Image: Bicyclists
Eric Risberg  /  AP
A pair of bicyclists make their way up to the Golden Gate Bridge on April 22 in San Francisco. Officials who oversee the bridge want cyclists to slow down to 5 mph near the Golden Gate's steel towers or face a $100 ticket.
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updated 4/25/2011 5:20:20 PM ET 2011-04-25T21:20:20

Plans to put the brakes on bicyclists riding across the Golden Gate Bridge has cycling enthusiasts crying foul in this urban center of two-wheeled activism.

Hundreds of commuters, residents and tourists ride the bridge's stately span each day, and occasionally there is a smash-up when bikers run into one another or collide with tourists drinking in the views. Still, the city was taken by surprise this week when bridge officials proposed speed limits as a way to reduce the accident rate on San Francisco's signature landmark.

The initial plan would hit riders with a $100 fine if they don't slow to 5 mph around the bridge's iron towers, or 10 mph along the bulk of the 1.2-mile span. There is currently no speed limit, and authorities say some riders have been clocked going more than 20 mph.

But after groups of pedallers raised sharp critiques, the bridge's board of directors decided to postpone a vote on the limits to allow public debate.

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"Five miles per hour is definitely slower than I would ever go," said Uri Friedman, a manager at Pedal Revolution, a non-profit bike shop near the hip cafes of San Francisco's Mission District. "This just kind of penalizes someone who knows how to ride their bike. As it is already, having to navigate through the tourists as you're trying to get out of town on a ride makes for a potentially frustrating experience."

On Saturday, as busloads of German, Mexican and Korean tourists snapped photos using the verdant Marin County hills as a backdrop, Frances Denner was recovering from a near wreck on her rental bicycle. Pausing for a minute to admire the sailboats and surfers dotting the bay below, she said she thought speed limits sounded wise.

"This person wearing full bike gear came around me and I wasn't expecting it. It was a little scary," said Denner, who was visiting from Janesville, Wis. "I think having a speed limit would be a good thing."

Story: Growing number of bike cafés gear up to serve cyclists

Speed a factor in bike crashes
A committee of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District recommended the limits after commissioning consultants to do a cycling safety study.

According to the Berkeley-based firm Alta Planning + Design, there were 165 bicycle crashes from 2000 to 2009, and speed was cited as a factor in 39 percent of those accidents. Over that same time period, there were 235 reported vehicle incidents, including anything from a fender-bender to a more serious collision, said bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie.

Several cycling activists questioned how many wrecks involved tourists on rental bikes, and said it was misguided to craft a safety policy to address speed if that was not a problem in a majority of the accidents.

"There is poor visibility, and there are surfaces on the bridge that when the fogs rolls in can get really slippery or can catch a cyclist's tire," said Kim Baenisch, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, which opposes the limits. "To be ticketed for going 11 mph because you have some tailwind behind you seems really unreasonable. We don't want to see limits that are going to discourage any type of cyclists from using the bridge."

Video: San Francisco city guide (on this page)

The Golden Gate, which was the largest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1937, has been considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. Riding its narrow paths requires a keen sense of how to navigate the gusty winds, fog and storms that blow through the gate and into the San Francisco Bay.

'Enjoying the view'
Scott Klimo, who bicycle commutes from his home in Marin County to his office San Francisco's financial district, said he and his fellow commuters know how to ride at safe speeds because they do it every day, even if most lack speedometers. In his 10 years bicycle commuting, he has seen one accident, he added.

"It's not that the tourists are bad people, but riding a bike safely isn't their first priority. It's enjoying the view," he said. "A little bit better education or orientation from the bicycle rental companies would be a far more effective safety measure than imposing some sort of random speed limit on all of us."

Bridge officials will have to balance a host of competing considerations as they consider future safety proposals. Space is one. This summer, bridge authorities plan to close the bridge's west side, which serves as an afternoon bike lane, to complete a long-needed seismic retrofit.

