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San Francisco, USA: "There is a huge bike boom!"

Things are looking up in San Francisco: More and more streets are being made car-free or dedicated Slow Streets – and thus safer for bicycles. This is attracting families in particular. One local father has now mapped the city's bike routes in the style of ski slopes.

Jason Ford and his Load 60. Photo: © Jason Ford

Good morning Jason, have you already been out cycling today?
Yes, sorry for being late, I just got off the bike! I took the Load to take my two kids to Preschool, then I had a meeting and then rode back to our house. With three E-Bikes in our family we have done about 4,000 miles in the last 10 months, most of it with the Load. It’s our “car”, you know? It’s how we get around.

 

San Francisco doesn’t seem to be the ideal place to ride a bike – isn’t the city all steep hills?
It is all steep hills, yes. But once you get on an e-bike – then it’s suddenly flat! E-Bikes have changed what it means to use a bike. There is a huge bike boom in San Francisco now! And the fastest growing segment of riders is parents and kids. They love how easy it is to transport kids over hills with electric assist.

 

You’ve been living in San Francisco since 2010, but were living abroad for two years during the pandemic. How has it been to come back?
When I came back in 2021, the city had radically changed, from a biking perspective. There are now two new classes of streets: Slow Streets, which go through neighbourhoods limited to local car traffic only, and car-free streets. The car-free ones have become the arteries that pump the people-powered transportation through the city, on foot, running, with strollers, on regular bikes or on E-Bikes. When you combine those two sets of streets, a network has emerged that previously didn’t really exist, because you would have always risked an accident to happen.

 

When did that change?
In 2020, when the United States went into lockdown and we all stayed home, the SFMTA, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, designated these two new types of streets. Overnight, a network was born that allowed for safe transportation without the threat of being hit by a car. I just fell in love with the city all over again! On these new streets there was an essence of Dutch! You’d be like: Oh my god, I am all alone on this road, this is beautiful!

One main car-free route is John F. Kennedy Drive through Golden Gate park. Can you describe what it is like to ride it?
Joy. Serenity. You can ride five across as a group and talk with each other! At no point do I feel under threat, at no point is my body going into stress reaction. It is literally peaceful! I can hear the birds and my three year old toddler who is riding next to me is having a conversation with me about the birds. And one of the fun games I am playing with my kid right now, is having him identify different bike brands when we ride. He was really good at identifying cars because they are big and there are logos on them. So, he was like: Oh, Mercedes! Volkswagen! But I said: No, that is not our brand! We need to learn the bikes – because that is our brand.

 

You have created a Google map overlay that classifies San Francisco’s bike lanes in the style of a ski resort map. How did that idea come to life?
Every local bike map shows bike lanes as identical lines, but not every bike lane is created equally. Some are heaven and I can ride with my 3 year old worry free. Whereas others I might die if I am not extremely cautious. I wanted to make a map that showed the safe routes, dangerous routes, and everything in between. I had to go re-ride a lot of them to find out which ones had changed and which ones had not. We as a bicycle community all trade routes with each other. But what about the mom or dad with a kid who just bought a bike for the first time and isn’t a traditional experienced bicyclist? That’s why I created the map.

 

Similar to the ones you would find at a ski village?
Yes, they have to communicate to every new skier who has never been to that mountain: If you’re a beginner, try these. If you’ve got some experience, try these. If you’re an expert, try these. And I thought, what if I take that concept and apply it to bike routes? Maybe I can colour-coordinate them, just like ski-maps do. It seemed just intuitive to me. And so I just re-rode them with my boys and I mapped and drew them out. Blue and Green, that is the network of Slow-Streets and car-free streets. Black is for experts only. Then there’s the red ones, like Market street. You get traffic on your left and illegally parked delivery vehicles on your right along with train tracks down the middle. You get squeezed and find your tire in the train track, God help you. But let’s not focus on the danger and instead focus on the new beautiful route that is riding the length of Ocean Beach then into Golden Gate Park then to the Bay almost entirely on routes safe for the whole family. It’s gorgeous and I think once tourists figure it out it will become a major attraction when people visit the city.

 

What about Golden Gate Bridge – is it identified as a safe route?
Yes, on weekdays between 3 pm and sunset and every weekend, there is a dedicated side of the bridge just for bicyclists. In all the other hours, pedestrians and bicyclists share a separated, protected lane and it’s a maximum speed limit of 15 mph. It’s lovely and the views are breathtaking. I highly recommend it as both a tourist and daily commuter.

 

Thanks for the chat, Jason!

  • San Francisco: A city that's changed

    San Francisco converted more than 70 kilometers of street into car-free zones and so-called "slow streets" in the spring of 2020. Initially planned as a temporary measure in the wake of the pandemic emergency, some stretches could now remain permanently traffic-calmed.

    The most prominent example is John F. Kennedy Drive: the main artery runs from west to east through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's green lung. After the approximately 2.4-kilometer-long JFK Drive became car-free, the park's popularity increased significantly once again. Recently, more than 70% of the citizens were in favor of a permanent closure for cars. Now the city’s Board of Supervisors has to decide.

San Francisco with the Load