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.
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: 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: 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: 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: 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.