Monday, September 27, 2010

Close Encounters

It would seem that I am a police magnet, which is kind of strange as I left my wild days behind a while ago. The only other explanation would be that upright bicycles ridden by women in skirts are some kind of threat that needs to be addressed in the penal code.

San Jose Shadows

This is a picture of San Jose Ave, the section known as the Bernal Cut. It is to friendly, usable roadway what Wild Irish Rose is to a fine Bordeaux- both will get you there, but one will make you hurt way more than the other. The problem is that despite the fact that the entrance to this bicycle lane forces riders to tangle with 50 MPH traffic exiting a freeway while trying to turn right, it is the only topographically reasonable way to get from my home to any part of the Mission or Downtown. The entrance to this street looks a lot like a freeway on-ramp, and is, in fact, right next to one. At the beginning of the ramp is a large "Bicyclists Allowed Use Of Full Lane" sign, complete with the California code number that makes this law.

Once I got used to using this route it wasn't a big deal to go this way. It requires being very alert and assertive, but over time drivers have become accustomed to seeing cyclists in this area and know to look out for us. There is also quite a lot of space to move around in before hitting the marked bicycle lane so it is not hard to find your spot to get through. I ride this route many, many times a week and, sometimes, several times a day. It is not unusual for me to have one or more kids with me.

Today, as with most days, I jumped on the Bat with Declan on the back, and headed to San Jose Ave. on my way to a meeting at City Hall (ironically, a meeting about traffic reduction and calming in this area). As soon as I hit the overpass, just after passing the big yellow advisory sign giving me the lane (one of two lanes, BTW), I found myself being shadowed by an SFPD cruiser with an officer yelling at me through the passenger window (as I was doing 20 MPH down a rather steep hill). The "conversation" went like this-

Officer- (in incredulous and annoyed voice) Hey! Do you know where you are going?

Me- Yes. I do.

O- You can't be here!

Me- Yes I can.

O- This is a highway! You can't be here!

Me- No it isn't. This is San Jose Ave. and I can ride here whenever I want.

O- Pull over!

I pull over, right at the busiest and most dangerous part of the avenue, before the bicycle lane begins and right where the worst speeders drive by. Not by choice. This is where I am forced to pull over. I say nothing about this because it is pointless and I know I am going to be fine.

O- You can't be here. This is considered a highway.

Me- No. It is San Jose Ave. and I can be here. The sign at the entrance lets you know that I get the full lane while I am here.

O- You can't ride here.

Me- Yes I can, and I do everyday along with a couple of hundred other people who use this official bicycle route.

O- I am just going to have to call this in and see.

Me- You have to call to find out that this is a city street and that I am allowed by law to ride here?

O- I am just concerned about your son's safety.

Me- If you are not used to driving through here I am sure seeing me here is a little unnerving.

O- Yes. It is!

Me- I can understand that, but I ride through here with my children almost everyday. It is the recognized bicycle route through this area as you can see by the bicycle lane and signage at the beginning of the ramp.

O- Just because you do it everyday doesn't make it right.

Me-I can understand why you feel that way, but the fact is I have the right to be here and am no less safe here than most parts of the City. I appreciate your concern, but we are fine as long as people like yourself keep your eyes open and allow us our right of way.

O- (starting to calm down)- OK. I just don't want you to get hurt.

Me- I appreciate that. We will be fine. Thank you for your concern.

With that, he got back in his cruiser and left me to my own devices. Part of me wanted to be annoyed with him. I hate it when police officers make crap up to get you to do something assuming you do not know your rights. I also really hate it when others try to protect my children from me, mostly because they give the most patently ridiculous reasons for doing so. The times that I have complained about the dangerous drivers on this route, I have been told by the SFPD that "you shouldn't be there anyway. It is way too dangerous and there is nothing we can do about it". In spite of these things, this encounter just left me sad.

Why do so many of the encounters that we have with police officers when we are riding have to be like this? Officers who either do not know the law or don't care and make things up. Officers who endanger my safety by driving too close to me while yelling out windows about how dangerous my riding is ( which in its self is pretty funny as I am a Grandma rider). Officers that threaten me and call me names they would never think of if I were not on a bicycle. Do they take a special class in this? When will it ever get better?

We can put in all the lanes and signs we want, but until we get our police departments better training in bicyclists and bicycle law we will all end up having these silly disruptions in our everyday transit. Until these departments are willing to learn the lessons (and there is a fair amount of evidence out there that this is not the case in departments all across the country), we will have to endure pointless lectures, unfair moving violations and discrimination in accidents that injure us .

At least I didn't get a stupid ticket for doing nothing wrong. For that I am grateful.


  1. You are so right. The profound ignorance of law enforcement officers concerning how to ride bikes or what the law requires and allows (along with their tendency to bully others in their ignorance) is key to so much that's wrong.

    I too had an encounter with a douche bag with a badge--but in rural Texas. I'm afraid I was not quite as polite as you.

  2. We are living under the delusion that police (of all kinds) are intelligent, aware and educated.
    In fact they are just like anyone else that is willing to work a low paying, dangerous job. Some are special most are not.

  3. Your story reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a fellow bike riding friend. We concluded that most of the drivers angst about cyclists is their own fear for our safety - but that its unrecognized as such and instead gets labeled as "drivers annoyance at cyclists". It would be great if all the anxious energy was instead translated into their full and vocal support for safe bike lanes, but sadly, that rarely happens!

