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Biking in San Francisco: A beginner’s guide

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What you need to know before putting foot to pedal

A cyclist bikes down a path on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The bridge is orange. Photo by Morenovel/Shutterstock

Hey, look at you! You did it. You weighed the cons and pros, you made the tough calls, and you did yourself and your planet a solid. You, all by yourself, went and bought a bicycle. And now—no matter how long the gap between purchase and action might have been—you’re ready to ride.

Nobody is more ahead of the curve than you. You’ve got your helmet and you’ve got your lights and U-lock, and now you’re ready to ride around town. (If you do not have any of this basic equipment, please go and acquire it before proceeding. Immediately.)

But since you’re still here and not out riding around, flying by cars stuck in soul-wrecking traffic, high-fiving complete strangers and lost in the euphoria that comes with breaking the manacles of commuting or traveling by transit or car, we may assume that you’re now grappling with the next logical question: “Now what? What do I do? Where do I go—and how do I do it?”

Relax. I am here for you.

I’ll assume that you’re already familiar with the absolute basics, including the side of the road on which to ride your bicycle—this would be the right-hand side—and the fact that, aside from foldies, you can’t bring a bicycle onto a Muni Metro car.

Everything else may not be so intuitive, being as it is a mix of learned behavior and crowd wisdom. Let us answer some of your basic concerns. Very soon, you’ll be ready to join the 4.3 percent, the lucky few, the band of bicyclists who pedal to work every day. You may even be able to do so without becoming a cyclist cliche: the spandex-wearing, erratically passing, phone-call-making bicycling jerk.

This is not meant to be a definitive compendium on bicycle conduct or safety. You will be advised to do things that are, by the letter of the law, not legal. Nor is it meant to litigate any longstanding feuds between motorists and cyclists or cyclists and other cyclists or those motorized skateboard users and everyone else. Blanket statements like “every cyclist is an asshole” or “every driver is murderous and selfish” are lazy and wrong. Suffice to say there is no monopoly on poor behavior—yes, on all sides, although the stakes are obviously much higher when an SUV chooses to go rogue.

This is merely a practical guide, rooted in my personal experiences in more than six years of biking around town in all manner of weather and in all manner of hurry.

Is this safe?

Absolutely. Very safe, getting safer every day—and the sooner you get on the road, safer still. The more cyclists there are on the road, the less likely it is that a mishap will occur. Some data: There are 82,000 trips made by bicycle every day in San Francisco. In all of 2016, three cyclists were killed, two on the same very bad day. By sheer numbers, more pedestrians and motorists die. You will almost certainly not die.

Great. But will I get hurt?

Probably not. While there’s risk involved in trading in a protective shell of tons of steel for a fresh breeze and a few ounces of plastic, cycling isn’t inherently more or less dangerous than other modes of transit. See here: this map of the city's "high-injury corridors” is essentially a chart of the streets people use to get around.

A man on a blue bicycle. The man is wearing a blue blazer and denim jeans. He has leather gloves on his hands. In the background is a black gate with the words: No Parking. Photo by Jeremy Brooks
Two children are riding bicycles on a sidewalk. In the background is a colorful mural with graffiti. Photo by Thomas Hawk

I can tell you that in six years of primarily using a bicycle to get around San Francisco, I was hit by a car exactly once—and it was, as is statistically common, very close to my house. I had become overcome with cocktails and subsequently slipped off my bike in Hayes Valley before wisely walking the rest of the way home far more frequently.

Here’s something to consider: The most common bicycle accidents involve just the bicycle itself. Usually this means you got caught in a Muni track, fell into a pothole, or slipped on wet pavement. These are all things you can avoid by taking steps to avoid those hazards. If you fell victim to wet pavement or were felled by a crack in the pavement, it’s quite possible it was your own fault.

If there’s one fundamental rule to operating a bicycle, it’s this: You can do whatever you want, as long as nobody else is inconvenienced. Mistakes and accidents happen, but if by a choice of yours, someone has to stop on brakes or swerve to avoid you or jump out of your way or otherwise alter their course, chances are you did something wrong.

Whatever it was, whether or not it was deliberate, learn what it was—e.g., riding on the sidewalk, cutting off a pedestrian, cutting in front of another cyclist to make a turn—and try not to do it again.

There’s a Muni metro track on this road!

Your worst enemy, really, aside from yourself, but they can be navigated by spending as little time on them as possible—that is, next to zero. If you must cross a rail, do so at an angle that will prevent your tires from getting stuck into the rail depression—not parallel, because that is death, and not wholly perpendicular, either, but as close as possible to 45 degrees. If it’s wet out, think about not crossing them at all. Chances are you don’t have to.

