There were more bikers than ever on the streets of San Francisco in 2010. Bike lanes were being installed once again after the city won a long-fought legal battle. Innovations like separated bike lanes on Market Street, the city’s most-traveled street, are making the bike commute less harrowing.
But last year also saw several horrific accidents. Nils Linke, a 21-year-old German tourist, was hit and killed by a drunk driver on Masonic Avenue. In June, a crazed SUV driver intentionally ran down four cyclists. Overall, bike crashes reported to the San Francisco Police Department climbed from 554 in 2009 to 593 in 2010.
We mapped every bike accident reported to the SFPD in the last two years (see the data app) and analyzed the data. Below, find why and where collisions are occurring, who’s to blame — cars, bikes, cable cars or horse-drawn carriages — and whether the new bike lanes are making the streets safer.
Note: Many bike accidents are never reported to the police. Help make our map and analysis more accurate — if you were in a bike accident in the Bay Area and didn't report it, use our quick, easy form to share your data and we'll incorporate it.
Neighborhoods and Bike Accidents
The neighborhoods with the most bike accidents all have major biking thoroughfares. The Mission District has Valencia Street while SoMa, downtown and the Financial District all surround Market, where thousands bike to work every day. But the accidents aren’t taking place where you might think.
SoMa, the Financial District and the downtown/Civic Center area are high on the list because of Market Street. Rush hour sees crowds of bike commuters, some wearing suits, others sporting spandex. In an hour and a half on a single day last summer, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency tracked 796 cyclists going through the intersection at Fifth and Market streets, up 70 percent from its count in 2006. The tally was part of the agency's annual bicycle count, in which staff stand on corners around the city and count cyclists during rush hour.
Market Street was the site of more accidents than any other street, by far: 139 in the last two years. But some stretches are getting much safer, thanks to a new streetscape on Market between Gough and 8th streets. The SFMTA installed white pylons to separate the bike lanes — and painted them green. Through traffic, besides buses, is prohibited.
Although bikers say they feel safer, the difference in accidents before and after the changes is negligible. There have been six crashes since the separated bike lanes were installed in September 2009. There were six in the previous year. But that stretch of Market Street is far safer than the intersections downtown where there is no separated bike lane, many of which topped the most-dangerous intersection list.
“That’s one of the things we're considering. It's going to take a public process with input,” said Paul Rose, spokesman for the SFMTA. “We've seen the benefits of the program on upper Market, and this is something that cyclists have appreciated. It’s sped up Muni and hasn't caused serious congestion.”
With hipsters generally preferring the use of fixed-gear bikes over Segways, the Mission is awash with cyclists. Valencia Street is the main bike route with its clearly demarcated bike lanes. During its count last summer, the SFMTA tallied a total of 771 cyclists passing 17th and Valencia streets, up 75 percent from 2006.
"It's flat and that's nice and there are lots of bike lanes,” said Robin Griswold, a 27-year-old biker who recently moved to the Mission. “But there's so many bikers, and that's the annoying part. And drivers are just dumb in the Mission. Without thinking, they'll just stop and double-park."
Over the past two years, 76 bike crashes were reported to the SFPD on Valencia Street. With cars stopping, going and parking amid a flotilla of cyclists, that’s probably not a surprise. What you might not know is that accidents on the side streets are more common. Intersections on Mission Street, with its busy stop-and-go traffic, saw 73 bike accidents over the past two years, although about half of those were on the stretch that runs through SoMa. Bikers on 16th Street, which crosses the Mission from the Castro and continues into Potrero Hill, got into 43 accidents. The portion of 16th Street running through the Mission has no bike lanes, and most of the accidents took place there.
“In the Mission there are really no great east-to-west bike lanes,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition. “We have just heard from the MTA that they’ll be adding one on 17th Street, which should help a great deal.”
Who’s to Blame?
Even though tensions between drivers and cyclists have eased over the years, the animosity is still alive and well. And much of that has to do with the enduring question of who’s making the road more dangerous: cars or bikes.
Matt Boehn, 42, who was born and raised in San Francisco, now lives in the South Bay and commutes to the city by car two or three times a week. He described the relationship between bikers and drivers in the city as "pretty tense."
"It seems like, being a driver, I'm often pretty concerned about how the biker is going to react to me," he said. "I try to be real cautious around them, but sometimes I feel like whatever I do is going to get a response, whether it's a shout or some anger. I get kind of nervous around bicyclists. I've also been on the bicycling end of things and it can be kind of sketchy with drivers doing all kinds of crazy stuff."
