Like Wind in Your Hair: A Chronicle Columnist’s Refreshing Bicycling Decree

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Move over, Nevius: The San Francisco Chronicle’s latest bicycle-friendly declaration from columnist Caille Millner is a breath of fresh air, giving voice to the need for safer streets and setting the record straight when it comes to anti-bike rants.

For readers weary of the Chronicle’s regular bicycling coverage — a space mainly filled by a victim-blaming former sports writer with an irrational fear of bike lanes — take a break and enjoy watching Millner hit the nail on the head:

My heart sings every time I see a new bicyclist in San Francisco.

The more, the better, I say. I want to see 10-year-olds riding to school. I want to see middle-aged women on wheels, wearing long coats and pedaling slowly so as not to disturb their full baskets on the way home from the market. I want to see old men, even if they’re a little wobbly, heading out to the senior center on old two-wheelers.

You should want this, too – it means a better city for all of us.

In writing this, I can close my eyes and picture the avalanche of hostile e-mail that will pour in. Nothing gets people around here more worked up than bicyclists, and they love to screech out their reasons for why the rise of bicycles in San Francisco represents a crumbling of civilization.

They write letters that are full of righteous indignation, presuming that bicyclists are the only uncouth people on our streets – as if they’ve never rolled through a stop sign (if they’re drivers) or (if they’re pedestrians) never waded into the street without looking, expecting the flow of traffic to magically cease in their presence.

There’s something unseemly about these letters, about the affront their writers feel at having to share the road with bicyclists. How dare they claim space that used to belong to me is the undertone of all of this sentiment. How dare they slow me down or force me to pay attention when I’m trying to get through traffic.

It’s tiresome, it’s whiny, and it’s wrong.

It’s also the rump sentiment of people who are increasingly out of pace with change. Cities – even change-averse San Francisco – are slowly getting denser in this country, and for social and economic reasons, density is what we want.

Cars don’t solve mobility problems in dense cities. They don’t add any social value, either.

So, more bicycling will be better for the city as a whole. What a refreshing change from the bike-hating diatribes that try to marginalize people who bike.

As Millner goes on to elaborate, the bad behavior of some people on bikes isn’t inherent to all travel by bicycle, and encouraging a broader range of people to take up cycling is key to fostering better behavior. As bicycling becomes more mainstream, and norms are shaped by average San Franciscans trying to get around safely, a more courteous bicycling culture develops.

Now I know that there are obnoxious bicyclists out there. Believe me, I see them even more clearly when I’m on my bike – always young, disproportionately male, plowing through traffic with their iPod earbuds plugged in, jumping up on sidewalks, ignoring stoplights and salmoning (riding in the wrong direction) up streets. They endanger themselves, and they endanger the rest of us, too.

People who use bicycles strictly for transportation, rather than as an act of machismo, will be the ones to discourage this kind of madness – because we have no interest in being killed.

So hold your fire, angry drivers. When you honk and scream at a bicyclist, it’s getting you nowhere. We figure that what you’re really mad about is the fact that the big SUV you bought isn’t making you the most powerful person on the street, or that you’re jealous because you’re not fit enough or brave enough to bike with us. Either way, it’s something to be shrugged off.

But a dirty look from another bicyclist? That, my friends, feels like true shame. That’s where the real change is going to happen, new rider by new rider.

So I say to anyone thinking about a bike – sally forth, brave soul. The more of us there are, the more we can pressure City Hall for better infrastructure, and the safer the streets will be. (More bike lanes = slower streets = fewer pedestrian deaths. Everyone wins.)

Though I may pedal past you with my hair flying freely in the wind – while you struggle to gain momentum and cling to your safety helmet – I’ve been there, and I am thrilled to see you. Together, we can make this city a better place. Ride on.

Hear, hear. The question now is whether Millner’s column was a one-off for the Chronicle, or has the editorial leadership also gotten on board with the growingly popular vision of a bike-friendly city? A forward-looking ownership would join the ranks of publications like the Examiner, which has stepped up over the past year to embrace the bicycle movement, put street safety in perspective, and call for better transportation options.

  • John R

    And right on cue, Rob Anderson shows up to savage her for being a naive dreamer even as the monumental affront known as the Fell Oak Separated Bike Lanes is being forced down the throat of an unsuspecting populace by the crypto fascist bike lobby.

  • I rode up Fell Street for the first time in a long, long time. Not your macho rider at all. In fact I was wearing a suit because I was giving a presentation at a conference as part of my work. I was riding on Fell because finally it felt safe instead of some absurd extreme sport like the running of bulls.

