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Photo courtesy of SF Bicycle Coalition

Photo by John Avalos

Photo by Chris Willmore

Photo by David Haines (bikeranger.com)

Photo courtesy of SF Bicycle Coalition

Truly critical mass

Drivers, check your mirrors. Your days of owning the streets of San Francisco are over. Just ask the mayoral candidates. They’ll be the ones pedaling by you on Market, talking about their city as the next Amsterdam.

Recently I went for a bike ride with an attorney I know. To get from a meeting at Van Ness and Clay to another one downtown, this busy lawyer—his name is David—told me, we’d ride down Polk Street and cut over on O’Farrell.

“This is not a cool bike,” he admitted, unlocking a maroon Schwinn Voyageur from an inverted steel U set in the sidewalk. “It’s just a cheap beater, but it gets me where I want to go and hopefully nobody wants to steal it.” David has had “3.8” bikes stolen in the 15 years he has lived in San Francisco. “Half of one was stolen when I was eating at a restaurant in the Mission,” he explained. “It was stripped to the frame. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my seat got ripped off.”

The weirdest and most symbolic heist happened while David was preparing for a trial: “My bike was locked up literally in front of the Hall of Justice, 50 feet from the door.”

David is proud that, despite such travails, he doesn’t own a car. He had one for only six months, in 2000, when he was commuting to the Peninsula. “It was incredibly unpleasant. It would take me 20 or 30 minutes to find parking on Russian Hill, and I was still getting enough parking tickets to fund certain Muni lines. It’s far more efficient to be on a bike; whenever my colleagues and I are going from Point A to Point B, I suggest that we race—and I’ve never lost.”

This was illuminating, as David is anything but a speed demon. I was trying to ride next to him to keep up the conversation, but as he pedaled along in his tight-fitting business suit, helmet positioned toward the back of his skull, revealing his forehead, he kept slowing down and looking over his shoulder. “Sorry,” he said when I stopped to wait for him. “I’m checking to see if this is truly a two-abreast situation.”

Polk is an officially designated bike route, but the part we were riding has no formal bike lanes. We were following “sharrows”—stenciled images of bikes with arrows, indicating where cyclists should ride, especially to avoid car doors. To make room for these, 11 years ago two southbound lanes on Polk were reduced to one, following the example of Valencia Street, ground zero for the bike explosion now engulfing the city.

At O’Farrell, David continued straight through the intersection and stopped at the far corner—a pretty cautious way to turn left. Then, when the light turned green, we found ourselves jockeying for position with the pachyderms of Muni. “We’re actually in the bus zone here,” David said, lamenting the lack of official bike lane. “But cars are in it all the time.” Maybe that made him feel better about breaking the rules.

After riding for only 10 minutes, we coasted to a stop at the Hotel Nikko on Mason. “I’m late,” David announced, locking his Schwinn to a parking meter. “I was supposed to be introduced four minutes ago. This is the story of my life.” His tardiness wasn’t attributable to his choice of transportation, however; rather, a brainstorming session with clean-tech companies at his campaign headquarters had run long. Now he was scheduled to discuss immigration—one of many speeches he’s been making lately. David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is running for mayor. On a bike-advocacy platform

Fourteen years ago, this would have been unimaginable. In 1997, when mayor Willie Brown authorized the arrest of riders in Critical Mass—the infamous monthly bike mob that had been blocking intersections, tying up rush-hour traffic, enraging drivers, and creating a serious cultural flash point—supervisor Michael Yaki declared that “no proposal may be deemed too extreme in controlling bicycles in San Francisco.”

Critical Mass still takes place on the last Friday of each month, but around city hall nowadays, the only noise you hear about bikes is “Kumbaya.” In San Francisco, where cyclists once had the status of unruly outlaws, almost all of the current candidates for mayor seem to want their town to unseat Portland—or Minneapolis or even New York—as America’s premier bicycling city. Among them, David Chiu has assumed the most public profile, but supervisor John Avalos has been cycling the city longer. Leland Yee, who never learned how to ride as a kid, has recently mastered the art (surprise, surprise). Dennis Herrera has hinted that Market Street—reportedly the busiest bicycle thoroughfare west of the Mississippi—should be permanently closed to cars from Van Ness to the Ferry Plaza. “Cars don’t create economic activity,” Herrera wrote, responding to a survey of the candidates by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “People do.”

