Brenda Kett lost her son, Mark Heyer, in a bicycle collision with a Muni bus on Oct. 11, 2015. "Mark’s accident could have been prevented," she said in statement at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting. "All we had to do was create a safer system for people who ride bicycles." (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)
Brenda Kett refuses to believe her son is to blame for his own death. Mark Heryer had ridden a bike for most of his life and was skilled at navigating mountain trails and chaotic city streets. But three weeks ago, the 47-year-old cyclist was struck and killed by a Muni bus on Market Street -- a collision police say he caused.
“I’ve heard so many conflicting things, and you know, it’s not making sense to me,” says Kett, a 75-year-old clothing designer with short silver-gray hair and sharp blue eyes.
Sitting in the dining room of the Mission District apartment where she has lived for 33 years, she gazes over at a table where Heryer had been standing the day of his death. He had his bike under an arm, with a helmet and cycling shoes on, ready to ride off to meet friends. It's an image she can't stop seeing.
Heryer, who lived in Berkeley with his wife and 8-year-old daughter, was riding westbound up Market Street just after 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11, when police say he encountered a particularly dangerous piece of street infrastructure that both the city and cycling advocates warn about but which many cyclists say is all but impossible to avoid: Muni's streetcar tracks.
The San Francisco police officer who investigated the incident said in his report that Heryer’s bike got caught in the tracks and he was “thrown to the ground.” A long, articulated 38-Geary bus traveling in the lane to his right ran over him.
Although there are lots of unanswered questions about the tragedy, Kett says she's certain her son’s death could have been prevented had the city done more to ensure the safety of growing numbers of bicyclists on Market Street.
“I don’t think he would have taken unnecessary risks because he was well aware of how inadequate the structure of the city’s streets are, in terms of taking care of the needs of bicyclists,” Kett says.
She wants the city to act immediately to make the busy lower stretch of Market Street safer for bicyclists -- a sentiment shared by cycling advocates.
Market St. from Sutter to Battery is shut down as police investigate a fatal collision between a bus and a bicyclist pic.twitter.com/qR336eT6kz
What is most startling about the investigation to Heryer's family, friends and a lawyer representing the family is that police faulted him for causing the crash, citing a section of the vehicle code that says he should have been riding in a bike lane. However, there are no bike lanes on that stretch of Market Street.
There are three westbound lanes: two marked with sharrows, indicating bicycles and motor vehicles are to share the lane and, to the left, an unmarked transit lane with the streetcar tracks. Kett says a police inspector told Heryer’s wife it appeared he was trying to pass the bus because it had been moving slowly.
Muni buses pick up passengers on center boarding islands and curbside, so they use all lanes on Market Street. The SFMTA displays ads on the rear of buses advising cyclists to always pass a bus on the left.
Muni's streetcar tracks are another well-known hazard. Both the SFMTA and San Francisco Bicycle Coalition advise cyclists to pay special attention to the tracks and surrounding pavement and to cross at a 90-degree angle if possible. In a 2006 guide, the SFBC cautions, "It is easy to lose control as your wheel slides into a parallel track groove, and you will fall quickly and hard."
After the collision, media reports quoted police and transportation officials as saying Heryer “lost control and collided with the bus.” The police report says investigators came to their conclusions about the cause of the crash based on the account of one witness -- the bus driver -- and video evidence that has not been released.
The report includes several grim details, including the discovery of a handprint near the front of the Muni bus that may have been left by Heryer as he fell. One set of the vehicle's wheels on the driver's side came to rest on Heryer, who died of trauma to the head and body.
The report identifies the Muni driver as Douglas Bonilla, 46, of Tracy. It said he was “visibly upset” after the crash and was treated by a medic at the scene. However, the report does not disclose what the driver told police about the collision.
Bonilla started driving for Muni in March, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose. He said drivers are required to complete nine weeks of training. The program includes a partnership with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition that instructs drivers how to operate buses alongside cyclists.
The most telling evidence from that day could be video from the Muni bus and two other coaches that may have been in the vicinity when the collision happened. But so far the family’s lawyer has not been able to get the video from either the SFMTA or San Francisco police.
