Traffic Safety in the Age of the Bicycle

BY COLE ARMSTRONG
June 20, 2011
After observing aggressive and dangerous behavior by drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians on New York City streets, designer Ron Gabriel decided to focus his master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts on the danger posed by a single NYC intersection. He shot hours of video footage of Park Avenue and 28th Street, edited together clips of accidents and near-accidents, and used video-game-like graphics to highlight the motorists, cyclists and pedestrians involved. The resulting video focuses on the “bad behavior” that causes dangerous situations at intersections, where, according to Gabriel, 74 percent of NYC’s accidents occur. He calls the video “an attempt to clearly illustrated very specific behaviors that, if adjusted, would make a huge difference in our streets and our quality of life.”

 

It’s easy to point out what activities are dangerous and illegal in Gabriel’s video: pedestrians jaywalking, bikes travelling against traffic, cars running red lights or refusing to yield when turning. But it’s not always easy to know the correct way for cars, bicycles and pedestrians to interact. For instance, did you know that in California, when making a right turn on a street with a  bike lane, a car is required to merge into the bike lane anywhere between 50 and 200 feet before the intersection? In other states, such as Oregon, the car would make its turn at the intersection, crossing the bike lane. Differences between states may be one reason that laws related to bicyclists are not as well known as other traffic laws.

The SFMTA estimates that bike ridership in San Francisco increased 58 percent between 2006 and 2010, and the organization is taking steps to make travelling around the city safer and easier for cyclists. Most recently, the SFMTA painted “bike boxes” on Market Street, adding to those already at 14th and Folsom streets and at  Scott and Oak streets. Bike boxes are solid green squares on the pavement just before the crosswalk, behind which cars must stop but on which bicyclists may idle. This creates a designated space for cyclists to pause at red lights, rather than leaving them stranded between cars, and could help make drivers more aware of cyclists around them. However, it could also prevent drivers from making right-on-red turns.

The SFMTA has also approved 34 miles of new bike lanes for San Francisco. These include a lane down 17th Street from Castro Street to the Bay, a lane on Kirkham Street from 7th Avenue to the Great Highway, and an extension of the lanes on JFK Drive that would continue on Oak and Fell Streets, connecting Divisadero to Golden Gate Park and the ocean. These new lanes and improvements could make biking in the city safer and easier, and make bike movements more predictable for motorists trying to avoid them -- so long as everyone follows the rules. Whether the improvements will cut down on the aggressive driving, cycling and jaywalking featured in Gabriel’s video remains to be seen.