Even onetime Willie Brown appointee Ed Lee has gotten into the act. Within a week of entering the race last August, the interim mayor issued a press release trumpeting the city’s pro-cycling achievements over the previous year: 14 miles of new bike lanes; 2,800 sharrows; 500 bike racks; and, on Market Street, a separate “bikeway” protected from cars. Between 2006 and 2010, the city had found, cycling trips were up 58 percent, and the proportion of all trips made by bike had grown to 6 percent. “Whether commuting to work, running errands, or taking a family outing, more and more San Franciscans are choosing to bicycle,” Lee proclaimed.

What happened? Credit (or blame) can be directed at any number of factors: Lance Armstrong, who brought bicycling to the attention of the entire nation; the tech boom, which attracted young people from around the world, making the city more congested and harder to get around by car; the recession, which gave residents more time to ride and less money for owning, insuring, and parking an automobile.

But the real answer is the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The nation’s biggest metropolitan cycling lobby, 12,000 members strong, the coalition is one of the city’s most influential grassroots groups and its largest deliverer of programs on bike safety and parking, transit access, and road infrastructure. Since its beginning 40 years ago as a ragtag collection of bike nuts and green freaks, it has matured enough to enjoy a full-frontal embrace with city hall: Last month, 14 of the 16 major mayoral candidates submitted to its quiz on cycling issues, and the organization’s relentlessly upbeat executive director, Leah Shahum, has served on the board of the all-powerful Municipal Transportation Agency. Not coincidentally, the MTA now has a “holistic” division called Sustainable Streets, whose policy aim—according to the agency’s deputy director of transportation planning, Timothy Papandreou—is to make cars “residual.”

If this is a sea of change, it’s one that makes at least some people sick. Take Sharon Eberhardt, vice president of the District 11 Neighborhood Council, which includes the car-centric Ingleside-Oceanview neighborhood. A self-described senior citizen, Eberhardt hasn’t been on a bike in 50 years, and—like much of the local motoring populace—she still considers cyclists scofflaws.

“They’re just so rude,” Eberhardt complains. “They go through stop signs and red lights; they go down the middle of the lane, not to the side; they go up on sidewalks and don’t watch out for pedestrians; they ride while talking on cell phones. I’ve seldom seen one signal while making a turn, and if you’re trying to make a turn, they get in your blind spot and keep going right in front of you. I don’t know any bicyclists. I don’t talk to them. But some bike lanes seem so dangerous, even for bikers.”

As for the bike coalition, Eberhardt despairs: “I don’t know how they got so powerful. It seems like anything they want, they get.”

Part of the reason for the coalition’s strength—whether or not the organization admits it—is Critical Mass, which began in August 1992 with 48 safety-espousing riders. Initially the coalition neither condemned nor applauded the event. The group had been founded in 1971 for pragmatic reasons: “Mainly what we did,” explains Darryl Skrabak, the group’s second director, “was prevent things from being done to us.” Rather than pushing for bike lanes (which Skrabak considered “separate but unequal”), the coalition lobbied for access to roads previously closed to bicycles—for example, the Broadway tunnel, which Skrabak got opened to bikes when he attended a Board of Supervisors meeting, dressed in his ironworker clothes, and caught the attention of Harvey Milk.

Skrabak was succeeded by a young Washington, D.C., transplant named Dave Snyder, who had come to San Francisco as a Central American solidarity activist, then decided to resist imperialism by becoming a bicycle advocate instead. To “connect on-street activists with insider bureaucrats,” Snyder started a newsletter called the Tubular Times; by 1996 the coalition had 1,000 members, and the city approved an official bike plan in 1997—the same year, coincidentally, that Critical Mass blew up, culminating in fights between cyclists and drivers and cars defaced by bike locks.

Abandoning the nonrecognition policy, Snyder decided to try to turn the negative publicity about Critical Mass to his organization’s advantage. He cited the protests as evidence that “even though people have discovered bicycling, it still isn’t safe—and the city has a bike plan on the shelf, collecting dust!” The political result, lo and behold, was the creation of new bike lanes in various parts of the city. One late-1990s addition was on Valencia, where, over the “dead body” of Bill Maher—not the comedian, but the director of the city’s Department of Parking & Traffic—a four-lane street was reduced to two car lanes with a bike lane in each direction. Since then, San Francisco has performed more than 30 such “road diets,” now a common feature of bike-friendly planning around the country.

