Bicycle lane in Golden Gate Park cause for concern

Photo by The Richmond Review

[This article reprinted with permission from the January 2013 issue of The Richmond Review.]


By Thomas K. Pendergast | The Richmond Review, January 2013

On a Saturday morning the foreign tourists queued up in front of a bus near the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

Standing scattered across a bicycle lane in a loose group of about a dozen people, they did not notice a bicyclist bearing down on them. He whistled first, then yelled “hello!” at them so they would see him coming.

The tourists moved and let him through but the confusion was on every face. Why was this bicyclist so pushy and why didn’t he just go around the bus on the other side?

They obviously had no idea that they were blocking his bicycle lane.

Farther down the road the sidewalks were clogged with pedestrians and a jogger was running fast, so he moved across the grass strip and into the middle of the bicycle lane to go around them, which caused the bicycle rider coming up behind him to move left into the parking buffer zone, around the jogger and only a couple of feet from a row of parked cars.

City planners and the SF Bicycle Coalition are set to create more of these “cycle tracks” around San Francisco but opposition is growing against the design found along John F. Kennedy Drive, near the east side of Golden Gate Park, with some disabled people and even some bicyclists saying that this design is more dangerous for them than not having any bike lanes at all.

A survey found that most of the buffer zones adjacent to the 22 parking spaces reserved for disabled people along that bike track are between six and eight feet wide, although some are between four and five feet wide.

Howard Chabner is confined to an electric wheelchair because he has Muscular Dystrophy.

“For people who use wheelchairs and people who have difficulty walking it’s important to be able to park next to the curb,” says Chabner. “Many people such as myself who have a wheelchair or a scooter, we have a mini-van or a full-size van with a ramp or a lift; in either case it’s much more common for the ramp or the lift to be on the side. Instead of that, to have to park away from the curb and basically have to deploy your lift or your ramp into a very narrow buffer zone or into the actual bike lane itself, that’s really dangerous.”

Chabner says he raised these concerns when he first learned about the cycle tracks, but he claims his complaints and the complaints of others fell on deaf ears. He became so frustrated with the process that eventually he resigned from his position as the chair of the Physical Access Committee (PAC) on the Mayor’s Disability Council.

“The way we found out about this project was that we were being asked about where the blue zones should be but we didn’t know anything about the project,” he says. “By the time it came before our committee, we were told it was basically a done deal and the only real input we could have would be where the blue zones would be located.”

A spokesperson for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA), Paul Rose, denied the Physical Access Committee was cut out of the loop.

“MTA staff have met multiple times with advocates for people with disabilities throughout the design, construction and evaluation process,” says Rose. “As a result of those discussions, staff made key adjustments to the project design to better accommodate disabled parking in blue zones and elsewhere along JFK Drive. After the project was constructed, staff led a field visit with members of MOD’s Physical Access Committee and the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee to discuss how the new design was functioning. At one point, individuals from that committee wrote an e-mail thanking our staff for increased efforts to reach out to the disabled community on innovative bike projects.

“We acknowledge that despite the design changes that we made to address some of these concerns and despite our initial findings that people feel safer as a result of the design, advocates remain concerned about parking-buffered cycle tracks in general. We plan to address these concerns in the project’s final report, which should be ready for distribution in February.”

Bob Planthold, a representative of the Senior Action Network, had polio as a child and uses crutches to get around. He says members of that group only found out about the park cycle track right before the Rec. and Park Commission met to approve it.

“We heard about it on a Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday, (the Rec. and Park Commission) was going to consider this,” says Planthold. “So there was effectively no time to delve into the issue and to deal with some of the questions that we’ve been talking about.

“Rec. and Park, when some of us showed up, totally ignored us. They unanimously approved it and commented only about how it was great for the bicyclists, ignoring the safety concerns of all vulnerable pedestrians, whether parents with a baby stroller or a person with a disability,” Planthold said.

A confused driver parks incorrectly along JFk Drive in Golden Gate Park. Photo by The Richmond Review

The Recreation and Park Department, however, provided a letter to the commission dated Oct. 20, 2011, the day final approval for the project was given, which noted that the Environmental Impact Report for the plan was certified by the San Francisco Planning Department in June of 2009. Plus there were two public workshops held to examine the project, one in June and another in August of 2011.

