking my bike (even my cheapee one) to the Metreon to watch a movie or to go to the Westfield mall where I won’t see my bike for hours, so this would be beneficial for people like me.
Regarding the pricing scale, it is a little expensive if you’re getting the 24 hours or 3 days membership. It comes out to be more expensive than riding MUNI. The unlimited 30 minutes free trips I think it’s kind of a short time span, especially when you only have 35 stations around and not one in every location. It will be a hassle if you want to go more than 2 miles which could take more than 30 minutes. And what if you need to make multiple errands in one trip.
Surely, the overtime fees are pretty expensive at $4 for the second 30 minutes and $7 for each additional 30 minutes. They definitely want you to return the bike. This is not meant for you to rent it for the weekend or a day. In those situations, it’s best to rent from a regular bike rental shop.
Bike shares usually don’t come with helmets. So it will be up to riders to bring their own, but I don’t expect many to do so based on observations from other American cities that have bike share programs.
It’s going to be nice to see people in regular clothing riding them as opposed to people in spandex and athletic wear. They will be “upright and helmetless.” I think this is going to change the image of cyclists and the convenience that the bike share will provide is going to increase the cycling rate. Yay for bike share!
After living and biking in San Francisco for a good amount of time, we will undoubtedly hear at some point, “I crashed SF train tracks!” or we will ourselves succumb to the treachery of the tracks.
I casually surveyed 20 folks that I know that ride bikes including Nellie and myself, and about 8 have been victims of accidents on SF’s train tracks. Albeit a small sample size, that’s a 40% rate!
How could this be possible?
Well, if there are 72 miles (116 km) of light rail tracks in a 49 sq. mile (127 sq. km) city and the main artery is like Market Street, a major corridor for bike commuters with rail tracks throughout, it is very likely anyone who rides a bike more than a mile on any given day will have to cross a train track.
These tracks are very treacherous in that the size between them is just enough for a bike tire to fit, not to mention their surface is very slippery. So if a bike tire is not getting caught in them, the tire is gliding on them. Cyclists have to try to cross them perpendicularly, which is not always easy to do and on wet days, they must ride slowly and cautiously to ensure their tires don’t lose traction as they cross them.
Here is an example of the kind of tracks we have in SF. The photo above was taken at the corner of 25th St. and 3rd St. in the Central Waterfront neighborhood. Those myriad of rails just makes my heart beat 10 times faster whenever I cross them. What if you have to make a right or left turn there, your turned front wheels could easily become aligned with the angle of the curved tracks.
Then there is this sort of infrastructure where a cyclist has to share the vehicle lane with light rails and vehicles. What do you think are your chances of getting your bike’s front wheel caught in the tracks? Riding between the tracks is like a balancing act. I have seen a few that crashed, especially at Critical Mass (this is usually the route Critical Mass takes when first starting out from their meetup spot). The gaps for light rail tracks are about 1.5 in/38 mm (on the straights) to 2.0 in/51 mm (on the curves) wide, so most tires on bicycles of SF would get caught in them.
Furthermore, you know it’s a pretty common occurrence in San Francisco when shops sell t-shirts and stickers that come with this phrase/symbol (see images above). (The t-shirt used to belong to Nellie until I started wearing it when I crashed about 6 weeks ago… my right wrist hasn’t completely recovered yet.)
As much as I do not want to encounter train tracks when riding a bike, if I want to live in a city with good public transportation I will have to accept it. However, train tracks that are actually still being used are not as problematic. It is the train tracks that have been abandoned but still left in place that need to be removed. They pose a great deal of hazard to many cyclists for a couple of reasons. They were put down before bike lanes and sometimes even before proper paved streets were put in. Secondly, because they have been abandoned, they are left to die (eroded) creating more dangerous hazards adjacent to the such as eroded asphalt and potholes. I don’t know how many cyclists have crashed on abandoned tracks versus active tracks but both Nellie and I have been victims of the abandoned variety.
One of the major routes for bike commuters to get from the central neighborhoods to the Caltrain Station and Embarcadero is Townsend St. Recently, I counted about 13-45 bike commuters every 5 minutes during peak hours on Townsend St. heading in the direction the photo (see above) is taken. You can see that the track is located only a few inches from the bike lane. A group of cyclists arriving together to a red traffic light can force anyone of them onto the rail.
