Our Response to the Expectation That We Explain Bad Behavior On Our City Streets

Last weekend, I received an email from a University Heights resident voicing her displeasure over an incident she was party to. This is an example of a sort of email I have received far too often and echoes a sentiment that our board is often subjected to. I responded to the resident and have posted my response here with the hope that all of you can adopt the language employed and understand where we stand on this issue.

Thank you for contacting BikeSD and sharing your thoughts about the incident that happened last Tuesday on Park Boulevard.

BikeSD’s purpose is to work for the creation of bike infrastructure – infrastructure that invites all San Diegans to once again experience the sheer joy that comes from riding a bicycle, something you alluded to in your email.

With regard to your specific incident on Park Boulevard, the unfortunate reality is that there are bad apples in every barrel, and it sounds like you might have encountered one. While it is our mission to create infrastructure, it is not fair to ask us to account for, or defend, the action of a particular rider in a particular incident. We would not ask you to represent, defend, or speak for Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson, Douglas Lane, Wendy Villegas, or Juliann Thomson – drivers whose (sometimes intentional) conduct resulted in the injury or death of our fellow residents.

I want to also address a few of the issues you raised in your email. It is not clear to me how some of your complaints and criticisms specifically apply to the incident you were involved in last week. On balance, I think your comments generally raised the specter of the “scofflaw cyclist,” an enduring trope in the media.

You noted that bicycle riders are subject to the rules of the road “especially when it comes to stopping at stop signs.” I urge you to please be fair in your criticism. I invite you to join me (or another one of our board members) at a controlled intersection in San Diego for 30 minutes. We have, in the past, engaged in this exercise. The truth is that more-drivers-than-not “roll” through stop signs – a truism known nationwide as the “California roll.” I also ask you to be fair in the conclusions you draw when you see a cyclist “roll” a stop sign (like most drivers do): for a cyclist, it is truly a zero-sum-game, in that the rider runs the risk of great bodily injury if he or she acts recklessly. After all, a cyclist is not ensconced in tons of steel, watching the scene play out through a windshield; rather, the cyclist is part of the scene, inches away from the concrete below.

I would venture to guess that, if you honestly assessed your fellow driver’s behavior, you would not single out cyclists for rebuke. I expect you have witnessed – likely on a daily basis – bad behavior by drivers (texting while driving; talking on the phone; speeding; etc.) but don’t consider singling that behavior out because it is truly ubiquitous. I do not encourage you to complain about all bad behavior you witness by drivers but I would like you to reconsider the behavior of cyclists in context.

You suggested that cyclists are required to ride single file and as far right as physically possible. Generally, this is not true. The law requires cyclists to ride as far to the right as is “practicable;” however, the law makes many exceptions to this rule, one that I believe applies on Park Boulevard. A condition that makes it unsafe to continue along the right is when bicycling in a “lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.” The requirement to ride as far right as practicable – not “as possible” – does not apply on any lane less than 14 feet wide, or 18 feet wide if it contains parking (which Park Boulevard does). In other words, if the travel lane is less than 14 feet wide (or 18 feet with parking), a cyclist can use the entire lane (because the lane is too narrow for a car and bike to safely share). Virtually every right lane in Southern California is less than 14 feet wide (or 18 feet wide if there is parking). The reason why cyclists are not required to stay as far to the right as practicable in these narrow lanes is because to do so invites unsafe close passes and is inherently dangerous.

While I don’t know exactly where you encountered this group of cyclists, Park Boulevard is also marked with “sharrows.” “Sharrows” are intended to indicate a lane that is too narrow to be safely shared by a bike and a car traveling side-by-side. “Sharrows” not only indicate that the lane is to be shared between bikes and cars, they also indicate to everyone concerned that the requirement to ride to the right does not apply on that street. And a cyclist is not required to clear the lane to permit faster moving vehicles to pass (at least on Park Boulevard) because it is a four-lane road (at least most of it is).

When people are frustrated by a group – in yesterday’s culture “hotrodders” – in today’s culture, the “scofflaw cyclist” – there is a great desire to find a member of that group who has actually broken the law and punish him or her to make an example to the rest. The truth is that any fair assessment of the relative risks and dangers on our streets would conclude that drivers are far more dangerous to the general public than the less than 1% of San Diegans who travel regularly by bike. And yet cyclists are the one who are tarred with the “scofflaw” meme.

In many instances, the conduct that you perceive as inconsiderate, rude, or improper is the result of inadequate infrastructure – something our group is working to remedy. Our City has for far too long failed to facilitate any mode of travel besides the automobile and we are playing catch –up. We are having a much-needed, and long-overdue, discussion about our most widely used public space – our streets. I fear that this lack of foresight leads to needless conflicts between groups of road users. Our mission is focused on building bicycle infrastructure to reduce conflict and to improve the quality of life for all San Diegans.

I am sorry for the negative encounter you had last week. I encourage you to please continue sharing your thoughts with us as we continue our work.


Samantha Ollinger