A word on inclement weather.

Other than unseasonable heat—which is fine bike-riding weather, as far as the road and the cycle are concerned—the worst natural phenomenon San Franciscans will encounter is rain. And with rain comes risk.

A cyclist rides their bike down a winding path on Lombard Street in San Francisco. There are many city buildings in the distance. Photo by Tim Parkinson

Though many people do it, you must think twice about cycling in the rain, when erstwhile innocuous roadway features morph into mortal threats. I’ve seen people wipe out for no reason in the rain. I’ve had my wheels kick out from under me and found myself sprawled on the pavement for the crime of riding over a sharrow—the paint, it was too slick!

It’s hard to stop and it’s hard to see and it’s harder to maintain your balance. If you’re not entirely comfortable in dry weather, leave the bike at home until the weather clears—because it will.

So where do I go to get to work, the beach, the Giants game, the farmers market?

You’re living in the finest time possible to be a bicycle rider in San Francisco, which is now. Here’s the crucial point to remember about the plague of Ubers and Lyfts clogging the bike lane—there is a bike lane! This wasn’t true not so long ago. And there are more every day. Someday very soon, there will be more separated bike lanes, greener streets, smoother pavement! What great changes those will be. What won’t change are the city’s basic topography.

Forty-five-degree hills will remain 45-degree hills, and wide boulevards designed for speeding automobiles will remain parking lots during rush hours, and lawless raceways the remaining eighteen hours of the day. To avoid both of these, learn and stick to the many basic bicycle thoroughfares. Most of these are stupendously easy to find. There are street signs, and when they’re not, there’s a path in front of you that is Family Circus-level obvious. (There’s also this handy map.)

A brown leather bicycle seat. There is a metal label on the back with the word: Brooks. Photo by Jeremy Brooks

Here are some examples for the neophyte: In South of Market, use Howard to go south/west, and use Folsom to go north/east. Once you reach the Embarcadero, you have an easy and flat path to AT&T Park. Use Market Street to get in and out of downtown.

The Wiggle, that famous, stairway-shaped series of lefts and rights that begins at the Castro Safeway and avoids all the serious inclines, is the gateway to the Western Addition and the Richmond and the Sunset. Golden Gate Park is one massive bicycle saturation zone. Cesar Chavez gets you to the Bayview, San Jose Avenue is your path to the Excelsior, and so on.

In the same way, there are some roads that cyclists have no excuse for not avoiding. You look like a total dick bombing down Oak when there’s a perfectly good Page Street a block away. And why, why are you blocking a bus on Mission when there’s a Valencia nearby?

A word on bike lanes.

Bike lanes are great. They are proof positive that it’s a smart thing for cars and bicycles to have some separation, like a feuding couple with differences irreconcilable. But like a feuding and not yet cleaved couples’ love seat, bike lanes—bike lanes that are not separated from the rest of the roadway, by an obvious barrier or by different-colored paint—are communal property. They are not yours! You must share them.

A woman is walking a bicycle down a sidewalk in San Francisco. Photo by Chris Chabot

When in a bike lane, you will often encounter objects that are not bikes. This can be very annoying—and sometimes unsafe. But do not be afraid. You can overcome this. Remember: Things like cars can have a legitimate reason to be in a bike lane, to perform essential acts like turning or parking.

So what exactly do I do at a stop sign?

Here’s the fundamental issue with the rules of the road, as mostly sensical and oftentimes the best practice as they are—they are not perfect. They are sometimes even arbitrary and flawed. Cars and bicycles are subject to the same rules—separate but equal—except when they’re not. See: You can’t drive in a separated bike lane and you can’t bicycle on a highway. In absence of a uniform code of conduct, common sense dictates the two vastly different means of conveyance will behave differently when out the road.

Nobody really wants cyclists to obey every law to the letter. Nobody aside from the kind of pedantic rulebook fanatic who belongs in a second-rate Dickens novel. Look what happens when they do! Gridlock, mayhem, the honking of horns!

Two bicycles next to each other. One bicycle is red and the other bicycle is pink. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Here is a good, realistic, and effective rule of thumb: Treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs. When something or someone is coming, yield to them. Acknowledge their presence. Make eye contact. They are not your enemies. Behave as such.

Take advantage of the greater visibility afforded a bicycle rider—you’re able to see whether an intersection is clear longer than a driver can, and you will have more time to react—and then apply this superior knowledge accordingly. If a car’s already at the stop sign, you really should stop. They’ll so be floored by your etiquette that they may wave you on.

