Bicycling and the City

The joys of living car-free

Urbanist Article June 1, 2004

Hills aside, San Francisco is ideally suited for bicycling. Its density and defined borders make the longest trip across town less than forty-five minutes. New bike lanes are sprouting up all over the city from Bayview to the Presidio, and are widely credited with doubling San Franciscans’ bicycle use between 1990 and 20001. The 1999 Valencia Street “road diet,” where the removal of two traffic lanes yielded wide and comfortable bike lanes, has been held up as a national model of how to balance transportation modes in urban environments. Our climate is perfectly suited to outdoor pursuits year round, and a thriving bicycle culture remains a strong undercurrent in the city’s popular imagination.

San Francisco’s hills are both a blessing and a curse to the urban bicyclist. A blessing because they allow thrilling, screaming, watery-eyed descents that get you halfway across town in ten minutes, while enjoying stunning views of the metropolis and the Bay—a curse when you just want to get home after a long day and the hills stand like monoliths challenging your resolve.

A respite for hill-challenged cyclists in San Francisco are the famous “wiggle” routes, where cyclists follow the contours of long-buried streams along relatively flat routes. They are remnants, reminders that under our orderly Victorian street grid system there is a natural landscape of sand dunes, rocky outcroppings, and former wetlands.

The most prominent and well-used of these flat routes follows the old Sans Souci valley that winds its way diagonally across the lower Haight. Hill-defying westbound cyclists emerge from the Duboce Bikeway behind Safeway on Market St., then “wiggle” left and right up Steiner, Waller, Pierce, Haight, and Scott, to the new Fell St. bike lane that has made the last leg of this nearly flat route to the car-free Panhandle bikeway finally bearable.

Where most linear streets like Page and Haight cross the fairly steep ridge where fingers of sand dunes once stretched from the western beaches toward downtown, the Wiggle follows the gradual incline where water carved a gentle valley over thousands of years.

There are many other parts of the Citywide Bicycle Network where the cyclist finds a friend in the original riparian landscape. Cycling from the Mission to Noe Valley can be a thigh burning experience unless you take 22nd St. to Chattanooga, to 24th St., following a tributary of the old Mission Creek that flowed into what was originally Mission Bay—but of course has since been filled and is now a Bay in name only.

The once ecologically rich Mission Creek is now just an underground sewer line that emerges at the treatment plant at the tip of Mission Creek Channel in Mission Bay. The flat route along its vanished tree-lined banks that served as the original rail line to San Jose is now home to busy Division St. and overshadowed by the hulking blue behemoth of the Central Freeway. Pedestrians and cyclists are usually here only by necessity, hurrying through the area, wary of intersections like Division and Potrero Sts., where 23 lanes of traffic converge at one intersection.

But there are plans to reclaim this river route for use by pedestrians and cyclists. Known as the Mission Creek Bikeway and Greenbelt, the plan seeks to convert the abandoned rail line between the corner of 16th and Harrison and Mission Bay. Serving the Giants Stadium, the 4th and King Caltrain Station, and Showplace Square, the new pathway and linear park would create a safe connection through heavily trafficked territory. The project would provide basic access from the residential neighborhoods of the Mission to the emerging job and transit rich Mission Bay neighborhood, as well as the rest of the San Francisco Bay Trail.

The Bay Trail itself is another example of how waterways can be transformed into flat, accessible, and safe non-motorized thoroughfares. In San Francisco, we have managed to develop about 11 of the 25 miles of our section of Bay Trail, including some of the most attractive sections of our waterfront like Crissy Field, Marina Green, and the Embarcadero Promenade. Unfortunately several major gaps still exist, most notably Jefferson St. through Fisherman’s Wharf, the area around Fort Mason Hill, and most of the Eastern waterfront. Despite planning and physical constraints, the political will is growing for a continuous and safe route from Candlestick Point all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is not meant to imply that the only way to achieve a bicycle friendly network is by staking out separated pathways or striping bike lanes. Some of the most rewarding streets to cycle on are business district neighborhood streets, of which there is at least one for every defined neighborhood in the city. Pedaling along on a beautiful day, the bicycle is the perfect vehicle for exploring the unique public spaces of our diverse neighborhoods.

While the car is a clumsy liability in this type of dense environment, the bicycle comes into its own. With traffic usually moving at a reasonably slow speed and stopping frequently for double parkers, the pace of cycling is perfect for surveying street life, looking for the perfect cafe, or running into friends for a spontaneous conversation. The bicycle, supported by frequent and reliable transit, is truly the mode of transportation best suited to an urban environment, as European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have so effectively demonstrated.

Those who bike regularly in the city know its advantages. Others who rely primarily on Muni, walking, or driving, and haven’t ridden in the city might feel that it’s dangerous. Even the words “bicycle” and “city” used together in the same sentence are often enough to elicit visions of being plastered to the grill of a speeding Hummer. But the reality is that if you ride predictably and follow basic safety rules like riding away from parked car doors, traffic becomes easily manageable. You and your bicycle become a part of the traffic flow, no longer outside of it or separated from it. Through that intermingling, traffic itself becomes more humane, with conversations and eye contact replacing blaring horns and squealing tires.

It is then, after you have made peace with traffic, perched upon your reliable two-wheeler, whirring along quietly through the streets, feeling the contours of the landscape through your pedals, and exploring the city unhindered by congestion or parking problems, that you finally realize what you’ve been missing all along. END


1According to the 2000 Census, cycling trips doubled between 1990 and 2000.

About the Authors: 

Josh Hart is the program director for the 4,400-member San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), which promotes bicycling for everyday transportation.

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