The Valencia Street center bike lane is finally open and ready for use in San Francisco. Finally those annoying “Bike Lane Closed” signs are no longer blocking the bike lane (that was ridiculous) and you can look down the Valencia Street bike highway. I have my own set of pros and cons, but let’s reserve judgement until we figure out how to use it properly, and only then can we see the truth.
It is a beautiful sight to behold, looking down the middle of Valencia Street to see so much space dedicated to bikes and other personal transport devices. It feels like a bike highway, and it is designed as such with turns being not as simple as just riding straight ahead. Let’s dive in on how to use this novel center bike lane and whether or not this trial will become standard.
Sharing the Road with Other Bicycles & Scooters
While a 2-way bike lane like this one separates the bikes and the cars, it puts all the bicycles going both directions right next to each other. This means there’s more concern about interactions involving multiple bikes rather than a car and a bike. Without pedestrians to slow people down, the bikes going downhill can go pretty fast! Brush up on your skills to look behind you and yell “Coming up on your left!” or ring your bell as you approach and pass other bicycles, and of course make sure the opposing lane doesn’t have anyone in it!
Fortunately, the space reserved for bikes is wide, and there’s space for 4 bicycles side-by-side within it. I’ve passed a pair of people riding side-by-side when someone is oncoming and felt comfortable doing so, but everyone’s comfort level will vary.
Even so, I’d recommend to be vigilant about passing people and make sure oncoming bikes notice you as well, especially at night. Bikes and scooters going the opposite direction in the dark with little light can be extremely hard to see. If a car is also coming with bright lights at the same time, that makes it even harder to see people coming the other way in the bike lane. I’d highly recommend you get a decent front light (with charged batteries) and encourage your commuter friends to do the same. Anti-theft lights are a great way to make sure the lights always stay on your bike!
Now that you’re riding safely, lets get into some details…
Riding Straight on the Center Bike Lane
Let’s start with the great. Riding straight on Valencia’s center bike lane is super easy and free of obstacles. With the thick bollards set up on the sides of the lanes and turn restrictions for cars, the lane should be free of vehicles at all times (except maybe a fire truck). This makes going straight a breeze.
As mentioned above though, watch out for people coming in the oncoming direction! Valencia is “mostly flat” but definitely has some slope that causes a 5-10mph speed differential for people going uphill vs. downhill. That speed differential can be noticed when you’re zooming by other bicycles near to you. The speed differential between you and traffic around you is a big part of the feeling of safety, which is why it’s so nice to bike on slow streets even with cars and why it’s so terrible to bike on a 40mph stroad even if it has a bike lane.
While riding straight, try to ride as far right as comfortable so you don’t have people passing you on the right. When coming up to an intersection, be careful for bikes slowing down to exit into one of the bike boxes on the right so they can make a left or right turn. You might need to look behind you to see if the coast is clear for you to pass.
Use the Bike Boxes on the RIGHT to Turn From the Center Bike Lane
The Valencia Street center bike lane is like a highway. There are people going straight all around you in both directions, and anytime you want to leave the highway you must exit to the right (even if you’re turning left). If you are planning to turn, you’ll want to do a quick look behind you on your right to make sure no one is sneakily trying to pass you there (possible if you’re chillin too hard and riding in the middle), and move over as far as you feel comfortable to the right of the bike lane.
From there, it’s pretty easy to move out of bike traffic and into one of the bike boxes, depending on which way you’re going. The signs are clearly painted for turning right (in the bike box in front of you) and turning left (in the bike box across the street). The bikes boxes are safe zones that are not in bike or car traffic. It can feel exposed while in the bike boxes, since you are quite close to car traffic and somewhat stuck in between the car and bike lanes. If you feel unsafe, slow down a little earlier and maybe stop closer to the bollard and crosswalk. 22nd street has an extra big space to slow down and wait since it is a main bike street (a few pics below).
Of course since this is a friendly bike lane highway and not an dangerous fast moving car highway, you can still exit at anytime, but unless you exit at a break in the mini curb, you’ll likely want to dismount and walk across the street during a break in car traffic. Jaywalking is legal in California. Remember to signal to other bike lane users that you’re slowing down so people behind you don’t run into you!
If you’ve read my post on 3 ways to turn left on a bicycle, you’ll realize that these center lane bike boxes use the same technique I describe as my Left Turn Option 1: Cross, Stop & Pivot while making the other 2 options not applicable to do in a safe way.
Remember: Whatever direction you’re turning, ALWAYS go to the bike boxes to your RIGHT.
Even if you plan to dismount and use the crosswalk, use the bike boxes to your right to stop and dismount, and then when the light changes you can walk in the crosswalk to either side of the street. In this way, I’ve sometimes used the “right” bike box to dismount and walk to the left because I wanted to go to a place on the left side of the street behind me. Don’t think too hard about it, just go to the right and you’ll figure it out.
