This past week I had the opportunity to spend the best part of a week in San Francisco. While my wife attended the Apple Developer Conference, I spent my time exploring some of the City. Read on for some thoughts on the transportation systems I came across in San Francisco.
Several days were spent exploring on foot, streets generally feature wide sidewalks with street trees in many places. Crosswalks are generally wide and often use zebra markings even for signalized crossings.
After a lot of walking on the first day, an alternative was required to get back to the hotel. It was time to try Uber for the first time! Security and licencing issues in various places (including Vancouver) aside. The principle is fantastic and the ability to see available drivers, see your ride coming provides a high level of passenger awareness and avoids the "when is the cab going to turn up" scenario. The taxi services have really been caught on the back foot with this one, there is no reason they can't provide similar technology. Uber offers a few other benefits that never occurred to me before. One driver I had had lost his job and was able to continue making a reasonable salary while looking for another. Other drivers, I was told, use it for two reasons, single occupancy vehicles can pick up another driver to allow them to use the high occupancy vehicle lanes, they also make a bit of extra money and essentially pay for their ride, win win for the driver and passenger.
On my first day I took a trip down to San Jose to meet up with an old friend I used to bike with in Vancouver. I caught the Caltrain down to San Jose. One of the great things about this service is the bike car which has space for bikes on the first floor and seating on the second. This is well used and a neat system allows riders to tag their bikes with the station they will get off at so that riders don't have to wrestle with 3 bikes to get their own one out. The train ran smoothly on my trip out but took approximately 30 minutes longer on the return journey, not sure what the problem was.
After being picked up in San Jose we drove down to Santa Cruz to explore some of the trails around the University of Santa Cruz. Fun times were had riding these trails and thanks go to my buddy Flo for sorting an awesome rental/demo bike, showing me around and showing me how its done! Look him up at Trailhead Cyclery if you're in San Jose.
A little tour around Santa Cruz showed that even large objects can often be carried by bike with a little ingenuity. Also we came across some low cost contraflow separated bike lanes fashioned with some rollover type rubber curb, it seemed effective and would provide me with a little more comfort than a simple painted lane marking.
When it comes to cycling in San Francisco, I have positive and negative points of view. After my trip to Portland, a new survey had rated San Francisco as a more bike friendly city. Based on my experience i'm not sure how that happened. Within the downtown core there is public bike share service, however every station I came across was on busy roads with generally just Sharrows marking bike routes on streets which were generally busy. That and the fact the current bike share covers a relatively small and walkable area never really made me want to cycle downtown.
I understand the bike share is expanding and there are plans in place for safer raised bike paths which will both help greatly. An important part of the bike share picture which is something holding Vancouver back are the helmet laws, it is mandatory for under 18's to wear a helmet, but adults are allowed to decide for themselves if its necessary. A great improvement and one less barrier to getting on a bike.
Makeshift plaques on many of the street lights identified locations where cyclists had been killed, a sobering reminder that there is always a need for safer cycling facilities. This statistic is likely not helped by the number of riders I observed ignoring red lights, this seemed to be a common occurrence.
I did get out on a rental bike and took a trip from Ghirardelli Square, along the sea front, across the Golden Gate Bridge and on to Sausalito. This was a fun trip on generally wide multi-use paths (the Bay Trail) to the bridge. The bridge was a little congested as expected, and then bike lanes take you all the way to Sausalito where there is a combination of shared roadway and bike lanes. The number of cyclists and limited traffic volumes make cycling along this section of roadway comfortable and drivers were all very accommodating around cyclists.
What trip to San Francisco would be complete without a trip on the Cable Car. This is purely a tourist attraction rather than feasible mode of transportation for every day use given the lineups to board are often long, and the cost which is higher than typical transit service. One interesting thing about this is that it often stops in the middle of intersection to load and unload because this is where the road is flat. Traffic capacity be damned! the number of drivers that come close to pulling out in front of the cable cars was surprising, given their limited stopping capabilities.
Another relic from the past that still runs is the Street Car, or tram in European words, whereby the cars run on rails and are powered by the wires overhead. Apparently this is the only surviving street car systems in the US. The reason for this is often attributed to the GM and oil company conspiracy to get more people in vehicles that rely on gasoline for power.
One fantastic example of a good transportation planning decision was the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, albeit only after the two tier structure was critically damaged by an earthquake. Removing structures means less long term maintenance, more space for other modes, a far nicer environment for everyone, and surprisingly for some, not the traffic chaos that was predicted.
The film below by streetfilms provides a great summary of the removal and its benefits.
What could we take from this trip, confirmation that Sharrows really don't cut it in busy traffic, bike share would be more appealing if it is situated along streets with separate space for bikes, separated bike paths are a pleasure to use, removal of freeways from the downtown make it a nicer place to be, Uber is a fantastic service for the driver and end user, the taxi industry needs to catch up, and finally, its possibly more windy in San Francisco than it is in Scotland!