I’ve covered a couple of interesting cycling safety awareness campaigns lately – the #RedCup and a pool noodle one. This is another pool noodle campaign which is clever and effective.
The SFGate.com covered a woman who made it her mission to highlight the safety concerns of cyclists in San Francisco. Here is the article in full. It’s a glimpse into cycling, safety and attitudes of drivers and cyclists who should be sharing the roadways.
I rode around San Francisco with a pool noodle attached to my bike. Here's what went down.
By Michelle Robertson, SFGATE
Updated 4:27 pm PDT, Friday, June 7, 2019
"F--- you, b----," a man shouts at me from the rolled-down window of his silver sedan.
We're at the intersection of Fifth and Mission. I'm stopped at the light in the right lane, astride my bicycle, and the angry silver sedan man is right behind me. He wants to turn right on red.
Under most circumstances, an obviously hurried driver such as this one would simply weave around a cyclist, scooching within inches of the bicycle to shave a few seconds off his drive time.
But angry sedan man can't get around me — at least not without some problem solving. This is because I have a bright yellow pool noodle, approximately 63 inches in length, tied to the back of my bicycle. It juts about three feet into the right lane — denoting the minimum safe passing distance for cars and bicycles, per California law.
According to Quartz's Annalisa van den Bergh, this sort-of-silly foam pool toy — I call my device "Noodle" — should keep me safe on my daily bicycle commute. Van den Bergh recently began using her "Noodle" regularly (albeit on open roads with light traffic and wide lanes) and recounted the pool noodle as a "life-saving device that allows cyclists to protect themselves and take back the road." You simply strap the pool toy to your bike rack with a bungee cord so it's sticking out to the left and "watch as car after car moves over to the other lane."
The trick gained worldwide recognition in 2016 when the Toronto Star profiled a man named Warren Huska, who began securing a noodle to his bicycle in 2015. The difference, he said, was "almost magical."
"Suddenly, all the cars are changing lanes to go around me."
My question, though: would they do the same if you spent five days biking around San Francisco, one of the most congested, hilly and physically exhausting landscapes in the U.S.? Would it ultimately be nuisance or savior?
Riding with the noodle
I've commuted by bicycle from the Mission to South of Market for about three years now. It's a fairly straightforward ride: Start on Valencia Street, cut over to mostly bike-lane-lined Market Street, turn right on Fifth Street, et voila. The ride is just under two miles and takes about 12 minutes door-to-door.
Though I've never been in a severe bicycle collision in San Francisco, I experience a breath-catching close call at least twice a week. Much of the time that I'm riding around the city's streets, I'm frightened for my safety, pissed off at a car that's tailing me, or eye-rolling at a cyclist who cut me off. City cycling is a terrifying endeavor, but I've decided the benefits outweigh the risks: Cycling is free, environmentally-friendly, speedy and good for my health.
The dangers, though, are immense. Fourteen people have died in traffic collisions in San Francisco this year — eight pedestrians, one skateboarder and a cyclist. The latter, 30-year-old Bay Area resident Tess Rothstein, was struck just two blocks from my office.
Most bicycle safety groups, including the San Francisco Bike Coalition, say the key to protecting cyclists, at least in the short term, is to install protected bike lanes along highly trafficked roadways. And, as a result they've lobbied, heavily, for more of them. You've seen these lanes around San Francisco: stretches of the road painted green and separated from the street traffic by either white posts, a concrete curb or an elevated bikeway.
At the end of 2018, San Francisco had 448 miles of bike lanes (both protected and unprotected). On Bike to Work Day in May, Mayor London Breed announced plans to double the pace of creation for new lanes, pledging the city to build 20 miles of new protected lanes over the next two years.
Instead of waiting two years, I go to Target.
Standing in line to purchase my $2 noodle, I felt a streak of libertarianism flare inside me. I was taking things into my own hands.
