As we rode down Folsom St. we encountered several new elements: cars, buses, and rail road tracks. It was one of the busier areas of the city in terms of volume of cars and trucks. The bike lanes were useful but we had to deviate from the lane several times due to buses, trucks or cops blocking the bike lane. On this portion of the trip we had to be particularly aware of buses--especially when they stopped, crossing into the bike lane, and then when they left the bike lane to rejoin traffic.
Next up on our trip was taking a ride down Market St., the Main Street of San Francisco. This street was equipped with wide buffered bike lanes, with a protective barrier from traffic. The lanes were also painted green and in some intersections there was even bike traffic signals. We still had to be cautious of sometimes passing busses but for the most part biking here felt relatively safe. After Market St. we headed to Duboce Path which led us directly to “The Wiggle”. Janice informed us this path was a vital component of San Francisco’s bicycle network because it was the flatest way to get from the Western neighborhoods to Market Street and Downtown. It is referred to as “The Wiggle” because it is a winding path along several streets that avoids some massive San Francisco hills.
Next, Janice made sure to point out a new addition to the San Francisco bike infrastructure, contra flow lanes. These exist on one-way streets where there is a bike lane on each side one going with the flow of traffic, and one going the opposite direction, hence contra flow. These lanes were implemented to shorten the commute time on common paths for bikers by providing a more direct route. We then took a short break and stopped for a refreshing ice cream while Janice distributed some informational materials and debriefed us on the first leg of our journey. Our final leg of our path consisted of traveling back to Market St. to the San Francisco Bike Coalition’s headquarters. We arrived at the office, a little fatigued, but we had survived and were much more knowledgeable about biking in San Francisco.
Some of the biggest takeaways from our excursion are:
- There are definite difficulties and barriers that have the potential to dissuade female bike riders. These are covered in detail in the next section.
- San Francisco with the help of city planners and the Bicycle Coalition are working hard to implement new and safer bike infrastructure, since a lot of the updates have occurred in the past several years or are current projects but the infrastructure is not perfect.
- A lot of the other riders we observed sharing the road with were male further solidifying the fact that the gender disparity is an issue and something that needs to be addressed.
Why Aren’t More Women Riding? Our Firsthand Experience:
The bike ride around San Francisco gave us great insight into some of the difficulties female bike riders might face and making the trek first-hand helped us to come up with ideas of reasons that women bike ridership may not be as high as the SFBC would hope. Below are a few things we came up with that made our trek more difficult, based on our experience today:
Insufficient knowledge of the city/navigation skills: Riding a bike in San Francisco requires your undivided attention. Unlike when commuting by car, when you’re on a bike trip, it is very dangerous to shift your attention from the road in front of you (say to a GPS device) or to even take the time to stop and think about where you need to go next. You must pay attention to not only cars and pedestrians, but to other cyclists, and rarely have the opportunity to navigate. If it hadn’t have been for Janice’s familiarity with the city as she led us around, we would have had a much more difficult time figuring out where we were going (which streets to turn on etc.) and such confusion/apprehension can be very dangerous when you’re on a bike.
Confusion regarding bike traffic flow: Janice is very well-versed in the significance of “sharrows” and “bike boxes” painted on the road. However, for someone unfamiliar with what these symbols mean (someone like any of the three of us), it can be tricky to make sure you are following the rules of the road and staying in the properly designated areas--particularly when doing things such as turning into contra-flow lanes.
Harassment: There were a few instances of cat-calling and other unwanted interactions/attention from male drivers/car passengers and pedestrians. Aside from being distracting and potentially dangerous, such events made the bike ride far less enjoyable.
Intimidation by other cyclists: Cyclists can sometimes be aggressive, and particularly if you exhibit “newbie” behavior (riding slowly and cautiously) can be quite intimidating, speeding past you and such.
Generally feeling unsafe or physically vulnerable: A few of us found it to be a relatively anxiety-inducing experience--particularly when we were travelling at night. A seasoned cyclist, Janice had the tendency to bike pretty fast, and it pushed a few of us out of our comfort zone. Feeling the need to be hyper-aware of your surroundings at all times, watching out for pot-holes, driver, cyclists, pedestrians, trolley tracks, etc. can be a very overwhelming experience.
Impact on hygiene/aesthetic concerns: This one is not as big of a deal, but it is difficult to maintain a sense of “freshness” after biking up a steep hill, and generally getting hot and sweaty. Helmets also inhibit certain hairstyles, and impact all hair textures differently, which may dissuade some women from wearing them.
Meeting the Team and Planning for the Future
Our bike ride concluded at the San Francisco Bike Coalition headquarters. After a tour of the office, Janice introduced us to the rest of a team of women—Erin, Anna, and Ellie— who are FSBC employees and are involved in getting more women to ride bikes. They all introduced themselves, talked a bit about their backgrounds, and explained what got them involved in the project. A couple of the major themes that we noticed as the team introduced themselves were that they all got into cycling a bit later in life, starting casually and progressing to biking regularly. The all see biking as a form of empowerment.
In order to brainstorm some ways to encourage women ridership they talked about their own experiences convincing other women to bike. They all had similar experiences with convincing other women in their lives to ride bikes: once they got a woman to start biking it was pretty easy to get them to continue biking. This insight will inform our tool kit. We may want to focus our attentions on getting women to have a pleasant first experience riding in SF.
Ellie then explained to us a little more about their organization. We learned that they are mostly funded from membership and individual contributions, and that their members are mostly interested in FSBC’s political advocacy to improve biking infrastructure.
We then moved on to talking about our project. It turns out they have already done some activities to engage women in biking like coffee chats and short film screenings, and we will definitely take these pilot events into account when we form our toolkit. When we talked about what else the toolkit should include, they made it clear that we should fit the toolkit’s contents to our own interests and areas of expertise, but they gave us a list of possible things we could work on.
List of possible toolkit items:
· Tailored recommendations for San Francisco
· Map of where member women ride à talked about possibility of making GIS map
· Online forum for women to talk about their experiences and talk to other women that bike
· Information on where to concentrate their effort:
· What kind of programing works
· And what areas should target
· Think about metrics to decide whether the program is succeeding
· Branding Material
· Methods for facilitating average ridership
· Creating framework for women mentorship program
· Surveying women that don’t bike and trying to figure out why
· Finding out methods to target populations that generally don’t bike much
· Ideas for fun activities
· Web/digital component or booklet
We concluded that we would definitely do the mapping aspect they suggested for the toolkit so we started developing action plans on how to do this. We concluded that the first thing we would have to do is send out a survey to send out to the SFBC’s female members to figure out where they commute. At the end of the meeting, our immediate action items were to write questions for a survey that we’ll be sending out to gauge bike ridership in two different areas and the factors that influence it, and figuring out scheduling regarding future visits up to the city.