  4. A related problem that we have here in Portland, is that the police will only enforce things they feel will go through in court, otherwise they obviously look stupid - so for instance, if a driver does something stupid (depending on HOW stupid), often they won't do anything about it because they know a judge will just dismiss it.

    Agreeing with PaddyAnne, I've often thought about how a lot of the anger that gets leveled at cyclists being in the road comes from a place of fear of injuring them - but yet the people who get angry at us being in the road have no desire to see money spent on giving us a safe place to be.

    That indifference to other citizens of the same place is one of the things I find most infuriating about America. Personally, I would be happy to pay higher taxes for great infrastructure, fully subsidized public transit, etc, even if I never used it - what helps other citizens of my city helps me, helps the city as a whole, helps the local economy, etc.

    But so few people care about that here, they'd rather just force people to either spend beyond their means to own and operate a car, or just leave them transport-less.

  5. Definitely typical - around here I am frequently threatened with citations for "Impeding Traffic", though no officer has ever taken the time to actually write one. Ironically, I was recently pulled over on the local MUP by a motorcycle cop with a radar gun. He was sitting by the side of the trail, and gunned me doing an outrageous 12 mph. That's right, the speed limit on this trail has been changed to 10 mph. So, if I'm on the road doing my usual 12-14, I'm "Impeding Traffic" and if I get off the road onto the trail doing the same speed, I'm speeding, and liable for a $101.00 fine. I think I need to move. Val

  6. I think you handled that very well, standing your ground with confidence. I'm not sure I would handle it so well, but then I have very little experience with being pulled over on a bike.

    We need to get a bicycle culture going (as much as some, such as BikeSnobNYC, like to say there is no such thing) where bicycles are an accepted transportation alternative and both the general public, preferably beginning in elementary school, and law enforcement officials get adequate training.

    Thanks for doing the tough type of training of both your kids and law enforcement personnel.

  7. With my experience with a couple of events like this in Houston, Texas your police officer was really incredibly nice and understanding. In Houston, I've never been pulled over by a cop who is willing to understand that bikes have a right to be on the road. They've all been incredibly rude, hostile, and dangerous. One officer pulled me over once my pulling out in front of me, almost hitting me.

  8. I find this as annoying as the fellow bicyclist who passed me and chided me for not wearing a helmet. Why do some people, be they cops, co-workers or other bicyclists think they have more perspective on my safety than me? I guess I'd be less irritatd if you had reported flying along the street,zipping around cars on a racing bike while talking on your cell phone but that clearly wasn't the case. Maybe the only thing to do is smile patiently and nod.

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  10. well on one hand you are right to be miffed with the officer, who clearly doesn't pay attention to signage (here in the Uk this is called "driving without due care and attention" and is an offence).

    on the other hand at least he took the time to stop and enquire, most officers here are oblivious to cyclists in any form

  11. I ride in the opposite direction to City College and at Bosworth there is a sign that advises cyclists to get off San Jose Ave completely, you know, because it turns into an unofficial highway.... So my commute is pretty much 50/50 bike routes and just riding with crazy traffic. Unfortunately not every SF neighborhood is like the Mission (I live in Portola).

  12. i hate San Jose Ave. I used to bike through there on my way to school everyday and it was nerving when i drivers wouldn't understand why i was there. i'm glad you defended your rights as a cyclist on that road. i'm interested to hear what the verdict was on traffic reduction in that area. keep us posted.

  13. Well done for keeping your cool, I think I'd have lost it with the police officer; there's nothing I dislike more than ignorance coupled with law enforcement.

    Of course the greatest sadness of all is that an official bicycle route involves 50mph roads at all. But well done for persevering and using what you have a right to use.

    Keep on riding!

  14. police everywhere, justice nowhere...

  15. I feel your pain. I live in Australia where our police force is probably even more ignorant and hellbent on making life difficult for cyclists than your local constabulary. We get fined $40 for not having a bell on our bike and it is law to wear a helmet everywhere - otherwise you get a $200 fine. Never mind the multitude of pedestrians with iPods in their ears who can't even hear the ding of a bell or cars who will never hear it. Police hide on bikeways with speed radar guns (even though there is no designated speed limit for bikes on these paths), to scare cyclists, and then pull them over if they think they "are going to fast for the conditions". If they don't have a bell they force you to let the air out of your tyres and you have to walk home as well as pay the fine. Here in Australia (I live in a city of 1.5 million people called Brisbane), we have almost no separate bike lanes on roads to speak of, and cyclists are treated like pests and are abused daily. Our local council spends a pittance of their budget on bike infrastructure but is happy to build billions of dollars of road infrastructure. Despite all this, I ride to work every day and wouldn't change it for anything.

    Regarding this story about San Hose Ave, I admire that your stick to your principles with riding where you want to within your rights. A word of caution though, never place any trust with motorists. You mentioned that cars have become accustomed to seeing cyclists here which provided with you a degree of comfort in regards to your safety on San Jose Ave, but I would suggest this is something you shouldn't do. Don't trust motorists to see you, it only takes one inattentive driver to cause huge problems. Always look out for yourself. Safe riding and keep up the good work!