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The Bulb-Out: Cyclists vs. Pedestrians

There's plenty of literature out there arguing the relative merits of bulb-outs, those C-shaped sidewalk extensions that are becoming more and more common throughout the Bay Area. An article in last week's Marin Independent Journal does a great job outlining the concept of bulb-outs, and exploring the issues that play into whether or not these constructions are ultimately effective in Marin County.

As it turns out, bulb-outs have gotten a mixed reception in Marin. This isn't a huge surprise; Marin is a big place and different towns have different needs. What might work in Novato might not be the right answer for Mill Valley, say. But one of the most interesting points in the IJ article has to do with the potential hazards of bulb-outs for cyclists. One documented drawback to bulb-outs is that they tend to restrict traffic, sometimes eliminating right-turn lanes. But the same is also true for cyclists, who are forced to re-enter the flow of traffic when the sidewalk juts into the street and encroaches on the space between parked cars and traffic lanes.

SFBetterStreets.org states that bulb-outs should not cut off an existing bike lane, but should only extend to the beginning of the bike lane. This way, the bulb-out still allows a continuously protected space for cyclists while helping to protect pedestrians.

Let's examine these bicycle safety concerns for a minute. There definitely have been accidents across the country involving cyclists and bulb-outs (here's an example in Montana from 2009). But because the bulb-out is a fairly recent addition to street safety toolboxes across the country, it is still too early to tell whether bulb-outs are a tolerable nuisance that help protect pedestrians or, rather, a grave danger for cyclists.

One thing is certain, the pedestrian accident rate in the Bay Area is incredibly high, and most agree that something must be done to try to mitigate it. Here are some instances in which SFBetterStreets.org suggests bulb-outs are a good option:

  • Newly constructed streets
  • Streets with high pedestrian and traffic volumes
  • Wide streets that take a long time to cross
  • Streets with a history of pedestrian accidents
  • Locations where smaller streets intersect with larger, higher-traffic streets
  • Streets where shortening crossing cycles would improve transit flow

New street designs that protect pedestrians at the expense of cyclists or vice versa are unacceptable. As a San Francisco accident attorney, I work to advocate for both cyclists and pedestrians and bulb-outs raise serious safety concerns. I pay special attention to this design feature in my new cases as they may suggest areas of design liability for cities using this technique. For now at least, it does seem that when used in areas with high pedestrian risk, the bulb-out remains a viable option for cutting down on pedestrian accidents.

What are your thoughts on bulb-outs in Marin, San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area? Do they actually help cut down on accidents?

Scott Righthand is a personal injury lawyer in San Francisco who advocates for pedestrian and cyclist accident victims.

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