Welcome to the city built on hills.
01.08.2023 | Mobility
With Slow Streets, car-free routes, and the rediscovery of a park, San Francisco is showing what the streets of tomorrow could look like, and thus is reclaiming natural mobility.
Main transport arteries that rise incredibly steeply. Cliff-like intersections where cars dive into side streets. Pavements with such steep gradients that you need steps: San Francisco, the city of hills and steep roads, is an impressive place of extremes – and cycling is certainly not the first mode oftransport you think of here. And yet, the city on the west coast of America is currently experiencing a real bike boom.
The trigger: the changing roads.
An afternoon in the Golden Gate Park shows what this ‘transport revolution’ looks like. The green lungs of the city are intersected by John F. Kennedy Drive, a main road some 5.5 km in length. A section of it has been car-free since mid-2020, and is now the gathering place par excellence for anyone who wants to jog or cycle, inline-skate or skateboard. There is finally enough space for everyone here on the JFK “Promenade”: it is quiet, safe and peaceful. People come alone and as families, they come in contact with each other, cycle side by side as a group and chat. All in the midst of a park landscape of lakes, meadows and woodland. A unique atmosphere.
The car-free JFK Drive is part of a new network of protected roads, of car-free and Slow Streets. A programme initiated by the local SFMTA road authority during the COVID lockdown in April 2020 was an urgent measure but one that had far-reaching consequences. With the help of signs and barricades, dozens of Slow Streets were set up and freed of through traffic in a very short time, and many main routes even became totally car-free. In places where until recently cycling was too dangerous, this suddenly created safe and connected cycling routes from one end of the city to the other. Around 80 km in the shortest imaginable time – the biggest change to the cityscape in decades.
Bikes have arrived in the heart of society
But this was not a change that happened without some pushback. There was resistance among car owners in the affected districts. Recently, even the originally temporary blocking-off of the JFK Drive was the subject of a controversial political discussion.
However, a majority of San Francisco citizens prevented demands for its reopening to cars in a vote on the fringes of the 2022 mid-term elections. This is a clear sign that city dwellers are demanding a redistribution of public space.
San Francisco’s bike community is growing, and E-Bikes undoubtedly make up a fair share of this. After all, when you get on an electrically assisted bike, the city becomes flat in an instant. Suddenly, it is no longer just sporty bike enthusiasts climbing the hills in and around the city on their racing bikes and gravel bikes.
Bikes have arrived in San Francisco as an everyday urban mode of transport in the form of E-City Bikes, touring bikes or Cargo Bikes, which families in particular benefit from. It has never been easier and safer to get around the city without worrying about traffic jams and parking.
“Bike stores are the car dealerships of the 21st century.”
San Francisco has changed dramatically in recent years. When did you personally first become aware of this?
I remember in March 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, the streets were quiet, animals were out, the air was unusually fresh and sweet. There was a distinct feeling of uncertainty, but the quiet made room for us all to feel the beauty of our surroundings. When I went outside, I had a distinct sensation of a new space and opportunity for positive change.
What role does political leadership play in transforming a city in your opinion?
The changes that we have seen on our streets in the last two years did not necessarily come from politicians. It was more the accomplishment of what individuals can do – especially volunteers and our civic workers. But, to make large scale change in San Francisco that will make our streets safe, useful, and joyous for human-scaled transportation, we need strong and visionary political leadership. A significant majority of voters support car-free roads, such as those in the Golden Gate Park or on the Great Highway. I am confident that with this vote, we will also see new politicians come up who are leaders for truly sustainable transportation and for cyclists.
How would you describe the local bike community?
San Francisco bicycle culture has a tough history and its very own DNA. Bikers in San Francisco used to predominantly be two things: strong, to climb our hills, and tough, to brave the often dangerous traffic conditions. That has changed in the last 10 to 15 years. E-Bikes and the increasing use of bikes by commuters and families have surely played a role in that transformation. However, during the pandemic, we experienced a tipping point- motivated by a need to get out of apartments, to find creative ways of being outdoors. Many of the new riders are still in the process of learning the rules and the rituals of the cycling community. Now it’s important to include and support these new riders and to grow the presence of bicycles on our streets. There is still a lot of work to do!
What do typical new customers want today compared to the past?
Our customers’ requirements are clearly expanding. Whereas a rider might have wanted to commute to work by bike five years ago, they now want to ride with their children, ride to get the shopping or run day-to-day errands. We have seen a massive increase in the use of Cargo Bikes across our city. It is now difficult to go anywhere in the city and not see a Load!
How can the cycling industry with its products play a role in changing a city?
By bike manufacturers understanding that the product is not just the physical thing – it is the experience. This is why new services like GPS tracking, built-in anti-theft protection, and overall lifespan of the product and parts are so important.
What is the role of a modern bike shop?
At The New Wheel, we understand our role as the automobile shop for the 21st century. Our job is to make cycling easy, convenient and reliable transportation. We want to get people out of cars and onto bikes.