From that point on, the coalition’s power swelled. In 2000, coalition endorsees Matt Gonzalez and Mark Leno were elected (or reelected) to the Board of Supervisors. After Gavin Newsom became mayor, he signed an expanded plan, backed by the coalition, for 60 new bike-lane projects. Construction was stalled for four years by a court injunction, but when that was lifted, in 2010, the city plunged into catching up on these improvements—the ones that Ed Lee extolled in August as he courted the coalition’s endorsement.

To experience the street culture fostered by these developments—both physical and political—I met Dave Snyder one Saturday for a bike ride in the Mission. Though he has relinquished the reins of the coalition to Shahum (a former Florida newspaper reporter and Mother Jones intern) in order to run other bike-advocacy groups, this is still Snyder’s turf—he lives in an apartment near Valencia, which, 12 years after its overhaul, is lined with bike shops, sidewalk cafés, and bicycle-parking stalls (where 10 to 12 bikes fit into one former car spot). Even the traffic lights are timed for bike commuters, who proceed in packs at 13.2 mph.

As we headed out, all the twenty- to thirtysomethings riding down Valencia seemed to support the idea that the bike movement is youth-driven—a notion that both Snyder (45) and Shahum (40) dispute. According to Shahum, the coalition’s membership spans all age groups and is more and more oriented toward families. “Twenty years ago, bicycling was more a defiance of the status quo,” said Snyder. “Today it’s easier to make the choice, and that’s a beautiful thing—it shouldn’t be a political act to ride a bicycle.”

With that, we pedaled south on Valencia and turned east toward Potrero Avenue, which also has a bike lane now. Wearing flip-flops, a hoodie, and cargo shorts, Snyder rode a Kona cruiser with fenders, a rear rack, and a metal basket. “A friend of mine once told me never to spend more than five hundred dollars on a car or less than five hundred dollars on a bicycle,” he divulged. As we followed the sharrows onto 17th Street, Snyder admitted that the road here is too narrow for both bikes and motor vehicles, but when a panel truck passed us between Harrison and Folsom, he said, “Did you see that? There wasn’t room at first because of an oncoming car, so he slowed down and waited. Drivers have definitely gotten savvier.”

We continued across Guerrero and Dolores, bucking a headwind that blew down from Twin Peaks. I told Snyder that, for me, wind is as much of an impediment as hills to cycling in San Francisco. “If you don’t ride a bike, you don’t realize how much the wind sucks here,” he agreed. “If you live on a hill, you only have to ride up it once a day.”

With hills in mind as we rode north across Market, we encountered one of the niftiest developments in the city’s cycling makeover. When we turned left onto Duboce (by the bicycle mural behind the Safeway), Buena Vista Hill loomed dead ahead—but just before the terrain tilted upward, sharrows steered us right onto Steiner. Then, as another hill approached, we turned left on Waller, then right on Pierce, then left on Haight, then right on Scott, always avoiding an oncoming climb. Owing to its zigzagging appearance, apparent on the San Francisco Bike Map & Walking Guide copublished by the coalition, this route is called the Wiggle. It was rife with cyclists, darting this way and that like fish.

At Scott and Oak, Snyder showed me a development that David Chiu no doubt appreciated—a green box painted in the middle of the street, where cyclists can stand while waiting for the light. That segued into a left-turn bike lane at Fell Street, site of yet another innovation: A former 4 to 6 p.m. tow-away zone is now shared by bikes going straight and cars turning left, each alerted to the other by a checkerboard pattern on the pavement. Two blocks later we entered the Panhandle and its sequestered bike path.

The route we’d followed, Snyder told me, represented a “huge victory,” filling a crucial biking gap between the Mission and the Haight. As a former resident of the latter neighborhood who felt as if he’d always had to ride uphill to get home, I had to concur: The Wiggle is the Bomb.

