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New York Times' YouTube Investigation: Bicyclists Sometimes Run

S.F. Weekly: New York Times’ YouTube Investigation: Bicyclists Sometimes Run Stop Signs

By Matt Smith in Media, Public TransitFri., Nov. 6 2009 @ 3:45PM

The odd media war unfolding in San Francisco -- in which major dailies establish editions here while local periodicals fade away -- advanced in a new direction Friday, with a page A-19 story in the New York City edition of the New York Times titled "San Francisco’s Cyclists Facing Backlash for Flouting Rules of the Road."

The story didn’t coincide with the headline. The purported San Francisco backlash consisted of one guy on a bike who got a ticket for running a stop sign in Portola Valley. More striking, however, was the question of what strap-hanging Big Apple readers might find interesting about a San Mateo County traffic ticket -- even one wrapped in the sort of bogus Times trend story Slate columnist Jack Shafer has made a steady sideline of outing. (Ex SF Weekly editor Shafer’s latest roundup began with a story about a phony NYT-reported trend in which men supposedly grew pot-bellies on purpose because it had become fashionable.)

The real trend outed in the story was that cyclists often run stop signs. The author set up a video camera to prove this. He referred to unnamed bicyclists he supposedly interviewed as "venom-spewing bike bullies." And made the unsubstantiated claim that Marin County residents refer to cycling tourists as "locusts."

This is all well and good. The writer is entitled to his opinion. But why is this news in the New York Times’ New York City edition A-section?

Having observed San Francisco newspapers’ coverage as the number of cyclists on our city streets have multiplied since the mid 1990s, I may have some insight. Every time a driver stops using a car and instead gets around by bike, significant road space is opened to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. Fewer cars are on the road to kill and maim people. There’s less need for parking space and more places to put parks, stores and apartments. And there’s less smog, less noise and a greater sense of urban peace.

But car-commuting newspaper reporters or columnists driving to work don’t usually see this. Instead, they experience a new crop of slow-moving vehicles they have to drive around. Former Chron columnist Ken Garcia used to liken cyclists to a mentally unstable fringe group. Current columnist C.W. Nevius described accommodations for cyclists as a usurpation: "the wishes of the few versus the needs of the many." A Chronicle news story last year misinterpreted statistics to create the false impression that most bicycle-involved collisions were cyclists’ fault, part of a general theme of coverage that treats bicycling as an exoticism and a nuisance rather than the transportation solution it is.

New York is currently undergoing the sort of bicycle revolution San Francisco has been experiencing since the mid-1990s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has installed bicycle lanes, racks, and other accommodations as a central plank in his bid to turn cities into a tool to slow global warming. Cyclists, as a result, are turning up on the street. And they’re being met with fascination, and sometimes scorn.

The Times stop sign article also came on the heels of the conviction Monday of a Los Angeles physician who was nailed for felony assault after using his car to injure two cyclists, then tell police he meant to "teach them a lesson" for taking up what he believed was too much road space. That story earned national attention. And Friday’s Times stop sign piece provided a sort of counter-narrative.

The fact that cyclists often don’t halt at stop signs has long has been a rallying cry for the scorn-mongers. Cyclists don’t deserve rights and protections, this strain of logic goes, because some of them don’t obey our laws. Hence, a fake trend story positing a backlash against San Francisco stop sign-blowers just might be of interest to Manhattanites preoccupied with their own city’s bike boom.

Interestingly, two weeks before the Times piece, Christopher Beam, who like Shafer, writes for Slate, made an effort to get to the bottom of the bikes-blowing-stop-signs phenomenon.

Beam sought to parse the "What’s up with that?" question by asking another one; what purpose is behind modern traffic laws in the first place? The answer: to accommodate, and protect people from, cars.

"It wasn’t until after World War II, when nearly every American household had an automobile and Eisenhower pushed to build the interstate highway system, that modern traffic laws evolved," Beam writes. "In this history, bikes are the American Indians to the car’s Christopher Columbus. Everything about our road system, from the lanes to the signs to the traffic lights, is designed for the car, often at the expense of the bike."

A possible solution, Beam suggests, is to write new laws conducive to multi-modal traffic.
"It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign," he writes.
This, he suggests, creates a virtuous cycle.

"The beauty of this approach," Beam writes, "is that it creates compliance from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Bike-friendly pathways encourage more people to bike. More bikes create peer pressure for bikers to follow the law. (In Copenhagen, for example, you’ll see long lines of bikes stopped at traffic lights.) When more bikers follow the law, the heavy hand of enforcement becomes less necessary."

This is less Utopian than it may sound.

In 1982, the Idaho state legislature passed a law, which was updated in 2005, that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs; if there are no cars, the cyclists can roll through the stop sign without violating the law. This rule takes into account the fact that momentum is a precious commodity when it’s produced by leg muscles. And it acknowledges the quasi-pedestrian, space-efficient quality of cycling: Two bike-riders in the same intersection can sort things out merely by looking each other in the eye.

There’s a third way -- different from vigilante motorists keen on teaching cyclists a lesson; distinct from Idaho-style laws that do a better job accommodating all types of traffic. It’s universal, tough-love enforcement of all traffic laws.

In Marin County during the late 1990s the District Attorney got it into her head to make streets and roads under her jurisdiction safe for cyclists and everyone else by negotiating a policy among all law enforcement agencies to ticket all violators, cyclists included.

During this era, San Francisco stop sign-blowers would change their manners if they went for a bike ride in Marin County, because they knew they’d be more likely to get a ticket. Police and Highway Patrol would make a point of seeking out coffee shops and other places where cyclists met for weekend morning rides, to have chats informing the riders that traffic laws were being enforced. And all law enforcement agencies were put on alert that motorists who harassed or endangered cyclists would have the book thrown at them. On Highway1 north of Stinson Beach, a sheriff gave a motorist who swerved and yelled at me citations totaling $1,500.

Bicycle activists in San Francisco generally scoff at the notion that stepped-up traffic enforcement involving cyclists would benefit anyone.

But Marin cyclists were impressed.

"When you’re out there bicycling on the road every day, there’s a general mood out there,’’ Debbie Hubsmith, executive director of the Marin Bicycle Coalition was quoted as saying. "In general, people have been more respectful.’’