On Biking in San Francisco

You may think that San Francisco, with its gnarly hills and traffic, would be a terrible town for bicycles. But in this last year I have found out just how practical bikes are.

San Francisco is a small town. For many destinations, biking is faster than public transit. The Mission/Haight areas are pretty flat and especially bike friendly. Even the longest cross town trip can be made in a half hour, which is coincidentally the amount of time you can expect to search for parking in the Mission/Haight. Traffic lights are a great equalizer, where you’ll often meet the cars that sped just passed you. You also get to roll past lines of autos at stopsigns, and roll through them if no cars are coming. Bikes are required to ride in the street with traffic, but they can become a pedestrian instantly to take advantage of a crosswalk or go against traffic for a short distance.

Traffic is actually mellow on most streets, and the hills aren’t that problematic if you know how to avoid them. It will still take one or two months for a new rider to work up the endurance to breeze around town, but just keep at it. And fear not: there are official routes through the city that don’t require you to tackle more than a medium grade for a few blocks. The SF Bike Coalition publishes a map of bike routes color coded with grade information. They also teach classes in urban riding (where they probably tell you not to breeze through stop signs or ride through cross walks). Check out all thier resources online.

Everything looks different on a bike. People and places you pass along the way suddenly become part of your world. You can stop or change direction on a whim, and park right next to your destination. Driving feels cumbersome after experiencing such freedom. Cars become much more annoying. You quickly realize that even modern cars are spewing out huge amounts of smelly air.

It helps to get the right gear. For city riding, I strongly recommend a bike with the larger 700c wheels. It’s the frame height, not wheel size, that determines how it fits you. Knobby tires are fine for mountain trails, but smoother thinner tires go faster with less exertion. Though the forward leaning road bikes are fastest, I’m really happy with my hybrid for commuting. Compared to a road bike, it has straight handlebars, slightly thicker tires, and a more upright posture. Spending a ton of money to get a bike that’s 5 lbs lighter doesn’t make sense for everyday riding around town (especially after loading up with groceries). A comfortable bike seat may be the $30 purchase that keeps you wanting to ride.

The Bike Kitchen is a great community resource in the Mission.
Members get a space to work on their bikes, easy access to parts and expertise. They will teach you to be your own bike mechanic, and if you volunteer a bit they will even give you all the parts to build one!

Once you’ve sold your car and become a hardcore biker, you’ll need a way to carry stuff around. You need a trunk. May I suggest a Chrome Bag?
They’re a San Francisco company with an outlet on Folsom street, and the bags are made in the US. Their messenger bags are in the $100 range, but they’re durable and can fit way more than your average backpack.

Perhaps you want to express your love of bikes in a more active sort of way along with hundreds of other devout riders while taking over major city streets? You are probably looking for Critical Mass.
On last Friday of every month, a couple hundred bicyclists meet at Herman plaza around 6pm. They ride through the streets at a leisurely pace for a few hours in a multifaceted political statement that I won’t venture to describe here. Oakland has their own critical-mass, as do many other major cities.

So there’s some stuff I’ve learned in a year of riding. What am I leaving out?

16 Comments so far

  1. kamil (unregistered) on January 13th, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

    I am cyclist and would agree with you that SF is much more fun on a bike.


  2. David Fine (unregistered) on January 13th, 2006 @ 4:33 pm

    Bicycle fatalities are a real concern, I know someone who surrvived a hit-and-run and it sucks. But I still maintain that riding in SF is pretty safe. The best figures I could find were for 2003. That year there were 268 bicycle collision injuries and one fatality. That corresponds to 749 involving pedestrians and 22 fatal. The number of bike collisions had declined every year since 1998, so things seem to be improving. I wonder if the woman killed last week was wearing a helmet and lights? I don’t mean disrespect and I don’t know the facts of this case yet, but if you’re not wearing the proper gear you take a big risk.

  3. David Fine (unregistered) on January 13th, 2006 @ 4:37 pm

    Here’s the link i used. actually it has 2004 data on it which is pretty similar the the previous year. Most years saw one bike fatality.

  4. Kamil (unregistered) on January 13th, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

    Very interesting link…i have been hunting for this data.