At Chiu's instigation, the Board of Supervisors has declared that by 2020, 20 percent of all trips in San Francisco should be made by bike. That might seem like a lot unless you’ve been to Amsterdam, where the figure is now 40 percent. “They haven’t taken a magic potion,” Shahum said of the Dutch city last spring. “They’ve worked at it—they set a policy that it should be easier to ride a bicycle than to drive a car.”

Just back from an eight-month sabbatical in the famously bike-friendly Netherlands, Shahum shared the podium with Chiu at a meeting titled “Lessons from Amsterdam: How San Francisco Can Bicycle Toward Greatness.” Before an audience of 200 in the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium, she listed Amsterdam’s likenesses to San Francisco: open-minded; of similar size and population density; economically reliant on tourism and the tech industry. “The big differences are the hills and the weather,” Shahum said. “They have really crummy weather.”

Chiu, who had recently returned from a shorter trip to Amsterdam with other San Francisco officials, reported seeing Dutch cyclists ages 4 to 80. He enumerated the reasons: a network of bike routes supported by maps; segregated bike lanes (with independent signals) protecting cyclists from cars; thousands of covered or guarded free bike-parking spaces, which help control theft; and early education. “Imagine what car traffic would be like here if we didn’t have driver’s ed,” Chiu said. “Dutch kids start taking bike classes as young as age 5.” He ended with a declaration that “biking is part of the ethos of who we are as San Franciscans. It should be as much a part of life as putting on your shoes and getting a cup of coffee.”

Nice thought, but for all the rhetoric, San Francisco (the most densely populated city in the United States outside of New York) isn’t actually among America’s top towns for cycling. The League of American Bicyclists ranks the city 12th out of 244 cities; in perhaps the most meaningful category, miles of bike lane per 100,000 residents, the city is way down the list at 65th. That will change, Dave Snyder insists, only by more aggressively weaning the city from cars. “It’s a [zero-sum] real estate game,” he says. “You can’t make it better for alternatives to cars without making it worse for cars.” The MTA’s Timothy Papandreou agrees: “If we’re going to become more livable and change the quality of life, cars are going to have to take a backseat.”

Of course, seizing asphalt from automobiles hasn’t been—and won’t be—easy. The most common objection is based on the very thing that makes San Francisco a smart place to bicycle: congestion. Shahum acknowledged during “Lessons from Amsterdam” that “one of the biggest challenges we face in this city is the political fight over parking”—a war that Chiu predicted “will be fought neighborhood association by neighborhood association.”

Among pissed-off potential voters, in other words—which probably explains why, when addressing the media, neither Chiu nor Shahum waxed quite as revolutionary as when they were preaching to the converted. I asked Chiu directly if he wants to discourage automobile use. “Absolutely not,” he answered. “The goal is to improve all the modes of transit—taxicabs, car sharing, pedestrian, Muni—so that we actually make it easier for car owners to get around.” Even Shahum wouldn’t go on record as anti-automobile. “We want options,” she demurred. “We want people to feel safe and comfortable choosing bicycling for more of their trips.” Throttling back on her enthusiasm for Amsterdam, she added, “I don’t want to get too heady about how great northern Europe is. San Francisco is the most European city in the U.S., but New York and Portland can be [better] models for us. They show that change is possible on a more recent timeline.”

Among all the current bicycle-touting aspirants for office, supervisor John Avalos is the one with the most street cred. By consensus the most progressive mayoral candidate, he’s been getting around San Francisco by bike since 1992—commuting over Mount Davidson when he worked at Fort Mason for the San Francisco Conservation Corps, and up Russian, Nob, and Telegraph hills (David Chiu’s district) when he was an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. Now a husband, father, and denizen of the residential Ingleside-Oceanview neighborhood on the city’s southern edge (the aforementioned Sharon Eberhardt’s district, not one of the city’s bike-friendliest), Avalos also has a car. “In the core of the city, where you have a much richer transit and bike system, you can actually discourage car use as a real policy,” he told me. “But if you want to change behavior, you must put more resources into neighborhoods that are farther away.”

Avalos paid his own way to a conference in Sevilla, Spain, last March, and saw—for the first time—the quietly radical way in which a city can make that happen. “Sevilla didn’t have any infrastructure in 2004—the statistic I heard was that 0.2 percent of the people had been getting around on bikes. Now it’s 7 percent, and it feels much greater. They took parking spaces and traffic lanes away from cars—and some pedestrian space as well—and created a lot of thriving plazas. People there have a different sense of what public space is all about.”

