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Taxi drivers learn to make way for bikes

Under CC license from Flickr user Demetrios Lyras

San Francisco is the second densest big city in the United States. And its roads are crowded – with bikes. Every day, upwards of 8,000 cyclists share the road with nearly half a million cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, and taxis.

“Given that taxis are on the streets for such a long time: five, six, seven, eight, maybe 10 hours a day, you’re gonna run into more problems with a car that’s gonna be on the road more often,” says Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition.

There’s no statistic about the number of accidents involving taxis and bikes, but they do happen. In 2011, a cyclist was critically injured by a taxi in the Mission District. More frequent, though, are everyday annoyances – taxis stopping in bike lanes to pick up passengers, or honking at bikes that get in their way. The Bike Coalition has a plan to change that dynamic, and help everyone get where they’re going – by teaching taxi drivers to share the road.

On the third floor of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency building on South Van Ness, by Market Street, a group of about 65 taxi-drivers-in-training sit at desks, in a long, fluorescently lit conference room.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, aspiring taxi drivers come here for a mandatory one-day training class. It ends with a 70-question test that earns them a temporary cab driver’s permit. Bike safety is the last lesson before the test. It taps into a lot of frustration.

“There's too many people riding bikes these days,” says MamadouHasin. “Some bikes they come over me, and oh man, it's gonna be an accident.”

Hasin used to drive a cab in Daly City. Now he wants to drive in San Francisco, so he has to get re-certified. He’s passed the background check, filed his applications. But if he wants to ace the test, he’ll need to pay attention.

In front of the class, Mark Caswell, introduces himself. Caswell is one of those guys you see biking in suits around the city. He's program manager for the San Francisco Bike Coalition, the city’s most established advocacy group. Caswell has been teaching this class since it began – over a year now. He’s seen almost 1,000 future taxi drivers come through. And he says they’re some of the most important drivers to reach.

“You are the ones who set the tone of the street,” he tells the class. “You’re the ones who drive the most miles, day in and day out.”

Caswell has half an hour to teach the cab drivers how to coexist safely with cyclists.

“If you pay attention for next 15-20 minutes and learn to avoid crashes with turning, and avoid crashes with door opening, and you don’t speed,” he says. “You can reduce your chance of crashes by 50 percent.”

The lessons are ones you probably learned in driver’s ed.: don’t speed; share the road; and be aware of what’s around you. Maybe you’ve heard about “door-ing” – when a driver opens his car door into the path of a cyclist.

“It’s the third leading crash in San Francisco for bicycle injuries,” says Caswell. “A few years ago, a person actually got killed. They were traveling downhill and someone opened their door. So this isn’t just ‘oopsie,’ fall down, scrape a knee.”

Caswell gives some tips to avoid this situation: check your mirrors; advise passengers to watch out; and don’t think you know everything.

About one in every ten accidents happens because a driver didn't turn properly. Right turns are especially dangerous, because cars have to go into the bike lane. If the car or the bike doesn’t follow the rules, things can get ugly. One driver shared his story of right-turn rage.  

“I make a right turn from Townsend to 3rd street and a bike rider was behind me,” he remembers. “I stopped to make a right turn, to let traffic go. He hit my car, he spit on my window. What do you want me to do in this situation? I’m a legal driver, and I have a customer in the car.”

Caswell says there are rules drivers and cyclists can follow to make it easy to avoid this kind of situation. If you're a driver, signal, check your mirror and your blind spot, and then go all the way to the curb before you turn right. Don't wait until you get to the intersection to swerve.  If you're a cyclist, stay aware, and stay out of the driver's blind spot.

Proper turning is important, but the bigger take-away from Caswell’s presentation is awareness. To demonstrate, he shows a video, totally unrelated to driving. On screen two basketball teams, one wearing white, one wearing black. He asks the class to count how many passes the team in white makes. Then the teams fan out and start passing the ball back and forth.

When the clip finishes, he turns to the class. “What’d you get, 13? Well here’s the question, did you see the moonwalking bear? Anyone?”

No one did.

Caswell rewinds, slows down, and plays the clip again. Yep. There's a guy in a bear suit, doing a pretty decent moonwalk, right through the middle of the group. The class was so focused on counting the passes that no one noticed him at all. Caswell makes the lesson explicit: that bear could be a cyclist. You have to train yourself to expect him.

“It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” he says.

By the end of the class, the drivers know lots of useful things – like that bike riders are allowed to use a full lane if there's no other good option and how to enter the protected bike lanes to pick up disabled passengers. Most importantly, they know that bikes and taxis – they don't have to be enemies.

After class, a driver named Hisham El Amwari, who passed his 70-question test and earned his temporary permit, says he feels ready to deal with San Francisco bike riders.

“I’m originally from Morocco,” he says. “I used to drive a bicycle. I can tell it's hard to drive in SF bicycle, because of there is a lot of cars, Munis, lot of hills. It's hard. So I respect them a lot. So when I’m gonna be a taxi driver I’ll give them all their rights.”

There’s no data on the class’ effectiveness, but the SF Bicycle Coalition reports anecdotally that after taking the class, the city’s new taxi drivers feel ready to hit the road, and not the horn.

This story was produced for Chew on This, a new show on KALW about practical ways to make the world a better place. They’re recording a live show about biking safely in the city this coming Saturday, February 9th, starting at 1pm at the SoMa StrEATfood Park.

You can also share your thoughts on bike safety with KALW News. What rules can be in place for taxis? What about bikes? Any ideas on how to share the roads safely? Leave a message on our tip line: (415) -264-7106.