Uphill climb

Bicycles can improve the city and save the planet. So why are bike riders still treated as second-class citizens?


Bicyclists generally try to avoid hills, so one of the most popular bike routes in town is a series of turns called the Wiggle, which snakes along a valley through the Lower Haight. The route — a sort of bridge between east and west — is traveled by a growing number of bicyclists, from hipster kids on colorful fixies to grizzled seniors on comfortable touring bikes.

I ride the Wiggle every day. Coming from the Panhandle, the most harrowing approach is the three blocks I have to travel on busy Oak Street, competing for space with impatient motorists who often seem to forget that they're wielding deadly weapons. Many times I've had cars zip by me within inches, honk (a very startling sound when you're not wrapped in metal and glass), zoom up right behind me, or flip me off.

But then I turn right onto Scott Street — and the world suddenly changes. My heart rate drops and I breathe deeply. Rain or shine, there are almost as many bikes there as cars. The cyclists smile and nod at one another and even the motorists seem more respectful, sometimes waving us through the stop signs even when it's their turn. It feels like an informally functional community. It's how traveling around this city ought to be.

Even though the citywide percentage of vehicle trips taken by bicycle in San Francisco is still in single digits (compared to more than 20 percent in many European cities), and even though a court injunction that's expected to be lifted this summer has banned any new bike projects in the city for the past three years, bicycling is booming in San Francisco, increasing by almost 50 percent since 2006. I'm never alone these days on my solo commute.

My decision to ride a bike and sell my car wasn't about joining a movement. I just like to ride my bike, a simple joy that I really began to rediscover about 10 years ago. It's fun, cheap, and an easy way to get exercise. And it connects me with my surroundings — the people, buildings, and streetscapes of this beautiful city — in a way I didn't even realize I was missing when I drove.

But as pressing political and planetary realities have welled up around my personal transportation choice, I've come to see that I am part of a movement, one that encapsulates just about every major issue progressive San Franciscans care about: public health, environmentalism, energy policy, economics, urban planning, social justice, public safety, sustainability, personal responsibility, and the belief that we can make our communities better places, that we're not captive to past societal choices.

As a bicyclist and a journalist, I've been actively engaged in these struggles for many years. I understand that bicyclists are criticized in many quarters as a vocal minority with a self-righteous sense of superiority and entitlement, and that I'm personally accused of bias for writing empathetically about bicyclists in dozens of bike-related stories.

Well, guess what? I don't apologize. We are better than motorists, by every important measure. We use less space and fewer resources and create less waste and pollution. Bikes are available to almost every segment of society, and we don't need to fight wars to power them. They improve the community's health and happiness. And when we get into accidents, we don't kill or maim the people we hit.

And you know what else? This really is going to be the Year of the Bicycle, as it's been dubbed by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the city's largest grassroots civic organization, with more than 10,000 dues-paying members. There are more of us than ever, politicians now listen to us, and San Francisco is on the verge of the most rapid expansion of its bike network that any American city has ever seen.

This is the moment we've been moving toward for many years, a turning point that the Guardian has meticulously chronicled and proudly promoted.