Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cycling in California

For this post, I'm going to describe my impression of cycling in California, specifically San Francisco  - somewhat of a diversion from the usual subject of this blog. For the last few weeks, I have been holidaying in the Golden State. Part of our itinerary involved three nights in San Francisco, notable for having one of the highest cycling modal shares in the USA - I couldn't resist the opportunity to try it out.

Before I start the discussion, a few caveats:
  • Probably a bit controversial for a cycling advocate to admit but my holiday was - first and foremost - a driving holiday; therefore a proportion of the observations were made from the seat of car
  • With that said, as when on holiday, we walked a lot and made use of public transport in SF
  • We mainly drove during off-peak hours - we tended to avoid the busiest periods - thus might not have had a realistic perception of traffic and congestion
  • Cycling provision and modal share across towns, cities, counties and states can differ enormously
  • I was there primarily as a tourist and was thus concentrated on enjoying myself - I wasn't there specifically for a study tour
  • My impressions and perceptions are my own - it's very likely that I've made errors of fact or incorrect assumptions
  • For the more egregious errors I make, I welcome comments from residents or people better informed - please, please let me know!


Venice Beach, CA
Firstly, I'll take a look at my impression of cycling in the state as a whole, bearing in mind I only actually got on a bike in SF.


Here's a rough itinerary of the whole trip:

View Larger Map

As you can see, we covered quite a lot of Pacific, Central and Southern California, as well as a couple of (fairly weird) days in Las Vegas, Nevada. We spent the greatest amount of time in the big cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Palm Springs - almost all of the other places were daytime visits or overnight stop-overs.


I think it bears stating the obvious first of all: like other parts of the US I have previously visited, California is overwhelmingly set up to accommodate motor vehicles. Cars are - almost without exception - given the highest priority. Aside from congestion and traffic (a big aside, I know), it is generally convenient and comfortable to drive about; there is simply so much space allocated to you. From the sprawl of Los Angeles and the so-called "Inland Empire", to little provincial towns like Pahrump NV, most roads are at least five lanes and often widen to seven  - pretty much all of them feature a central lane dedicated to making left turns (equivalent of our right turns). Most towns are arranged in traditional grid-iron layouts, meaning you tend to travel along a die-straight road between seemingly endless arrays of crossroads. Local, minor highway infrastructure that would count as a major trunk-road in the UK are ubiquitous.

A typical street in LA
Urban zoning thus caters for this car-centric mindset with most businesses being sited in strip malls, large "big box" retail parks or on their own standalone lots with parking round the back - thus somewhat paradoxically, on-street parking is almost non-existent except perhaps in the busier high-density down-town areas. This means that there's often a lot of space by the kerbside that rarely exists in the UK (this will become relevant in due course).

Traffic Law

Traffic laws also prioritise traffic, with "jay-walking" (i.e. pedestrians crossing the road away from designated areas) being an offence and with some peculiarities relating to red lights. Unless otherwise stated, you can make a right-turn on a red light if there is no obstruction - you are merely obliged to stop, then "yield" (give way) to vehicles coming from your right or to pedestrians on the crossing to your left. One strange (but paradoxically welcome) consequence of this  arrangement is that waiting times for pedestrians are much shorter, because the pedestrian crossing phase cycles much more frequently (as they don't have to wait until all four arms of the junction are at red). Other than traffic lights, stop signs are the primary means of controlling traffic at junctions: four-way intersections with stop signs at each are a common arrangement; European-style give-ways are relatively rare.

Clearly there are potential problems here because it relies on drivers being aware of pedestrians and their willingness to stop, which could create conflict. Perhaps because US drivers are continually stopping and yielding, combined with the ambiguities of the red light and the four-way stop - it comes naturally to look out (is this not one of the principles of shared space after all)?

Speeds are on the whole higher than in the UK. Most roads have a 35 mph speed limit or higher (25 in school or in some residential zones). Aside from parks or civic squares, I only recall one instance of a pedestrianized zone (indeed, the only other examples I can remember seeing in previous trips to the US are Times Square in New York and Main Street, Memphis TN).