The letter also claims that MTA staff presented the project to the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority (GGPCA) on Oct. 5, 2011, at which time approximately 30 speakers from the public addressed the authority, most of them speaking in favor of the proposal. The GGPCA also received more than 200 letters supporting the configuration and four opposing it, according to the letter.

But at least one bicyclist is not happy with the design. Joe Corio describes himself as belonging to the “bicyclist activist community,” and says he is a former bicycle messenger and has participated in Critical Mass.

“I believe the general consensus amongst my friends is that the bicycle tracks on JFK are not good, at times dangerous, and at times misleading for experienced cyclists,” says Corio.

He lists off some of the hazards that experienced cyclists have to deal with on the current configuration:

“Slower and unpredictable cyclists on the track; unpredictable pedestrians crossing right in front of you, i.e. you never know when they’re going to cross at the drop of a hat or when they’re actually going to step back and look at their iPod; and the hazards of the road, the storm drainages, are all right in the cycle track and a lot of debris often catches there. … So, you’re dealing with a lot of unpredictable stuff in a small space. There’s no way to bail out over the curb and there’s not a lot of safe room to bail out on your left side into traffic anymore.”

Corio likens the experience to riding though a narrow canyon because the line of sight has been reduced by parked cars on the left.

There is one critic who sees the possibility of a more positive outcome to the issues raised by the JFK bike track.

Jessie Lorenz is the blind executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center SF.

“The way it is now, if you get out of the car you’re in the line of fire,” says Lorenz. “In my personal situation, I have a seeing-eye dog and I have a two-year-old child, so I can’t imagine that parents’ groups are happy with this arrangement either.

“Since this has happened it has led to some strategic relationships between the disability community and the bicycle coalition,” she says. “We’ve had some productive discussions so I don’t think a design like this will just be shoved through again. I have some real concerns about safety … but this has led to a lot more productive discussions about public spaces and for that I’m really grateful.”

“It’s unfortunate that the track is how it is at the moment but there are other tracks that are going to be built in San Francisco and how can we think about things so that we’re looking at all of our citizens?” she added.

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  1. Are we all talking about the same bike lanes?

    In six months of riding them every day, I’ve seen cars parked in the lanes maybe three times. I’ve seen pedestrians standing in them a handful of times, but nothing a polite “excuse me” doesn’t resolve. On 99.9% of days, I see none of these issues.

    Some commenters have complained about a risk of getting doored but there is several feet of buffer between the bike lanes and the cars. I am never, ever at risk of getting doored.

    I also read many people claiming they find the lanes so dangerous that they now ride with the traffic. I have not seen anybody doing this even once in the past six months. Are these comments hyperbole or are we just missing each other?

    Is this the age-old culture clash between casual city riders and those who take their biking more seriously? A study from Portland (http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/158497) found that only 7% of the general population are “enthused and confident” cyclists, while 60% are “interested but concerned”. If we want to match the 50% bicycle mode share of cities like Copenhagen, we need to continue to reach out to the “interested but concerned” by investing into best-practices like the JFK bike lanes.

  2. why does the MTA think the seperate bike lane configuration is needed? the bicycle, automobile and pedestrian traffic was working before the new configuration. why doesn’t the MTA focus on soem issue that actually needs attention. if they want to change something in the park, ban those giant diesel burning buses.

  3. I ride these lanes every day to and from work and I very rarely have had any issues. Even on a busy Saturday morning, a little courtesy and a little less speed is all it takes to navigate these lanes without a hassle. I think some of us are forgetting how it was before: just fine for those of us who are strong/agressive riders, but totally unacceptable for younger kids or a relaxed park ride. The new configuration also has the added benefit of slowing down traffic – making “cutting through the park” a less attractive option. If you have to get somewhere fast on your bike and the bikeway is congested with users (a great thing), the main lane is still available to you, so long as you can keep up with traffic.

    Be excellent to each other.

  4. Separated bike lanes like these are used all over the world with great success. I’ve never had a problem here, in fact I feel very relaxed and safe riding in them. There is a wide buffer between you and the car doors. People are polite and there aren’t any double parked cars as there are in regular bike lanes. Particularly odd are the drivers complaining of danger while getting out next to the car lanes. It’s exactly the width of any normal street in SF, it’s just not enormously wide as before. These are great and I can’t wait for more to be installed throughout the City.

