The great car slowdown

Could lowering the speed limit help us reach our biking goal by 2020?


EDITORIAL It's going to be hard to reach San Francisco's official bike transportation goal, which calls for 20 percent of all vehicle trips to be taken by bicycle by 2020. Everyone in town knows that; everyone at City Hall and in the biking community agrees that some profound and radical steps would need to be taken to increase bike trips by more than 500 percent in just eight years.

It starts with safety — you're not getting anywhere near that number of people on light, two-wheeled vehicles unless, as international bicycling advocate Gil Peñalosa recently told San Franciscans, people between the ages of eight and 80 feel safe riding on the city streets.

At the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's 20th Annual Golden Wheel Awards, Peñalosa — executive director of 8-80 Cities, a nonprofit that promotes creation of cycling infrastructure that is safe and inviting — laid out a prescription for designing cities around pedestrians and bicyclists (he sees riding a bike as " just a more efficient way of walking.") Peñalosa laid out an agenda for achieving that goal — one that includes a step San Francisco can start taking immediately: Cut vehicle speeds on all city streets to no more than 20 miles an hour.

Even if that were only done in residential areas, it would have a huge impact, and not just on bicyclists. Peñalosa cited statistics showing that only about 5 percent of pedestrians hit by cars driving 20 mph will die — but the fatality rate shoots up to 80 percent when the vehicles are traveling 40 mph.

If there are some streets where it's impractical to have such a low speed limit, it's imperative to have bike lanes that are separated from cars by physical barriers.

San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency director, Ed Reiskin, told us after Penalosa's speech that the notion of reducing speed limits made sense: "The logic is unquestioned that slowing speeds reduces the risk of fatality."

But the city, it turns out, doesn't have the power to unilaterally lower speed limits: State law requires speed limits to be set based on formulas determined by median vehicle speeds. That seems awfully old-fashioned and out of touch with modern urban transportation policy, which increasingly emphasizes bikes, pedestrians, and transit, and city officials ought to be asking the state Legislature to review those rules and give more latitude to cities that want to control traffic speed.

In the meantime, Reskin argues that a lot can be done by redesigning streets, using bulb-outs and barriers to discourage speeding. That's fine, and part of the city's future bike-lane policy should start with traffic-calming measures (Berkeley, to the chagrin of many nonlocal drivers, has done a great job making residential streets into bike-friendly places where cars can't travel very fast).

Peñalosa had some other great ideas; he noted that cities such as Guadalajara, Mexico require developers to give free bikes away with each home, a program that has put 102,000 more bikes on the streets. That's a cheap and easy concept — except that so much of the new housing in the city is so expensive, and comes with so much parking, that it's hard to believe the millionaires who are moving into these units will be motivated by a free bicycle.

But the notion of working with Sacramento to slow down car traffic makes tremendous sense — and that ought to be one of the transportation priorities of Mayor Ed Lee's administration.


The SFPD does not enforce current speed limits for autos. Why would we expect them to enforce lower speed limits for autos?

Narrowing the street without speed enforcement only constricts dangerous motorists with law abiding cyclists and pedestrians and does not make the streets less hazardous.

Forcing the well paid SFPD to actually do its job and enforce traffic laws based on observed threats to public health will make the streets safer, but nobody wants to make the cops do their jobs in ways that keep us all safer.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 8:41 am

For instance, the limti of Masonic is 25 when that street will safely support speeds of 35, and so that's what everyone does there. While there are some narrow streets where it is also 25, where that is an unsafe speed.

It's right that the State has a say in setting our limits as they have broader concerns with moving traffic outside the city too. So I'd like to see higher limits on the main thruways like Fell, Oak, Gough, Franklin etc and then balance that with, say, a 20mph limit on narrower streets.

That gives something to all road users, rather than just benefiting one class of road user at the expense of another.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 8:58 am

Right, because speed limits are set at a uniform 27.19234819234 mph on all roads now and clearly that's not working.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 9:14 am

So a system where limits are set to what is reasonable under the circumstances would work better. Take any of the major 4/6 lane one-way streets in SF and traffic moves at 30-40, which is safe there, but not elsewhere.

Causing gridlock just to slow traffic down is not a realistic option, and traffic is entitled to be able to make reasonable progress.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 9:50 am

Yet another sense of heightened entitlement on the part of motorists who are not satisfied with getting off scot free when they mow down pedestrians and cyclists.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:06 am

And in fact cyclists have "mown down" and killed two pedestrians in just the last few months.

When liberals like you see that we need not warfare but compromise, we'll all take a big step forward.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:13 am

I am not a liberal. There are 700,000 Muni trips per day. There are 400K or so private autos in SF, not all of which are driven each day.

By your measure, transit should get more than twice as much consideration than private autos.

