In San Francisco, Bikes Overtaking Cars

San Francisco transportation officials say that they’re seeing a sharp increase in the number of cyclists. Their statistics use one busy intersection as a gauge: Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. A recent sample there of downtown-bound a.m. commuters found that cyclists outnumbered car traffic nearly two to one. I wish I had a little video clip to show what that looks like. Here’s an excerpt from a Friday press release from the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission:

On July 1 SFMTA Bike Program staff gauged, as they have over the past two years, the volume of bicycling after Bike to Work Day. From 8 to 9 a.m. at the intersection of Van Ness and Market, they counted all of the eastbound traffic. A total of 602 bicycles were counted, compared to 331 automobiles. Bicycles made up 61 percent of the total vehicles headed eastbound, while automobiles came in at 34 percent (transit and taxis accounted for the remaining 5 percent of the vehicles). In 2009 bicycles accounted for 54 percent of the vehicles and automobiles for 41 percent.

On May 13, this year’s Bike to Work Day, the SFMTA counted a total of 1,038 bicycles, compared to 307 automobiles. Bicycles made up 75 percent of the total vehicles headed eastbound, while automobiles came in at 22 percent (transit and taxis accounted for the remaining 3 percent of the vehicles). In 2009 bicycles accounted for 66 percent of the vehicles and automobiles for 32 percent. The 2009 to 2010 growth of bicycles on Bike to Work Day was 34 percent.

These numbers indicate that the growth in Bike to Work Day participation closely matches growth in everyday cycling on Market Street.

Berkeley Cycling: Riding to a Dangerous Place

The week before last, a cyclist was killed descending South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. News reports say the rider, Kim Flint, crossed the center line and hit the side of an uphill-bound vehicle. He was airlifted to a hospital in Walnut Creek, where he died.

Here’s the twist to the tragedy, as reported in a subsequent story carried on The Bay Citizen and in the Bay Area pages of The New York Times: Flint may have been attempting to set a speed record on the descent to maintain his first-place ranking on a site called Strava, like other sites, allows riders to upload data about their cycling performance and create publicly viewable online training and ride logs. Unlike other sites (that I know of), it keeps records of times for defined road segments. Until shortly after Flint’s death, there was a “King of the Mountain” ranking listed for South Park downhills.

What I find interesting about the Bay Citizen/Times article is the series of leaps it makes to more or less attribute Flint’s death to his activity on Strava. I say “interesting” because it’s from the same reporter who put together a complete, well-reasoned, and sensitive piece for the local news blog Berkeleyside then produced this second story that suggests Strava was an “obsession” for Flint, who recorded the fastest Strava time down South Park in early June. “But on June 15,” the second story says, “another rider bested his time by four seconds, prompting Mr. Flint to ride that stretch again four days later.” There’s no support in the story–statements from Flint or from his fellow riders–for the notion that Flint was “obsessed” with Strava or that his fatal ride on June 19 was driven by a hunger to reclaim his Strava record. In fact, based on the evidence available on Strava, there’s little to suggest that Flint or anyone else is particularly obsessed with the South Park descent. The site lists 71 total descents of the segment since the fall of 2007, with 34 of those this year. Flint is listed twice–once last August, and once during his “record” run in early June–before the ride on which he crashed. Just one quote from another cyclist about what sort of rider Flint was, how he handled himself on the road or on this hill, would be persuasive in helping us understand his “obsession.” The second story offers nothing; the first story includes a long quote from a friend and fellow rider who emphasized Flint was not a reckless type.

But the real point here isn’t whether someone’s sensationalizing a story by suggesting that a speed-crazed cyclist may have been driven to his death by a website that encourages dangerous behavior. No, it’s this: Cycling can be dangerous, and never is the danger more present (though perhaps not obvious) than during a steep descent. Strava or no Strava, the ride down South Park Drive demands skill and attention. Many riders, including me, have hit 50 mph on their way down. When I read that someone had been killed up there, I could imagine two or three places that could happen, including the spot where the accident occurred. All it takes is carrying a little bit too much speed into a corner, finding something in the road you weren’t expecting–some gravel or an animal, say–or a moment’s distraction, and you can be in trouble fast.

That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun. I remember seeing a couple of longboard skateboarders on Grizzly Peak, getting ready to go down Claremont. I followed on my bike to see how fast they’d go. I can’t really tell you, though, because my top speed, in the high 40s, wasn’t fast enough to keep them in sight. I did see the guys at the bottom. They were getting a ride back to the top to do it again. They were were doing something that was very hazardous and required a high degree of courage and ability, and they were having a blast.