Tourism is another. In 2009, more than 15 million people visited the city, pumping nearly $8 billion into its economy, according to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Slideshow: San Francisco: City by the Bay (on this page)

Bicycle ridership and the clout of local cycle advocacy organizations are also growing. According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, ridership has increased by 58 percent since 2006.

The bridge and its adjacent coastal parklands also often play host to organized bicycle tours and festivals of all stripes. Saturday, a group of Tibet supporters held a ride from the city's downtown to the Golden Gate to highlight the missing Panchen Lama. Even the once-monthly Critical Mass bicycling movement has on occasion barnstormed its way through Friday rush-hour traffic all the way to the bridge.

"Local riders and bicycle commuters need to recognize that part of their commute is an international tourist destination," said Nina Barker, a visitor from Charlottesville, Va., who was preparing for her first bridge ride Saturday afternoon. "Why can't they just make two lanes: one for commuters and one for all the people who come to visit this beautiful place?"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: City by the Bay

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  1. City view

    The Transamerica Pyramid building is seen through the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge on June 20, 2007. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Cable cars

    A cable car makes its way up a steep hill on California Street in San Francisco on Oct. 8, 2008. The California cable car line is the least-crowded of the three working lines and is the one most often used by locals. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Alcatraz

    Seagulls fly over San Francisco Bay with Alcatraz Island in the background on April 24, 2007. The former federal penitentiary is a popular San Francisco tourist attraction. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Cell block walk

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  5. The scenic route

    A car makes its way along the 49-Mile Scenic Drive on March 25, 2005, in San Francisco. San Francisco's 49-Mile Scenic Drive was opened in 1939 as a guide for visitors to The City's 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. The route includes most of San Francisco's major sights as well as winding through many of the city's colorful neighborhoods, giving visitors a look into the diversity and beauty of the area. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Chinatown

    A pedestrian walks by the Ma-Tsu temple in San Francisco's Chinatown district on February 3, 2011. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. California Academy of Sciences

    The flooded rain forest exhibit is shown at the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on Sept. 18, 2008. On the ground floor of the exhibit, tropical fish swim in the flooded roots of trees. Then an elevator takes visitors up into the canopy where birds fly free in a giant glass dome. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sea lions

    A group of sea lions rest on a dock at Pier 39 on December 12, 2007, in San Francisco. The boisterous and playful mammals are a huge hit with tourists. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Victorian architecture

    The famous row of homes known as the "Painted Ladies" are seen from Alamo Square Park on Feb. 2, 2009, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Surf's up

    A surfer walks out of the water at Ocean Beach on December 5, 2006, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Palace of Fine Arts

    Birds fly in front of the Palace of Fine Arts. The building is one of many sites on San Francisco's 49-Mile Scenic Drive. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lombard Street

    A single car drives down Lombard Street, San Francisco's most crooked street, on April 29, 2003. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Golden Gate Park

    A family rows a boat on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park on June 21, 2011, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fisherman's Wharf

    Pedestrians walk through the typically crowded Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction, known for its historic waterfront, delicious seafood, unique shopping and more. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Choose your dinner

    Tourists pick out their dinner at a local restaurant. San Francisco salutes the Dungeness Crab with its annual Crab Festival in February. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ghirardelli Square

    San Francisco's landmark Ghirardelli Square is seen on May 12, 2003. The square was originally a chocolate factory but now houses retail shops and restaurants. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Angel Island

    A group of visitors take a segway tour on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay on June 3, 2009. Once known as the "Ellis Island of the West," the Angel Island immigration station, a historic site, was designed to control the flow of Chinese immigrants to the United States. (Jeff Chiu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Japanese Tea House and Garden

    The Japanese Tea House and Garden is an attraction in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Today, 75,000 people visit the park on an average weekend. (Philip H. Coblentz / SFCVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Coit Tower

    The moon rises next to Coit Tower on September 22, 2010, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: San Francisco Will Study Golden Gate Tidal Movement As Energy Source
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    Above: Slideshow (19) San Francisco: City by the Bay - City by the Bay
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    Slideshow (28) San Francisco: City by the Bay - The Golden Gate Bridge

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