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An Open Letter to Uber to Kick Off 2017

The Uber driver who blasted his horn at me because I was riding a bike. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

To start 2017, the Vision Zero Coalition released a statement, urging San Francisco to step up efforts to reduce traffic violence. From the release:

Twenty-eight people were killed in traffic crashes in 2016, including 15 people walking, three biking, nine in motor vehicles and one on a motorcycle. In both 2014 and 2015, 31 people died in traffic crashes.

Walk San Francisco's Executive Director Nicole Ferrara, the author of the release, stressed that accountability is key. "The City is much more likely to reach its goals when there is clear oversight to hold them accountable," she said of city officials responsible for traffic safety.

The release reminded me of something that happened over the holidays. It was in San Diego, but it could have been anywhere.

On Dec. 28, I took Amtrak from Los Angeles to San Diego to visit my mother. The bike ride from Old Town San Diego, where I get off Amtrak, to my mother's house in Mission Valley, is not pleasant. There's a bike path along the river, but it begins and ends abruptly, often spilling cyclists onto busy streets with precarious intersections and freeway ramps.

But it only takes 15 minutes and isn't too bad when traffic is light, such as during the holidays. I was only a half-mile from my mother's house, north on Fashion Valley Road, between Hotel Circle North and Riverwalk Drive, heading to where the river bike path starts again. It was about 2:30 p.m. The road had two car lanes in each direction; there were maybe four or five cars in view.

Suddenly a white car passed close, horn blaring. It was a classic "punishment pass.” I was in the right lane. The left/passing lane was empty. There was simply no reason for it.

I had just enjoyed a scenic train ride on Amtrak along the coast. I was looking forward to visiting my mother. So why did this jerk find it necessary to scare the piss out of me, I wondered?

He stopped at the next red light. I saw by then that he had an Uber and a Lyft sticker in his car. He made a right turn and then a left and pulled into the Fashion Valley Mall, where he discharged a passenger.

"Should I just ride on?" I wondered. But then I remembered something I learned from another advocate while covering efforts to stop Uber and Lyft drivers from blocking the bike lanes on Valencia.

I dismounted and walked my bike over to the passenger, who was on his way into the mall.

“Excuse me. Did you see what your Uber driver did to me?”
“Yes, that was uncalled for.”
“Can you give him a bad review?”

I then noticed that the Uber car was still waiting; that didn't bode well. I pulled out my phone and opened the camera app.

He got out of the car and approached me.

“You got something to say to me?” he said angrily.

At this point, some might suggest I ride away. But if he really was out to hurt me, how would that help? He's in a car--if he's looking to do me harm, he can drive after me and run me over. It seemed safer to stay on the sidewalk in front of a shopping mall. And, since he hadn't shot me yet, I thought perhaps I can calmly, politely, explain that sometimes there are consequences to terrorizing a random cyclist with a two-to-five ton motor vehicle.

"You were driving in the road. You belong in the bike lane,” he said.

There is no bike lane on Fashion Valley Road, of course. “I'm permitted to use the road,” I said.

“No you're not.”

It's amazing to me that the Department of Motor Vehicles of the state of California is so dysfunctional that it issues licenses to people who don't know a thing about the vehicle code, little on how to drive safely.

I answered, positioning my phone to get a photo of his plate just in case things went south, “well, if that's what you think, there are some educational videos on the Uber website that you should probably watch.”

I tried to take a photo of his license, but he jumped in the way of the camera. I managed to get the last three digits, as readers can see in the above photo. The rest of the plate I wrote down later.

"So I honked at you, so what? Get a car!” he said. At this point it seemed clear this wasn't a terribly dangerous situation, so I biked off and, thankfully, he drove in the other direction.

As most Streetsblog readers surely know, a punishment pass can cause a crash. Even the most experienced cyclist can be distracted from a pot hole, trolley tracks, or a car merging into his or her lane, or a million other potential hazards that can make a punishment pass turn deadly.

None of which mattered to this guy, I figured. And, sadly, what happened is an unavoidable part of riding a bike in California.

But somehow it seems related to Ferrara's statement on accountability. It shouldn't only apply to city officials. It applies to everyone. To motorists, of course, our lawmakers, the police, DMV's bureaucrats--and ride-hail services. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition made that point by its successful effort at the end of the year to get Uber to stop driving an un-permitted, autonomous car on San Francisco streets--a car, according to witnesses, that doesn't seem to know the rules of the road any better than the human driver I encountered in San Diego. The SFBC wanted the car off the road because it presented a hazard to cyclists.

Fine. But shouldn't Uber and Lyft hold human drivers to the same standard? Doesn't there have to be accountability for all who, either directly or through administrative inaction, make our roads so dangerous?

Streetsblog, along with the other advocates, have attempted before to get corporations to help in the fight to make our streets safe. Here's a way for Uber and Lyft to get with the program. Uber, you have the end of the car's license plate from the photograph. I wrote down the rest of the plate if you need it, just send a tip to Streetsblog. You have the time and location. You have the make of the car. You even have a photo of the driver. You probably have the negative review of the passenger, to confirm what transpired.

How about you suspend this driver until and unless he shows a willingness to drive safely? We can't just keep brushing off punishment passes, speeding and other dangerous behaviors.

In 2017, we have to start holding all individuals, agencies, small-businesses, large corporations and anyone else that makes our streets dangerous accountable. Because until there is accountability and consequence, we're never going to achieve Vision Zero in San Francisco or anywhere else.

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