Whose Law is It Anyhow? For All, or Just for Some?

Becky O'Malley
Friday September 13, 2019 - 03:50:00 PM

Lately the San Francisco Chronicle has decided that the front page is the perfect place for events of earth-shaking importance, relegating the latest escapades of the oh-so-irrelevant Herr Dumpf to Page 6 or so. They especially like stereotypical Bezerkeley stories, out-there activities that could only happen in Quirky Berkeley, a genre so beloved that Tom Dalzell has gotten a couple of books out of it, presumably making the Chron jealous.

But the sad truth is that Berkeley is rapidly trying to morph into Silicon Bedroom, a homogeneous community populated by spandexed young folk who BART to San Francisco for work, bike to TJ’s for ready-to-eat dinners and use car shares with bike racks for recreational weekend trips to ride in unspoiled rural areas. It’s the perfect lifestyle for 20- and 30- somethings with no kids or dogs.

Not surprising, sometimes they’re in a tearing hurry to get around. That’s why, as reported by the Chronicle’s designated “Transportation Reporter” Rachel Swan, Berkeley cyclists cry foul over hefty fines for rolling through stop signs.

That would be $200 and up. Not only that, they’re being monitored by cops on motorcycles! Shocked, shocked, aren’t we?

The story prompted a flurry of heated comments in the usual venues: NextDoor, Twitter and others. People have strong feelings about bicycles, pro and con. Oddly enough, these tend to be related to age. Who knew?

Bicycle fanatics are not always aware that demographic trends point to an aging population as baby boomers mature. Even more, they’re not consistently conscious that they might be aging themselves.

What bike fans don’t understand is that us old folks were also young once. I’ve been young, but most of them have never been old, and believe me, it’s different. You’ll find out. 

It’s not that I don’t have a few friends in my own shrinking pre-boomer generation who still ride bikes for transportation, and more power to them. But plenty of us now need other kinds of wheels instead, specifically walkers and wheelchairs both powered and manual. Many of us also need to use cars of some sort if we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives sitting on couches watching TV. We might drive ourselves or rely on partners, friends and Uber/Lyft, but there are many times and places that public transport doesn’t go and we can’t walk. 

I myself depended on bikes, and even more often on my feet, into my thirties. By that time we had three kids, and even a double stroller plus a backpack didn’t get us all where we had to go all the time in the Michigan winters. We couldn’t afford a car when the classic 50s Studebaker we’d driven across the country from California died, so when I won a camper van in a 25-words-or-less contest we gratefully began using it. 

But with planning, a lot can be accomplished without using cars, if you're able. 

When we were back in California, I took the E-bus most of the time to work and school in San Francisco, and the kids took the 65 bus, which stopped right outside our house, to Berkeley High when BUSD busing ended after elementary school. When we started our software company, our low-rent office was a 20-minute walk away on Telegraph.  

But my bicycling days were over. I have one weak eye (“amblyopia”) and as my eyes morphed with time into the bi-focal range I just ran into too many bumps and holes to ride safely. And it won’t get any easier.  

So more than a year ago I tripped on the porch stairs and gave my left knee and shin a mighty whack, creating soft tissue injuries from which I’m still recovering. What I’ve learned is that there’s a vast range of abilities between bicycling and using a powered wheelchair. 

One commenter on the Chronicle story accused bicycle advocates of being both “ageist” and “ablest”—a term I’ve never heard before, but she has a point. It’s easy for the fully able-bodied to mistake their own good fortune as the norm for the rest of us. 

I’ve been very grateful that I’ve had a four-wheeled walker with a built in seat to increase my mobility after this injury. I’m even more grateful that the pioneers in the disability rights movement, some of them ( like the late Michael Pachovas) my good friends, have gotten curb cuts and grab bars and a host of other accommodations into the public sphere to make my mobility-impaired life easier. I hope eventually to recover. 

What has not made my life, or the lives of others who are partly or temporarily disabled, easier is the modification of public space to respond to the demands of those pro-bike activists and vendors who seem to have plenty of time to go to civic meetings and plenty of money to hire pricey well-wired lobbyists to get what they want out of City Hall. 

This includes the rent-a-bikes, now to be seen in locations near you all over town. Those who rent them (seemingly mostly tourists) distinguish themselves by crazily weaving all over the road without helmets, and yes, they seldom stop at stop signs. Last night I saw one shoot out from the very special new dedicated bike lane on Fulton/Oxford to blow through a red light (not just a stop sign) on Dwight Way at night with lots of cars on both streets. This happens all the time. 

Curb spaces formerly used as drop-off sites for mobility-challenged passengers all over Berkeley have been lost to commercial bike and scooter stands and bike lanes. This week I got a ride to a Landmark Commission meeting at Berkeley City Hall, and there was no longer a legal place for my driver to discharge me and my walker next to the entry ramp on Milvia. There was, however, a long quite inaccessible space on Allston devoted to myriad rent-a-bike parking slots, all stocked with bikes though it was the middle of a busy work day.  

The meeting involved touring Old City Hall and the Veterans’ Building. I knew how to use the creaky hard-to-find elevator in the former because I’d shared it many times with the late Councilmember Dona Spring and her wheelchair, but in the Veterans’ Building I was told that the elevator, clearly marked with the disability icon, “hasn’t worked in 20 years.”  

This building is now used as a homeless shelter and a history museum, so how does the city of Berkeley get away with a non-functioning elevator? It’s an ADA lawsuit waiting to happen. 

But back to the central question posed by the Chronicle story: should bicyclists be ticketed for blowing though stop signs? Why not, for heaven’s sake? 

If bicyclists want the rights and privileges of using public roads, they should be expected to follow the law like anyone else. 

Terms like bicycle fascists and bicycle nazis, which I’ve heard and seen in some of the comments, are too harsh, given that many bikes represent cars not driven. But many riders might be justly called bicycle anarchists. 

If laws are not appropriate, they should be changed, not just ignored ad lib. People who ride bicycles in the street should be tested on their understanding of the rules of the road and licensed just like those who drive cars. There’s no reason for them to make up their own rules.  

And don’t get me started on motorized scooters on sidewalks. I take a not-inconsiderable risk stepping out my front door onto the Ashby Avenue sidewalk where I could be run down by one at any time. Not to mention, of course, skateboards and the occasional bike on the sidewalk...but that's for another day.