Turning onto the Center Bike Lanes
The cool thing about the bike boxes is that you can also use them to ENTER the center bike lane. Although they’re mostly designed for exiting the center bike lane, bike boxes are still out of the way of bike traffic on the cross streets, so they are safe places to stop.
Fortunately, turning right from a cross street onto the Valencia center bike lane is trivial. You have the right of way to move to the right and enter the bike lane while giving way to pedestrians. If the crosswalk is busy you’ll stop in the nearest bike box to your right, and continue into the bike lanes when you have room.
Turning left is similarly easy but you go to the far bike box to stop & pivot. Then you can get a head start from the bikes waiting in the bike lane (or else it might be hard to merge in). DO NOT try to turn right onto the bike lane and make a U-turn within the bike lane. This is a difficult and dangerous maneuver when the light is green for the bike lane. It’s a highway, remember? Many bicycles don’t even have the turning radius to do this without stopping to turn your bike by hand, further complicating the attempt and maybe blocking bike traffic.
Don’t forget that you can always “Turn Like a Car” or “Red Light Pedestrian” as other ways to turn left onto the Valencia Street center bike lane, assuming the street you’re turning from has a more typical street design.
Side Bike Lanes to Center Bike Lanes and Back
The Valencia Street center bike lanes run from 15th St to 23rd St, but if you get to those edges you have to cross from a bike lane on the edge of the street to a bike lane in the center of the street!
Fortunately, there is a traffic light cycle dedicated to this movement for cyclists with no cars allowed to go at that time. This cycle is also well timed with the 13mph green wave that is well loved going both directions! That means usually you don’t even notice the change much. I’m pleasantly surprised how well they’ve made it feel.
Can I Ride My Bicycle in the Car Lane on Valencia?
Probably, but why? I can see this as desirable if you’re about to stop mid-block at a business, or if the bike lane is super crowded and you’re in a hurry biking fast. As long as you’re not slowing down car traffic it’s probably fine. But maybe just take the center lane and walk across the street mid-block, or just slow down a little and ask people to pass. People driving cars on Valencia are probably not going to be in the best mood (they would be way happier if they were riding a bike like you!), so don’t rub it in their face too much by riding slow in front of them with an empty bike lane next to you. The last thing the biking community needs is to give people driving cars any reasons to dislike people riding bikes, even if you know they won’t get anywhere faster than you with the 13mph timed traffic lights.
Drivers on Valencia with the Center Bike Lane
All these complexities will also require some changes from how drivers experience on Valencia.
First and foremost, the car lane being only one lane with no room to move adds pressure to prevent drivers from double parking. Hopefully they’ll instead find a nearby loading zone or a side street with driveway space. I’ve already seen some pick-ups and drop offs on Valencia and it just causes traffic, but people are quicker about it since they’re completely blocking traffic and cars behind them have no alternative.
The left turns will take some getting used to for people who have lived in the area for a while. Change is hard, and Valencia used to be a great place to turn left onto other streets, which is now completely illegal. Because of this surprise, drivers are turning onto Valencia expecting to turn left, and instead of following the rules and going around in a longer circle, they’re choosing to turn left illegally anyway. This is a growing pain that will go away once people remember not to do this, plus hopefully some enforcement as well.
Lastly, drivers turning left onto Valencia need to make sure they have a wide enough turn to avoid the bike box near the lane they enter. There may be some infrastructure improvements as simple as painted lines where drivers should turn or making the bike boxes slightly raised (like the bike lane on Masonic).
Are the Center Bike Lanes on Valencia Better?
It depends on what your use case is. As I’ve noted, the new bike lanes work best for going straight, so if you’re riding from 23rd to 15th and back a lot, these are a huge improvement. I’m already starting to get used to turns, but they are inherently more complex with this design, and potentially take more time waiting in bike boxes for lights to change. I think most people would agree that tradeoff is great compared to the dooring risk and cars parked in the bike lane all the way down.
Whenever I think of new bike infrastructure, I think of what it would be like for a newer bike commuter who experiences it. Biking should be fun and easy so people want to do it! When I think of it this way, I’m a little mixed about this new center bike lane on Valencia. On one hand it greatly reduces cars in the way. On the other hand, there’s a lot of learning and etiquette when it comes to how to use the bike boxes properly and safely.
For me, I’m excited every time I get on the lanes and I see open road ahead of me with no cars blocking the way, and I think with time and learning others will feel similarly.
Will Center Bike Lanes Become the Norm?
Maybe. I think it’s much better to take the same approach but put it on one side of the street instead of in the middle. This makes for only half of the complexities discussed here. Buenos Aires is a place where they did this a lot, and I thought it worked well without having as many confusing turns to think through. The SFMTA will probably send out some surveys later, and it’s up to us to tell them what we think about it!
For now, I’m going to enjoy this bike highway for its pros and see if time helps me get used to everything else. How have you been liking or disliking this bike lane? Post your thoughts in the comments.