I’ve been seeing a lot more electric bicycles around San Francisco. I’ve been seeing a lot more bicycles, period, around San Francisco. Part of that is the season, of course, but there’s also this bicycle boom that everyone’s been talking about. San Francisco ridership has supposedly increased 71%. And every new bike lane that gets striped in this city (8th Street lanes just went in to rave reviews) makes this more likely to continue.
When I look up some of the steeper hills in this town I often find the prospect of riding my bike daunting, at least when the kids are on board. Having grown up in the Seattle area, I’m rarely fazed by any local weather. (Our bike shop complains that many people give up riding at the first hint of fog. If I felt that way I’d ride maybe 15 days a year.)
Mild to moderate hills are okay too, although they grow less fun as I add live weight. But there are also the steep hills. And there are a lot of them. They are off-putting. This is especially true at the end of a long day at work, as the route home ranges from mildly uphill to steeply uphill most of the way back. On days that it feels like too much, sometimes I put the bike on the shuttle.
Occasionally I hear people say that unless you live or work on a steep hill, you can avoid riding the hills in San Francisco. My first thought is, “It’s more like live AND work on steep hills, actually.” My second thought is to wonder what they’re smoking and where I can get some. I suppose if you lived in the Mission and never went anywhere else but the Financial District that this could be true. My understanding is that this is, predictably, the chosen stomping ground of San Francisco’s fixie community. And it’s certainly possible if you drive everywhere that isn’t flat, but that isn’t really avoiding the hills, is it? If you have kids, there is the school commute unless you homeschool, and the museums and birthday parties regardless, and many people have been known to want to leave their immediate neighborhood occasionally as a matter of personal preference. Technically it’s POSSIBLE to live housebound, even with children, but it hardly seems worth it. I do not find it surprising that people who say that they avoided the hills in San Francisco are always people who used to live in San Francisco. There’s no point in paying city rents if you’re not going to go anywhere.
I now realize that I have come relatively late to the idea of electric assist in San Francisco, because I have been seeing assisted bikes everywhere this summer. Other people were smarter than we were, and simply paid upfront to enjoy the ride. On the way to work I’m sometimes passed by a relaxed gentleman in a suit and tie sitting bolt upright on his bike, peacefully meandering up the steepest part of the hill up as I turn off, panting, to take the longer, shallower incline. He confirmed when I asked, that yes, he rides a pedal-assist electric bicycle (it is silent, and he is a lot faster than I am, so it was hard to get a good look). “I love it!” he said. When I look at bikes parked at racks around the city now, there is usually at least one with a motor and battery. Some friends whose daughter attends a top-of-a-hill school recently started commuting on a trailer-bike attached to an e-bike. They plan to buy a second matched set when their youngest starts kindergarten in August.
When we started down this road, I had little idea that there even was such a thing as an electric-assist bicycle. This is the problem with getting the inspiration to commute by bike while in Copenhagen. The more I talk to people we know, the more I realize that I am not the only one who didn’t realize there was a way to handle the steepest hills that didn’t involve being a Tour de France rider on a bike that weighs less than a newborn baby. But this is changing fast, and I suspect the realization that an electric-assist bicycle can easily move a family up to the top of Mt. Sutro or Potrero Hill will eventually become common knowledge.
I read a review of The New Wheel that said adding electric assist to a bicycle makes San Francisco as flat as Copenhagen. I think this is true. Electric assist makes riding a bike in San Francisco accessible even to parents hauling kids, groceries, and gear. Many of the incentives to ride a bike in the city (extensive bike lanes, mild weather, a new bike share program, respectful drivers, horrific traffic, and wildly expensive auto parking) are already in hand or in progress. Even still, nearly every American city still has something missing that could turn bicycles from a lunatic fringe activity to a normal way to get around. In San Francisco, I’d put money on that something being electric assist.