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Pedestrians and cyclists share the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge Thursday, June 2, 2011, two days after the west side was closed to bicyclists for seismic work. Visitors should expect twice as much congestion on the weekends.

THE GOLDEN Gate Bridge is probably California's most iconic landmark, and one of its biggest tourist attractions. Towering about 220 feet above the water, it provides stunning views for visitors who walk or bike across the span.

But, for the next four months, they should think twice about weekend ventures onto the bridge. With seismic retrofit work closing down the pathway on the west side to cyclists, roughly 2,000 pedestrians and bikes will enter the east sidewalk every hour on a typical weekend afternoon.

As a cyclist who periodically traverses the 1.7-mile span to reach the bikeways of Marin County, I shudder to think what will happen. Between 2000 and 2009, an ambulance was called to the bridge on average once a month to deal with a cycling accident. One regular cyclist was left a quadriplegic. Now packing all those camera-toting pedestrians, wobbly tourists on rental bikes and speeding jersey-clad cycle enthusiasts onto one walkway creates a recipe for disaster.

Someone will be badly hurt.

A study commissioned by the bridge district and released in April provides some good suggestions for reducing the risk during these upcoming four months, and beyond. The proposals -- which include bicycle speed limits as well as signs and road striping to separate cyclists and pedestrians -- don't go nearly far enough. But they would be a reasonable first step.


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Unfortunately, rather than implement the changes before this retrofit work began, bridge officials lost time trying to broker agreements to please the cycling community and the entrepreneurs who rent out bikes to tourists. As a result, none of the improvements were made before the seismic work began last week.

Each side blames the others for safety problems rather than acknowledging that all parties contribute. The avid cyclists feel entitled to whip across the bridge as fast as their legs can pump, rather than admitting that a speed limit would be reasonable. The bike rental companies are in denial about the hazards posed by their customers, who are inadequately briefed before riding onto the span, often without helmets, and then stopping at dangerous places to whip out their cameras and snap pictures.

The chaos is compounded by a district that produces the most incomprehensible signs imaginable and then blames the miscommunication on language barriers posed by tourists from other countries. Don't blame the foreigners. As a native Californian, I struggle to figure out the signs.

To be sure, the bike schedule on those signs is confusing for the uninitiated. Before last week, maintenance workers used the west sidewalk on weekdays until 3:30 p.m., and bicyclists used it for a few hours after that Monday through Friday and all day on weekends and holidays. That provided relief on the east side during the weekend periods of heaviest pedestrian traffic. Now, the west side is completely shut to bikes, forcing cyclists and walkers to continuously share the east side for four months.

It will exacerbate already-hazardous biking. Whichever side of the bridge cyclists use, their pathways are only 10 feet wide in most places, narrowing to 5.5 feet in some spots. Even without pedestrians, that doesn't provide enough width for oncoming bikes to safely pass. The route around the two towers is equally harrowing, just 7.5 feet of width coupled with sharp, blind turns. It's there that the uninitiated riders on rental bikes like to stop and shelter from the wind, oblivious to the hazard they're creating for other cyclists.

Other dangerous choke points for weekend bridge riders can be found on the pathways leading up to the bridge, including one spot on the east side where all pedestrians and bicyclists converge, and another on the west side where cyclists must make a U-turn on a steep, narrow path followed by a tight right-angle turn onto the bridge's pathway.

The bike rental companies should be required to show customers a short video preparing them for the unexpected challenges so they don't suddenly stop on the pathways, endangering the riders behind them. Unfortunately, some of the veteran riders are equally oblivious to the dangers they create, especially when they impatiently pass with little margin for error.

In the short term, bridge officials hope the east side congestion of the next four months will slow everybody down. My prediction is there will be more accidents as pedestrians backing up to take photos collide with cyclists trying to weave through the masses.

After the seismic work is done, after weekend cyclists return to the west side, the original problems will unfortunately remain. The bridge district must act. The monthly ambulance calls are bad for tourism.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com.