Summer sightseeing series: SF’s recipe for bicycling success
San Francisco cyclists queue up at a stop light along Market Street.
Yesterday I wrote about my bike ride around San Francisco and what it was like. Throughout the week, I paid close attention to what the Bay Area was like for bicyclists and I left feeling a little discouraged about Tucson’s push to increase its number of transportation cyclists.
Increased transportation ridership is something we’ve been told time and time again is critical to becoming a platinum bike friendly city.
Last summer when I got back from Portland, I was convinced adding low-stress bikeways to Tucson’s streets would be the magic bullet that got Tucsonans riding in masses. Now, though, I’m not so sure.
In the case of San Francisco’s rise they have several pieces to the cycling puzzle that I don’t see in Tucson.
When I left the Bay Area I was convinced their ridership has increased because it is too painful and expensive to drive a car in the city. The lack of free parking, the insane traffic and high gas prices could be the major driving force behind getting people out of their cars and onto bikes. In Tucson, though, it is still too easy to hop in a car and drive across town.
But Nick Carr, a senior transportation planner with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, said the cost and nuisance of driving likely played a part in the explosion, but he offered up other factors too.
“The environment was open for a quick and big increase in cycling,” Carr said. “It is sort of a public health approach. There were a good three dozen factors that went into this.”
Here are some of the biggest factors:
A cyclist rides in a bike lane along the Embarcadero.
Carr said the city’s cycling revolution started in 2003 and 2004, which was also about the time a lawsuit filed by two San Francisco residents halted work on the bicycle master plan that was adopted in 2005.
The plaintiffs said the city didn’t do the appropriate environmental impact studies in order to prevent the city from building new bicycle infrastructure.
“The whole time, the cyclists on the street were multiplying and multiplying,” Carr said. “It was very interesting for us to see this explosion while we were sort of handcuffed.”
Carr said the lawsuit actually galvanized cyclists and politicians in the city.
“I was kind of tongue-in-cheek joking that the bike coalition should give their annual Golden Wheel Award to the two people who sued the city because even thought they brought up this injunction for three years they basically opened the flood gates,” he said.
Now that the injunction has been lifted and the city is adding bicycle infrastructure to the streets, Carr said it is acting more as encouragement to the people who are already riding to keep riding — or ride more and to different places.
Check out San Francisco’s bike map.
Tourists ride rental bikes along the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon.
We often hear that Tucson is a great place to ride because it never rains, but that is only half the story. It’s hot here. This summer more than any other summer, I am sick and tired of the heat. The mantra is ride early or late, which is fine for training rides, but isn’t realistic when you have places to go and errands to run. I’ve adapted and will ride when it is blisteringly hot, but I can’t in good conscious make my daughter suffer through it at this point.
That’s not a problem for San Francisco, though.
“The days of the year it gets over 80 here you can count on one hand.,” Carr said. “People can ride around in regular clothes.”
Landscape and geography
One of the infamous San Francisco hills.
San Francisco is known for it’s killer hills and they do pose somewhat of a problem, but they also have a serious advantage too.
Carr said cycling hasn’t taken off in the hilliest neighborhoods in the city, but that could also be because those neighborhoods are some of the most affluent and older.
“The flatter more working-class neighborhoods have exploded with bikes,” Carr said. “You won’t see too many bikes if you go up Pacific and Broadway and are riding around the mansions over there.”
Cyclists have also developed routes like the Wiggle to avoid the killer San Francisco hills.
Tucson is generally flat until you start getting into the foothills.
The major advantage for San Francisco is its small geographical size.
“The farthest point across the city is seven miles,” Carr said. “Everybody’s trip is 2-3 or 1-2 miles and they still cover an appreciable section of the city.”
Tucson’s boundaries from east to west is double that at 14 miles. Factor in the county and you are talking some serious miles.
“Because we are a peninsula and we were built in long ago and we have no place to go, we suffer the European proximity to everything which is quite nice,” Carr said.
Gas and traffic
A pedicab driver trys to pick up pick up people wating for the Muni, while a tour bus passes by.
Carr said gas prices have been a huge factor in getting more people in San Francisco on bikes.
“Any time prices go up in the bay area, they go up radically,” he said. “We can have 30-cent overnight swings.”
Tucson consistently has the lowest gas prices in the country because of our low state taxes and proximity to refineries.
Carr said traffic and parking also play a role in getting people out of their cars and because the city is completely built, it isn’t going to get any better for cars.
“Utilitarian cycling and transportation cycling in the urban setting is not some luxury,” Carr said. “We don’t have any other options. We are not widening any streets, we are not giving you a freeway, not ever again. We are going to improve your crosstown transit, we are going to improve your inter-regional transit, we are going improve your bike routes and your linkages to transit. If a street widens in San Francisco over the next 20 years, I will be really amazed.”
That, of course, is not the case in Tucson where one street or another is constantly being widened.
Carr said the streets in San Francisco can seem chaotic, but he said it can sometimes work to cyclists’ advantage because the majority of the roads have low speeds.
“There are very few streets in San Francisco that are even 30 and 35,” he said. “The map is overwhelmingly 25-mile-per-hour streets. Even some of our larger arterial are 25 rather than 30.”
The low speeds make cyclists feel safer even without bike infrastructure.
“Both the lower speed limits and the presence of cyclists make it more and more and more comfortable to ride here,” he said.
The city removed two parking spaces to add a "parklet" and a bike corral along Valencia.
Carr said the lawsuit helped galvanize the city’s leaders and changed the political will when it came to cycling in the city and now the interim mayor understands the importance of cycling as transportation.
“The recent acting mayor is taking it seriously,” Carr said. “The past guy despite being intelligent, flat out did not get it when it came time to get it.
Every year for bike to work day he’d show up in gray flannel sweats and a backward baseball hat for his 10-block, three-miles-per-hour parade up Market Street. It is like, ‘this is not what we trying to show people. We are trying to show people that you are in your regular clothes, that is why we are all out here in suits.’”
Carr said in the past if people complained at all the project would get killed. These days it is a different story.
“Now it is much more of a clear and just vision of multi-modal transportation rather than ‘what are you evil cyclists planning to do to the poor burdened motorist,’” he said.
The cultural shift to cycling in San Francisco happened on its own.
Carr said he believes the cultural and social aspect of cycling was the biggest factor in the explosion of cyclists in the city.
“Really it was sort of a social phenomenon,” he said. “We joke that if it weren’t for stretch jeans no one would be riding bikes here because they seemed to take off right at the same time. A lot of the young folk getting on bikes weren’t doing it for environmental reasons It was just what their friends were doing. It was how everybody who was at a gallery got there.”
I love Tucson and I think we can succeed as a bicycling city, but I think we are missing many of San Francisco’s ingredients.
Is a “social phenomenon” enough to take Tucson to the next level? What brings about that change? What does Tucson need to do?