San Francisco Bike Accidents Rise Faster than the Rate of Cycling; Bay Citizen Maps Crash Data

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(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation; San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) Bicycling in San Francisco can be glorious - paths by the beach, hills with sweeping views of the bay, the ability to cycle in the middle of January without having to come up with creative ways to keep your hands warm.

But it's also rife with "anger, misunderstanding, and mistrust between motorists and cyclists," according to a report issued last year by a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, which investigated the implementation of the city's bike plan. (Report here; pdf.) This sentiment is a huge issue and perhaps contributes to this jarring statistic: in San Francisco, bike crashes have grown 8% in the past two years--outpacing the growth in ridership, which was 3%. (By comparison, New York City, which has also seen a growth in cyclists -- saw bike crashes decline by 46% from 1996 to 2003.)

That San Francisco data is courtesy of a new comprehensive interactive map by the nonprofit news organization the Bay Citizen, which just released a data app called the "Bicycle Accident Tracker."  We asked Bay Citizen staff writer Zusha Elinson and web producer Tasneem Raja how they got the data - and what they've learned from crunching hundreds of accident reports. (They also began encouraging people to report accidents directly to the Bay Citizen.)

"The bikers, for the most part, think the cars are crazy. And the cars all think the bikers are crazy," said Elinson. They set about mapping every bike accident the San Francisco Police Department wrote a report for in the last two years.  But what constitutes a report-worthy bike accident throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the data crunching.

"The police will only write reports in San Francisco (at the scene) if someone gets into an ambulance," Elinson said.  Otherwise, the involved party is asked to go into a station to fill out a report. And of course there are a host of reasons why people might not want -- or need --  to get into an ambulance, so it's safe to assume that bike accidents are underreported.

Another big reason: according to the aforementioned Grand Jury, "police officers report...that of all the complaints filed against them, one percent are from motorists and twenty to thirty percent are from cyclists. Officers commented that the potential for complaints from cyclists makes them reluctant to cite cyclists."

So police avoid bike/car disputes.

But you work with what you have. And according to the SFPD data, the Bay Citizen found that "in 60% of vehicle and bike accidents, it's the vehicle's fault. And about 40% of the time it's the bike's fault," said Elinson. (SFPD reports use violation codes and draw conclusions about who is likely to be the "primary party" at fault, allowing the Bay Citizen to avoid making that judgment.)

They also found that one of San Francisco's most dangerous intersections is at Market Street and Octavia.  "Market Street is where all the bikers commute, because there are separated bikeways and it heads downtown," said Elinson. At Octavia there's an on-ramp for the freeway -- where motorists are prohibited from turning right because of the bike lane. "But because the freeway is so close and tempting, they tend to turn right -- into cyclists," he said.  The city has tried a number of accident mitigation techniques -- separated roadways, adding medians -- but the accidents still persist. "We think they (the city) might have to find another solution for safety in that area," he said.

That wasn't a counterintuitive finding. Here's one that was. There's an area of a bikeway known as The Wiggle that the city's biking community finds particularly perilous. "There have actually been protests over how dangerous this is," said Elinson, "because cars are pulling off into a cheap gas's caused a lot of controversy. But what we found is that there were about  three accidents on that stretch (at Fell Street) in the past two years -- it's actually not that dangerous."  At least as far as the data goes.

Other findings, according to the Bay Citizen's website: "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."

The Bay Citizen also set out to identify hot spots--places where accidents are numerous. Many of them are in the Mission, which they found to be the worst neighborhood for bikers. "We're really trying to pinpoint what the safety landscape is at each of these places," said Raja. "Each intersection is going to need its own solution. But you won't know what that is if you're stuck on 'it has to be all bikers' faults or all drivers' faults.' Really it could be a structural problems at some of these intersections that make it impossible for people to be safe there."