In May, on San Francisco's annual Bike to Work Day, Erin Pitts hopped on her bicycle and headed from Valencia Street to Golden Gate Park. Following the city’s designated bike path towards the Wiggle, she found herself peddling along 17th Street. That’s when she crashed.
“I was stopped at the red light on Church Street,” said Pitts, who considers herself an experienced cyclist. “The light changed, I crossed the street, and then I wrecked directly on the other side of the street, when I was forced to go around an illegally double-parked car."
The reason for her accident will be familiar to anyone who's ever biked on that stretch of 17th Street: "My wheels got caught in the Muni tracks," she said.
Since we first reported on the dangers posed to cyclists by 17th Street's Muni tracks in July, little has changed—and many neighbors are furious. Continued inaction, some are saying, could result in legal action against the city.
When Danger Becomes Accepted
When Pitts crashed her bike on 17th Street, a number of other cyclists stopped to assist her. “People were very empathetic because the same thing had happened to them,” said Pitts, who eventually received 26 stitches in her arm. “They were telling me that it was a rite of passage in San Francisco to wreck on the Muni tracks.”
Kai McMurtry, marketing manager for local bike company Mission Bicycle, is well aware of the hazards posed by biking on 17th Street. The company sells stickers—“badges of honor”—that depict a cyclist crashing on the Muni tracks.
“If you ride the mean streets of San Francisco and haven't had a near miss on the Muni tracks,” reads Mission Bicycle's website, “you need to ride your bike more often.”
"It's said, half in truth and half in jest, that it's not if the tracks get you, but when," McMurtry notes. While experienced cyclists know the tracks should be crossed at 90 degrees, "the danger arises when an unexpected obstacle or road user forces a cyclist to make a movement they weren't expecting. That’s when crashes happen.”
By that standard, 17th Street between Church and Market is "a nightmare," McMurtry said. “[You're] squeezed between the door zone, tracks, and passing cars ... there's no comfortable place to be as a cyclist.”
That’s how Pitts felt when she crashed in May. “17th Street is a bike lane, but it’s not clearly marked that way,” she said.
The street uses sharrows, instead of a painted green cycling path, as in other parts of the city. “Parents dropping off their kids or Uber drivers can double-park, and they don’t think twice about it, because it’s not clear that it’s a bike lane. Just because the road is painted with a bicycle doesn't mean it's bicycle-friendly.”
Although he’s never ridden a bicycle, Bob Planthold agrees. Because of a childhood bout with polio, Planthold uses braces and crutches to get around. Though he's never fallen on the 17th Street tracks, he said that his crutches have slipped on them more than once, almost causing him to go down in the middle of the intersection.
Planthold is concerned for cyclists, but he's also concerned for other vulnerable people who might cross the tracks, from wheelchair users to people with walkers.
“The city needs to have its departments start looking at how it can be proactive in avoiding injuries," he told us, "and to make travel safer by foot, by bike, by wheelchair, by walker, and by baby stroller on 17th Street and its intersections.”
Planthold says the stakeholder meeting hosted in July by SFMTA and Supervisor Wiener’s office didn’t include a member of the Mayor’s Office of Disability, nor did it include any members of SFMTA’s own Disability Access Committee. “We’re part of this too,” he said, “so they need to include us."
Planthold says he's happy to now be involved, but he's worried that the various city agencies involved in making 17th Street safer are working out of silos. “It's not just MTA and DPW,” he said. “Why the hell didn’t the school district look at the confluence of all of these schools, and then look at the intersection at 17th and Church and tell the city to make it better for the children?"
More cyclists are on their way to 17th Street, many of them with children in tow. The city’s Shared Schoolyard project expanded to Sanchez Elementary School in June, creating a new weekend playground for local kids, and Bay Area Bike Share is planning a new station at 17th and Sanchez.
Back in July, we shared a video of a cyclist crashing on the Muni tracks as she navigated around a double-parked car, with her two children on the back of her bike. The school district declined to comment on how they instruct parents to pick up and drop off their children, and on 17th Street track safety in general.
'The City Needs To Do Something'
When asked what the SFMTA has done to address the situation on 17th Street since our July article, spokesperson Ben Jose had this to say:
"The SFMTA is committed to improving safety for people biking and using wheelchairs along 17th Street. Over the past few years we have been making improvements with better signage, paving over potholes and better intersection markings. Additionally, we recently submitted prioritized requests for curb ramps and painted high-visibility crosswalks.
We are now developing potential street designs that will increase separation for people biking from the tracks. Our next steps are to discuss the proposed designs with Supervisor Wiener’s office and community advocates this October and we hope to share our proposed designs with the broader community this fall."
While Jose didn't offer a timeline for these improvements, he did say that removal of the Muni tracks along 17th Street is not possible, and that parking removal was a potential alternative.
When asked what the SFMTA has to say to people like Pitts and Planthold, who've argued that the city has been unresponsive and inactive when addressing the safety concerns along 17th Street, Jose again shared this text:
"The SFMTA is committed to improving safety for people biking and using wheelchairs along 17th Street. Over the past few years we have been making improvements with better signage, paving over potholes and better intersection markings. Additionally, we recently submitted prioritized requests for curb ramps and painted high-visibility crosswalks."
He added that sites needing additional improvements between Church and Sanchez had been identified, although he didn't have specific numbers on how many potholes have been filled or signs installed along 17th Street. The SFMTA did not permit us to speak directly with the individuals and engineers who are working directly on the 17th Street safety improvement proposals.
Andres Power, an aide to Supervisor Scott Wiener, told us the supervisor is hoping to see MTA’s proposals “soon.” He said that he's hosting a stakeholder meeting next week, although Power wasn’t able to confirm a day or time.
When asked what specific solutions Wiener’s office would like to see, Power said that “at this point, track removal is not on the table, so putting that aside, we’re gonna be looking for a solution that is a real solution, and improves the safety condition out there.”
Power wouldn’t say if Supervisor Wiener would specifically support parking removal or not, nor did he say what a "real solution" might look like. He did say that neighbors will get a chance to add their voices to the discussion "once we see MTA’s proposals later this fall."
Jiro Yamamoto, a resident of 17th Street, isn’t convinced that this current push by the SFMTA and the supervisor’s office will result in a near-term solution.
“The city will be eventually be forced to do something,” he said. “Because people are getting hurt on a regular basis, somebody is going to get seriously injured or die. There’s going to be a public outcry, and somebody is going to sue the city. Then people are going to step forward and say it happened to them too.”
The city doesn’t seem to have solid data for the number of bike crashes and pedestrian-related accidents on 17th Street. SFPD was unable to provide any numbers on reported incidents, and most accidents on the street likely go unreported.
Yamamoto would like to see a commitment by the city to reduce the number of crashes on 17th Street. “If 10 years from now it’s the same situation, something bad will have happened to too many people, and the city will have failed.”
“Either the parking has to go, the tracks have to go, the traffic has to go, or the bicycles have to go,” he said. “It’s a conundrum, but the current situation is untenable. The city needs to do something.”