Intersection Watching: Amazed at the Chaos

I’m going to miss bike commuting the first few blocks of Sansome St. in San Francisco’s Financial District. That’s right – the nonprofit that I work for is going to move to downtown Oakland in the next three months. We are fleeing the booming high-rent space ($52/square foot in our current building) in order to grow and have the extra funds to support the growth. I may write more about my first ever desk job in Oakland, but for now – the poetic chaos of Sansome Street.

The yellow highlighted area marks the main stretch of my commute that fascinates me twice daily.
The yellow highlighted area marks the main stretch of my commute that fascinates me twice daily.

I frequently discuss traffic with a friend who happens to drive for Lyft (and Uber) and write freelance. During one of these discussions, I shared a story about how an Uber limo driver decided to drive around a Muni bus and the three cars stuck behind it. You may see a driver make this maneuver in other parts of San Francisco. On Sansome St., the Uber driver drove into the oncoming lane, into a gridlocked intersection, and only had an option of turning right (Muni buses can turn left and then zag right onto Market St. while all other traffic must turn right onto Sutter St.).

Still not impressed by the chaos? Add to this Uber maneuver another Muni bus that had just zagged off Market onto Sutter/Sansome and was trying to turn right onto Sansome. And on top of this, add hundreds of pedestrians commuting home from work as cyclists like myself crept through the stuck hunks of metal. Mix this all together and you get a great example of how drivers can be idiots – and how interesting Sansome/Sutter/Market is to me as an example of trying to move around in the City.

This oddly-shaped intersection, where the north-south streets crunch into the east-west Market and South of Market streets, isn’t always as exciting. Most of the time, even with cars blocking intersections and buses crazily weaving through lanes, the chaos unfolds with a touch of grace. And I do not think that car drivers are the only idiots on the road. The four or so blocks of Market Street that make my commute can be harrowing. I got doored earlier this year (this is when someone opens a door and an oncoming bike is there to hit it) by a taxi passenger hell-bent on catching their BART train. Buses sometimes stop at angles to block the swarm of bikes from creeping in front of them. Cars run red lights and block intersections while pedestrians pay no attention at all to where they’re crossing the street. This, along with a few hot shot bikers darting through it all at dangerous speeds, all seems very dangerous to me.

Once I see the zig onto Sansome, I flash the palm of my hand behind me (the signal for “stop”) and edge over to the curb as I pass the cross walk. Other bikes are there or stop afterwards, while some daredevils choose to take the left through car traffic (I’ve seen it more than once… idiots!). When the Market light goes red, I bike around the point of the curb (see map) and slooooowly weave through pedestrians and take a right on Sansome. Only a few times have walkers given me a hard time for creeping through the cross walk. Technically, they have the right-of-way, but no one minds in the chaos of Sansome St.

Biking the few blocks to the office on California, scooters and motorbikes take up lanes to back into a row of parking spaces. Pedestrians cross the street whenever they feel like it. Other walkers decide to walk in the streets to avoid the narrow, crowded sidewalks. Once at Market, some walkers ignore the crosswalk so they can dangerously cut a few seconds getting east or west to their destination.

Since locals know that Sansome/Sutter/Market is not a commuter street that will get you South to the Bay Bridge, car traffic is at a minimum. Buses swoop along and limos sometimes spill out of the drop-off area at the Mandarin Hotel. Work vehicles take illegal lefts and walkers will swarm through vehicles blocking cross-walks.

In the evening, the walkers swarm back towards BART and Market Street, sometimes getting close to cyclists when they decide to overflow into the streets and walk faster than the sidewalk folks. At the redlight where the Uber limo driver made his bold maneuver, savvy cyclists will cut the center yellow line to get around the always-present turning-right traffic and stopped Muni buses. Some idiot cyclists decide to cut the point of the curb and ride onto the sidewalks to cut over onto Market St. Others turn the left through the cross-walk and then zag around and cross through the other cross-walk to get to New Montgomery further down on Market. I’ve learned that speeding up and being unsafe just means you’ll get stuck at the next red light and have to either bike through even more pedestrians or wait for the green.

It’s a traffic ballet. Most people do not complain, while a block on either side of Sutter/Sansome/Market, car commuters jam and clog the streets heading to the Bay Bridge. Once on Market St., cross-walks are harder to bike through due to more people and more aggressive car traffic. Back on the intersection I love, the few blocks of City pavement holds a deep kind of logic. Everyone is breaking a law and usually doing it safely. An automobile’s danger is greatly reduced when the commuters can’t use the street, so their numbers are low at rush hour. The anarchy creates a subdued orderliness. And the unwritten rules of Sansome Street seep into commuters and worker’s habits.

Once my office moves to Oakland, I’ll just bike past the intersection, on the way to the bike garage at Embarcadero BART. I don’t need my bike in the East Bay, and I have no desire to haul it down steps and pack it into the crowded trains. Hopefully, I’ll find another chaotic commuter ballet to observe and be amazed with. I remain hopeful that another observation will arise.