From the Front Page San Francisco Chronicle

June 1, 1998


Many in S.F. Would Rather Skate to Work
Supervisor's plan to make it legal could be U.S. first

By Edward Epstein Chronicle Staff Writer

Driving to work or school? Rush hour traffic is a nightmare, as reports on your car radio keep reminding you every few minutes. BART or Muni? They're jammed and prone to maddening delays.

How about bicycling to work? You need a secure place to lock up a bike.

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So maybe, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano figures, the moment is right for a novel form of commuting - in-line skating.He has proposed a one-year pilot program that would allow adults to skate along some streets to get around San Francisco. Skating advocates say they know of no similar plan anywhere in the country.

"This could be an extensive alternative means of transportation, with minimum hazards, if people obey the rules we've set forth," Ammiano said.

The tortuous path Ammiano's proposal has taken so far shows just how new the idea of allowing skaters to use streets is and how many questions there are about changing laws written when skates were clunky, steel wheeled devices.

It is now illegal to skate on the streets, on sidewalks in business districts, or after dark. The law is rarely enforced, as is apparent every Friday night, when hundreds of skaters take off from the Ferry Building for the 9-year-old tradition of a 12-mile skate through the city, with police cooperation.

The big change would be that by sanctioning street skating, the city would be encouraging more people to give it a whirl than just the daring souls who do it now.

Ammiano first proposed the plan last year but withdrew it in the face of persistent questions. Senior citizens and pedestrian groups, always wary of increasing access for bicyclists and skaters, raised safety concerns.

"There is such a feeling of apprehension about how the sidewalks are used improperly by skaters, bicyclists and skateboarders," said Bob Planthold of the Senior Action Network. "It's dangerous, unnerving and unsafe."

San Francisco's Municipal Railway said its drivers, who already have to contend with streets that often resemble the Indy 500, did not need the added challenge of skaters. The police wanted to know how they would enforce the plan and punish violators. The city attorney and the departments of Public Works and Parking and Traffic were concerned about the city's liability if skaters were injured on the streets.

And everyone wanted to know who would set up the program.

So Ammiano undertook months of meetings to come up with a new plan. He introduced it two weeks ago, and now it faces public hearings before the supervisors vote.

"It was all a lot more complicated than we thought," said David Miles of the California Outdoor Roller Skating Association. "We wanted to answer every question before the supervisor reintroduced it." The result is a plan for skaters to be allowed on some of San Francisco's 180 miles of designated bike routes - streets where the city is erecting green and white signs, each displaying a numbered route.

A skating advisory committee, with members drawn from well beyond the skating community, would be set up to oversee the plan. Skaters would not be allowed in separate bike lanes, those striped-off parts of a few streets, because the lanes carry a state designation meaning they are for bikes only.

Parking and Traffic would designate which bike routes are OK for skaters. The department says busy streets like Van Ness Avenue, Oak or Fell streets would be off limits, but it will try to figure out a way, for instance, for skaters to get downtown from outlying residential areas.

Skaters, who would have to be at least 18, would have to travel in single file, and in the direction of traffic. They would have to wear protective helmets and would be prohibited from wearing headphones. At night, they'd have to wear a lamp and a red reflector. They would also have to carry a lengthy certificate issued, free of charge, by Parking and Traffic, along with a map showing the permitted routes. "I, the bearer of this card, understand that skating may be dangerous," it says.

Violators of any of the rules could be fined $25 for the first offense, and between $50 and $250 for a second offense.

Planthold still has mixed feelings but is willing to let the city give it a try. "Will it be easy? No. I expect it involves changing everyone's attitude more than legislation," he said. Implied in all the precautions is that only the most experienced skaters should venture onto the streets.

"We're trying to take an antiquated law and bring it up to date with the reality of what's happening today," said Paul Pillitteri, another leader of the skating association.

Already Going On

What's happening is that inline skating is tremendously popular and that some hardy souls are already skating on city streets, often without even knowing they're breaking the law.

"I didn't know it was against the law to skate on the streets. I've been doing it for 10 years and the cops have never stopped me," said Kevin Barnard of the Richmond District. "To skate downtown from here is treacherous," he said in Golden Gate Park. "But once you're down by the Embarcadero, it's heaven."

His friend Kelley Payne said, "I skate downtown on Market Street. I don't think I'm bothering anyone. It's the bike messengers, the jaywalkers and drivers who run red lights on Market that are the real problem."

Another man, a professional whose office is in the Financial District, uses skates to get around to job sites in the city. He talked freely about his skating until told that what he was doing was against the law.

"It's not generally accepted as a professional way to travel. But it's the fastest way to go, and it ought to be accepted," he said, asking a reporter not to use his name.

"And besides, it's good exercise, and it makes children in the Tenderloin smile when you skate by.