Near Avalos’s home, thriving plazas are rare. Still, he bikes to work—on an anonymous, repainted Trek—a couple of times a week, so one morning I joined him on his commute. As we shook hands outside the Balboa Park BART station, the goateed 47-year-old expressed admiration for the cork grips on my Bridgestone. “Are they recycled?” he asked.

Our 30-minute ride to city hall, by turns relaxing and nerve-racking, offered a window on both Avalos’s MO and the city itself. We started out by coasting downhill, turning right on Ocean Avenue by the Community Assembly of God; then, passing the Tropi-Gala Nightclub, we followed sharrows to a left-turn bike lane onto Alemany Boulevard, which itself has a bike lane wide enough for us to ride side by side despite an adjacent four lanes of fast-moving car traffic. “It used to be six,” Avalos told me as we rode. “There was a lot of opposition [to the bike lane], but you clearly don’t need six lanes here. Sometimes change is just hard to embrace.”
Approaching Lyell—a one-way side street whose bike lane points, paradoxically, against traffic—Avalos directed me to turn left, despite a No Left Turn sign. Joining in this inveterate urban cyclist’s violation, I wondered how Chiu would have handled the situation. (Probably by dismounting and crossing on foot.) Passing underneath I-280, we had to climb a short, steep hill; I shifted into my easiest gear, but Avalos just stood up on the pedals, dropping me like a social program in the face of budgetary cutbacks.

“You’re pretty fit,” I said when I caught up to him.

“I’m a little out of breath right now,” Avalos admitted. “This is the only exercise I get. And walking.”

The scariest street was San Jose Avenue—a six-lane road with a 45 mph speed limit (LOL) and a narrow bike lane crammed against a curb. This seemed a prime location for a protected bikeway, à la central Market Street. “The problem is that a lot of people throw bottles up here,” Avalos said. “When the bike lane went in, about 2004, the cars were really difficult to deal with. Drivers didn’t like the change; at rush hour they got impatient and backed up into the bike lane, waiting for the light.”

The former union organizer seemed at least as fixated on revamping attitudes as he was on altering streets. “I remember talking about bike lanes after the ’73 oil crisis when I was a kid in L.A.,” Avalos said. “We were on a trajectory to promote transit and cycling, to change attitudes about how fast we drove; Jimmy Carter wore a sweater to show we needed to turn the thermostat down. It was being promoted at all levels of government, but then Reagan started tearing all of it apart. Now we’re at war because of gas, and because of our addiction to oil we’re blowing our opportunities for education and public infrastructure. When I got to see what they have in Europe, I was blown away.”

The cars flying past us hardly reflected the 1970s’ Age of Limits—or, for that matter, the current Age of Austerity. “The changes we need are so great that, at some point, you have to change your behavior,” Avalos insisted. To invite concessions from the other side, he suggested something that the coalition opposes: “Registering bikes might help undercut opposition in some parts of the city. People who drive cars say, ‘We get tickets, we pay to park, we have to pay for this and pay for that.’ If people see that cyclists are doing their part, maybe they’ll be more open to things like bike lanes. We’ve got to create the political space to improve Muni and transit and change our public spaces to support bikes—which means taking space away from cars.”

As we rounded a bend on San Jose, approaching its intersection with Randall Street, the northeast cityscape suddenly spread out before us—the Mission district directly below, and beyond it the Civic Center, backed by the downtown skyline. When the light turned green, it seemed, we could simply coast into this inviting panorama. “At this point,” Avalos said, “it’s mostly downhill all the way to city hall.”

That, of course, is where the mayor’s office is located. I wondered then if Avalos could really get there by bike—but a few months after our ride, his odds discernibly improved. In a much-watched September vote, Avalos bested Chiu (#2) and Lee (#3) for what has become one of the most coveted prizes of contemporary San Francisco politics: the endorsement of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

David Darlington is a Berkeley-based writer whose recent work has won him both a National Magazine Award and a James Beard Award. His latest book is An Ideal Wine (HarperCollins).