As is hardly surprising, motor traffic is legion. What is thus perhaps more surprising is that cycling is common here too. Against my expectations, even "the city where nobody walks" - Los Angeles - has a large contingent of bike users. I believe this is facilitated in part by the acres of space on the carriageway, the lack of on-street parking and the peculiar traffic laws (thus legitimising red light jumping). Painted cycle lanes are a common sight on many streets, although they share similar problems with their UK counterparts, namely that they tended to abandon the rider at junctions and provide no explicit priority (although I guess one might use the pedestrian phase to traverse it). Some painted cycle lanes have an additional painted buffer with solid hatched lines which provide a little extra distance and the subjective sense of separation (despite no physical barrier). I do not recall seeing any protected cycle paths, although off-road sections through parks existed. Suffice to say, I saw very little in the way of filtered permeability, which seems like a lost opportunity, given that the grid-iron layout of these cities means there are often multiple routes to the same destination (and thus scope for diverting motor traffic away from some routes).

Signage and painted symbols explicitly warn drivers to be aware of bikes and to "share the road" - on roads with narrower lanes, you'll often see things called "Sharrows" which indicate to drivers than people on bikes will be in the middle and have  priority (this perhaps indicates the vehicularist mindset that underlies US cycle policy). Anecdotally, I have heard that some states have laws which require cycles to yield to traffic behind it if they are "causing an obstruction", which appears to be if more than 5 cars are queuing behind them - whether or not this applies in California, I'm not sure, but the presence of sharrows suggest it might be the case.

A (slim) majority of bike users I observed wore helmets but it certainly wasn't universal. Perhaps as a function of the climate (hot, sunny, dry) and the geography, very few urban riders were kitted out like how we typically view "the cyclist" here - the vast majority wore normal (weather appropriate) clothes and shoes - almost none of it "hi-viz". There were a lot of people riding fixed-gear bikes, either the typical "hipster"-style fixie or (my favourite) large, heavy-looking cruiser bikes.

Like this but usually brightly coloured
I never got the opportunity to ride one of these beasts but they were available to hire at resorts like Pismo Beach, Palm Springs and in Monterey (I curse myself for not checking to see if you could hire them in SF!). One of the more pleasing sights towards the end of the trip was at the Coachella Music Festival, where it seemed that hundreds of festival-goers cycled to and from the venue on precisely this sort of ride, evidenced by the lines of them locked to fences at the entrance (contrast to Scotland's big festival T in the Park, where almost nobody cycles).

Much like this... (not my picture incidentally!)

San Francisco

Bike Hire

One of the things I'd wanted to do months before I came to the city was to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge - I knew this was possible by virtue of people who had done it previously suggesting it. You can cycle over the bridge to a little town called Sausalito in Marin County and get the ferry back to the city. 

I consulted our guidebook and came across a few options for hiring bikes - none of the suggestions were terribly close to the down-town area we were staying in. There was one past North Beach, which (in hindsight) was actually relatively close to the bridge but we also wanted to have a go at cycling around Golden Gate Park, a lovely rectangular park with similarities to New York's Central Park, although in my view slightly misleadingly named, as in reality its not particularly near to its namesake bridge.

One oddity about San Francisco, which has a large public transportation system - MUNI for buses, BART for its metro system, as well as the world-famous hill-climbing street-cars - doesn't seem to serve the western part of the city particularly well, with only the buses going west of Van Ness Avenue. Hence, after a somewhat disconcerting walk through the rather sketchy Tenderloin area we had to hop what seemed like the slowest possible trolley bus through the Civic Center to the Haight-Ashbury district (you know, "Haight-Ashbury"...? Flower power, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane etc. Ask someone less square!), replete with slightly scary passengers talking to themselves...

Hiring a bike

We arrived at the hire centre, which was at the eastern gates of the park. Aside from the vehicle, it was a similar experience to hiring a car, namely filling out a form, adding on the extra charges for insurance and the damage excess waiver (!) and then providing a credit card (with the ubiquitous ID request). Somewhat disappointingly, the only bikes available were generic (albeit well-maintained) mountain bikes - no cruiser bikes for me unfortunately. It took between 5-10 minutes to get set up and ready to go.

I should add that, at this point, I saw the park on the little map they provided, as well as what looked like a continuation of that park up the coast and round towards the bridge... perceptions can be deceiving, as we were to discover.

Golden Gate Park

We set off through the park, which has some surprising features, namely that a whole lot of traffic drives through it, specifically Highway 101 ("El Camino Real") - as the name suggests, a very busy road which makes its way directly across the park and on towards the bridge. I took one look at it and thought "well, we're not going that way!". Thankfully, there are relatively traffic free routes around the park, although to my surprise (given what I know from Glasgow parks) there were multiple restrictions on where you could use the bike. Mainly these were bike lanes on the road, albeit with a large painted buffer between you and traffic. We travelled along John F. Kennedy Drive down a gentle slope towards the western coast and the Pacific Ocean.