  5. We cycle JFK to commute and for recreation. It was difficult both before and after the new bikelanes. As one can discover any Sunday, the problem is not really bicycles nor walkers, but the Cars! Golden Gate Park was never intended to be a motor speedway, jammed up with free storage of metal boxes on the public right of way. Cars can zoom up and down Fulton and Lincoln. They can also access museum parking from those streets. Without the cars on JFK there would be no problem with bikelanes of any kind!

  6. I can’t agree more with the posters saying that the park should be closed for the cars. Screw the elderly, disabled and breeders with strollers. They don’t bike or run so they don’t need the park anyway.

    Seriously though, I know this lady who is on the wrong side of 90. Almost every day her daughter picks her up and they drive to the park for a walk. Any suggestions how they would get there if the park is closed for the cars?
    The underground garage provides access only to a small area of the park. Public transit? Well, when you are 90 years old, take a bus and let me know how it works out for you.

    And it’s only one example. Same applies to the disabled and families with kids.

    I understand that you are annoyed with these metal boxes. Really, who needs them? You and me can easily run or bike to the park and would probably only appreciate the extra workout.
    But there are many people who depend on cars. Be careful what you wish for, you may be one of those people some day.

  7. If it wasn’t broken, why was it fixed? The new configuration is terrible. Not only are the bikers at risk, but people in cars are also in a lose-lose position. If they exit on the driver’s side, they’re stepping into traffic. If they exit on the passenger side, they’re risking crashing into a cyclist. Most streets with bike lanes in the City have parking adjacent to the sidewalk, then a bike lane, then an auto lane. Why not have this configuration in GGP as well?

    Peter, can you ould tell us what the process is for getting this configuration changed? The good news is it’ll just take a few buckets of paint.

  8. Jean-

    The MTA is collecting data on the project now and should come out with something soon. A “PreliminaryEvaluation” has been done and that information can be read here.


    We will be pushing the MTA to make adjustments based on the kinds of complaints we see here and in other places.

    To your question about “Why not have this configuration in GGP as well?” most bike riders don’t find this comfortable on busy or higher speed streets like JKF, Fell, Oak, Market, and Masonic. Its similar to the discomfort some drivers I know have driving cars right next to LRVs on Church, Ocean, or Judah.

    We’re going to work towards a more balanced solution that still embraces safe access to cars but also high end bike facilities as well. Overall, the City will need to try new things as we build “complete streets” that balance everyone’s needs while diverging from the status quo of road structure. So keep sending the helpful comments!

  9. Using actual data from the above list from of Comments #1-58, I counted at least 29 comments that unambigously said they did not like the new bike lane configuration. If there was any abiguity, i did not count it it in the 29. That is at least 50%. (And most likely more). The Preliminary Evaluation linked in Item 58 said at least 61% were in favor of it. Granted it is still a draft, but I cannot trust the evaluation.

  10. The negative comments were in No. 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36, 39, 42, 44, 46, 47, 49, 52, 57. (Total is 29 negative comments out of 58 at the time of counting). Dispute that!

  11. Counting blog comments is probably not the best way to get a representative sample of people’s opinions…

  12. Alai, I think you should have added that your comment is your opinion. But I do not agree with your subjective comment. It is objective data based on the readers responding to this blog– yes, it is not a true representative random sample based on best practice sampling and error analysis, but it does show that maybe I should be suspicious of the city’s analysis. I guess you would rather make gut decisions because it supports what you want which is known as “confirmation bias”. This forum is not meant for “flaming”. The point is, that based on this sample, at least half of the people responding (through Comment 1-58) do not like the new lanes. That cannot be disputed– biased or not. I’m wagging my finger at you and think you are a big “doody”, too.

  13. My primary observation on the new bike lanes is that separating them somewhat from the vehicle traffic lanes seems to have been a signal that cyclists should ride a bit faster and ignore the stop signs and pedestrian crossing rules. I find them much more dangerous as a pedestrian. I have taken to holding an arm out when crossing any road in SF to signal my intent, but I am nearly struck daily by cyclists.

  14. The statistics in the official evaluation linked earlier (as well as my intuition) are that the new bike lanes made riders slow down, since they’re not ‘competing’ with cars, and the space is narrower.

