California : cycling culture
This story is part of our youReport series.
I grew up in semi-rural California where I spent a lot of my youth outside riding my bike (even the mile to and from school on my own from the age of 9 or so). I didn’t cycle much after age 16 until I moved to the UK in 2004. As we all know, the US is very car centric and it’s a bit of a rite of passage to get your driving license at the age of 16. My family couldn’t afford the lessons (they’d stopped offering for free in schools the year before), and I really wasn’t interested, so eventually got it at age 18 though I didn’t really drive much until age 21 or 22, and even then it was quite reluctantly. I got around by walking or taking the bus, and occasionally cycling.
Cut to now and I cycle 8-10 miles each day to and from work, and for errands in Newcastle and Gateshead so going back to California earlier this year I really looked at the built environment quite differently than I had in the past. I spent several weeks in San Francisco walking around in a relatively small area. As you’ll probably know, San Francisco is known for its hilly terrain and it’s difficult to avoid hills yet there were cyclists everywhere, of all ages, and very few of them were decked out in Lycra and/or hi-viz; I’d also say only half of them wore helmets. The weather in San Francisco is better than the North East, but it’s a lot colder and wetter than you’d imagine. They were having an unseasonal warm spell so I don’t know the ratio of fair-weather to year-round cyclists.
San Francisco has a bike culture of its own that probably started with the messenger cyclists back in the 1990s and has now moved on to be wider and more inclusive. You’ll see a lot of tourists hiring bikes at the bay to cycle around the flat bit of the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as hiring bikes in Golden Gate Park to travel between different attractions, and just enjoy the recreational trails and paths available to them.
In the city itself I noticed a proliferation of buffered cycle lanes where they’d obviously taken over road space previously given to cars for either parking or driving. There was also plenty of vehicular cycling, but the difference was the patience and space motorists actually gave these cyclists.
Moving northwards a bit to Santa Rosa, which is semi-rural, there were still plenty of cyclists, but not as many as you might expect given the wide roads and flat terrain; unfortunately there’s not a lot of infrastructure to support cycling outside of the main routes which have bike lanes next to 40-50mph traffic.
However, there is a good network of off-road paths that are used both for commuting across the vast vineyards to other parts of the town, and for leisurely cycling/training. I took a walk along this path and many cyclists, and a skateboarder!, passed me – some in lycra, but most in ‘normal’ clothes, and again about 50/50 with a helmet. It was good to see people out on bikes though.