After a quickly dipping our feet in the water, we headed northwards to what turned out to be a fairly steep cliff to what I presumed was the rest of a trail towards The Presidio and henceforth to the bridge itself. My cycle partner - not a seasoned commuter cyclist like me - started to complain about the additional unexpected effort. It's difficult from a map to appreciate the geography of the city, in particular the numerous steep hills that dominate it. I hadn't anticipated this particular set of climbs I must admit. After a bit of huffing and puffing, we turned into Land's End Park and followed what was marked as a cycle trail, which I expected to take us to "El Camino Del Mar". We cycled on until we reached a large, steep set of stairs... followed by yet another steep set of stairs!

At this point, my cycle partner doubted my navigational skills, so rather than face the 2nd flight of stairs, we turned back and headed towards Point Lobos Avenue, which seemed to take us back towards the city (and another large hill to climb). We turned up towards Clement Street, where I took this picture:

Looking South - this is quite a steep hill
But at this point, my companion was at near breaking point, not particularly liking the exertion, the hill or indeed cycling on the roads with traffic. So we took a turn-off at the Legion of Honor and diverted back down Camino Del Mar to... the set of stairs we'd turned back from earlier (if I'd held my nerve...). So I didn't in the end get to cycle over the bridge, although we did get to travel over it a couple of days later ... by car:

Not as much fun though...

As for the rest of the hire, we dotted back through the park again, although this time we travelled along the much less forgiving Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which again entailed cycling completely with traffic - in the end, we bailed from the roads and (illegally) carried on the footpath - such was the unfriendliness of the traffic and the parked cars (again, in the middle of park - why?).

Dropping off the bike was fairly easy, albeit by the time we returned they were getting pretty busy with other customers. It's a pity that a more local hire service couldn't be found to make it a bit easier to explore the city - albeit the hills make that a daunting prospect. This is precisely the sort of place where I'd expect a bike-share scheme to come into its own, which brings us nicely into the next section...

Bike Share

I'd been hunting about for SF's bike-share scheme since we arrived and I finally came across it during my aborted attempt to visit the Museum of Modern Art at the edge of the SoMa district - remember kids: check the website before you travel, otherwise you might find your destination is closed for refurbishment (!) until 2016. Having a few hours to kill, I headed along Market Street, a long wide avenue that cuts diagonally south-west across the down-town area from the bay at the Embarcadero to the famous Castro District and beyond. It's notable for being really pretty much flat (certainly compared to other nearby streets!) and for being a major thoroughfare for public transport -  MUNI, BART and streetcars all have hub stations here. There are numerous shops, department stores and even a Westfield centre.

Getting the bike

I happened upon the 4th Street bike station as I was wandering up Market and decided to investigate. Similar to London's bike-share scheme (which I'd not had the courage to try out last time I was there) you have a line of bikes deposited in docking stations, alongside a little kiosk/auto-teller device. For unregistered, casual users like me a credit or debit card is required to make use of it. The hire process is similar to the way you might buy a rail ticket at an automated teller - except with a few more options. After what seemed like several minutes of clicking through screens (most of which appeared to be liability disclaimers), I had paid my $9 for 24 hour usage (free for 30 minutes per hire, thereafter a sliding scale of charges for every additional half hour) - contrast this with the flat rate of $2 for a one-way ticket on the MUNI which we took to Golden Gate Park the previous day.

A little ticket printed out, providing me with a 5 digit (base-3) code to take to the bike and enter to unlock. At this point I made an error - for some reason, I typed my code into an empty docking bay (I think I momentarily got confused about where you had to enter this code - total idiot!), which was duly accepted and proceeded to unlock my non-existent bike! In a panic I tried re-entering the code into an occupied dock but it wouldn't accept it! I returned to the kiosk, concerned that I'd be counted as having "rented" an invisible bike and would be charged the full "lost bike" amount. Happily when I re-swiped my card, I was immediately issued with a new code, which successfully released a bike. Phew! Perhaps they don't think anyone would be daft enough to try an empty dock but it would have been better if it had recognised the lack of a bike and had rejected my code in the first place. In any case, I checked out my newly acquired steed (you ought to do this first, it occurred to me later), verifying the brakes functioned and that the seat was adjusted correctly, thereafter I set off along the street towards the Embarcadero. I should add was wearing sandals, shorts and T-shirt at the time - no special clothing required!

