Recent controversy about regulating bicycle traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge has raised many questions and a fair amount of concern.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions and a key link for recreational and commuter cyclists alike, but its structural limits and enormous user demand make a certain amount of friction inevitable. Coming up with solutions is essential, given the steady and increasing stream of bicycles headed for the bridge from a city that is better for cycling every day. The long-term issue is one of safety for pedestrians and cyclists, for tourists and locals, who must share the bridge's sidewalks. (See below for our Survey on possible solutions.)
A multitude of signs and barriers greets visitors to the East sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The root cause of most of the problems is that the Golden Gate Bridge was not designed nor constructed for so much bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Fences and other barriers erected for security, safety, and construction reasons aggravate the bridge's limitations. It's highly unlikely that there will be structural changes to the Bridge in the foreseeable future and almost a certainty that bicycle and pedestrian use will continue to increase.
Complicating the immediate future outlook, construction on the West anchorage is scheduled to last from early May until late August, and during that time bicyclists and pedestrians will have to share the East sidewalk. Work on the East anchorage will then flip the problem to the West sidewalk for several more months.
The permanent structural challenge of the Golden Gate Bridge is its narrow sidewalks and many troublesome features: the tower sidewalks are only 7.5 feet wide and have abrupt turns, while the rest of the sidewalk is never more than 10 feet wide and often only 5.5 feet. The surface is dotted with a multitude of metal plates and transition humps; has many steel poles that cut into its width; has a number of sections bordered by chain link fence; features railings that overhang the length of the sidewalk; and is consistently noisy enough to make verbal warnings more difficult.
Another long-term challenge is that high-speed bike traffic is routed to sidewalks instead of using the roadway. This use is contrary to law and common practice on all other non-bridge roads in the area. Imagine the mess if all bicycles in the Financial District were required to use the sidewalk!
Like the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge has extensive expansion joints with slots wide enough to catch bike wheels. These would need metal transition plates to make the roadway rideable. For this and other reasons, it's unlikely that bikes will soon ride on the roadway of the Bridge.
The structural challenges, combined with high volume bicycle and pedestrian traffic, create occasional crashes and frequent, predictable congestion. Given the high traffic on the Bridge sidewalks, reported crashes are rare at a mere 164 crashes in 10 years. But the congestion is frustrating for regular users and visitors alike, and is a consistent hassle during peak times of the day, week and year.
There are other causes of sidewalk accidents and congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge. A partial list includes: wind, excessive speed, rider error, slippery surfaces, lane usage, spotting/standing on the sidewalk, lack of markings and signage, tourists mixed in with commuters/athletes, distracted riders, low-skill riders, and misunderstanding/ignoring posted signs.
A cyclist approaches a tricky transition on the bridge, with a narrowing sidewalk, metal transition plates, and a group of pedestrians.
The recent Alta study looked primarily at bicycle crashes, and focused on rider speed out of the various causes. As a result, the controversial bicycle speed limits were the primary recommendation in the study.
But a focus on all of the causes, and a list of possible corrections, yields much more interesting ideas.
I conducted a survey of more than 100 area cyclists this weekend, offering some of the best ideas that have surfaced over recent months. (You can still participate in the survey.)
The survey begins with a summary of the information stated above concerning structural issues with the Bridge and other challenges to riders and pedestrians negotiating the two sidewalks.
The survey offers six possible solutions. Respondents were asked to rate each solution as Very Helpful, Helpful, Neutral, or Not Helpful. Since the solutions are not mutually exclusive, this allows us to see which solutions cyclists consider the most helpful for each issue, but also consider combinations of solutions that might do more still.
* Create a speed limit for bicycles on mixed pedestrian/cyclist East sidewalk [32% of respondents rated this "Very Helpful" or "Helpful" versus 45% who considered this "Not Helpful." 23% responded "Neutral."]
* Create a speed limit for bicycles on bicycle-only West sidewalk [7% Very Helpful or Helpful versus 67% Not Helpful - not a popular option!]
* Paint a centerline and other markings to suggest two lanes on both West and East sidewalks - 8' or wider straight-aways only [78% Very Helpful or Helpful versus 13% Not Helpful - very solid support]
* Use colored paint to mark the East sidewalk with a Pedestrian Zone next to the railing the length of Bridge and a separate Roadside Zone in areas where sidewalk is at least 8' wide. Restrict cyclists to the Roadside Zone where available. Restrict pedestrians to the Pedestrian Zone at all times. [74% Very Helpful or Helpful versus 10% Not Helpful - strong support]
* Open West sidewalk more hours to limit commuter/high speed cyclist use of East sidewalk [95% Very Helpful or Helpful versus 2% Not Helpful, including 74% Very Helpful. Extremely strong support.]
* Put key Golden Gate Bridge crossing information in all bike rental packages, in multiple languages [82% Very Helpful or Helpful versus 4% Not Helpful - again, very strong support]
Detailed comments from people responding to the survey confirm that a combination of measures like these would be effective in improving the problems they see when using the bridge. Creating more separation between regular high-speed bike traffic and pedestrians/slow-moving bikes, then increasing user understanding of how to use the space, is key to the solution.
A pair of cyclists navigate a complicated route through pedestrians at one of the Golden Gate Bridge's East sidewalk towers.
Since a look at the data (and local user experience) shows that some crashes on the East sidewalk are between bicycle/bicycle, and bicycle/pedestrian, it's not surprising that there is strong support for moving more bike traffic to the West sidewalk, and better educating and regulating users on the East sidewalk to make things run smoother.
Other possible options not in the survey include marking "No Stopping" zones on the Bridge, and making the two sidewalks one way only for bikes - that is, northbound bike travel on the East sidewalk and southbound on the West, but this would require extensive new hours for the West walk. Others have suggested that all bike rental operations that send a lot of bikes across the Bridge could be required to give anyone who rents their bikes in-person training on how to ride on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it's hard to see how they could do this cost-effectively.
Another suggestion is to restrict bike rentals to the East sidewalk so as to keep the skill level on the West sidewalk higher.
Creating a better marking system for the East sidewalk (many details of which are included in the Alta study), changing the West sidewalk hours for bikes, and educating bike rental users are all reasonable approaches to making the Golden Gate Bridge as safe and user-friendly as possible for the ever-increasing number of users.
We don't want the bridge to be the weakest link in the glorious route along San Francisco's waterfront and across to Sausalito and Marin. The bridge should instead be as fabulous to ride as it is to see in the distance.
Most important is to start a productive dialogue among all stakeholders about possible changes. There are several cost effective options available, as this survey shows. Many thousands of local and visiting users stand to benefit directly from thoughtful analysis and implementation. With construction on the Bridge and greater congestion, now is the time for this conversation.
On May 19, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) will host two Open House-style informational meetings to exchange information and ideas and to further discuss the recent proposal to add a speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalks.
Golden Gate Bridge bike and pedestrian rules.Bikes Make Life Better