An Experienced Cyclist
When Mark Heryer was 8 years old, and the family lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brenda Kett had no hesitation about letting him ride his bicycle into the traffic chaos of Harvard Square.
“I can tell you that back in the '70s, that traffic was pure anarchy,” she remembers. “Most parents, particularly helicopter parents, wouldn’t go anywhere near that. He was capable of doing that as an 8-year-old. He was a competent bike rider.”
Heryer was born in San Francisco but didn’t live there until he was a teenager. Trained as a chef, he had a deep passion for food and was funny, opinionated and talkative, says Kett.
“He would have given you anything you wanted if you needed it,” says Kett. “He was a very generous, wonderful person.”
Paul Skilbeck, a friend of the family who used to rent a room from Kett, is a former cycling journalist who first met Heryer when he moved to San Francisco in 1997. When Heryer found out Skilbeck was a cyclist, he took him on a tour of the Marin Headlands.
“He was just a warm, interesting, enjoyable person, and everybody is really devastated that he’s gone, that’s he’s not going to be around anymore,” he said.
Skilbeck, who worked as a bike messenger in London, said Heryer had urban bicycling skills comparable to a messenger. "That's the scary thing about it," he said. "That somebody with his level of experience can fall victim."
Police Mistakes in Earlier Investigation
San Francisco police have a troubling history investigating collisions that injure people who bike and walk, according to safe streets advocates. But after a series of blunders in the case of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who was killed when she was hit by a truck at Sixth and Folsom streets in 2013, Police Chief Greg Suhr pledged to reform the department's investigations. He also made it policy to stop referring to collisions as “accidents.”
One of the attorneys who represented Le Moullac's family, Anthony Label, now represents the Heryer family. He helped win a $4 million judgment against the driver who killed Le Moullac for negligence, along with the company he worked for.
The initial police report in the Le Moullac case concluded the cyclist was at fault, but police reversed that finding and blamed the driver after a bike advocate uncovered surveillance video of the crash.
The nine-page traffic collision report in Heryer’s case, Label says, doesn't contain much detail. The report says investigators canvassed the area for witnesses and video, and left a phone message for a potential witness but were "unable to make contact.”
Label is particularly concerned about what he says appears to be a clear misinterpretation of the vehicle code that applies to marked bike lanes.
“If the Police Department is going to document and officially memorialize the cause of a cyclist’s death as being the fault of the cyclist for violating the law, at a minimum they should get it right,” he said.
Reached by phone, Inspector Lori Cadigan, who signed off on the report, would not comment, and referred calls to the department’s public affairs spokespeople. So far, they have not returned our phone calls and emails.
At a recent meeting of the Board of Supervisors' Bicycle Advisory Committee, Label suggested looking into having the California Highway Patrol investigate collisions where a Muni vehicle is involved.
"That would essentially involve an independent agency that isn't a police department investigating a co-worker, essentially, a Muni driver, whose employer is also the city and county of San Francisco," he said.
A Safer Market Street
San Francisco city officials have been working to improve safety on Market Street, most recently restricting private autos from turning onto the city's main thoroughfare, identified as a high-injury corridor under the Vision Zero program. SFMTA officials are also planning to test a raised bike lane, which is now being built on Market just west of Van Ness Avenue.
But a permanent safety fix is still years away. City agencies have been working on a long-term vision known as the Better Market Street plan, but construction is not expected to begin until sometime in 2018. A final design has not been determined.
Bike advocates have long been calling for a continuous protected bike lane from Octavia Boulevard to the Embarcadero, a distance of about 2.25 miles.
"Continued inaction by city officials towards that goal on our city's most biked corridor looks increasingly irresponsible," said Chris Cassidy, the bike coalition's communications director.
Two other designs being considered include a shared lane and building a bikeway on Mission Street, instead of Market, from South Van Ness Avenue to the Embarcadero.
Officials from the SFMTA and Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the long-term vision, say they are not planning any interim measures on Market in the wake of Heryer’s death.
But both Kett and the bike coalition say they plan to continue pressing for immediate action.
“Maybe it takes a serious or fatal accident close to home to change people’s minds,” Kett said in a statement to the Bicycle Advisory Committee. “I know if I could wind back the clock, I would have been advocating for safe streets long go, and I urge other families not to wait until one of their loved ones becomes a victim.”