The bike itself is a little heavier than my own but it is very comfortable (albeit not ideally proportioned for my 6'3" frame), with swept back handle bars and a wide, chunky (well cushioned) seat. It has seven relatively low-ratio hub gears (given the hills, this is probably for the best), a set of permanently-on lights and a little basket area, replete with stretching rope-tie. One odd thing for me was that the gear changer rotated counter to the way I'm used to - hence I sometimes found myself in the top gear at the junction or would find my legs comically whirring at pace whilst in full motion as I shifted lower in error.

I felt a little rush of joy as I swept along the cycle lanes of Market Street at a relatively gentle pace. I found myself un-harried by the cars in the lane to my left, nor indeed was I bothered much by the trolley buses and street-cars that otherwise patrol the route. Perhaps because I am relatively comfortable mixing with traffic, combined with the wide Californian streets which afford a bit of confidence. It's easy to be seduced by the relatively care-free nature of this sort of cycling; the weather, the sight of other (normal) people on bikes. For a moment, I genuinely had a feeling of the sort of ordinary, stress-free cycling that people in the Netherlands take for granted. However, this changed a little as I reached the Ferry Building.

The Embarcadero

View Larger Map
 I found out later that this road had once been the site of a large two-level expressway which was damaged during the 1989 earthquake and subsequently demolished - if only Glasgow's council had the courage of San Francisco's mayor Agnos, who pressed ahead with the removal of this once polluting eyesore on the shore of the Bay, in the face of vociferous opposition from local business interests (sounding familiar?)

The resulting space has opened up the bay-front area - which as the name "Embarcadero" suggests consists of a series of landing piers for ferries and cruise ships - and is now a major tourist area (trap?), regularly overflowing with pedestrians, generally pottering about buying chintzy souvenirs or catching the ferry over to Alcatraz. There is however still a two-carriage roadway going north-south, which is where the problem is. There are painted cycle lanes on the roadway and thats the route I took northwards to Pier 39.

Looking at the map as I have been writing this blog, I notice that there's seemingly a parallel cycle path on the pavement but I assure you that this wasn't particularly clear - what you appear to have is a shared pavement; a textbook example of why these arrangements don't work properly if there's too many people on foot. Suffice to say, I remained in the cycle lane.

This is where it starts to unravel. Despite removing the express-way, this is still an exceptionally busy road, filled with slow moving motor traffic (although thankfully it is no longer directly linked to the nearby Bay Bridge). I was heading northwards and it should be noted that there are no further right turns here - all the junctions ahead (other than bays for taxis and buses) came from the left. And yet cycles are still expected to stop at all red lights, which I duly did. And the lights took what felt like aeons to change - I was passed several times by less patient cycles who (naturally) passed safely through the junction against the red light.

Suddenly, without warning the cycle lane just gave up and I was back in amongst the cars - this is the point where my Glasgow cyclist instincts kicked in and I reverted back to a quick, aggressive vehicular style of riding. I was also starting to panic somewhat as I couldn't find a docking station and was keenly aware that my 30 minutes time limit was rapidly running out. This is where my initial fears about bike share schemes were realised - how do you find a station?


Now it will be argued that bike share is merely intended as a form of public transport: you start off at point A and you get off at point B, just like you would a train or a bus. It isn't necessarily meant for someone to just drift about aimlessly on. In hindsight, what you clearly need to do is examine the map and identify the station you want to stop at, but this still requires a degree of navigational competence and awareness. If you get on a bus or a train, the stops are generally called out and (unless you are particularly unlucky) the driver will know where he or she is going - it's just a case of counting off the stops and waiting for the appropriate point to jump off. Bike share schemes don't have the benefit of this - you are on your own.

It turns out that there's a Bay Area Bike Share App which can help you with this (although I'm not sure if it features navigation functionality to guide you there step-by-step) but again this wasn't clear when I set out to use the service (I don't recall seeing it being advertised at the docking station). What would have been more useful would be the inclusion of bike share stations on Map applications, in the same way that metro and bus stops are usually - then you could make use of the sat-nav feature (bearing in mind this would use up some precious and ludicrously expensive international roaming data).

I can't remember which junction I turned off the road onto, but I tired of being held in queuing traffic on the Embarcadero, so I opted to change to a parallel road (Front Street), which to my astonishment turned out to be almost empty of traffic. "Why aren't the cars here?" I thought to myself.