None of which is to discount the tragedy of Mr. Flint’s death. Most of us who have ridden the roads hereabouts take an incident like this to heart. We can all too easily remember at least once when, whether through our own error or another’s, we’ve narrowly avoided serious injury or worse. Point is, it’s really the nature of the activity itself and the sum of all our habits, skills, and even emotions that lead us to this dangerous place, not the inducements of a Death Race website. That being the case, it’s important to ride with some discipline–this coming from someone who got stopped by the UC police for rolling through a stoplight on Friday night–and with a commitment to being safe.

Bicycle Diary: Feb. 14

Route: A slow, flat warm-up, then up and down Arlington Avenue in Berkeley, El Cerrito, and Richmond. An easy, gradual climb followed by a short, steep, un-technical descent and a flat route back home. (Here’s the Gmaps Pedometer route link.)

Time: 00:58:40.6
Distance: 12.6
Climb: 940
Avg. speed: 12.7
Weight: 228
Heart rate: 139 avg./165 max.
Notes: My shadow has a gut.

Most Under-Reported Male Cycling Injuries

1. PowerBar embedded in nostril.   

2. Tiger Balm in shorts=groin burns.

3. Poisoning from accidental ingestion of “GU” (aka sunscreen) grabbed without looking from jersey pocket.

4. Eardrums abraded by blaring car horns.

5. Jangled nerves caused by dodging SUV drivers who couldn’t see you riding lightless at night.   

6. Ego bruising caused by riders older, fatter, more female, more uncool — and faster than you.

7. Posterior bruising from all the younger, fitter, cooler riders kicking your ass.

8. Mortification suffered when realizing the guy with the big gut reflected in the window is you.

Bikes on BART: An Inconvenient Truth


Once upon a time, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district required bicyclists to obtain a permit to ride its trains. You could get the permit by schlepping down to BART’s Lake Merritt station, or you could obtain it by mail. Our recollection is that you had to sign some paperwork stating you understood BART’s bike rules–most notably, to our mind, NO BIKES ON STATION ESCALATORS OR ON THE FIRST CAR OF TRAINS–and agreed to abide by them. Those were the days before the still-unfolding Cycling Enlightenment. Some years ago, BART dropped the permit requirement and pretty much welcomed all two-wheeled comers as long as they STAY OFF THE ESCALATORS AND PLEASE SIR WITH THE BIKE IN THE FIRST CAR MOVE TO ANY OTHER CAR ON THE TRAIN.

In theory, it’s swell to be able to travel with one’s velocipede on the BART system. Many’s the time we’ve ended rides at the far-off Dublin/Pleasanton and Fremont stations and taken the train back home. BART also provides a way of getting across the watery impediment known to locals as The San Francisco Bay. It’s not the only way of course–you can get a bike shuttle (a trailer service that hauls bikes across the Bay Bridge), take AC Transit (which has front-mounted bike racks), or, best of all, take the ferry. But BART is the most available option.

In practice, we’ve found the trains to be less than ideal for traveling from the East Bay to the city or back. The main reason is that the cars just aren’t designed to accommodate full-sized two-wheeled machines. If one sits, one almost by necessity takes up two seats. Not a big deal if it’s not a busy time of day; if it is, then taking the extra seat seems a little inconsiderate (this is a sermon delivered from the perspective of an offender).

The bigger problem with bikes on BART is that so many of the cyclists who bring their two-wheelers on the trains appear so lacking in care or respect for other passengers. For instance: If you’ve ridden the system at all, you can anticipate which door on the cars will open at which stations. But it’s common to see cyclists crowd their bikes into the exit door and block it when they have no intention of exiting (oh, sure, we see other passengers doing this too; we just expect cyclists to exhibit a little less lameness than the dopiest rapid-transit rider). It’s also typical to see riders station their machines in the aisles without regard to how it affects other passengers.

Take the specimen above (at left), photographed on a recent Sunday. He parked his bike in the exit door and for bonus points positioned it most of the way across the aisle. When someone sat opposite him, it was just possible for other passengers to squeeze by. He situated himself thus even though several other seats were available that would have allowed him to stay out of the way. After planting his rear end in his seat, he either affected obliviousness (or actually was oblivious) to all around him.

Part of the problem is that BART cars aren’t designed to accommodate bikes in the first place. A few have been refurbished with a sign that says “bike space.” But if more than a couple passengers bring their bicycles on board, the usual awkwardness ensues. Seeing that the physical space isn’t quite fit for bikes and passengers to co-exist, something’s got to give. The change has got to happen in the social space. Cyclists on BART need to be attentive to how their presence affects other passengers; just as attentive as they want the rest of the world to be to them and their needs.

