One of the things that impressed me most when I was traveling in northern Europe was the widespread respect for bicycles. I rented bikes in Stockholm, Brugge, St. Rochelle, and watched riders in Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where they pull 1000 bikes out of the canals per year). Unlike here, bicycles aren’t considered a sort of cute way to get around. The cities run on bicycles; they’re a time- and energy-saving alternative in crowded cities. They aren’t even an alternative—they’re the main form of transportation. There are separate lanes for bicycles, with barriers between them and the traffic. Bicycles are the perfect way to get around crowded towns.
In San Francisco, bicycles have been getting a lot of press lately. The city recently found that bicycle ridership is up 53% since 2006. Instead of this being a cause for cheer, among all of us recycling, Prius-buying Green San Franciscans, it’s a cause for a concern. Bicyclists are running red lights. Critical Mass is running amok.
I’m a long-time cyclist, and used to ride my bike to work all the time. It’s a fast way to get around, and you build exercise into your day, even if your fashion options are a bit limited. When my office moved from near Van Ness and Market to South Park, near the ballpark, I tried the ride from my flat in the Haight, which is considerably more challenging, having to cross downtown and South of Market. The first time I did it, I broke my finger. A Muni bus was headed my way, I jumped the curve, and fell so I wouldn’t hit a pedestrian. So I stopped riding my bike to work. I didn’t want to die commuting.
After two years, I recently tried again. Now Market Street is supposed to be more bicycle-friendly, with fewer private cars. There are more bicycles painted on the street delineating lanes. But the way it’s set up is ridiculous. The bicycle lanes disappear into Muni lanes, meaning that supposedly you, the bicyclist, are supposed to squeeze into a small lane with a Muni bus. At 8th Street on Market, private cars turn right, leaving bicyclists nowhere to go, no room, constantly in danger of being hit. At other intersections, people don’t use their turn signals when turning right. On streets where there are supposed to be bicycle lanes—Folsom—trucks use them to double-park while they’re delivering, and cars use them as right-hand turn lanes. It’s really dangerous out there.
I sympathize with people who think bicyclists should follow traffic laws. If you want cars to respect you, you have to stop at stop signs and not just breeze through. You can’t assume you have the right of way when you arrive at an intersection after a car. But there needs to a much more serious effort to encourage bicycling in San Francisco (not to mention the rest of the country), and to make it safe.
Copenhagen was a nirvana for bikes (oh, and for health care). San Francisco could be. But every time I leave the house with my helmet I’m afraid I’m going to break another finger, or worse.