Eventually, after fruitlessly circling about looking for the blasted docking station, I elected to turn around and come back the way I came, heading back onto the busy bay-front road. This time, the road layout was more complicated, due to the numerous right-turns. Here, the bike path will often divert left over into the second lane to allow right-turning traffic to cross the cycle lane and hug the kerb - in other words, a design for conflict not a million miles away from what I found on the Clyde Gateway.

View Larger Map

Mission Street

I bombed as quickly as I could down the road and turned right onto Mission Street - as this was down-town, I did encounter on-street parking which required me to adopt a traditional primary position. Note, the "sharrow" on the road in this next street-view image:

View Larger Map

On Mission, the bike lanes are replaced in favour of the more familiar (to me) bus and bike lanes, which meant sharing with taxis. At this point, I'm firmly out of holiday-pottering mode and fully into a defensive cycling mindset - although how refreshing to do it without all the accoutrements of British cycling (namely helmet, hi-viz jacket etc. - I'd recommend trying out cycling in sandals incidentally). However, I'm starting to sweat profusely (not just due to the warm April afternoon), which isn't my idea of calm, normally clothed utility cycling. My aim was now clear - find a station back where I came from in time to meet my partner at 5pm. After more fruitless journeying down Mission, I looked to my right and noticed this pedestrian pathway - the pedestrianized zone I referred to above:

View Larger Map

... but there was no indication whether or not I could use this on a bike! Thus I had to carry on a further two blocks to 5th Street, in order to turn back on myself along Market to the 4th Street docking station - the only location I knew for certain I could return the bike to! So there I was - a bit of a sweaty, dishevelled mess returning to where I had left, probably about 30 minutes over my time - but arrived safely.


As I hope I indicated in the text above, I found the overall experience of using the bike-share to be pretty good. Clearly there were problems finding a docking station but that could perhaps be mitigated with a bit of forward planning. The big problem is still the obvious one - infrastructure. I still can't really fathom why cars are permitted on the Embarcadero - there seems to be no real reason for traffic to be there (other than that required for access to the piers perhaps) - it certainly wasn't a convenient way to travel. It seemed to me that it could be directed away via other parallel routes, or perhaps motor traffic could be restricted to one side of the street-car tracks (the western carriageway), with the remaining lanes being given over to pedestrians and bikes. It would also be nice to permit northbound bikes to bypass the junctions completely - there's no need for the continual stopping and starting next to noisy, dirty traffic.

One thing I didn't touch on above - like a lot of bay area public transport, the bike-share scheme is overwhelmingly concentrated in the eastern down-town areas, specifically around Market Street, in what appears to be a mirror of the BART metro station layout. I'm guessing this is intended to allow BART users to transition quickly onto bikes for the so-called "last mile" journey - perhaps with destinations such as SoMa or North Beach in mind. The westmost station is at the intersection of Market and Van Ness Avenue (a major trunk route northwards to the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County and beyond), at the threshold of the Lower Haight. As I pointed out in the bike-hire section, the only ways to get west of this point is to walk, drive or take a bus, which seems somewhat disenfranchising to residents in this part of the city, never mind in places like Mission.

I also thought the cost was a little steep for what you get, and it wasn't clear to me how people who don't have bank accounts (let alone credit or debit cards) would have access to the scheme. You don't need a credit card to use a bus or the metro, why for a bike? Given the poverty I witnessed in areas such as Tenderloin, I'd be interested to know if people of more modest means could apply for free access or discounted rates. Otherwise it begs the question: who is the bike-share schemes for?

Was it a good way for a tourist to see a city? Well, the true bike hire scheme allowed a little more freedom (in that you were provided with a lock) but I liked the relative simplicity of bike-share - the fact that the bikes are (in a sense) disposable from the user's point of view. The bike was sturdier and more comfortable than the generic mountain bike we were allotted previously. It's definitely a more fun way of getting to know the city at ground level than, say, getting on a sight-seeing tourbus (and no need to tip anyone on the way either). But the slight stress of not knowing the destination, unfamiliarity with the roads might be a barrier, particularly if the streets lack the required sense of subjective safety.

Whether or not I'd use such a scheme at home (such a scheme is due to be implemented next month) I'm not sure - one of the new stations will be near my house, but this will only be temporary - like the residents of Richmond, SF, the Southside of Glasgow is going to be pretty much neglected by it. I would certainly recommend trying out such a scheme if you happen upon one in your travels though! Just remember to check the map first...