San Francisco hills and grades

When we started riding our bikes, we feared San Francisco topography. We expected to need the elevator that goes up the hill to our neighborhood every day, and that was one of the reasons we avoided a real cargo bike, which was too long to fit in it. A while ago Stacy at A Simple Six asked me about our experience riding on hills, and whether we’d looked at electric assists for our bikes. I was surprised to realize, when she asked, how long it had been since we’d thought much about the hills on our regular route that much. We got stronger, and now we ride. I can’t remember the last time I took the elevator unless I was walking.

And yet. The hill where we live is no joke. If I’m carrying a kid home, I prefer to shower or at least swipe a wet washcloth even if I ride very slowly (even though my office is on a different hill, it’s not as intimidating and sweating is not an issue unless I’m somehow possessed with the idea of going fast).  I cheerfully gave up feeling guilty about not ever managing to talk myself into HIIT at the gym given that it’s required several days a week just to get home. Moreover, there are places in the city that we simply will not go.

What do I mean by hills? Here’s a sampling from around our neighborhood. Grades are drawn from veloroutes and the SFBC city map.

Hill #1: 25% grade (probably)

Hill #1: This is one of the direct routes to our home. We do not ride our bikes up this hill. We don’t drive up this hill. My students tell me they will detour three blocks to avoid walking up this hill. It is difficult to get an accurate grade, because it is bordered by the campus, and thus not surveyed by the city, but when veloroutes isn’t saying the grade is 35%+ (I find this unlikely), it claims it is 25%, which I find more plausible.

This hill has become the hideout for campus smokers (smoking is forbidden on the hospital campus) because no one else wants to go there. Taking this photograph was unpleasant as I was surrounded by secondhand smoke.

Hill #2: 17% grade

Hill #2: This is the other direct route to our home. We do not ride our bikes up this hill. We do drive up this hill when we’re in the car, and when relevant, we’ll walk up it. It is supposedly about a 17% grade. Like Hill #1, it is easy to photograph from the side because cars are not allowed to parallel park. Instead, one side of the street is nose-in 90-degree parking, and the other side is reserved for two travel lanes. This is what the City and County of San Francisco does when the streets are so steep that cars might actually roll down them while parked, even if the wheels were curbed.

Hill #3: 13% grade

Hill #3: A pretty direct route to our home. We have ridden our bikes up this hill with our kids aboard, once, in my case, with both kids aboard. That was an experience I would prefer not to repeat. This hill is estimated to run about a 13% grade, which still requires nose-in parking on one side of the street only (thus no cars in the photo) but is not so immediately off-putting to the experienced local that the thought of finding alternate routes seemed required. We walk up and down this hill several times a week and have never given it a second thought when driving. However once we learned there was a reasonably convenient detour that spread the same elevation over two blocks instead of one, we started taking that route almost exclusively. But our kids love bombing down this hill in the morning. Yeah, we’re bad parents.

Hill #4: less than 10% grade

Hill #4: On the alternate route home. This hill is less than 10% grade, and pretty typical for the streets around the city. Unless you’re in the flats of the Financial District/SoMa/China Basin (or headed there through Golden Gate Park and along the Wiggle), you’ll be going up and down a few hills like this on a typical ride in San Francisco. There are two hills like this on my way to work; one pretty short (behind the Conservatory of Flowers) and one long, extended haul up to Laurel Heights.

Cars are parallel-parked on both sides of the street; I view this as a sign that I can probably ride a potential route, even if I’m carrying one or both kids, and so far that’s been a safe assumption. That doesn’t mean the experience will be pleasant, as my efforts to drag myself up Post Street and Fulton Street have proved, pretty definitively. So far I haven’t had to get off and push, but there have been close shaves.

Hill #5: same old, same old, less than 10% grade

Hill #5: More of the same, another less than 10% grade. Again, parallel parking means that I can ride up this hill without having my heart leap out of my chest and leave me lying on the ground gasping like a fish out of water, at least on a good day. Note that all of the cars have curbed their wheels; this is the law in San Francisco, and the fine for failing to do so is so draconian that even as an occasional driver, I cannot stop myself from doing it, even it means that I spend a minute trying to figure out which direction on a flat street is closest to downhill. Matt once got a ticket for leaving his wheels straight on a flat stretch of street between two hills because he couldn’t figure out which way to turn them. He contested that ticket and won, but if you’re visiting, well, if you’re visiting you probably shouldn’t be driving in the city, you won’t enjoy it.

