san francisco

Arriving in San Francisco from LA assaults the senses: The BART hisses and whines on its track through the tunnels and people sit near you. Coming out from BART to the intersection of Market and Powell, the sidewalks are thick with pedestrians. A sudden feeling of vertigo to be amid tall buildings amid the clatter of conversation and life. The screech of a cable car and the old trolleys that ply the F along Market. Traffic slows, clots, then pushes through on the next green.

And there, on a light post at the corner of Market and one of the big streets that cuts across, a yellow sign reading roughly: Cyclists have a right to full use of the road.

The city – coming from Los Angeles with foreign eyes – seems made for cyclists: Sharrows, bike lanes, well-marked bike routes, and a critical mass of people willing to ride for their commute. I have more – I think – to say, but an open question to anyone who knows the history of San Francisco’s infrastructure better than I: How did San Francisco seem to get right what Los Angeles has, to this point, gotten wrong? What has made it possible for San Francisco to seem so cycling-friendly when Los Angeles seems not?

Granted, I think Los Angeles is more friendly to cyclists than people sometimes make it out to be, but I’m trying to figure out some of the things – some of the institutional and infrastructural decisions – that San Francisco has done that have helped make the city what it is.


5 responses to “san francisco

  1. i don’t know the answer, but i’d guess incredible density helps (#2 in the U.S., depending on who you believe), and a long history of progressive thought and organizations and people grabbing very small, incremental changes whenever they could.

  2. Welcome to Utopia! SF has many advantages that LA doesn’t. First is the geography and layout. SF is small, you can bike across town in less than an hour. Try biking from Downtown to Venice in an hour. You can do it, at 20mph! Second, L.A. abandoned street cars in favor of cars and highways and has never been able to recover from that rejection of public transportation. We’re now paying the price. SF has healthy democracy where people pay attention to the actions of their elected officials, which generally results in policies that are beneficial to the public. What a profound idea that Angelenos have yet to appreciate.

  3. Honestly after hearing all the hype about San Fransisco I was actually let down when I rode there. It was nice, better then LA certainly, but far from Utopia. Lots of streets are in poor shape and with tracks wheels can fall into at every which angle and lots of narrow spaces that make splitting lanes difficult.

    What made it nice to me was everything was close, and BART was so efficient for longer distances and going across the bay. It’s primarily urban density I think that makes SF a nice place to ride. One thing they really have beat over LA though is that their bike lanes and routes with corresponding route numbers that make it easy to map and track where you are going even across multiple streets and or paths.

  4. As a student of urban planning, I’m a little ashamed that my knowledge of these two cities is so incomplete; I’ll take a stab at this question anyway. In short, I believe the answer is sprawl (i.e. a history of ineffective land use planning) and the momentum of unchecked economic growth.

    The most obvious factor, as Alex mentioned, is size. Los Angeles is a much larger city, geographically and developmentally. It boasts a population of nearly 4 million in the City alone; San Francisco, on the other hand, is home to less than 800,000. Los Angeles’ economic success depended on tremendous outward development, business growth, and political maneuvering, which does not generally adhere to principles of sustainability and community building.

    The reason that Los Angeles abandoned the streetcar is that General Motors, Firestone, and a couple of major oil companies (e.g. Chevron) colluded to buy up and close down all those rail lines. It was a dirty, sneaky business tactic, but in the deregulated climate of the early 1900s, it was not a wholly illegitimate thing to do. Naturally, the lack of public transit options paved the way for the proliferation of automobiles (no pun intended).

    WWII-era federal programs paid for the construction of America’s interstate highways, supposedly designed as a defense program (i.e. for the speedy transportation of military supplies from one city to another). Those programs concentrated heavily on the Pacific coast, where the military was concentrating its efforts against Japan. It’s arguable, however, that those programs were a ploy to concentrate government funds on the construction of automobile-friendly infrastructure–a feat that would be inconceivable as a private undertaking. Here, the size of Los Angeles (whose population exploded early on in the 20th century) is crucial to explaining the difference in development: larger cities are more likely attract government contracts, because they offer larger tax bases.

    Other federal programs made homeownership a reality for returning veterans. The establishment of the FHA and the introduction of low-down-payment, 30-year mortgages induced a construction boom that effectively gave birth to suburbia as we know it. These trends were more pronounced in Los Angeles, which did not have as much a heritage of centralized city planning as San Francisco did. San Francisco’s heritage of mixed use and tall buildings facilitated higher densities and reduced demand on transportation infrastructure.

    The momentum of these land use and business decisions draws residents (i.e. political constituencies) that support auto-oriented land use decisions and prefer not to ride bicycles anyway.

  5. Pingback: tensions of cycling and public transportation « los angeles rides

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