Saturday, June 20, 2009

Biking Around

This is Rocinante: an old steel road bike, made in France somewhere in the 70s or early 80s. I picked it up at a bike repair shop down in South Beach for a modest sum and have been trekking around the city these last few weeks. Even rode into work for the first time on Friday, sharing the road with the buses and taxis, delivery trucks and private cars, watching the people walk down the broad sidewalks of Market Street and feeling the cool morning air, a natural air conditioner to balance the effort of the ride. There are not many better ways to spend the morning commute (not to mention the fact that my ride was at least ten minutes faster than the typical bus commute on the 21-Hayes).

Along with walking, bicycling is a great activity for both transportation and community development. I know that may seem like a bold statement for something as simple as pedaling a piece of metal down city streets, but bikers do more than travel from point a to b. They survey their surroundings and bring a human element to the streets. They also empower themselves with the ability to transverse the city with their own two legs and an exhaust-free machine. Maybe most importantly, they bring themselves (or the bicycle brings them) into direct contact with the physical space of the city.

Bikes also allow people to travel with a minimal use of energy (maximum efficiency). The bike is much more efficient than an auto, even more efficient than walking. So why aren't more Americans riding bikes? Why aren't more San Franciscans riding?

The average suburban American lives somewhere that is only accessible by highways and neighborhood roads. Highways have no dedicated bike lanes, neighborhood roads lead nowhere (but to neighborhood houses). Mega cities are built on the scope of the automobile, rely on its oversized frame to bear the citizens from one to the next. People ride bikes in these areas, but often only for joy or exercise, not as a practical method of transport.

But even if the above is a satisfactory explanation for the lack of bike-riding in America as a whole, what explains the relative lack of riding in a place like San Francisco. Although there are many cyclists in the city, the city and citizens would benefit and could handle an exponential increase in ridership. I suspect the biggest obstacle to most would-be riders is the perceived dangerousness of urban riding. Cars are big and careless and bikers are relatively unprotected (although many wear helmets). Ultimately, a city that is sincerely dedicated to accessible transportation, public health, and the improvement of the streetscape must do its best to promote cycling and walking. Cyclists must also do a good job of sharing their excitement with their friends and neighbors. The more bikes on the street, the safer it will become for riders.*

My proposal: San Francisco should pick a weekend day and shut down 10 to 20% of the streets to all through-traffic except buses, a mega-Sunday Streets of sorts. Preferably the carless streets would be commercial corridors: Divisadero, Union, Mission, Fillmore, Polk, Chestnut, Valencia, Columbus, 16th Street, 24th Street. The possibilities are endless. I guess we'd have to allow cars some way to cross the streets at defined intersections, but we could probably employ intersections with traffic lights, or even get a few policeman out there to interact with the folk and direct traffic. Perhaps I'm overlooking the logistical complexities of such an event, but there ain't nothing wrong with dreaming big. Improving the transportation corridors of the cities of the future will take vision and tenacity. The city is an experiment that is never complete.

* The pack offers protection. Or maybe it just seems to. All I know is that it feels safer to be riding with other bikers on the road. I would be interested if anyone has statistics to share.