The idiocy of this editorial, of course, is that when you slow down traffic, you slow down surface transit as well.

Some of us learned that our preconceptions were mistaken from the Bike Plan EIR debacle. Many did not learn that lesson because the plaintiff walked on two legs, which is always bad while two wheels is always good.

The person who opposed "me" and everything they stand for is always and and permanently bad, seems to be the thinking amongst the alternative transportation fashionistas while those who are my friends can never do wrong, especially when they dress sharp in special clothing for bicycles.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:28 am

Then, and only then, might they win hearts and minds.

Self-absorbed dicks with a sense of entitlement typically aren't persuasive.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:43 am

I agree, the bike lobby needs to be putting transit first so that people will have an incentive to abandon their autos for transit and that will make the streets safer for cyclists.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

which is why they routinely fail to convince.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

Willie Brown divides and conquers by playing to his opponents' smallness. This is how Brown has engineered the cooptation of the SFBC, by playing to its smallness of vision, by limiting its scope to bike projects and not allowing them to contextualize cycling into a more comprehensive set of transportation policies.

This zen-less politics, presuming that the political shortest path is always a straight and narrow line, has suboptimal style failure baked in.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 6:15 am

The SFBC puts a lot of energy into pedestrian and transit issues. You don't see AAA fighting for buses and trains or bikes or pedestrians.

The overlap in membership between WalkSF and SFBC is extremely high.

Posted by John Murphy on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:16 am

John, you are partially correct.

The SFBC at times puts more energy into advocating for pedestrians than it does for cyclists. The accession to the MTA's doubling of fines in the current budget for riding on the sidewalk without demanding that the MTA identify where sidewalk riding happens and reengineer problem areas to reduce sidewalk riding is one that puts peds before cyclists. The AAA would never stand by while fines were doubled on motorists like the SFBC did when fines were doubled for cyclists.

The failure to learn from the Bike Plan debacle that proved that bike lanes can slow down transit to varying degrees demonstrates that the SFBC puts transit last. The SFBC will slow down transit in order to make bicycling safer even though slow transit means mode shift from transit to cars and less mode shift from cars to transit.

The point of this article confirms that last point, that nobody on the alternative transit side gives a shit about slowing down Muni if that is a side effect of slowing down cars. The only answer that the well off healthy younger folks offer is stop elimination to shift the load onto seniors and disabled because, as some have said to me, seniors and disabled need the exercise that doubling the distance to stops can provide.

This single issue crap is killing us.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:24 am

So cyclists have more in common with cars, which are also private, than they have with buses and trains. Any confluence of the two groups is therefore coincidental and unjustified if you really think about it.

Thats aid, there's a lot of overlap between all left-wing groups in SF because SF liberals are "checklist liberals". It's the same "usual suspects" at protest no matter what the cause.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:28 am

Bikes are considered transit per city Charter transit first policy.

Yes, other people who share ideas do things in a certain way, so everyone who shares ideas does things in the same way.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:48 am

piece of paper. I'm talking about reality. Bikes are a private form of transit. Even a car can carry passenger; a bike cannot. Nor can the very young, old, sick or disabled ride bikes. It's a hobby for the privileged; not public transit for the masses.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:54 am

That piece of paper is not just the law, it is a good idea. Buckle up, wear a helmet.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 10:14 am

"Self-absorbed dicks with a sense of entitlement typically aren't persuasive."

You mean every car driver in the United States? The ones who start wars to feed their filthy disgusting habit?

You are right. Car drivers suck.

Posted by Troll666 on Jun. 15, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

Setting a long term goal of 20% bike riding rates is a lofty goal when you look at current conditions. Though I personally wish for it to come true, I too agree that plenty has to be done to encourage more people to cycle. Bike lanes need to be safer, and pedestrians need to be considered as well. Perhaps the city can approve a tax incentive for anyone that rides to work?

Posted by Peter Mould on Aug. 13, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

The force ratio in any accident between a 3,000 lb car and a 200 lb bike/person is still high. I broke a few ribs and my wrist in a very slow moving bike accident. I also walked from a 30 mph accident without a scratch, so maybe looking at macro level numbers and suggesting that people's mindset will change with an obnoxious new law will not work, and it should not.

Posted by Broker Vergleich on Apr. 26, 2013 @ 5:57 am

I would much rather have the SFPD be investigating murders, violent crimes and gang activity than pulling over people for going 35 in a 25 zone. You know, stuff that keep us all safer.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

the vast majority that are not bike nazi's would agree with you.

For some reason the bike crowd think they can only win if everyone else loses.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

Did you miss these news stories somehow?

It's pretty disrespectful to the friends and families of the deceased to argue that the street they got cut down on was "perfectly safe". Plus, obviously, if the city is in a middle of a huge redesign on Masonic, it's not accepted wisdom that Masonic is a safe street as currently configured. To me as a cyclist, Masonic is one of the scariest streets in SF. I really have to wonder how distorted someone's vision would have to be in order for them to even dream that Masonic was safe.

