In case you were unaware, American city streets are terrifying if you’re a cyclist

February 14, 2022

I bought a bicycle a few weeks ago — a low-end six-speed that retails for $300, but was marked down 25 percent because the store where I got it is closing for good next month. It’s exactly what I wanted: A bike able to handle 15 to 20 rides per year, and cheap enough I wouldn’t be all that upset if it got stolen.

So far, I’ve ridden on the Great Highway during a time it was closed to motor vehicles, and I’ve ridden along paths in a park near my home. I climbed a 50-foot hill at about a 20 percent grade and felt like a Tour de France winner. I also nearly squished a squirrel that darted out from a bush and just missed my front wheel.

As much as I’ve enjoyed these excursions, I’m also now viscerally aware of how most places I’ve lived, including my hometown and current city, San Francisco, do pitifully little to protect and encourage cycling.

It’s an issue I’ve understood, intellectually, for a long time, but these recent experiences hammered home. Most American cities privilege personal cars above all other forms of transportation, to the detriment of everyone. Part of it is a deeply-held conviction that cars are a form of independence and otherwise give power to an individual, which is true given that we’ve constructed most of our society on the premise that adults drive cars to get from place to place. Excepting those few places with reliable and ubiquitous public transportation, American cities have been built with cars in mind. It’s why even a dense, compact city like San Francisco, where (I believe) public transportation is reasonably good by American standards, a whole bunch of people still own cars. Furthermore, we’ve organized entire regions around the premise that people will need to drive their own cars from place to place every single day, so of course people do just that rather than jumping through hoops and risking lateness to use public transit.

For cycling, in San Francisco, just about any bike commute more than a couple miles is likely to have significant hills. For example, Google Maps says the most direct bike route from my home to my workplace is 7.4 miles and has about 430 feet of elevation gain along the way. In comparison, the bike route from one place I lived in Charlotte to my former workplace there is about 2.5 miles with a total of 30 feet elevation gain.

My San Francisco commute is a bit farther than I’d want to bike, and I’d have to commit to a sturdier and generally hardier bicycle, perhaps with electric assist, if I were to cycle to work every day. I’ve ridden the bus to work a few times, and MUNI is pretty reliable, but it can take longer than an hour each way, whereas driving is 15 to 20 minutes, depending on traffic. Furthermore, if I ride the bus, picking up my child from afterschool care, if needed, would be extra complicated.

But the biggest reason I don’t bike to work, or even bike partway and then ride the bus, and why I didn’t bike to work when I lived in Charlotte, is because American city streets are positively terrifying if you’re a cyclist. Here’s a view of just one segment of road along Google’s recommended route from my home to work. Even if the hills weren’t an issue, I’d have to negotiate cars trying to get on a freeway, and cars and buses working their way along this major artery to another major artery, all without any dedicated bike lane, let alone a protected bike lane.

Riding from my home to the nearby park with paved pathways was an adventure, even though I only crossed one major thoroughfare, because even in the “quiet neighborhood” with minimal traffic, the cars that do use those streets tend to roar through, there are no bike lanes, and therefore it’s almost required to ride tight against the parked cars, itself a hazard. I dislike doing it, but I felt a whole lot safer riding at slow speed on the sidewalk, where hardly anyone was out walking, even on a gorgeous Saturday morning. In Charlotte, the commute would have been even scarier. Check out this section of South Boulevard back in 2007, where I, ostensibly, would have ridden my bike, and where cars routinely zoomed by at about 40 miles per hour.

The status quo would be hard to change even if a plurality (majority?) of people didn’t actively want to keep their lifestyle that virtually requires owning a personal car. It would make leaving the region a bit more of a production than just getting in one’s car parked at home and going. It would require commitment to building and maintaining a transportation regime that privileges human-scale movement, including walking, cycling, and scootering; mass transit that connects people to human-scale movement; and fully accounts for people who cannot walk or cycle or scooter.

But as much as San Francisco is inching toward something resembling a bike-friendly city, I was pleased to discover Charlotte — a city where mass transit was long a happy wish and sprawl a fact of life — has put significant resources into dedicated bicycle paths. Today, if I were living in that same location south of Uptown and willing to bike to work, I could avoid South Boulevard entirely and ride all the way to the city center on the Charlotte Rail Trail. Yes, San Francisco would face a lot of issues trying to establish something similar, simply because it’s long been built up and Charlotte was able to build this public path as part of a decades-long redevelopment of a transportation corridor. But there are already examples of this kind of dedicated human-scale pathway in the city: notably on Sunset Boulevard, with dirt paths next to a six-lane roadway, the Great Highway, and, more recently, San Francisco set up dedicated bike lanes on 2nd Street, on the segment leading from Market to the Giants’ ballpark.

Even if the United States likely won’t go full Netherlands when it comes to bicycling, the benefits of implementing more dedicated cycling infrastructure ought to be enough to support it, even for people with no intention of ever cycling. Bicycle infrastructure, itself, brings clarity to traffic interactions and, by encouraging more bicycling reduces congestion, and can contribute to general better health by incentivizing more physical activity.

All that’s to say I wish I could give up owning a car, but even though I could make it work right now, practically speaking it would simply shift time away from my family to time sitting on a bus. And that’s because cycling is out since I simply don’t have enough risk tolerance for commuting on bike in my city as it stands now.

Riding in the park with my child every month or so is good enough. But it would be better if actually getting to the park wasn’t so petrifying.

(Photo: "Givme a ride! (NL)" by Marcelo Campi. Original caption: "Amsterdam street and Bicyles." Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)