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.

Political will

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?


29 thoughts on “Summer sightseeing series: SF’s recipe for bicycling success”
  1. Thanks for the insights. I find the infrastructure in Tucson makes it so easy to drive a car and much less appealing to walk or bike. San Francisco is a city grid and we are a sprawling suburb. I have had to walk and bike across so many parking lots here. Pedestrians-wise you are never guaranteed to find a sidewalk. Tucson is just not built like a city.

  2. 10 years ago, San Francisco was a terrible place for bicycling. Since then, city leaders have really made an effort to improve things. In the last couple of years, the results are really showing with very nice city-wide bike route network. Even more improvements are constantly showing up or are being planned.

  3. Another thing that’s holding Tucson back: The “macho” mindset that a lot of motorists have here.

    This is the mindset held by those who roar around town in monster pickups and souped-up cars (spinner rims and boom-boom stereo systems, I’m lookin’ right at ya!). These people are legion in Tucson, and trust me, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a bicycle.

    But they kill and maim more than a few of us.

  4. Another thing that’s holding Tucson back: The “macho” mindset that a lot of motorists have here.

    This is the mindset held by those who roar around town in monster pickups and souped-up cars (spinner rims and boom-boom stereo systems, I’m lookin’ right at ya!). These people are legion in Tucson, and trust me, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a bicycle.

    But they kill and maim more than a few of us.

  5. Another thing that’s holding Tucson back: The “macho” mindset that a lot of motorists have here.

    This is the mindset held by those who roar around town in monster pickups and souped-up cars (spinner rims and boom-boom stereo systems, I’m lookin’ right at ya!). These people are legion in Tucson, and trust me, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a bicycle.

    But they kill and maim more than a few of us.

  6. I think this is a fantastic article, and you really bring up a lot of excellent points.  I was surprised when I drove through downtown San Fran and saw so many people commuting on bikes, but now I get it.  Although I still think their messed up roads would be a biker’s nightmare.

    So the take-home is that it takes a push to get people out of their cars and onto bikes.  This is disappointing, but not surprising.  I’m ashamed to admit that the weather this summer has kept me from commuting into work on my bike more than a couple of times, despite knowing that my car commuting is environmentally unfriendly. 

    Perhaps one solution could be to put in more shade along popular bike routes, like with trees or something?  Or maybe we could bring up a lawsuit to block all road widening projects in the city and the resulting traffic will make more people ride bikes (I’m completely joking about this, BTW).

    Thanks again for the interesting article, TucsonVelo!

  7. Driving in SF is also easy due to the short distances but parking can be a royal pain and expensive if it is downtown.  A key factor to my biking to work was the fact that BART was too far away when I lived on Potrero Hill and buses to BART were slow.  It could take 45 minutes to get downtown by walking/bus to BART compared to 15 minutes by bike.  Another incentive to ride was all the *interesting* experiences I had on city buses since I lived on the line that serviced General Hospital.  That was almost ten years ago and the infrastructure was not very good.  Their weather is not always perfect for biking – rain can be as off putting as heat and a serious safety factor.

    No doubt for most, convenience is a big factor when you are rushing off to work even if the price of gas is high.  I agree that Tucson’s big issues are the distances  between most neighborhoods and work, the heat in summer and the speed of traffic as you pointed out.

    Planning which is not Tucson’s strong point (proven by all the missed opportunities downtown in the past 20 years) could do a lot to promote communities which are close to work and which have good infrastructure to promote cycling.  If we continue to build strong corridors to connect the city and its recreation and work spaces and make it safer and easier to bike, more people will take advantage of it.

  8. Thank you for this article.  I have had similar epiphanies while visiting other bikey places, and agree that there are serious, root problems that are stifling Tucson’s ability to increase its own bikey-ness. 

    There is no way we are going to overhaul our city and turn it into San Francisco or Portland, but that does not mean there isn’t hope.  A neighborhood-by-neighborhood concentration might help.  If we could find ways to slow people down within their own neighborhoods that would be a start.  By “slowing down” I mean adding things that people need and use and making sure that they can walk there. 

    I like the idea above about concentrating on adding shade, particularly to sidewalks and bus stop areas.  There should be big trees at every bus stop.

    And instead of giving sweetheart deals to people who want to build parking garages, we should be giving sweetheart deals to people who want to build grocery stores.  Parks should be designed for people who want to sit down and look at something green instead of play baseball — there are marvelous examples of such places in most cities, but not for some reason Tucson, which has the most unimaginative park landscaping I’ve ever seen.