But if you simply can’t help yourself, good luck to you, and curb your wheels. A tremor (they’re pretty common) will shift cars a bit all over the city, which means car alarms galore, but curbed wheels mean that those parked cars won’t careen down the hill taking out a swath of other cars and pedestrians. So basically I’m pro-curbing.

Going up hills on a bike, even relatively low-key ones like these, requires some thinking if you have kids on the back. I used to regularly come close to popping wheelies as I started up the hill due to all the weight in the rear. Now I compensate by pushing down hard on the handlebars as a counterbalance as I approach; it’s only the moments when I’m distracted by something and forget that I realize that I’ve developed the habit.

Part of the reason that I am concerned about having the ability to haul our kids on the bikes for years to come, even though our son is old enough to ride, is the hills. Our kids are strong and they’ve never known any other terrain. They see us riding these hills and they accept them as normal. However I suspect it may take some time before they’re really comfortable going up several of them in a single ride on their own. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but I think it’s safest to be prepared to bail them out.


Filed under commuting, San Francisco

17 responses to “San Francisco hills and grades

  1. That was a fabulous analysis! Now I want to check our grades. Thank you so much. I still think we get by fine w/o the e-assist, but the children are getting heavier and like you, sometime you need to carry them up hill. So now I ask… what is the most weight you can carry up the steepest grade (if you like the math)? 🙂

    Did you find the breadbasket on the Yuba helps off set the rear child weight on hills making it more stable, less or indifferent?

    • The most weight I’ve ever carried up the steepest grade was Hill #3; a 13% grade on a 35 lb. bike (the Breezer) with 20 lbs. of child seats on the front and back (Bobike Junior and the hated Co-Rider) holding ~75 lbs. of kids and maybe 5-10 lbs. of other gear (U-lock, snacks, jackets, etc.) So 35 lbs. of bike and uh, 100 lbs. or so of cargo up a 13% grade. It was truly terrible.

      I took the Yuba Mundo with both kids (now 80 lbs, curse it, they just keep growing!) and their school gear (10-20 lbs.) up the hill to Alamo Square, which is probably about a 10% grade. I put the backpacks in the breadbasket, which does help offset the weight in the rear, so no wheelies with it loaded, but it also makes it somewhat harder to climb, so: a tradeoff.

      I think so much depends on the gearing and bike geometry that a lot of these comparisons may be meaningless. My Breezer, with its mountain bike pedigree, is clearly built to climb; it’s slow on the flats but eats the hills. If you want to see what’s possible if you’re not carrying kids and can stand on the bike, check out the video “Russian Hill Roulette.” I can’t do that.

  2. I’m so impressed! I feel like such a wuss for dreading the “hill” roads around here that are basically miles of very gradual grade, almost imperceptible to the eye but certainly not to my legs. I do a few blocks of grade then go through a cut over street so I can get my breath back- and here you are bombing up hills doing wheelies lol. I had a similar wheelie incident with weight on the back, so I too will be interested in hearing about the basket set up and if that makes any difference.

    • Yes, the bread basket, if loaded, will definitely keep you from doing wheelies. I respect anyone carrying kids up any grade, and the miles of subtle inclines can be a real grind (there is a very slight uphill on the Panhandle westbound that I really resent at the end of a long day).

      Our confidence with the hills here has developed over time and I mostly like it because it suggests that people can adapt to almost anything. There is no denying that the hills here really turn people off the idea of family biking. I’d like some company so we keep chugging away as proof that it can be done.

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  5. JB

    How long ago was pic of hill #4 taken? That little Scion is my x-fiances… lol… used to live in SF and now I live in AZ. Doing random internet search to better judge hill grades while road biking and wouldn’t you know it there’s her car… does this qualify as internet stalking…

    • I think I took that picture around January 2012? I am amazed that you recognize her car. We’ve been driving our own minivan for six years and I still sometimes walk right by it.

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  11. Augsburg

    For those of you curious about the grade of hills in your vicinity, Google Earth will provide elevations – just hover the curser over the map and the elevation is given at the bottom of the screen. For example, Market Street in Downtown San Francisco is elevation of 7 feet in front of the Ferry Building and is elevation 39 feet where it crosses Stockton Street. That is a 32 foot rise. Using the ruler tool in Google Earth can give you the distance between points. Market Street at the Ferry Building to Stockton Street measures 5000 feet ( a tad less than a mile). Now divide rise over run, or 32/5000 = 0.0064. Multiple by 100 to get percent, or 0.0064 x 100 = 0.64% – which is less than 1% and pretty flat. That is the average grade on Market over that distance. For many people, grades start to feel steep at 5% and feel pretty steep at 10% if they go on for a distance. A 20% grade is very steep by most standards (even for San Francisco or Seattle).

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