An Open Letter to L.A. Times Reporter Maria La Ganga
Dear Ms. La Ganga,
I am writing to express my frustration with your recent article on bicycling in San Francisco (“S.F.’s bike debate goes up a gear,” L.A. Times, June 16, 2012). Unfortunately, your article does little to shed light on the larger issue of road safety and reveals a latent anti-bike bias in your reporting.
First, let me say that the death of Sutchi Hui, cited in your story as “Exhibit A,” is a terrible tragedy, as are all of the tens of thousands of people who die on American roads each year. Second, I am pleased to see that the San Francisco authorities have charged cyclist Chris Bucchere with felony vehicular manslaughter, an appropriate charge, and, should he be found guilty, I would hope he’d be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Thus it would appear, at least at the moment, the wheels of justice are working. As a bicyclist who (like most bicyclists) is also a motorist, I agree that some bicyclists (and some motorists) behave recklessly. Those who do so, and especially those who injure or take a human life, should be punished to the full extent of the law.
That said, I must object to the way your story subtly but perniciously bashes bicycle commuters without offering sufficient balance or perspective that would enlighten readers to the challenges of accommodating multiple modes of commuting on our roads. That anti-bike bias is evident in your premise that San Francisco’s efforts to encourage multimodal commuting, including bicycling, is “a cautionary tale” for “other cities where officials are mulling antidotes to sprawl and working toward less dependence on the private auto.” Presumably, by the end of the article we in those “other cities” should be alarmed by the prospect of hordes of maniacal bicyclists descending on our streets with their blatant disregard for human life.
This bias is also evident in the way you selectively use statistics to suggest that bicyclists are making the streets of San Francisco more dangerous. You note that crashes have gone down in San Francisco for the last decade, but assert that bicyclists are “the exception” to the safety trend. As you put it: “bicycle-related crashes [BRCs] have risen as the number of cyclists has grown.”
Let’s look at this assertion. First, it does not tell us what a “bicycle-related crash” is. If this term means any and all crashes involving a bicycle, it is likely that motorists are at fault in at least a significant percentage of these. Nor does it tell us what percentage of these BRCs were due to other factors, such as potholes, cracked pavement, or other road hazards. Nor does it tell us if the ratio of those BRCs in which cyclists were at fault is going up or down, or if the number of BRCs is lower on streets with bike lanes. Finally, and most importantly, it does not tell us the rate of increase in BRCs. In other words, if bicycle use in San Francisco has gone up 71% in the last five years, but the increase in BRCs is less than 71%, then bicycling in San Francisco is actually relatively safer today than it was when bicycle use was lower. This, in turn, would paint a completely different overall picture of San Francisco’s efforts at reducing automobile use. Simply put, without taking into account the bicycle accident rate, the statistic tells us nothing. To use this incomplete statistical data to assert that bikes are “the exception” to safer streets in San Francisco is not just lazy journalism, it is dishonest.
To compound this misleading assertion, you immediately follow with what the reader can only assume is your personal observation of bicyclists during a 15-minute period at the intersection with four-way stop signs at Waller and Steiner streets. Setting aside the question of whether a 15-minute observation makes one an expert on traffic safety, or whether this single intersection is representative of the city at large, you allege that, of the 105 bicyclists observed, 90 “ignored the four-way stop.” Moreover, your language paints a picture of reckless disregard for human life as they “zipped through the intersection,” including one man “with a baby on board.” It is at this point in the story, however, where your alarmist rhetoric most egregiously overtakes your evidence.