    And parking, my God, that seems to be the root of all our problems.  Handling that one is going to be tough.

  9. OMG! Are those Jersey Barricades (aka K-Rail) in the photo captioned, “Tourists ride rental bikes along the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon.”

  10. OMG! Are those Jersey Barricades (aka K-Rail) in the photo captioned, “Tourists ride rental bikes along the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon.”

  11. OMG! Are those Jersey Barricades (aka K-Rail) in the photo captioned, “Tourists ride rental bikes along the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon.”

  12. “There should be big trees at every bus stop.”

    Sure, great idea. Problem is it takes years and even more years to grow trees, they need water and that means, in the Old Pueblo, pipes and stuff which costs money the city doesn’t have for whatever reason.

  13. velvet mesquites or other native trees survive with our annual rain fall, cut the curb on the side walk and make some good size basins and that should work

  14. Cyclovia every week! mexico city does it, they close one of the biggest and main streets there (paseo de la reforma) which run right thru the middle of the city. that seems to be one of the many things thats gettings folks into bikes.

  15.  I’m pretty sure the “pipes and stuff” are already installed.  A mesquite tree with just a little bit of attention can start providing very nice shade in fewer than ten years.  The city just planted a whole mess of them at the intersection of Mission and 22nd, where they will look pretty but serve no other utilitarian purpose.  I’d rather see, oh, I don’t know MAYBE ONE GODDAMN TREE at the bus stop I use regularly on San Marcos.

  16. Come to think of it, maybe I should go out and plant one myself instead of bitching about the City not doing it.

  17. The sentiment is understandable.

    Time for “an adopt a MAYBE ONE GODDAMN TREE at the bus stop,”  program Erik Ryberg?

    Is there time, funding and widespread inclination to do this?

  18. It’s ironic that Socialism is stronger in Tucson than San Francisco. Tucson has minimum parking requirements and it habitually overbuilds its freeways in a naive, wasteful-of-tax-dollars attempt to eliminate parking shortages and freeway traffic congestion.

    No, the solution is to implement modern parking management like SFPark, and allow good old-fashioned supply and demand to set the price of rush hour freeway travel.

    By giving people the freedom to economize, many would choose to ride bicycles.

  19. Great run-down of the factors here.

    Let’s face it, SF has increasing ridership because it’s a kick ass fun city to ride in. The scenery, although very urban, is ever-changing, and a new neighborhood is always around the corner. Architecture: amazing. People watching (yes, while riding): entertaining. Traffic furniture: slow but challenging. I’ve never felt more alive than riding around SF. Riding Tucson’s sprawling, mini mall lined, freeway-like streets on a 95 degree day (half the year!) is just not fun at all. Usually the most exciting thing you will see is some jerk doing something to endanger your life. As a commuter in SF at least you feel like you are a disrespected PART OF THE SYSTEM. Here, you’re part of nothing.

    All this being said (and boy, that got depressing at the end, sorry), I think Tucson still has room for much improvement. Michael, I think you are still right that we need low-stress bikeways here, with LOTS of traffic calming and SHADE. This would at least help the existing cyclists enjoy their rides a lot more.  Rainwater harvesting works.

    As for gaining new riders, you got me on that one. This isn’t SF. Not even close. The car and the American way are just too strong here. Maybe if we stop widening streets. Heck, start making them more narrow now!


  20. How do you un-sprawl? San Fran is downtown and Tucson isn’t. I ride through it much more than I ride to it. The city wants to increase density while remaining knee-deep in car mode. How will that work?  Bike mode would seem to be the most economical, but the city likes to spend big money.
    The Santa Cruz-Rillito connection has been well-received. People like to come here from all over to ride. Real strong points of  ‘ours’  that need to be maximized and help shift the population’s view of cycling to the positive. Build the velodrome already……in Tucson!

  21. The river path system, tho not “complete” yet, is already providing great recreational riding opportunities and certainly improved commuting conditions for those who can take advantage of it.  With that said, we need to create a grid across the whole valley of low-stress routes.  The existing bike route system looks impressive on a map but it has lots of problems.  The problems are not the result of poor work on the part of the bike planning folks at the city or county.  The problems were created, and to some extent, are still being created by the planning and zoning folks.
     The biggest challenge to improving our current system is getting right of way thru some properties that block the way.  For instance, there is no straightforward way to extend the 3rd street route thru Shepherd Hills neighborhood east of Wilmot and beyond to Kolb.  The plans for extending 3rd street beyond Wilmot now is to jog it south a HALF MILE to Jessica and then turn east again.  I don’t see the city ever convincing a homeowner in the Shepherds Hills neighborhood to sell them a strip of their land for a bike path so eastsiders will just have to ride extra distance.

