We live on the main campus of the university where I work, at the inflection point between the approach to the mountain, which is steep, and the mountain itself, which is really steep. We’ll ride our bikes up to where we live (I wrote about the hills we face on that trip) but after that we pretty much throw up our hands. For short distances, we walk, and for longer distances, we take the shuttle or we drive. Unless and until we get an electric assist, this is unlikely to change.
This frustrates my daughter, whose preschool is a couple of blocks straight uphill from our house, because no matter how many times she requests a bike commute to school or back, it has never happened. Even when we return from a ride to our son’s school in the morning, we park the bike in the basement and walk her up to preschool. Maybe someday we’ll have the foresight to walk a bike up the hill and blast on down with her on board at the end of the day, but we haven’t managed it yet. Also I would only feel safe doing that shortly after a brake tune-up. It’s a straight shot down.
At least it is a very pretty walk. Much of the campus is difficult place to build anything, although the university has managed to pack more clinical and lab space onto the site than anyone ever thought was possible. Nevertheless a lot of trees were left standing around.
The university was founded in 1868, but only moved to the Parnassus site thirty years later, in 1898. The land was donated by San Francisco’s mayor at the time, Adolph Sutro. His motives may not have been pure; the land around Golden Gate Park, which he owned, was largely undeveloped at the time, and putting a university there spurred development that might not otherwise have been as lucrative. At the time, many faculty members viewed the Parnassus shelf as hopelessly inaccessible—then as now, it seemed insane to put a hospital halfway up a mountain. But no one was turning down free land.
Many of our neighbors live in buildings that are the equivalent of several stories above us, even though they are only a block away. One of my daughter’s classmates lives in an apartment complex above the preschool, on a hill that is so steep that it has been reinforced with steel bars to prevent mudslides from burying a portion of the campus in the rainy season. I once suggested that she run a zipline from their apartment window to the preschool for a quicker commute in the morning.
The Parnassus campus is extensive and labyrinthine, and after five years working at this university, I still have difficulty navigating it. When my children were babies I had many frustrating experiences trying to find the pumping stations for nursing mothers scattered around campus, which were thick on the ground but almost impossible to locate. Eventually I learned enough about the campus that I was able to find my way around by getting in the general neighborhood of a room using the letter and number code, then asking people to direct me to the exact location like a bat taking soundings. This is how I navigate the campus to this day, and although I used to find myself locked out of buildings on a steep hill with no apparent path back to campus on a monthly basis, that now happens to me only about once a year.
Parking around urban hospitals is always difficult and expensive, and this one is no exception. As a result, I have lost count of the number of times that we have missed work meetings, pediatrician appointments or been late to school because someone parked in our building’s driveway. It is better when we ride our bikes, but there are, astonishingly, ways to block even a bicycle from leaving our building. However the university is very aggressive about protecting its right of way, and our children have come to love the sight of the tow truck barreling up the hill to remove yet another car.
I would never have imagined that a site like this would draw more than a trivial number of bicycle commuters. Before I moved here I thought that Seattle, where I grew up, had a discouraging number of hills, but the hills around this campus really mean business. Yet the 200 bicycle parking spaces on campus, which are spread across a bike cage and several racks, are woefully inadequate, and there are bicycles locked to parking meters and fences for several blocks on either side of campus. The university is currently building a new bike cage twice the size of the existing one, and new racks are put in almost monthly, on nearly every level surface. Yet this is nowhere near meeting demand.
I believe that infrastructure drives bicycle commuting. We are more likely to ride in places that have bike lanes, especially when we’re carrying our kids. Parnassus Heights makes it clear that infrastructure also works in reverse. The campus is such an appalling place for cars that many people simply give up driving, even if that means riding a bike up the side of a mountain. Even my colleagues who commute from the suburbs park in the garage at the level of Golden Gate Park, take the elevator up, and walk around campus rather than attempting to drive to their ultimate destination. We can park in our building, but find that it is rarely worth it to drive anywhere else unless we’re leaving the city altogether. And there’s no guarantee that someone won’t be blocking the driveway anyway.
But this is a shift in perspective that makes sense only in hindsight. I still have conversations with my son’s classmates’ parents that make me realize this. When they see us on the bike in the morning, these parents sometimes ask, “Did you really bike from your place? Over the hill?” And I am thinking, well, where else? We didn’t sleep in the park last night. Yet at one point, taking a loaded cargo bike up any hill seemed insane to us as well. But now my perspective is: at least we don’t have to go all the way up.