The Battle of the Bridges

Here’s a rather nice article from the New York Times that should resonate particularly well with San Francisco cyclists–commuters, racers, and recreational cyclists alike–who must traverse the tourist-laden Golden Gate Bridge on nearly every ride.

The general thrust of the piece is well-argued and logical, at least from the perspective of a large-city cyclist: peaceful coexistence of bikes and pedestrians on the typically narrow walkways of urban bridges is difficult to attain, and separation of the two modes of transportation would solve the problem.

Of course, the author suggests a rather drastic form of separation: modification of the Brooklyn Bridge roadway to accommodate protected bike lanes in exchange for the surrender of the currently shared bike/pedestrian walkway. Reasonable, perhaps, but my guess is that the car-wielding locals would rise up in anger against this perceived defilement of the landmark (not to mention the increased commute times sure to result from lane narrowing or removal). I know nothing about the Brooklyn Bridge or its practical use, having never driven or cycled in New York City, but such a drastic re-tooling of the traffic lanes seems entirely unlikely. I’m just happy to see a bicycle-friendly article so prominently displayed on the digital pages of the New York Times.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge suffers the same congestion: the hordes of camera-wielding tourists witlessly ambling along the ten-foot-wide multi-use path, oblivious to their immediate surroundings as they strive for the perfect angle on their artsy “look up at the really tall support tower” photograph, or as they slowly walk backward with eyes glued to the viewfinder trying to capture the entire family, the Transamerica Pyramid, and Alcatraz Island in one frame. No amount of maniacal screaming or articulate descriptions like “On your left!” can jar these tourists back into reality, and the only recourse for the passing cyclist is to play real-life “Frogger” and pray for safety.

To be fair, the Golden Gate Bridge makes concessions to cyclists, but only during certain hours of the day. On weekends and from 3:30 pm to sundown on weekdays, the Western walkway of the bridge becomes a bicycle-only thoroughfare, but remains closed to traffic–both pedestrian and bicycle–at all other times. I presume the walkway is used by bridge maintenance crews during this time, and I’m grateful that we cyclists are granted reprieve from the tourists at all.

However, as the author of the Times article implies in passing, the battle of the bridges is not limited to the tension between pedestrians and cyclists:

“On the other side of the line are two kinds of bicyclists, most pedaling peacefully, a few confusing bike commuting with driving rocket cars on the Bonneville Salt Flats.”

I fear that I, the serious racing cyclist, would be categorized as one of these hellions. Though I ride as respectfully and safely as possible, the speed differential between myself and many of the bicycle-riding tourists on the bridge can be upward of twenty miles per hour; in addition, while I might feel perfectly comfortable passing another cyclist with inches on either side, I’m sure some of those that I pass are less comfortable with such tight tolerances. I’d wager that some commuters and tourists take offense at my perceived dangerous riding, my insensitivity and arrogance, not to mention my tight, colorful clothing. I apologize, for I’m simply trying to make my way to the open roads of Marin where my exercise can begin in earnest, and sometimes lose patience with the two-wheeled, swerving sightseers.

And so, as the battle between cyclists and pedestrians persists on the Eastern side of the bridge, another fierce battle between cyclist and faux-cyclist rages bitterly on the Western front. I would like to make a distinction here in order to avoid angering anyone: I define a “cyclist” not by spandex, racing license, or speed, but rather by the ability to ride a bike in a straight line without succumbing to distractions like cameras, views, or foghorns of passing ships. The “faux-cyclist,” on the other hand, is characterized by a remarkably imbalanced posture and an inability to maintain speed; they typically travel in gaggles, making them even more difficult to bypass.

I would estimate that 95% of faux-cyclists originate from one location: the Blazing Saddles bicycle rental facility. The flux of hybrid bicycles–complete with handlebar-mounted tour maps–through the doors of this rental company is staggering. Countless thousands of rental-riding tourists are let loose upon the Bridge each day, and while I advocate the use of bicycles as a preferred mode of transportation, much of the clientele of Blazing Saddles frightens me. Take, for example, this testimonial found on the front page of their website:

Frightening

What percentage of the people that rent bikes from Blazing Saddles have ever ridden a bicycle, much less within the past eight years? Does the company have some sort of system in place to ensure that the customers renting their bicycles are capable of operating the vehicles safely? I hope so, but judging by the amount of swerving and the general lack of awareness I’ve experienced while riding amongst Blazing Saddles customers, it’s unlikely. From the perspective of someone who takes bike riding rather seriously, it seems like a dangerous practice for both the renters and for other cyclists around them. I’d love to know whether Blazing Saddles discusses proper etiquette and safety with their renters prior to sending them out the door. A quick tutorial about riding single-file except when passing, staying on the right-hand side of the path, looking forward, and riding in a straight line would suffice.

Of course, I should mention that part of the problem arises from a complete lack of bicycle traffic control on the bridge; simple paint striping might help guide the wandering tourist back to the correct side of the path and encourage single-file riding. I’d love to see the bridge authorities or the local bicycle advocacy groups push for such measures. A combination of proper training and external guidance would ameliorate many of the dangers and annoyances encountered by San Francisco cyclists nearly every day.

I’d be interested to know if the Brooklyn Bridge is plagued by the same bicycle tourist problems. Does an analogous company exist to rent bicycles to New York tourists, and if so do they tend to clog the bicycle lanes? What would the author of the New York Times article say about the conflict between commuters and faux-cyclist tourists?

Finally, though I’ve expressed disappointment about the general lack of bicycling etiquette displayed by the customers of Blazing Saddles, I have not taken issue with the company’s practices explicitly; however, Blazing Saddles has recently exercised what I consider extremely poor judgement. They have begun renting electric bicycles.

More Frightening

I’m not even certain of the legality of riding a motorized vehicle on the walkways of the Golden Gate Bridge, but let’s put aside the law for a moment and use common sense. Placing a motorized bicycle into the hands of an untrained tourist– whose primary interest is the scenery around him and not the pavement in front of him–smacks of lunacy. We cyclists can only hope measures to ban motorized bicycles from the bridge are swiftly enacted.

To summarize: in agreement with the Times article’s conclusion, conflict between pedestrians and cyclists may be minimized by physical separation, as demonstrated by the bike-only side of the Golden Gate Bridge, but that fails to address conflict between different factions of bicycle riders. I suggest that more judicious bicycle rental policies and external bike traffic control measures would benefit all bridge users greatly.

However, in the meantime, I’m going to resort to my own devices; I’ll gracefully dive between tourists riding three-abreast, and swiftly pass swerving tandems. I’m not “driving rocket cars on the Bonneville Salt Flats,” I’m just looking out for my own safety and escaping the frightening mess of the bridge as quickly as possible.


One response to “The Battle of the Bridges

  1. Pingback: Something Ain’t Right « Counterattacking Reality

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