This story was originally published by Dandyhorse, a Toronto bike mag I help edit.
When my boss told me I could tack a few vacation days onto the tail end of a work trip to California, the first thing I thought about were those infamously steep San Francisco hills. My calves whimpered in protest. But, oh yes, I would conquer them.
San Francisco is a pretty small city, stretching only 11 km from coast to coast and 11 km from the northern tip to the southern city limits. I was able to cross a bunch of landmarks off my list during one afternoon ride. I rented a bike ($30/day) at the Fisherman’s Wharf farmers’ market, scooted over to Chinatown (one of the largest in the world) and cruised over the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Biking the bridge was a bit nerve-wracking, considering you’re sharing a narrow strip of pavement with other cyclists and wandering pedestrians, but once in a while you catch a tourist-free patch and you’re sailing.
This city has more to offer cyclists than tourist traps, of course. I asked a few commuter types how they tackle those insane hills, and most told me that they are able to plan routes that skip the worst parts. And when they can’t avoid them, bike lanes, dedicated merge markings and generally wider streets make it easy for cyclists to trundle uphill without worrying about traffic running over the slower folk.
A state culture that values sustainability creates lots of opportunities for cyclists. I spent some time in Berkeley, where the massive student population is served by a wide network of lanes, sharrows and lights specifically for cyclists. I especially liked that free 24-hour indoor parking is available to residents and students.
Further south in Mountain View, Google’s massive headquarters has plenty of bike racks for employees, but it’s also littered with primary-coloured mini bikes for employees to travel from lot to lot.
Back in San Fran, one of the most drool-worthy cyclist features I found is one you can’t see at all. City planners have implemented a “green wave” into a popular stretch of San Fran along Valencia Street. Picture 10 carefully timed lights that allow riders to maintain a reasonable clip without stopping. The wave cuts through the city’s Mission District, home to some of the world’s best burritos (I spotted a few bike stickers that measured fuel in burritos per mile). Valencia St. is home to an up-and-coming neighbourhood with plenty of hip shops and bike stores, and some business owners I spoke with praise the wave for bringing extra traffic to their strip. Almost as impressive, cars are parked in the middle of the road so cyclists can avoid the painful door prize that accompanies a carelessly opened car door.
Infrastructure is key to creating a harmonious relationship between modes of transportation. California state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians. And that attitude extends toward cyclists as well; I had a few drivers yield me their right-of-way rather than force me to stop on steep hills. Are you taking notes, Toronto?