  15. For those opposed to these new lanes cheer up. All we have to do is wait for some unfortunate cyclist, pedestrian, motorist or disabled person to be killed or injured. Given how dangerous these lanes are it is only a matter of time. Also, given that putting a bike path between parked cars and the curb is illegal under the highway design manual, the City may be sued. As a cyclist for more than 40 years, I have to wonder if it is really a good idea to get more people cycling in the City. My experience is that these “newbies” are a danger to themselves as well as others. If the Bicycle Coalition is so concerned about cycling safety, it should encourage its members to wear helmets and follow basic traffic laws. I see so many cyclists riding like idiots I would prefer to go back to the days when there were fewer people riding bikes. At least before you could depend on other cyclists to pay attention, pass on the left and generally follow the laws. . Now I have to worry more about getting hit by another cyclist than a car.!!! Come on newbies, stop riding like idiots or STOP RIDING.

  16. Yes, any accident on the new lanes will be considered proof positive that they’re a lousy design, and that they should be removed. Meanwhile, we tolerate any number of injuries and deaths on existing designs with nothing more than a shrug and a “what a tragic isolated incident”. An old lady was struck and killed at Geary & Arguello two years ago– did it result in changes? Of course not.

    As for removing newbies from the roads, that would be a terrible idea: safety is very strongly correlated with the number of cyclists on the road. The more there are, the safer everyone is.

  17. The root of the problem is the typical road cyclist’s matching spandex outfit. They are much too aerodynamic and cause a boost in ego. We should all cycle in wool suits and capes and only ride beach cruisers and then I think the paths will work out just fine for everyone due to a reduction in speed and an end to whistling at pesky tourists to get out of the way. ; )

  18. As someone who rides regularly on my own and is generally comfortable riding in traffic, I was initially averse to the change on JFK. I certainly appreciate improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure but didn’t immediately see the benefit from making parking protected bike lanes. I work for the YBike program for the Presidio Y, and regularly lead rides with youth around the city, teaching youth not just how to ride a bike but what the rules of the road are (and why they exist).

    I changed my mind after leading youth on bikes down the new lanes on JFK, and am now glad the parking protected lanes are there. We didn’t have nearly the concern about car-dooring; with a buffer, passengers could open their doors. When we saw people preparing to cross the path, we slowed down and waited. While I don’t expect all interactions between different road users to always be so positive, it was far easier to make eye-contact and communicate when we didn’t have to also be concerned with being honked at or squeezed by other cars, which was often the case in the old configuration. It was a lot less stressful, and made it easier for us to enjoy the ride.

    These type of lanes aren’t meant for the “road warriors” who are comfortable with, or even enjoy riding in traffic. Our streets should feel safe, inviting for a variety of modes and road users; not just those who are O.K. with braving the status quo. Individuals and families who want to ride their bike shouldn’t have to go through a “braving urban traffic” rite of passage. If you are comfortable riding in traffic, like riding fast, and find yourself incensed at people biking slower than you’d like, you’re welcome to ride with vehicular traffic; we have to share the road with different people, not just different modes.

    When I’ve driven down the new design in JFK I’ve definitely found myself driving slower – which is definitely a good thing. The creator of Golden Gate Park, William H. Hall, intentionally designed the roads and pathways in GGP to be curved and winding, in part to discourage horse-and-buggy drivers from speeding (the speed limit for GGP for horses and buggies in the 1880?s was 10mph).

    While improved signage for drivers and other tweaks could likely ameliorate some of the issues brought up, ultimately the individuals who park incorrectly are outliers. Given that this is the first “parking protected” cycle track in SF, and that they’re not very common in the U.S., it will undoubtedly take a while for people to adjust (and some just won’t get it, or just won’t care and will park in the lane regardless). I will say that poor drainage in the cycle track is something that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later. There are also undoubtedly some lessons to be learned about addressing accessibility concerns.

    I can understand concerns from drivers having to wait for traffic to pass to safely exit. That being said, in the previous setup drivers still had to look and wait for cyclists riding in the door-zone, so the former configuration wasn’t without concern for drivers entering/exiting their cars. Ultimately, we have a limited amount of space on our public roads and have to prioritize what uses we want to support and emphasize; all setups will have trade-offs.

    Furthermore, widening the roadway to try and fit everything, especially in a park, is not a wise course of action. After all, the public space in Golden Gate Park was intended to be, and still is, a recreational area for people; not a speedway, nor a storage space for vehicles.

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