What Makes a City Cycle-Friendly?
Next week, Alejandro will take part in the Festive 500, a biking challenge put on every year by the high-end cycling outfitter Rapha in which spandex-clad masochists worldwide compete to see who can clock the most kilometers on two wheels between Dec. 23 and 31. While we mortals spend our few vacation days lounging around in pajama pants, quelling our eggnog hangovers with second helpings of pumpkin pie, my friend Alejandro has decided to usher in the New Year by cycling distances that I'd feel disinclined to travel in a car.
Sure there are potential prizes to win. And the bragging rights will last him the year. But more than anything, my friend and those he bikes around with will spend next week brutalizing their bodies over great distances solely for the love of brutalizing their bodies over great distances.
Alejandro and I are two very different bikers.
I know this because when we talk about biking, he uses terms like "personal best" and "pre-dawn ride," and because he uses Facebook to complain about how no pair of jeans will fit both his impossibly svelte waistline and his oil-drum-sized thighs.
My biking routine, on the other hand, involves wheezily pushing my way along the same, flattest possible route that I always take to work. I, unlike Alejandro, only have one bike and it is strictly functional (usually). I don't have specialty cycling shorts; I wear jeans with one cuff rolled halfway up the calf -- and they are the same jeans I wore yesterday.
I bring this all up to make an all too obvious point: Not all cyclists are the same and not all bikers bike for the same reason.
This seems a relevant observation to make in light of a conversation I find myself repeatedly having a family friend of mine -- a conversation I will certainly have again sometime next week.
"Traffic sure was awful on Valencia this morning," I will start, innocuously enough. But before long, this family-friend, a driver, is blaming that awful traffic and every other plight that faces the urban driver on the inconsiderate and erratic road behavior of this city's Bikers.
Bikers, that is, with a capital-B: a monolithic legion of grease-stained anarchists who live for the chance to cut off a gas-guzzlers between shooting through stop signs.
But bikers are not the Borg, Alejandro reminds me. And so I spent this week wondering what that might imply for bike policy in this city. With commuters, messengers, distance cyclists, and cruisers all vying for the same asphalt, do notions of what constitutes "bike-friendly infrastructure" vary with each rider?
When I imagine a cycle-friendly city, for example, I imagine City Hall making my short, flat ride from point A to point B as safe and convenient as possible. I imagine separated bike thoroughfares, like the proposed North-South Bikeway, cycle-only turn signals, bike bays, and bike-only BART cars.
But what about Alejandro? Would a guy who tracks his personal bests really want to be funneled onto a separated bike thoroughfare clogged with under-caffeinated commuters -- or, worse yet, tourists on cruisers?
Last year, SF Weekly observed that a small but vocal minority of bicyclists simply couldn't countenance the idea of being forced to share a narrow green strip of road with their slower counterparts. Does Alejandro feel the same way?
Not at all, he assures me.
"As far as city infrastructure goes, I don't actually see a huge difference between myself and someone who is getting to work or just biking to the coffee shop," he says. He likes the dedicated lanes on Market ("still wide enough to get past the guy going 6 mph on a fold-up") and clearly delineated bike routes like the Wiggle. More important, he likes them for the same reason that I do: "They get bikers through the city quickly and safely."
While smart infrastructure won't box bikers in -- allowing for a certain amount of emergency swerving, he says -- whatever the potential inconvenience or injury that arises by shunting disparately paced bikers onto the same lane, that traffic jam is infinitely preferable to a situation in which cars, cabs, buses, and bikes all jostle for the same real estate.
"I think we all have the same goal in mind," he says. Whatever your speed or destination, all bikers can agree on one thing: We don't want to get hit by a car.