San Francisco Tweed

We have just been introduced, sometime in the last two minutes, to San Francisco Tweed. What is that? From the site: “We at SF Tweed constitute a rare breed of cyclist — ladies and gents who refuse to endure anymore spandex! For us there is nothing better than a spin through our fair streets in the finest most dapper attire. …”

Well, everyone from Grant Petersen to us to the entire nation of Burma is down with refusing to endure Spandex any longer. We’ve taken to sporting an L.L. Bean black-watch-plaid flannel shirt as our riding habit with heavily discounted Royal Robbins canvas cargo shorts for our lower-down clothing. Aung San Suu Kyi has often said that if she were ever permitted to ride, she wouldn’t be caught dead in anything made of black, stretchy material assembled by sweatshop labor in her native land. Grant & Co. say of their own miracle ride-shirt cloth, “No longer only the fabric of the wealthy for ice cream socials on the estate, seersucker has proven to be the best fabric for hot weather cycling, too.” (“No longer only the utensils of the spoiled and effete, silver spoons have proven to be the finest dispensers of our favorite cycling food, blackstrap molasses, too.” We think the tweed and seersucker crowd might spend a little time making their prose as dapper as their cycling costumes, but we have always been stuffy that way.)

Did we have a point here. Oh, yes: S.F. Tweed sounds worth checking out, for all our linguo-quibbles. We may go out and observe from afar at the group’s next event.


Flying Pigeon, Manhattan Style


Flying Pigeon, at the East 35th Street ferry pier in Manhattan. The bike’s got classic good looks, and the locking strategy–using the cable lock as the bike version of The Club, preventing the front wheel from turning–I haven’t seen before. We came back to this spot several hours later, but I didn’t notice whether this machine was still there or not.

Curbing My Enthusiasm

Since an early age I have had an inflated opinion of my athletic abilities. It took me until sixth grade to realize that even my friends picked me last for their teams in gym. In three years of summer softball my batting reputation was so renowned that when the outfielders saw me step up to the plate, they slowly moved toward the infield. No one plays tennis with me more than once, unless he likes me a lot or likes to run a lot, or both. What I lack in skill I make up for in an unbounded enthusiasm and a willingness to try.

 I was never fast on the bike but as a kid I could make running mounts and dismounts. Ride hands-free. Slow down to catch a branch of the plumb tree and let the bike roll out from under me. By the time I was twelve my twin brothers had left home and left their bikes behind, so I had my pick of two generic 10-speeds to tool around town in. Even with the seat all the way down my feet barely reached the pedals, so upon coming to a stop I had to be careful to lower one foot at a time to the ground and   daintily maneuver around the top tube or risk losing my innocence to Montgomery Ward.

 Pedaling around San Francisco I admire and am inspired by so many cyclists, every day: Captain Fixie, with your measured cadence and balletic stance at red lights; Ms. Racer, keeping pace with the streetcars; Messenger Maniac, bag bulging, basket brimming, legs of steel spinning—I think I love you. In my mind I take you all on, I mop Market Street with your Lycra and Vans and still we laugh, we hit it off, we hang out, become fast friends…

 But you, Commuter Guy on the hybrid, you did me in.

 Wheeling west on Market, approaching Kearney, a bus was a little too close to the curb for us to pass, but you did not stop when I stopped, or even slow down, you hopped up onto the edge of the sidewalk and rode around. Wow, thought I. I wanted to follow you, considered hiking my bike up off the asphalt and getting on out of there. But the light changed and we all rolled. You were gone, but I remembered you.

 My destination was at the corner of Sixth and around the mid-point of the block there is a cutout where delivery vans park. That spot was empty this day, and the suggestion being so fresh in my mind, I knew what I wanted to do. "I'm on a cyclocross," I said aloud. "Why not?"

 Traffic was light and I crossed to the left, headed for the curb—which is lower on this block than the one I saw jumped just moments before. "Yeah, this will be great." I did not say this out loud, but I did believe it.

 A friend to whom I described my experience put it quite well when I reached this point in the story: "Don't you have to pop a wheelie to do that?" Indeed you do; and I did not. Nor did I brake. Or turn away when I still had the chance. What was going through my head as the decisive moment approached was, "Wait…what do I…" at which point my front wheel hit the curb, the bike stopped, and I kept going, though somehow I pushed back on the handlebars in time and with enough force to keep myself from flying over them. I was able to avoid falling completely and face-planting in the grime and filth of the pavement, but it all went awry too quickly for me to remember what was automatic so many years ago—to mind the cross tube—and thus I got to know my unders in a brand new way.

 As I unstraddled and righted the bike, I smiled and gave a little chuckle to let any potential Good Samaritan know I was OK. Maybe I thought a happy face would make me look less like an idiot. Perhaps I was remembering a bit of advice someone once gave me: "Laugh at yourself before anyone else has a chance to laugh at you."

 I would like to thank the good people of Mid-Market not only for not laughing at me but for actually ignoring me in my most awkward situation. I know your miseries are far greater than mine and you would have had many good reasons to delight in my spectacle, so I very much appreciated your blank stares and vacant gazes while I gathered what bits of my composure had not toppled to the sidewalk and proceeded to my meeting, walking a little funny but with my head held high, thinking, "Next time…"