Griswold, who was carrying a Chrome bag and riding a Specialized bike on a recent day, said she thinks both are to blame: “There's a lot of risky bikers, but there's a lot of drivers that don't pay attention."
The data provided by the police department shows that over the past two years, drivers were likely at fault about 60 percent of the time and cyclists 40 percent of the time in accidents in which a car and bike were involved (763 cases total). The same percentage holds true for accidents involving bikes and trucks.
Fault in bike accidents with pedestrians was split roughly evenly. With parked cars, bikes were almost always at fault, except when a “dooring” was involved. And it should not be overlooked that the one crash with a horse-drawn carriage (yes, that’s right) was caused by the buggy driver.
Bus drivers get blamed for a lot of things, but bike accidents apparently should not be one of them. Buses caused just four accidents with bikes and were involved in a total of 12 in the last two years, according to the data. However, one of those had dire consequences: a young cyclist was killed in a crash with a Muni bus in the Inner Richmond.
Figuring out who is to blame is a particularly sticky issue. San Francisco police officers determine who appears to be responsible for the accident and why, but they often don’t write up tickets. Insurance companies or lawyers frequently make the final determination of who was at fault.
Cyclists have long felt that police are biased in favor of cars. Kate McCarthy, 31, was biking up Mission Street in February 2009 when a recreational vehicle going the opposite direction made an illegal left turn right in front of her. She swerved, but still collided with the giant vehicle, crashing her bike and cutting her face. After a police officer showed up to take the report, he refused to cite the driver, even though there were several witnesses, according to McCarthy. The officer would not write up a police report assigning fault.
McCarthy filed a complaint with the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints. Three months later, the body ruled that the police department should have issued a report.
Officer Eric Chiang, an SFPD spokesman, said that officers have criteria for writing up police reports, including victims' taking a ride in an ambulance. Chiang said that few citations are issued, because the crash must be observed by police — or investigated by an accident specialist.
As for bias, Chiang said he doesn’t know what is in the minds of police officers.
Taking an overview of all bike accidents, including solo bike crashes, bikers bear the most responsibility. Cars are a close second.
Leading Causes: Speeding, Dooring, Turning
Your mother could probably tell you this without a fancy chart: The leading cause of bike accidents is speeding by both bikes and cars, with 14 percent of all bike accidents caused by going too fast. A very close second is turning violations, also at 14 percent. Third are the much-feared doorings caused by drivers opening their car doors into the paths of unsuspecting cyclists.
Car drivers caused 84 accidents over the past two years by not signaling or by making a turn unsafely. That was closely followed by 77 times when a car driver or passenger opened a door into the path of a cyclist who was riding along the road, one of the most dangerous parts of biking, since cars often open their doors into bike lanes. The number of doorings caused by all types of vehicles was 102. Turning left or making a U-turn without looking for oncoming cyclists was the cause of another 70 accidents over the past two years.
Lauren DeLizza, 22, was headed down Kearny Street on April 21, 2009. A taxi driver suddenly opened his door. DeLizza said the door jammed into her leg, and she flew 15 feet into the middle of the road. When she looked down, she could see her bone and muscles in a huge gash in her right leg.
After DeLizza was released from the hospital, police found that DeLizza was partly to blame because she didn’t have her bike light on, while the taxi driver was also responsible for dooring her.
DeLizza, an art student, has not ridden her bike since the accident. She has a long, thick scar on her leg.
“I am still a little shaken up,” she says nearly two years later. “It’s hard for me; some people can get right back on their bike. I’m still pretty scared.”
The leading violation assigned to cyclists was speeding. A total of 120 accidents out of 1,147 over the past two years were caused by speeding cyclists, according the police reports. Cyclists running red lights was the cause of 64 crashes. A total of 44 were caused by bikes rolling through stop signs and crosswalks. And 40 were caused by cyclists not obeying the rules governing biking along the side of the road.
Perhaps most surprising, the San Francisco Police Departments lists just one bike accident in the last two years that was primarily caused by drunk driving: the tragic death of a German cyclist, Nils Linke, on Masonic Avenue near Turk Street. (Linke's death has raised the volume on calls to redesign Masonic).
