October 5, 2015

According to California state law the two vehicles below should be treated the same, and should treat the roadway the same.

The vehicle code assumes both are suited for the same infrastructure, pose the same risks, and offer the same rewards. What do you think?

One San Francisco Supervisor has proposed an ordinance that takes the radical position that these two vehicles are not alike. Read on.

The Backstory

Over the summer San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Park Station Captain John Sanford unleashed a "crackdown" on bikes rolling through stop signs, a commonsense commuter technique known as the "Idaho Stop" which preserves momentum and can ease congestion. The crackdown, a clear distraction from the preventable damage Vision Zero targets, was met with passionate resistance. That is to say, cyclists were pissed.

Wiggle Stop-In protest. Photo by Nuala Sawyer.

In reply, the SF Bicycle Coalition, Wigg Party, and others organized action and sentiment. Stop-In protests called on Wiggle route riders to come to a full and complete stop to demonstrate the absurdity of the letter of the law. All of this got the attention of Capt. Sanford who held a constructive community meeting, even pledging to get out on a bike patrol. Common sense prevailed (for the time being) and Capt. Sanford ended the crackdown.

The Proposal

Shortly after, supervisor John Avalos proposed an ordinance urging the SFPD to let people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs (similar to the Idaho Stop). The ordinance asks the SFPD to "make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law-enforcement priority." Note the language here: ordinance, not law and lowest priority, not legal. See the thing is, San Francisco is subject to California vehicle code which says a stop is a stop for all road users. The city can't change state law.

For Avalos the first step was support. Five of his fellow supervisors quickly joined to create a majority and advance the proposal. It happened fast, it seemed to be easy, and the mood was optimistic.

Then Mayor Ed Lee pumped the brakes promising to veto the ordinance if it reached his desk (something he's only done 3 times in 4.5 years). Lee, who in response to the Supervisors said, "I'm not willing to trade away safety for convenience..." was quickly lampooned for his perceived misunderstanding of the issue.

If Mayor Lee does veto, Avalos will need a super majority of eight supervisors to override him. Avalos says he's confident he can gather the support but is currently short. And even if the eight needed supervisors sign on, the ordinance is non-binding and at the discretion of the SFPD, who have ignored similar enforcement priority ordinances in the past.

So is Avalos' ordinance merely lip service to a cycling constituency, or can it be a meaningful improvement for San Francisco commuters? That depends a lot on us as riders, on how loud we are during this fight, and how respectful we are of right-of-way if the ordinance is adopted. Josh Wilson, in a great piece in the San Francisco Chronicle even suggests:

"Success could also set the stage for innovation in Sacramento. Our representatives in the state Capitol could give their blessing to a San Francisco experiment by waiving state preemption of stop-sign regulations within city limits."

A true, legal Idaho Stop in San Francisco. That would be progress.

What's Next?

A hearing on Avalos' ordinance is expected at the end of October, and it could be adopted as early as November. In the meantime, write to your supervisor and let them know how you feel, as two more supervisors are needed to ensure the ordinance sustains a mayoral veto. The SFBC can help.