    This is the new reality. Rather sad that some think that it is still some kind naive dream.

  • TS2912

    As someone who both rides a bicycle and drives a car in this city, I completely agree with the general perception that many cyclists ignore road rules and behave like jerks. I see this on a daily basis.

    A few months ago, as I was driving across an intersection, a cyclist broke a signal and rode into my path. I jumped on my brakes (narrowly avoiding hitting him), the car behind smashed into me, thousands of dollars in damage and the proud, tree hugging cyclist simply rode away).

    I sometimes wish I did not brake, but that parasite would have been on my back today eating my insurance money.

  • I’m sure you ride “all the time” 😉

    I’ll see your anecdote and raise it!

    The other day as I crossed Masonic on the panhandle bike path, with a green light, a car approaching on Masonic did not slow down, but instead sped up directly towards me while honking. I finished crossing before the car reached me (barely), and then it proceeded to run the red light, still honking, and nearly caused an accident. (The cross traffic reacted in time, and the parasite got away scot-free).

    From this we conclude that many road users ignore road rules and behave like jerks.

    However, it’s also true that if you look before you book, and put safety and courtesy ahead of speed, you’ll generally be okay.

  • Pics or it didn’t happen

  • Perhaps the Chronicle has realized that they have the same problem as the Republicans and the Beach Boys:  their fans are dying.  (Hat tip to Bill Maher.)  Or at least that their bikephobic reader demographic is shrinking fast and that, lo and behold, any new readers will come from the non-car-owning, bike-riding twenty-somethings to whom the Chronicle is almost totally irrelevant right now.

    The entire print publishing model is flailing badly at the moment, and I don’t quite see how any newspaper makes money in the coming decade. However, continually trumpeting the entitlements of car drivers over all other street users, *even if it activates your reactionary fan base*, pretty clearly has a limited shelf-life in the days ahead.

  • Annie

     I also rode up Fell yesterday after avoiding it for a long time too. I felt safer until:

    – a car drove out of the gas station at the location where cars enter the gas station. The driver was obviously not looking at what else was going on as his car almost run into a car which was about to enter the gas station.

    – a car traveling south on Divisadero was completely blocking the west sidewalk when the light turned green, therefore forcing all cyclists in the leftmost “car” lane. Aren’t you supposed to wait for the path to be completely clear before entering an intersection? At least, that’s what I learn when I took my CA driver’s license 17 years ago.

    – a car made a left hand turn on Broderick just in front of 5 or 6 cyclists riding in front of me. There was plenty of space between this group of cyclists and myself for this driver to make the turn without running into anybody’s path should he/she have waited a few seconds.

    Is the separated bike lane going to address these issues? How?

  • Michael Morris

    It’s become standard protocol for some bike riders to have their go-pros on all the time, and perhaps the rear view cameras (maybe new cars have multiple cameras?) can also assist drivers in catching people before they ride away. I think the biker problem is a little over-blown, but bikers have zero accountability and that should change, still though, it would be very difficult to find a bike version of a license plate.

  • Michael – they didn’t invent the term “hit and run” because of the bicycle menace…

  • ubringliten

    The car driving behind is tailgating, so the accident is caused by the car, not the cyclist.

  • Jimmy

    Annie, the separated bike lane won’t help with wrong-way drivers :-(, but it will help with the rest of your points:

    – the advance limit lines are being pushed back at most intersections which will give you more space to get in front of cars and take the lane to get around cars blocking the box (e.g. at Divis)

    – Broderick is becoming a forced turn onto Oak which should calm Broderick significantly and make left-turns from Fell to Broderick much less common.  Also, the pavement marking makes it clear what cars should do which will reduce conflicts everywhere.

  • John R.

    As someone who also rides a bicycle and drives a car in this city, I agree that many cyclists ignore road rules and behave like jerks. As a bike commuter to the East Bay from SF,  I can also say that on a daily basis I avoid being seriously injured by automobile drivers breaking the law, driving distracted, or generally driving like assholes. 

  • 94103er

    Yeah, the Chron is sure turning over a new leaf!

    ….hey, wait a minute. Did you notice this column was buried in the Living section? And on SFGate, as of the time I’m posting this, it has all of 10 comments?

    I think the thought process is this: “Gee, the Living section is a real dog. Pretty much no page views. Let’s stick a bike editorial in there.” “Well, I guess that proves it! No one wants to read about bikes.”

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