    In the same vein, there is no way to route a path running east-west across town that would be south of 5th that doesn’t have to touch an arterial at one or more points.  There are too many privately owned properties that block the way, not to mention a lack of bike bridges across the Pantano.  The city and county officials never planned for anyone to go east-west at those lattitudes so they didn’t put in continuous thru roads.  I doubt that the city would ever buy properties w/ houses on them and tear down the houses to install bike/ped paths.  That’s what it will take to get a decent path system in Tucson.

  22. 3wheeler,

    You are correct that Wilmot seems to be where sprawl began, heading east and back through time in the Old Pueblo.

    Anyway, there are already at least two major bridges over the Pantano: one at Speedway, the other at Broadway. Perhaps these bridges could be made cyclist-friendly at lower cost than building a costly and contentious bike/ped bridge across the Pantano, a TCE site thereabouts.

  23. That’s funny, I never said anything about sprawl.  You’re going to have to define the term for me.  My beef, as you know, is w/ barriers.  I don’t think the words sprawl and barrier are synonymous.

    When the economy improves, I’ll be pushing for bike/ped bridges across the Pantano and a couple other washes in town.  The odds are that we’ll get 1 or 2 bridges across the Pantano by 2020.  I think the more paths we install, the greater the demand will be for more.  I was talking to a 50-something couple the other day who were not cycling until the Pantano path was extended to near their home.  They’re hooked now.  I think they’re typical.  Get more people to ride, and you’ll get more people to support spending money on bike/ped infrastructure. 

  24. I’m down the peninsula from SF. Our city is working on getting bike lanes on all arterials and collectors north/south and east west. It takes time and money. We’ve done some road diets which have deceased speeds for cars and reduced accidents. The hardest thing to get done is removing on street vehicle storage. That brings out the mobs with fire brands and pitch forks.

    California has passed a ‘complete streets’ law which makes it easier to do away with parking and add space for cyclists and provisions for pedestrians. All users should have access and safe travel so parking comes in last as something  which belongs on the  street.

    It is a difficult and tiresome process. This will be my last year on my cities bike/ped commission for  a while (term limits). Things are better, not as good as I had hoped. We have far too many people who live a long way from work. Transit dollars and routes have been cut which reduces ridership and the ability of cyclists to use transit. One thing which hurts the ability of people to  live near work stems from Prop. 13. This freezes property tax from the point at which you buy your home. I’ve thought about moving myself but the extra $3-500 hike per month in taxes discourages me and others I’ll bet.

  25. Ralph, California has a tax law that grandfathers a person’s property taxes?  That’s great!  But like almost all laws, there are unintended consequences.  I’m sure that the folks who penned that bill never thought that it would create issues that encompassed transportation.  I wonder what it’s done to the real estate market and home construction.  That’s very interesting information, thanks.  And good on ya for being in the trenches of the bike war.

    I think folks should be told it’s bad to live far from where they work just like they’re told it’s bad to smoke or have sex w/out a condom.  When you’re driving to work, look at the cars in the opposite lane.  Those folks live near where you work and work near where you live.  Swap houses w/ one of them.  (Not you, Ralph, you have an excuse.  I’m just having a generic rant.)

  26. The tax law was pushed through our initiative process as a means to protect people from being taxed out of their homes. The legislatures did nothing to deal with the problem so it got done by initiative. Bang. It really favors corporations because they hold property for ever and never change ownership. Where property tax in the state was about a 50-50 split dollar wise when it went in it is now 70-30 house to business dollar wise. Example, PG&E is paying about the same  tax amount on their properties as in the early 80s.

    Two doors up from me is a property valued for taxes at $100K mine $350K, 3 doors over new condos, $550K. We all demand the same services. New businesses can’t compete with an established business if they have to buy their property or rent a space.

    Can’t change it though. This state has a huge history of ballot box budgeting which ties the hands of the legislature and governor. I think about 20% of the budget isn’t controlled by some kind of initiative lock on funds. It’s insane.

    My town is trying but the costs keep going up, while the revenue has stagnated or declined. We want skilled people but we can’t get over the idea that you might need $100K to get a professional engineer on staff. My generation is busy ducking the same duties my fathers generation shouldered to make things better for our children.

    See I can rant too. And be reasonably polite about it:-)

  27. Even more interesting information.  I hope you folks can figure out a way through those problems.  Take care.

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