If there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk, please stop and let them advance. If you absolutely must carry on, cut behind them so that they don’t need to do anything in order to avoid being hit by you.

More on stop signs.

The words shot out at me like rotten fruit pelted at the condemned: “That’s why everyone hates cyclists!”

Startled and confused, while still gliding down Ocean Avenue—clear of traffic and people ahead of me, and no potential offense-takers to be seen on the periphery—I turned to look behind my shoulder at a man standing on the opposite sidewalk, where a Muni bus had just deposited him. He gestured in my direction.

“You!” he bellowed. “You didn’t stop at that stop sign!”

People riding bicycles down a tree-lined street in San Francisco. Photo by Dianne Yee

Reader, this man wasn’t inconvenienced. But he was incensed at what he felt was a liberty on my part—the pause, the confirmation that the coast was clear, and the continuing on. I retell this anecdote to make this analogy: A blown stop sign is for everyone else as the Uber in the bike lane is for cyclists. Inexcusable effrontery! Which happens all the time, and as long as nobody is hurt or inconvenienced, is really no big deal. But keep these raw points and the way they chafe in mind and do not surprised when tempers flare.

It’s dark out and I have no lights/only one light!

There’s no excuse for not having bike lights. But it happens—you left them on your parked bike and they were stolen, you forgot it was January and rode out into the warm winter sun only to be greeted with a velvet curtain dropping on the world at 5 p.m.

In these instances, sticking to the most major bike thoroughfares and exercising total caution will be enough to get you through. This means total stops at signs and lights whenever there’s a car about, and giving parked cars a wide enough berth so that when a door swings out, you aren’t in the path of doom.

If you have only one light and it’s white, put it on the front of your bike. This is where white lights go. When someone sees a white and not red light in the dark, they assume it’s someone coming, not going.

I have seen cyclists put a white light on the rear of their mounts, with the justification being that it’s safer have your six illuminated. This isn’t true. If Imagine if a car decided it would be cool to have white lights in back and total darkness up front. Think about that.

If you only have a red light, it’s best to put it on the rear of your bike for the same reason. Making modifications to this simple system means you’re giving motorists and other cyclists conflicting information.

Justify your sui generis light scheme any way you’d like, but don’t be shocked when it causes serious confusion

Two bicycles leaning against a curb. There are two people sitting on the curb. In the distance is a San Francisco bridge. Photo by Matthew Roth

I need to turn!

Fantastic! There’s a system in place for you to do just this. Ready? Look over your right or your left shoulder as appropriate. Now: SIGNAL your intention, before you act upon it, by sticking out your LEFT arm. If you’re going left, a straight arm (with a finger pointing out) is the thing. If you’re going right, still using your LEFT arm (because people on your left, where they are supposed to travel, don’t have a good view of your right) angle it into a 90-degree, L-shape symbol of determined movement. Look again, and then make your turn.

If for some reason you find this basic system too confusing, by all means attempt to devise your own, and please pithily post on Instagram from your hospital bed wondering why nobody could figure out what you were trying to do.

I’m going very fast! I need to pass this fellow cyclist!

Look over your left shoulder. If the coast is clear, move to the left, giving the person you’re passing, who will be on your right, several feet of space, enough clearance where if they stick their arms out to signal or have to swerve to dodge a pothole, they won’t strike you. Ring your bell to alert them of your presence. If you have no bell, speak out! “On your left” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say.

What’s not acceptable: passing on the right, saying nothing, passing so close that if someone sticks out their hand to signal, they risk clotheslining you.

I’m in traffic! I want to lane-split now.

The art of traveling on the dotted lines in between lanes of poor stalled cars lost in traffic, lane-splitting is the reason why many of us abandon cars for two-wheeled machines.

By all means partake. It can be done responsibly. The key here is to make sure that you are both easily visible, and once traffic starts to move again, that you’re not an obstruction or, worse, sandwiched between two cars.

Make your way with determination. Do not weave through moving traffic like this is some kind of augmented reality game. Keep to a lane, keep moving, and when you do need to make a move, signal your intention well ahead of your maneuver. It’s always best and safest to be furthest to the right—this is where cars will expect you to be—but not always practical.

Cyclist on the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk. Photo by Morenovel, Shutterstock

If you’re on, say, Kearny and know you’re going to go up Columbus, by all means stay all the way to the left.

But, when off to the right, you may need to turn left. If you do need to make a turn and can’t make it safely across the road, stop at the intersection and wait for a light. No big deal! You didn’t lose some imaginary race.

A word on racers.

Some cyclists treat the roadway as a permanent cyclocross track. It is imperative that they get to the next red light before you. These are the souls you see cutting to the very head of the line at a stop light, still clipped onto their pedals, precariously balancing as their bike’s components scream in silent protest beneath them.