Posted by grrlfriday on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

Masonic is one of the few North/South streets in SF which drivers can use to move quickly through the city. There are very few which allow quick transit time from one side to another. Why are you so self-centered that you demand that every street be configured for you to amble along on your bike? Have you considered Central, Baker or Lyon instead?

The narcissism amongst cyclists is unbelievable. How long until they're demanding that the 280 or I-5 are redone to suit their needs? They scorn drivers and pedestrians. It never ends.

Posted by Troll II on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

then complain that they're not safe. Of course they're not, so use the other 99.9% of streets that don't have three lanes of fast-moving vehicles.

SFBC want it all, and then wonder why we don't buy into it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 6:47 am

Restricting motorists is a poor way to incentivise bike use. New and creative infrastructure is much better.

The force ratio in any accident between a 3,000 lb car and a 200 lb bike/person is still high. I broke a few ribs and my wrist in a very slow moving bike accident. I also walked from a 30 mph accident without a scratch, so maybe looking at macro level numbers and suggesting that people's mindset will change with an obnoxious new law will not work, and it should not.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:05 am

so it's a non-issue. As far as Ed Reiskin - he doesn't know it but he's soon going to be on the way out.

Posted by Troll II on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

Guest: I like the part about 8 to 80 year olds on bikes. I can't accept the idea that allowing an 8-year-old child to ride a bicycle alone on any city streets is a good idea. For that matter I don't think I would allow an 8-year-old child to ride Muni alone either. And as far as an 80 year-old on a bicycle. Please, get real.

Posted by Guest: on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

When will there finally be a SF Automobile Drivers Coalition to advocate for the rights of the vast majority? We are about to get another 4000 parking meters!!! It's $524 to get towed!!! Now this shit!
Also not being able to turn onto the freeway from Market in both directions, that's insane!

Posted by Guest Jerry on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:34 pm

Please go cry somewhere else about having to pay the public for storing your car on a PUBLIC street. Also, $524 to get towed is perfectly reasonable. It's not like it's hard to avoid being towed.

Posted by Guest Daniel on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 5:59 am

silent majority of car drivers can't spend hours at city meetings whining. So it looks like most people want to punish cars because most people are too busy and normal to make a hobby out of activism.

Hopefully our politicians aren't fooled by a rabble.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 6:49 am

It's called California AAA. They have a lobbying budget several hundred times higher than the SFBC

Posted by John Murphy on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:18 am

They join it for the breakdown service, vehicle registration service and the free maps.

SFBC is overtly political in a way that AAA isn't.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:31 am

Assemblymember Ammiano proposed a state law last year that would have required motorists to give cyclists 3' minimum distance when passing. The AAA organized to kill the legislation.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:46 am

If you want cars more than three feet away, keep right.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:52 am

if we focus on the big picture the issues are not convenience for passenger car drivers but creating a super livable urban environment for everyone. the car culture was produced for the expedience of commerce, enabling people to spread out over vast distances using the car to make up the difference. it's time we realize that peak oil is here now even though our war machine subsidizes low prices. we need to return to compact neighborhoods with free public transportation, shared passenger cars for infrequent long trips, and car-free zones so people can occupy their city rather than being increasingly alienated by it. anyone who has participated in Sunday Streets or block parties knows that turning streets into public parks is fun, safe and good business. we need to move from the deadening exurban paradigm toward european style compact cities, reconfiguring our auto centered social architecture to a new human/life centered one.

seeing from this perspective can allow us to envision a socialist future like that described in Ecotopia where we wage-slave less but "work" and play more. let's abandon the capitalist rat-race designed to service the expediencies of profit taking for the 1%. let's move forward to somewhere we all want to be. let's slow down and live better...

Posted by sandy sanders on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 5:16 am

It was first stated 40 years ago, and yet we now have more known resources of energy still underground than 1972 despite all the energy use since then.

Technology has kept up with energy depletion, and alternate fuels mean that we'lls till all be driving cars in 100 years, maybe even flying cars.

Scaremongering isn't debating, and we can't turn California into Amersterdam.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 6:52 am

No actually it has not. Why do you lie about such easily verifiable facts? Are you really so stupid and misinformed that you believe the crap you post?

I like flying cars though, lets make every other street a bike or muni only lane.

Posted by Troll666 on Jun. 15, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

and conseration strategies, carbon-based energy has added many decades of useful life for our vehicles, even despite massive increases in energy use in emerging markets.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 16, 2012 @ 8:30 am

The streets of San Francisco aren't getting any bigger--the citizens of San Francisco, quite rightly, won't allow much of that. But the population is getting bigger, which is a good thing, because San Francisco is the most environmentally friendly place to live in the Bay Area (try walking to the corner store in much of "green" Marin). More people means more people needing to use the streets.