Your observation of the Waller and Steiner intersection raises more questions than it answers. What do you mean when you say that 90 bicyclists “ignored” the stop signs? Your use of the term “ignored” suggests all 90 blew through the intersection at speed without regard for anyone else, as if the stop sign were not there. How could 90 cyclists within the space of 15 minutes “zip” through an intersection without even slowing down and not one be hit? That is one cyclist heedlessly riding across the path of a moving motor vehicle every 10 seconds. As someone who has ridden “the Wiggle” in San Francisco, I find this extremely hard to believe. If what you describe was true, how is it that no bicyclist was killed? Do you perhaps instead mean that some of the bicyclists slowed but did not come to a complete stop? That is quite different than “ignoring” the stop signs. It is entirely possible for a bicyclist to apply the brakes and slow down, coast up to the intersection, and after seeing the intersection is clear, proceed through safely without coming to a complete stop. A rolling stop such as this would be a violation of the letter of the law, but is not always dangerous. Indeed, motorists do this with such frequency that we have a nickname for it: “the California stop.” Which begs another question: how many cars went through the intersection during that 15-minute period? How many cars came to a complete stop as required by the California Vehicle Code? How many drivers were on their phones? Texting? But, despite the fact that cars statistically and physically pose a far greater danger to pedestrians, you weren’t paying attention to motorist behavior, were you?
There are other questions left unanswered from your 15-minute observation: what percentage of these 90 bicyclists, if any, violated another road user’s right of way when moving though the intersection? What percent were moving though an otherwise empty intersection? How many were making a right turn from one right-hand bike lane to another without even entering a vehicular traffic lane? What percentage truly placed themselves or other road users in danger? How many resulted in close calls? We don’t know any of this, because to have provided such context might have complicated the picture you seek to paint of the vast majority of cyclists as dangerous scofflaws.
Clearly, if any of these bicyclists were endangering others, especially children, they should be cited and prosecuted. But there is a huge safety difference between heedlessly running or “ignoring” a stop sign and a cautious rolling stop, especially on a bicycle. Any experienced cyclist would understand the magnitude of difference, and a journalist attempting to provide a balanced basis for discussion (instead of online flame wars) between motorists and bicyclists should at least acknowledge the difference. At the very least, one should be humble enough to acknowledge the limitations of a single visit to a single intersection. If your undifferentiated, unscientific, and imprecise observation of an intersection in San Francisco offers “a window” into anything, it is not San Francisco’s traffic conflicts, but a reporter with a tally sheet and an agenda.
What you’ve done in your article is conflate one issue (the unfortunate death of Sutchi Hui) with a separate issue (your 15 minute tally of cyclist behavior), tack on a meaningless statistic about bicycle-related crashes to impose collective guilt on all cyclists.
Not content with this indictment of bicyclists, you then proceed to give 5 paragraphs (more space than any other individual quoted in the article) to the anti-bike arguments of Rob Anderson who ironically uses environmental impact nuisance lawsuits to challenge the city’s efforts to provide alternatives to automobile use. You then proceed to characterize the addition of bike lanes in Golden Gate Park as “the kind of project everyone loves to hate.” Whom do you cite for this sweeping indictment of bike lanes? An unspecified online commenter. Did you talk to any of the hundreds of bicyclists who regularly ride in Golden Gate Park? Ask the family with children out for a weekend ride in the park whether they “hate” the bike lanes. Better that they get off their bikes and see the park from the inside of an SUV, no?
There is more I could say about your bias, including your too-cute-by-half stereotypes of cyclists (“the lycra and toe clips set”), but there is one other issue I’d like to raise.
Your article will no doubt generate lots of heat from motorists who don’t like the idea that they have to share the road with bicyclists, give up some road space for bike lanes, and who find it all too easy to blame bicyclists for the traffic congestion created by too many cars. Your article will have shed much heat, but no light, on the need for us to adapt our urban streetscape to multimodal commuting. That is unfortunate, because without safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, not only will our streets be less safe, they’ll be every bit as congested as they’ve always been.
Do cities need to pay more attention to bicycle and pedestrian safety? Absolutely. Do bicyclists pedestrians and motorists all share a responsibility to make the roads safer? Absolutely. Are thinly-disguised hatchet jobs on bicyclists the way to promote this? No.