By SCOTT JAMES
Published: November 5, 2009
With his lean frame topped by a shock of thick graying hair, 42-year-old Alan Kayser is the epitome of a seasoned cyclist. He does not look like a criminal, but recently he was pulled over on his bike and fingerprinted by a sheriff’s officer.
“He fingerprinted everybody,” Mr. Kayser said. “That’s how they ID people.”
His crime? Running a stop sign on his bike.
As a growing number of people in the Bay Area take to bicycles — to be green, healthy or thrifty — there are signs of an emerging backlash against those who fail to follow the rules of the road.
Mr. Kayser was stopped in Portola Valley, an idyllic suburb of gently sloping, tree-lined roads. On weekend afternoons, cyclists are as ubiquitous there as smiles, following a route nicknamed The Loop. You will not find a single traffic light, but there is a three-way stop at the one significant intersection of Portola and Alpine Roads.
But those signs seemed invisible to cyclists, especially packs of up to 75 that sometimes fill lanes, preventing residents from driving their own streets. “I can see why that would be irritating,” said Angela Howard, the town manager.
So the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department set up a checkpoint and handed out warnings to errant cyclists. Then a series of dragnets involving 17 officers caught 91 stop-sign scofflaws, fining them up to $120 each.
In Sausalito, another popular cycling destination, as many as a thousand rented tourist bikes go through the city some days, too often ignoring traffic laws, leading locals to refer to them as “locusts.”
Tickets remain rare in San Francisco, although ridership is up 53 percent since 2006, and with that boom has come a fairly rampant disregard for the rules of the road. Stop signs (and sometimes red lights) are routinely ignored.
Videotape a typical intersection and do the math. A scan of 40 minutes of footage shot during morning rush hour at the four-way stop of Duboce and Steiner Streets showed the following:
¶Seven cyclists came to a complete stop.
¶Fifteen cyclists paused.
¶Ninety-one cyclists blew right through the intersection.
“It’s definitely an issue that gets people riled up and that there’s some pushback on,” said Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Ms. Shahum contends that ticketing cyclists misses the real danger. “We’re eager for law enforcement to prioritize dangerous activity on the streets in relationship to the harm that it can cause,” she said.
Cars can kill, Ms. Shahum argues, not bikes. Since it takes so much energy to stop and start, riders figure that if an intersection appears clear, there is no harm running the sign.
Maybe so, but when you speak to some cyclists, a more troubling attitude emerges: this is war, and drivers are enemies.
Just try to talk about obeying traffic laws, and suddenly the loveliest ecofriendly riders are instantly transformed into venom-spewing bike bullies. I was warned several times not to write about this or risk being publicly vilified as an enemy of the bike world.
Where does this battle cry come from? This is, after all, the birthplace of Critical Mass, the anarchist bike advocacy movement famous for monthly protest rides meant to disrupt traffic.
The group made plenty of new enemies a week ago when participants donned costumes and used their bikes to create gridlock in the South of Market district of San Francisco. Streets were already in crisis because of the closing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for an emergency repair, but cyclists were undeterred from adding to the misery.
“They were rude and impudent and churlish and were taunting the drivers,” said the liberal God of Biscuits blogger Jeff Barbose, who was trapped in his car for 30 minutes. “What were they trying to accomplish?”
Hugh D’Andrade, a Critical Mass rider since it began in 1992, said, “We’re sorry we create any delays, but we’re tired of waiting for social change.”
But the surge in cyclists shows that change is already under way. Ticketing stings, defiant cyclists, and besieged communities reflect a struggle to manage it.
Some see an opening for their agendas. Last week, Critical Mass last week started its first blog, an effort at a public dialog. And according to Ms. Shahum, there is talk of changing California law so cyclists will be required only to yield at stop signs.
In the meantime, managing cyclists is left to the police. Just ask Mr. Kayser. He and his friends were recently caught illegally riding on hiking trails. Their fines totaled $1,204.