Also, there is not one street lamp on the right hand-side of the sidewalk. It is pretty dim at night at that section. Fortunately, bike commuters that come home at night usually go in opposite direction where there are street lamps and no tracks to worry about.
Unfortunately, Nellie took that direction one night riding home. It was about midnight and it was dark along that stretch. She crossed the first track fine to merge into the right turn lane (see photo above) but the eroded pothole next to the track caught her front tire and she fell flat on her face. She was completely dazed, and I didn’t want to take any chances so an ambulance was called and she was driven to the ER. Yep, she got a loose tooth, a few stitches on her upper lip, plenty of road rash, and a bruised forehead.
Just looking at that stretch, it would take an experienced rider with a little luck on his side to cross those double tracks with little room to straighten your bike out again. I think probably it’s best to slow down as much as possible to a walking speed to merge, or to make a sharp right turn at the crosswalk so you go more perpendicularly over them, but you’ve got to watch out for autos behind you in the right turn lane.
I believe this is one of the potholes which Nellie’s bike tire got caught in that night. As you can see, my shoe size is 10.5 in (267 mm) and can easily fit into that pothole. You can cross the track but that pothole next to it can eat your bike alive.
Another part of town that has these abandoned tracks is Illinois St. that runs about 1 mile (1.6 km) long. Yep, that’s a mile in length that you need to keep paying attention to freight trucks, cars, large debris, construction detours, and these nagging tracks that do not need to be there. How inconvenient and dangerous is that? Oh, and Illinois St. is the flatest bike route to go through the eastern neighorhoods. During Bike to Work Day this May, I witnessed two colleagues who were riding down right in front of me on this very same route. Both of them were forced to cross the abandoned tracks due to a construction zone blocking the bike lane and both of them crashed.
Not even a typical fat tire from a Dutch city bike is going to save you from getting your front wheel jammed into it. If you’re going to get fat tires wider than 60 mm or so, you’re not going to have a good time riding in SF.
Well, knowing how SF crawls like a turtle when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and installation, here are some tips that I gathered and learned to avoid train track crashes. Please comment if you have other recommendations.
1. Rule of thumb, cross the tracks as perpendicularly as possible.
2. Do not lean on your bike when crossing. I leaned on my bike and that’s how my bike accident happened.
3. Try to sit upright as much as possible when crossing, even if you have low handlebars, so your center of gravity is more balanced and if you crash you are less likely to land on your head. Or better yet, get an upright or step-through bike.
4. If you ride at night often, invest in those super bright headlights so you can see the ground better.
5. Get wide tires that are at least 35 mm. 35 mm becomes wider when you are seated on your bike because it expands with your weight and that is wide enough to not lodge into active train tracks. Just be careful on the curved tracks because those are 51 mm wide.
But what about in the rain? The metal surface of the tracks gets even more slippery when wet. I don’t know except to use the above tips with very extra care and maybe buy some good tires made for rain.
SFMTA, you gotta remove those abandoned train tracks! Just want to say you can be sued.
On the way to Off the Grid this past Friday, I saw these bright green paint on bike lanes. No, these bike lanes are not separated nor protected. They are just green paint over the original striped lanes but they are an improvement, nonetheless. Maybe private cars, tour buses, and taxis will know not to block it this time… I doubt it though. I guess it’s okay because the Embarcadero these days is like a parking lot during weekends due to all the traffic so it feels kind of safe to swerve in and out of the blocked bike lane into the vehicle lane.
I believe they were painted along the Embarcadero to get ready for America’s Cup which will begin this July.
I noticed that the green bike lanes weren’t completely done so I asked the construction crew manager about how far the green lanes will go. He said that it will start from as far south as Howard St. and end near North Point St. to the north. This CANNOT be right because that doesn’t cover the whole stretch of the original striped lanes from 3rd St. to North Point St. on the Embarcadero. If the purpose of the green painted lanes is to get more people to use bicycles as another form of transportation to get to events like America’s Cup, why are they ending at Howard St. which is 1.4 miles (2.3 km) from the Caltrain Station? Are we getting another disconnected bike route as seen in so many places in SF?
Anyhow, I hope this is temporary until we get a cycle track here. I propose a raised cycle track going northbound without jeopardizing sidewalk space and a southbound buffered cycle track by placing it between parked cars and the sidewalk. This proposal would not take any car space away. Do it!