So, finite street space, expanding demand. The streets need to be used more efficiently. Cars are a very inefficient use of street space, demanding not only traveling space but parking space. To transport the same number of people, cars take up many times as much space as a bus, bike, or walking (recall the famous photograph for this).

So who should get priority in this situation. On arterial streets--long, through streets--Muni, absolutely. Muni is the largest environmentally friendly carrier of people through the city--on many corridors it's carrying more people than cars. Biking 8-80 is a great aspiration, but not everybody is going to be willing or able to bike for a long time to come. Muni desperately needs to speed up, not slow down, it has some of the slowest transit operating speeds in the country. So no 20 MPH limits on main Muni corridors, please!

So Muni on the main arterials. Secondary through streets are good places for bike routes, with their lower traffic. And some routes will have to focus on cars, at least for a while, particularly streets that lead to freeways or bridges out of town. Keep them channelized in a few spots as the city seeks to reduce their overall volume. These decisions about allocation can be made reasonably. Somebody (or perhaps in San Francisco everybody!) is always going to dislike them, when they didn't get all of what they wanted.

The real enemy, on an intellectual level, is single minded thinking like this editorial. It was so focused on making things better for bikes that it completed ignored the needs of Muni. That kind of thinking, obsessing on cars, brought us our Freewayworld, but doing it for bikes is not really better.

Posted by Wanderer on Jun. 15, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

I get the point about slowing down Muni, but really: How many Muni buses go faster than 20 MPH most of the time anyway? They stop every couple of block and don't build up that much speed.

Also: Muni bus drivers don't get speeding tickets. I'm a fan of mus-only lanes and BRT, and those lanes could have higher speed limits.

Posted by tim on Jun. 20, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

Tim, we learned this on the Bike Plan EIR, when cars are slowed down, transit gets slowed down unless there are facilities and enforcement at hand to give transit priority.

The SFBC has no problem slowing down cars and transit to create bike facilities. The death spiral of slow transit tends to shift mode in the wrong direction--off transit off of unsafe bikes and back into private autos.

If the solutions were simple, then the problem would have already been solved. If we can't see enforcement on existing transit lanes, the ones on Mission and Market are routinely ignored, then we're not going to be seeing much change until things change at the top and funding is identified for transit improvements, funding that is not siphoned off to wherever the Mayor wants to this week.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 02, 2012 @ 10:41 am

They are pro-bikes and anti everything else, reserving a special venom for cars of course.

Which is why so many people don't take any notice of them - they are seen as being hopelessly biased.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 02, 2012 @ 11:23 am

The SFBC is pro-bikes so long as it is their version of pro-bike. They are not pro-bike if any of their friends oxen are gored.

Thus, the push for boutique bikeways instead of the heavier lift of making every street, with or without bike lanes, a safe street to bike on? They appear to be hypnotized by the prospect of ribbon cuttings with political elites.

Note that the pedestrian activists are up in arms about cyclists riding on the sidewalk. Where is the SFBC when it comes to taxistas, most often the most dangerous road users, endangering cyclists on the streets?

The SFBC is awol, which leaves cyclists to be subject to a squeeze play between peds and motorists.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 02, 2012 @ 11:40 am

In addition to motorized vehicles try enforcing the traffic laws on cyclist and make San Francisco safer for pedestrians.

remember the politicians push for people to use public transit?
The only politician seen riding public transit on a regular basis and not just for photo ops, was Harvey Milk.
How many city politicians ride bikes to City Hall? How many would ride a bus late at night? how many walk?
Me thinks most if not all of them drive.

Does the Bay Guardian have a constant urge to support control freaks?

Posted by sf T party on Jul. 02, 2012 @ 10:19 am

My turn. First of all and I will keep saying it. Does MUNI service Silicon Valley, can you read your back to Emeryville. In come places in Oakland would you want to walk, or even ride a bike. Would you like to live in a transit based city with denser housing, tall buildings, parking controls. Would you want to see high rises offices in the city center.

Posted by Garrett on Aug. 01, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

Would cutting speeds in the city to only 20 miles an hour solve problems or cause even more problems? Congestion could become a problem because cars spend a longer time on the roads. Would pollution eventually become a problem too? I doubt we can see 20% bike adoption rates before 2020 if this carries on.

Posted by Thomas on Oct. 23, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

I am impressed with your ideas of increasing bike trips by more than 500 percent in just eight years. Yes, You are right that people between the ages of eight and 80 feel safe riding on the city streets.

Posted by on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 12:17 am

Thinking about to get a new car, SUV or sport car, which do you people prefer?

Posted by 3Dmats Inc. on Mar. 14, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

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