At dusk, we ride
My first voyage into rush-hour traffic with Noodle comes on a Thursday evening and it... is... awkward. I'm not accustomed to carving such a wide berth for myself on the road, and I can feel the stares of drivers and pedestrians — their eyes squinting not with vexation, but befuddlement.
I check my embarrassment by repeating one of of the quotes from Toronto pool noodle pioneer Warren Huska: "I'm unconcerned about looking good. I'm concerned about my safety most."
Onward, my foam appendage abruptly bumps four cars between Mission Street and Market Street (a span of one block) and I pretty much immediately give up on trying to bob, or weave, through Mission Street traffic, a practice I often engage in cautiously.
Noodle might be keeping me safe, but it was also making me late.
As I turn onto Market Street and into the bike lane, a man on a Boosted Board (of all people) gives me a double take while three pedestrians nearly get smacked by Noodle while running from the sidewalk to the Muni stop island. Only one of the runners stops to look down the bike lane for oncoming traffic, but precedes to rush in front of it regardless.
Then Noodle works some of the "magic" the articles I'd read had promised while I pedal along the green bike lane on Market — never have I enjoyed so much lateral space during peak commute times (though I'm now not certain people kept their distance because of the noodle, or because the noodle painted me as someone worth keeping distance from).
This is the first fault I uncover in The Great Urban Pool Noodle Experiment: In an average bike lane, there just isn't enough space for me and Noodle to circumnavigate other cyclists. Translation: I can't pass anyone, even the slowpokes on Ford GoBikes. A times, the noodle felt not just encumbering, but discourteous to other riders. I feared we were taking up more footage in the lane than we were entitled to.
It's on Test Ride #2 with Noodle that this self-entitlement feels justified. Making our way through The Wiggle — a bike route that winds from the Mission to Ocean Beach through lightly trafficked streets with unprotected bike lanes — I began noticing drivers noticing me.
A speedy red Ford, itching to pass me at Divisadero Street, instead waits a few feet behind me at the light, allowing me to turn first. A Muni bus slows to "give me the lane" where the protection posts ended. And a fellow cyclist gives me a high-five, cheering me for "championing the safe passing rule no one knows about" (the three-feet distance drivers are required to maintain between their vehicles and cyclists).
Zen and the art of thwacking avoidance
Two Noodle-equipped rides later, I come to this: the foam pool noodle made me more visible to cars and compelled them to maintain greater distance, but I most certainly did not have a "watch as car after car moves over to the other lane" transcendental sort of experience.
If anything, the experiment made me realize that drivers, who I'd long vilified, are hardly the only parties moving recklessly on the streets (though their vehicles certainly inflict the most harm). During the Week of Noodle, I noticed pedestrians crossing the street without looking, cyclists running red traffic lights with abandon and e-scooterers skidding across busy sidewalks. I started noticing my own behaviors, too.
While riding with Noodle, I was presenting as a bastion of bicycle safety to those around me. My scarlet letter: a phallus-shaped yellow children's toy. With Noodle strapped to my bike — and the extra attention that accompanied the device — I couldn't engage in some of the mildly risky cycling behaviors I'm prone to (pedaling on the sidewalk to maneuver around traffic, zig-zagging in and out of compact lanes, zipping past stop signs when no cars are around).
Before Noodle, I hadn't noticed how recklessly I biked because I was just another crazy cyclist in the crowd. When Noodle entered the picture, people starting looking at me.
The attention turned out to be exhausting toward the end of the noodle week. On Day 5, having been cussed at by a man on a OneWheel, a woman with a stroller and at least three drivers, I decided it was time to hang up my noodle. I was tired of all the eyes on me, sick of whacking things left and right. After work, I wanted to hop on my bike and get home. I didn't want a bloated bucatini trailing behind me.
I don't think I'll keep it tucked away forever. For daily commuting in a big city, it's an eyesore and an inconvenience. But I can see it coming in handy for long rides down Highway One or bike-camping trips in Wine Country. On unprotected, wide open highways, the pool noodle might just serve its original intended purpose: protection.
Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE producer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @mrobertsonsf