They are boorish but they exist and they won’t go away. Maybe you will even be one of them. As fun as it appears, there’s really no need. But if you must act in this fashion, remember the inconveniencing rule: If you’re faster than everyone else out there you can give them plenty of room and advance notice that you’re about to lap them. Now give yourself a trophy.

This bus is in front of me and I want to get around it. Now.

A common sight on Market Street is the cyclist squeezing him- or herself in between bus and curb on the right-hand side. Bless Muni drivers and the attention they pay to cyclists—they’re really quite good at it!—but they’re not perfect, and lurking on the right is the best place to be unseen. Stay on the driver’s side whenever possible.

Will my bike get stolen?

Maybe! It happens very, very often. But there are some ways to reduce the likelihood. You should absolutely register your bike with the city. The main and invincible argument for this is that it is free, and therefore has nothing but upside.

Having a numbered decal affixed to your frame may not prevent your bicycle from getting partially or even mostly stolen—as I found out last summer, when I returned to a wheel-less, registered frame locked to a street sign outside the Main Library one late afternoon—but it is a line of defense nonetheless, and may dissuade one the city’s many mad scientists from using your precious conveyance as source material for a Frankenbike monster.

A woman riding her bicycle amidst traffic on a street in San Francisco. Photo by Will Wilson

Your best bet is to obey some of the basics: Buy a U-lock, and affix the frame AND a wheel to one of the many bicycle racks or street-sign poles found around town. For some, this isn’t enough. Many swear that a special cable lock to secure their seats to their frames is necessary. A few Panic Room enthusiasts believe that a second U-lock as well as an impenetrable cable are requisite items.

It’s easy to get carried away and pack more protective metal than a crusading knight. You probably don’t need all that A good U-lock will be plenty.

Pro tip: get a U-lock big enough to get your frame and wheel secured. Fixing just the frame is an invitation to get your wheels stolen, particularly if they're quick-release (those are bad; get rid of them), and locking just a wheel is a fine way to start rebuilding a bike starting with just the wheel.

If your bike is in a secure garage, it’s not a bad move to lock a single wheel to the frame. It’s very hard to break into a garage and ride away with a bicycle secured in this way, which in turn has very little resale value.

Take a photo of your bike and all of its pretty components. If you do become a statistic, check your renter’s insurance policy. Your deductible may be lower than the replacement cost of your bike.

A green bicycle attached to a parking meter on a sidewalk in San Francisco. Photo by Jeremy Brooks

There’s a car in front of me trying to turn right—and it’s in my bike lane! What do I do?

This is an everyday situation that is easily navigable. Here’s what you must do: Share the road. You can’t squeeze in between the car trying to turn right and the curb—that’s dangerous and dumb and also not legal. If you see a car ahead of you put on its signal to turn right, you have to merge left and pass it on the left. The onus to signal and to start to move into your bike lane—which it can do when it’s turning—is on the car, but once it’s made its move, you must adapt and go left.

I’m so angry! In what situation can I lash out with fists/bike locks?

The mark of the true cyclist jackass: physical violence is justifiable anytime… whenever you feel confident of absorbing the inevitable consequences, which will be serious, and can range from a dirty look and a curse upon your house to a physical confrontation to getting arrested at a Billy Joel concert.

Cars blocking bike lanes is extremely annoying. It’s also dangerous—it requires you to merge back into traffic on Valencia Street while watching out for swinging doors! It’s a crazy slalom course.

Something should be done. This carnival of madness must stop. But until it does, escalating with violence is a fine way to cede any moral high ground you might have enjoyed—a key point should the authorities become involved—and to enrage/incite the individual with all the practical power in the situation, i.e., the car. That can’t end well, even if it ends with you acting like a loser. It certainly won’t impress anyone. Just don’t do it.

What about electric bikes and shared bikes?

You can find a slew of bike renting options, like the new Jump e-bikes, or if you want to classic the old-fashion way, Ford GoBike has a bevy of rental stations around the city.

What about the newfangled electric scooter?

Newcomers to our streets, our lives, and our regulatory framework, the “ride-em-and-dump-em” smartphone-activated e-scooters are for overgrown 12-year-olds with an “too-good-for-Muni” elitist complex. They’re also kinda fun. When you see one on the road, you must assume that the rider is relatively new. He or she will almost certainly not be wearing a helmet. For these reasons, give them courtesy, space, and respect. (For now, you will have to share the bike lane with them.) Behave as if they are a bicyclist, too. Yes, they may represent all that you despise, but save the transference for someone else.