From the beatnik poets of North Beach, to the flower children of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco is a city with a long and storied history of dissent and counterculture. The world of bicycle advocacy is no exception. It is, after all, home of the very first Critical Mass protest ride, which began as a modest gathering, envisioned to temporarily reclaim the streets for pedal-powered transportation. Over the past two decades, it has spread to cities around the world, snowballing into a global movement with a reputation for defiantly provoking police, politicians, and anyone inadvertently caught in its path.
However, during a short stay over Christmas – where I rode its streets and chatted with its citizens – it became clear San Francisco is very much a bike culture in transition. It is gradually dropping the militant image it (rightfully) garnered over the years, and becoming something a little less divisive and little more mainstream. The bicycle is no longer a symbol of radical activism, but rather, is evolving into a fixture of modern urban life.
There are mounting signs that the Critical Massers have outstayed their welcome. Even founder Chris Carlsson recently questioned their current relevance and necessity. More diverse, celebratory, and less confrontational gatherings – such as the S.F. Bike Party, Sunday Streets, and Tour de Fat – have started regularly outdrawing Critical Mass. One cannot deny it once played a role in mobilizing and garnering political support, but even more powerful new engines have emerged, successful in building infrastructure, changing policy, and most importantly, getting butts on saddles.
One such engine is the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which at over 12,000 members, is one of the largest non-profit bicycle advocacy groups in North America. Not only have they established themselves as a significant political force, but they provide valuable services to the community; distributing free lights, training taxi drivers how to safely share the road, and providing a free bicycle valet for events across the city (required by law in San Francisco for any gathering expected to attract more than 2,000 people).
Another strong indication of a cycling culture in transition is the wide variety of female, lifestyle-orientated bike bloggers in the Bay Area. Writers, photographers, and filmmakers – such as Kristin Tieche at Vélo Vogue, Melissa Davies at Bike Pretty, Bojun Bjorkman-Chiswell at The Bike In My Life, and Janet Lafleur at LadyFleur – are sharing inspiring, informative, and high-quality content about bike fashion, culture, accessories, and art, in an enlightened attempt to engage with mainstream audiences, and help cycling shed its rebellious, subcultural connotations.
With levels of human infrastructure (a phrase coined by Adonia Lugo to refer to grassroots organization and advocacy) rarely seen on this continent, San Francisco has experienced a tremendous number of successes. In late 2013, it was named “America’s Most Bike-Friendly City” by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, based on their 5.6 bike-able miles per square mile (including on-street bike lanes, multi-use paths and signed routes). The next best cities, Austin and Long Beach, rang in with about 4.5 bike-able miles each.
These achievements have also extended to a surge in ridership, having experienced a 96% increase in cycling rates since 2006. And the city is currently spending $9.16 per citizen per year on bicycling projects, to reach their ambitious goal of a 10 per cent mode share by the year 2020. In comparison, my home town of Vancouver – where the press tirelessly ridicules our “bike obsessed” Mayor – saw an increase of just 40 per cent in the same period, and has a paltry $4.32 per citizen per year budgeted to hit a modest 7 per cent share goal by 2020.
Sadly, many of these accomplishments have been realized in the face of vehement opposition–often from folks who stand to benefit the most from them. Just last year, a group of merchants rallied to “Save Polk Street” from the removal of a few parking spaces for a bike lane, despite a study indicating just 15 per cent of their customers arrived by private automobile. City planners eventually caved, settling for a compromise that would retain all parking, and force brave cyclists to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, five years after a similar lane was installed on nearby Valencia Street, two-thirds of retailers reported both the number of visitors and amount of business had since improved, and voiced support for further traffic-calming measures.
In June 2006, in a move that would make the “Save Kits Beach” group proud, the S.F.M.T.A. was slapped with a lawsuit by a single “concerned citizen” opposed to their bike plan. It resulted in a court-ordered injunction, which prevented them from building any new infrastructure until they completed a four-year, $1-million review to prove the plan complied with the California Environmental Quality Act, and did not result in an increase in motor vehicle emissions. The injunction was eventually lifted in August 2010, and city officials celebrated by immediately painting a brand new bike lane on Townsend Street.
Under such challenging circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of theses celebrated “bike-able miles” are, in fact, fading sharrows and door-zone paint. Referred to by Mikael Colville-Andersen as the “unloved, bastard children of bicycle infrastructure”, they do little to increase the perception of safety, or welcome cyclists of different ages and abilities. San Francisco does have some short stretches of protected bike lane, but they are few and far between. The work needed to complete a safe, separated bike network is planned – but at the current rate, will take decades to finish.
The perception of safety – rather than the reality of safety – is something with which aspiring cycling cities around the world struggle. This sense of fear was palpable in the types of cyclists I saw (and most tellingly, didn’t see) on San Francisco’s streets, many of whom fell into the “hunched and helmeted” demographic: young (in their 20s or 30s), white, and physically fit. I saw precious few children or seniors on bicycles. And while two-wheeled travel is – in reality – just as safe as crossing the street, this scenario won’t change until those age groups feel more secure and comfortable giving it a try.
One final piece of the puzzle – the long-awaited Bay Area Bike Share – launched in September, after securing a limited amount of funding, and failing to find a title sponsor (despite the region teeming with wealthy tech companies). The result is incredibly narrow in scope, with just 350 bikes and 35 docking stations in the downtown core. This makes cycling to any of the city’s two dozen neighbourhoods impossible, but ridership has been sufficient to qualify for additional funds. An expansion is planned that will see the scheme grow slowly, but surely in the coming years. It’s a far cry from Citi Bike’s 6,000 Bixis, but Bay Area Bike Share will become a critical part of their public transit system, given a suitable investment of time, and (most importantly) money.
In the end, the narratives and themes I saw in San Francisco were identical to many other North American cities I’ve cycled in. Unlike a recent trip to Los Angeles, however, where I beamed about its potential to become a great cycling city, this stop had one crucial, underlying difference: I was riding with my children (ages five and seven). Their mere presence drastically effected my observations and experiences, as I suddenly witnessed all obstacles and challenges through their vulnerable eyes. And through that lens, “America’s Most Bike-Friendly City” still has much to do. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. But if they are truly serious about retaining that title, they must now refocus, and aim higher, for more difficult – but substantive – targets. I can’t wait to return, as my kids grow older, and reap the rewards of that hard work and determination.
Words by | Chris Bruntlett