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. The bicycle has become a metaphor for progress that is long overdue. So mount up on May 14, Bike to Work Day, if you'd like to be a part of the solution to what's ailing our city and planet.
I love my bike, and so do most people who see it. San Franciscans appreciate the little things, like someone who rides a silly-looking bike.
It started as a basic used mountain bike, but I styled it out for Burning Man a few years ago, covering it with heavy red acrylic paint that looks like stucco, a big basket covered in fake fur and ringed with electro-luminescent wire, and custom-welded high handlebars topped by a lizard horn.
Maybe you've seen me around town and if so, maybe you've seen me blow through stop signs or red lights. Yes, I'm that guy, and I only apologize if I'm stealing a motorist's right-of-way, which I try to avoid. Rob Anderson, who successfully sued San Francisco to force detailed studies of its Bike Plan (and blogs at district5diary.blogspot.com), regularly calls me and my ilk the "bike fanatics."
I've interviewed Anderson by phone a few times and tangled with him online many times. He's actually a pretty well-informed and well-reasoned guy, except for his near pathological disdain for bicycling, which he considers an inherently dangerous activity that government has no business promoting and is not a serious transportation option.
But San Francisco would be a gridlocked nightmare without bikes. Transportation officials say this is already one of the most traffic-choked cities in the country (second after Houston), a big factor in Muni never reaching its voter-mandated 85 percent on-time performance. During peak hours, most Muni lines reach their holding capacity. Imagine 37,500 additional people (the estimated number of San Franciscans who primarily travel by bike) driving or taking Muni every day.
Conversely, imagine the transportation system if bicycling rates doubled and some of those bulky cars and buses became zippy bikes. Quality of life would improve; the air would be cleaner; we would emit far less greenhouse gases (transportation accounts for about half of the Bay Area's carbon emissions); housing would get cheaper (building parking increases costs and decreases the number of housing units); pressure would decrease to drill for oil offshore and prop up despotic regimes in oil-rich countries; pedestrians would be safer (about a dozen are killed by cars here every year); and public health would improve (by reducing obesity and respiratory ailments associated with air pollution).
Increase bicycling rates even more, to the levels of Berlin, Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, and San Francisco would be utterly transformed, with many streets converted to car-free boulevards as the demand shifts from facilitating speeding cars to creating space for more bicyclists and pedestrians.
Sure, as Anderson points out, many people will never ride a bike. The elderly, those with disabilities, some families with kids, and a few other groups can credibly argue that the bicycle isn't a realistic daily transportation option. But that's a small percentage of the population.
For the rest of you: what's your excuse? Why would you continue to rely on such wasteful and expensive transportation options a label that applies to both cars and buses when you could use the most efficient vehicle ever invented?
At the SFBC's annual Golden Wheels Awards banquet on May 5, SFBC director Leah Shahum described a bike movement at the peak of its power, reach, and influence. "In the last two years, we've seen an unprecedented political embrace of bicycling," she said, praising Mayor Gavin Newsom for his championing of the Sunday Streets car-free space and calling the progressive-dominated Board of Supervisors "the most bike-friendly board we've ever seen."
In just a few years, the SFBC went from fighting pitched battles with Newsom over closing some Golden Gate Park roads to cars on Saturdays a two-year fight that ended in a compromise after some serious ill-will on both sides to Newsom's championing an even larger Sunday Streets road closure on six days this spring and summer, even fighting through business community opposition to do so.
As with many Newsom initiatives, it's difficult to discern his motivation, which seems to be a mixture of political posturing and a desire to keep San Francisco on the cutting edge of the green movement. Whatever the case, the will to take street space from automobiles which will be the crux of the struggles to come is probably greater now than it has ever been.
Because at the end of the day, Anderson is right: bicyclists do have a radical agenda. We want to take space from cars, both lanes and parking spaces, all over this city. That's what has to happen to create a safe, complete bicycle system, which is a prerequisite to encouraging more people to cycle. We need to realize that designing the city around automobiles is an increasingly costly and unsustainable model.
"The streets do not have to be solely or even primarily for cars anymore," Shahum told an audience that included City Attorney Dennis Herrera, top mayoral aide Mike Farrah, and several members of the Board of Supervisors (including President David Chiu, a regular cyclist and occasional bike commuter), drawing warm applause.
Shahum was certainly correct when she called the politically engaged community of bicyclists "one of the strongest and most successful movements in this city," one she believes is capable of moving an ambitious agenda. "During the next six weeks, we have the opportunity to win a literal doubling of the city's bike network."
She's referring to the imminent completion of environmental studies that support the city's Bike Plan, which will allow the courts to lift the nearly three-year-old injunction against new bike projects in the city. The SFBC has been aggressively organizing and advocating for the immediate approval of all 56 near-term bikeway improvements outlined in the plan, which have been studied and are ready to go, most with grant funding already in the bank.
"I think San Francisco is hungry for a higher use of public space," she said. "Imagine streets moving so calmly and slowly that you'd let your six-year-old ride on them."
That's the standard advocated by the international car-free movement, which I interacted with last year when I covered the International Carfree Conference in Portland, Ore. These influential advocates believe bikeways should be so safe and insulated from fast-moving traffic that both the young and old feel comfortable riding them.
"Streets belong to us they are the public spaces of the city but they don't feel like they belong to us," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a sponsor of Sunday Streets, which was honored at the Golden Wheel Awards. The streets, he told the crowd, "don't need to be the objects of fear."
Later, as we spoke, Radulovich said it's not enough to create narrow bikes lanes on busy streets. One of the great joys of riding a bike with a friend is to be able to talk as you ride, something he said transportation advocates around the world refer to as the "conversational standard."
Politically, there's a long way to go before San Francisco embraces the conversational standard, the creation of permanent car-free bike boulevards, or traffic law changes that promote bicycling. Anderson and his ilk reacted with outrage last year when the Guardian and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission began discussing adopting Idaho's bike laws here, in which bicyclists treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs (see "Don't stop: Bike lessons from Idaho," 5/14/08).
Yet until bicycling is taken more seriously as a real transportation option, all this talk about sustainability and green-everything is going to continue falling woefully short of its objectives.
The powerhouse environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council held a gala awards dinner May 9 at the California Academy of Sciences for its first Growing Green Awards, an effort to honor innovators in the growing sustainable food movement.
The award selection panel was chaired by journalist Michael Pollan, whose The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006) and other works have made him a leading voice calling for recognition and reform of a corporate food system that is unsustainable, unhealthy, and harmful to the environment.
That movement has garnered some high-profile support and attention, but has so far failed to effectively counter the influence of agribusiness interests, he told me. "We need an organization like the NRDC in the food area, or we need to get NRDC to embrace our issues."
The awards banquet showed that Pollan and his allies have made progress with the NRDC, which should be a natural ally of advocates for better food and transportation systems, two realms that have the biggest impact on this country's natural resources.
But when I left the ceremony as hundreds of guests were being seated for dinner, I rode away on the only bicycle there.