On rides recently I’ve been thinking about the issue of safety. No, not the lame “obey posted signs” or “he should have been wearing a helmet” of the finger wagging variety, but the sense of safety or lack thereof that keeps people off of bicycles. Another ride I’ve mapped out to get 12 miles worth of calories off my fat ass is distinctly more “urban” than last week’s, and features an order of magnitude more confused tourists and mixed traffic, not to mention that mass of smelly sea lions on the Wharf.
Basically, the ride is a loop around the Eastern Neighborhoods. Polk is a relatively easy grade from Market to Beach. Then take Beach to the Embarcadero, all the around from Fisherman’s Wharf to 24 Willie Mays Plaza (I sometimes take a break for coffee and a cigarette at Blue Bottle on the way). 3rd street takes you to Cesar Chavez, which takes you to Valencia and right back where you started on Market. 12 miles, no tough hills even for a fixie, and plenty to see and do. Plus it’s easy to cut short if you cramp up or get a flat.
Of folks whom I believe are perfectly capable of enjoying cycling around San Francisco for both work and play, but aren’t yet, one reason cited is a sense of danger. Or, maybe more importantly specific, vulnerability. But the fact is that, statistically, a car is far more likely to serve as your coffin than a Cannondale frame prove your crucifix. Even San Francisco’s lovely pedestrians, who, here, court death more closely than anywhere else in America, are probably mathematically more likely to get across an intersection safely than a passenger in an automobile.
And yes, even an experienced and relatively fearless cyclist gets the jitters when a taxi accelerates past into a right turn on the mostly car-free Market. Fell from Scott to Divisadero is no picnic, and Cesar Chavez anywhere near 101 is downright Darwinian. It’s easy to see how a Sunday cyclist can have a hair-raising experience on, say, Division where the freeway traffic merges into your lane from the right as you pedal west along the curb from the Rainbow Grocery, and never return to the greased-gear set.
Forget the inconvenience of having to stop at signs and signals, and the convenience of having designated bike lanes and even sidewalk rights as cyclists enjoy along Herb Caen Way — when people on pedal-powered wheels have to mix with internal combustion engines, a deep psychological bias comes into play. A tiny Smart car, which seems to be made of plastic, offers more emotional security against a negligent Cadillac onslaught than a bike does.
But don’t be fooled — while an increase in bicycle ridership will surely serve to equalize the miles-traveled-per-traumatic-incident rate between cycles and cars, the simple fact is that a cyclist who’s conscientious of pedestrians and wears a helmet to protect themselves is far less likely to do harm or come to it than anyone piloting a ton or more of steel, plastic and rubber cruising along at the speed limit.
Which brings me to my next point: If you are coordinated enough to drive a car in city traffic, you are more than coordinated enough to ride a bike. Sure, cars demand less balance and effort from you, but they also demand much faster reactions, not to mention liability. Yes, you may suffer a materialist mismatch cycling alongside a Toyota Prius, and wish you had four-point unibody construction protecting your tuchus, but you can rest assured of your moral superiority even over a hybrid driver, not to mention your trimmer waistline.
In other news, Appeal contributor Matt Baume tipped to me this great video of someone doing a downhill slalom in the favelas of Rio. That fun stretch of JFK drive I was talking about next week? It is getting resurfaced, so soon even more fun. What kind of street marking fetishist are you, a vehicularist or a facilitator? I’d have to say I swing both ways.
Jackson West has ridden a bike around the San Juan Islands, up and down the Cascades, in Vancouver, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin and all over the Bay Area. He enjoys the rollercoaster ride up and down that dip under 101 on Cesar Chavez. Have any bike-related questions? Send an email!