    I think that the numbers were probably a little higher for 05 and will likely increase for 06 as well. It seems that there has been a recent (in the last few years) surge in cyclists on the roads. Especially with the fixed gear explosion.

  5. David Fine (unregistered) on January 14th, 2006 @ 10:42 am

    Oh man, I can’t understand how anyone gets by on a fixie in this city. I wonder how long the fad will last… Maybe I should write about that in another post.

  6. Jordan Gurham (unregistered) on January 15th, 2006 @ 9:45 pm

    David Fine, my apologies but having lights would have probably not helped the cyclist in this particular incident. A helmet may or may not have and maybe she had a helmet anyway. It is a terrible accident.

  7. David Fine (unregistered) on January 15th, 2006 @ 11:33 pm

    Like I say, I don’t know the details of this case. I tried to google it, but no luck. I imagine that in a case where a driver runs the red, a biker with a front light might have grabbed their attention. And a helmet is always a good thing. If she had both, then she is one more proof that you can never be totally safe. If she was missing one or both of those, we have to wonder.

  8. Michael B (unregistered) on January 16th, 2006 @ 12:02 pm

    one of the best things you can do to improve bike safety is become a member of the SF bike Coalition and support their efforts to increase the number of bike lanes in the city. I bike to from the Haight to caltrain every day, and although i consider myself a confident rider, i don’t know if i’d do it in the abscence of bike lanes, especially the ones downtown (7th,8th).

  9. Jeshii (unregistered) on January 16th, 2006 @ 9:57 pm

    A friend and I went up to SF on a train in order to bike back down to LA. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was the ride from whatever BART station that was to the ocean. Riding through Golden Gate Park was a trip in of itself!

  10. roymeo (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 10:26 am

    I strongly endorse lots of lights, reflecty tape, safety gear, etc.

    But I’m not sure that the type of driver who runs red lights and then turns their lights off after hitting someone to conceal their license plate number is the sort of driver that any amount of visibility/safety gear on my bike is going to help me avoid.

  11. suki (unregistered) on January 21st, 2006 @ 9:09 pm

    Depending on the neighborhood that I lived in, I might get around by bike. Not at the moment though – a little too far from everything.

  12. Dina (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 11:17 am

    Every time I go up to or try to talk with folks from the Bicycle Coalition I get nothing but attitude. I am a bike rider and have been trying to reach out to those folks for years(Bicycle Coalition) but they are not friendly people. I was visiting the memorial for Sarah Tucker and a group of bike riders arrived and once again they were nasty and quite obnoxious.
    My point please stop promoting the joining of the Bicycle Coalition. It is not a group to be joined.
    They are exclusive are not nice.

  13. steve (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 2:40 pm

    San Francisco’s hills are not that bad. There are only a couple of super-steep hills that even the buses avoid, and you can easily go around them. But even the steep hills are manageable because every block you get a flat intersection where you can rest. It’s worse going downhill because you have to stop every block. Remember to hang your butt over the rear tire to help brake and keep from going head over handlebars. If you want a real hill workout, cross the GG bridge into Marin – no toll (for now) on the return crossing!

    Cycling is good in SF because it’s compact and the terrain is interesting. At night the streets are well lit. It’s bad because car drivers here are some of the worst I’ve ever witnessed. Bay area car drivers here are confused, distracted, angry lack skills and have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Also the streets are in a sorry state of disrepair, which is dangerous on skinny tires. I wouldn’t let that stop me, though, anymore than I’ll stop walking because an idiot drove through barriers into the Promenade in Santa Monica (http://www.nbc4.tv/news/2337407/detail.html). Nothing you say or do will stop cars from killing. It’s what they do.

  14. anonymous (unregistered) on February 3rd, 2006 @ 8:11 am

    I knew Sarah Tucker and I just want to clarify that she WAS wearing a helmet but still died from head injuries. This driver ran a red light and she ran into him. He was not looking and no precautions on the biker’s part would have made a difference.

  15. David Fine (unregistered) on February 3rd, 2006 @ 8:42 am

    Thanks for the info, i coudln’t find that detail in the news. It sounds like one of those accidents that could happen to anyone.

  16. Francisca (unregistered) on March 2nd, 2006 @ 4:44 pm

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