The Most (and Least) Dangerous Streets and Intersections
The five most dangerous locations in the city, by number of bike accidents (all accidents were mapped to the nearest intersection for our map and analysis):
1. Market and Octavia (14 accidents)
2. Market and 5th (14 accidents)
3. Market and New Montgomery (8 accidents)
4. Geary and Polk (8 accidents)
5. Fell and Masonic (8 accidents)
Perhaps the most notorious stretch is around Market and Octavia streets. For years, cars have made illegal right-hand turns onto the freeway ramp without looking, often plowing into cyclists. This year, the SFMTA installed raised medians separating the bike lane from the street and added signs.
However, the changes don’t appear to be having their intended effect. While six accidents happened in 2009, eight occurred in 2010 — all of them taking place after the improvements were made. Almost every crash here is caused by cars making illegal right turns.
“The more things they try there, it doesn’t really help,” said Shaana Rahmen, a lawyer who has represented two cyclists in Market/Octavia crashes. “I feel like the answer is to let the cars go right and move the bike lane to a mid-bike lane.”
Another dangerous stretch on Market Street is at Fifth Street. During the morning and evening commutes, with shoppers, tourists and homeless people milling about, there was no leading cause for accidents at this spot. Bikes were more often at fault for a variety of reasons, including speeding. Cars and pedestrians also caused some of the accidents around here. Although there are bike lanes here, they aren’t separated as they are on upper Market Street.
The intersection of Fell and Divisadero streets is often thought of a dangerous hot spot — even spurring protests. Right next to the intersection is a turn lane into one of the cheapest gas stations in the city, and cyclists have staged demonstrations there, upset about both the gas station's ties to BP and how cars routinely cut off cyclists as they queue up for fuel.
In response, last fall, the city painted the bike lane green and added a clear turn lane for cars.
But the uproar may be without cause. That spot only saw two reported bike accidents over the past two years.
And there was just one accident by the intersection of busy Fell and Scott streets, one block away, where cyclists turn left across traffic from a center lane onto a busy one-way street. The SFMTA counted a total of 410 bikers at that corner during its 2010 count, up more than 100 percent from 2006.
The street with the fourth-most accidents was Polk Street, a north-to-south corridor that leads to the center of the city. A surprising 53 crashes occurred on Polk Street, or 4 percent of the city’s total.
Polk Street has bike lanes along part of the street, but in the narrow section between Post and Green streets, where several accidents occurred, there are simply "sharrows," lanes that bikes share with other vehicles. Add the fact that many of the crossing streets are quickly moving one-ways and you have a recipe for danger.
On July 24 last year, a triathlete in training was biking home along Polk Street near Californa. A taxi traveling the same direction turned right suddenly, cutting him off. The cyclist — who didn’t want his name used because litigation is pending — braked to avoid the accident and flew over his handlebars onto his outstretched hands, shattering both elbows and his athletic ambitions. The driver wasn’t cited, but police determined he caused the accident.
Former Mayor Gavin Newsom famously opposed installing bike lanes on Polk Street. Now the Bike Coalition is advocating for separated bike lanes. The plan would also add trees and other greenery — and eliminate a number of parking spaces.
"We would like to see more comfortable and inviting bikeways on Polk street,” said the Bike Coalition’s Shahum. “If we could create a continuous bikeway and a physically separated space, we think we would see fewer collisions.”
Mission Street, which accounted for 6 percent of the city's crashes, second only to Market Street, does not have any bike lanes. Cars stop and go, and cyclists insist on using it even though other more bike-friendly streets run parallel to it — like Valencia Street in the Mission District and Market Street in the downtown area.
Injury and Death
Linke’s death was followed in October by the death of Derek Allen. The 22-year-old was hit by a Muni bus in the Richmond District after he rode off the curb and tried to cross in front of the bus. Because the SFPD won’t turn over full police reports, we don’t have details on injuries, but a spokesman for the department said it is safe to assume that in bike-versus-car accidents, the cyclist is injured.
Accidents Increasing Faster than Ridership
In 2006, when the SFMTA staff first stood on corners counting cyclists, they saw 5,500. In 2010, that number jumped to 8,713 — a 58 percent increase over four years. From 2009 to 2010, ridership rose 3 percent, while accidents climbed 8 percent.
There Is a Season
It doesn’t take a transportation expert with a Ph.D. in cycling and meteorology to figure out that more people bike during the warmest months in San Francisco: September and October. That’s likely the cause for the increase in accidents during those periods. Although roads can be more dangerous when the weather is wet, any biker can attest that there is just a trickle of bikers on rainy days in San Francisco.
Ryan Mac contributed reporting.