Tag Archives: Golden Gate Bridge

Hum of the city: Golden Gate Bridge

[Posts lately have been light and will continue to be for a few weeks: I broke my finger and it’s a bear to type right now. For those of you waiting to hear about the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day and the Faraday Porteur—sorry!]

The toll plaza without cars--it was eerie.

The toll plaza without cars–it was eerie.

Earlier this month, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to car traffic for a weekend, for the first time ever. The reason for this was to install a new barrier between the north and south lanes. The old barrier, consisting of soft plastic poles, didn’t really keep drivers from running right into each other. As a result, a hard barrier was installed on the bridge (and it can be moved using zipper trucks; this process is wildly cool). You might think that this not-incredibly surprising news about soft plastic poles could be exported to design safer bike lanes, but so far, not so much.

The southern approach to the "closed" bridge

The southern approach to the “closed” bridge

The week before this happened, residents received multiple notices that the bridge “would be CLOSED.” Not true, it would only be closed to CARS. And this was an opportunity that we didn’t want to miss. We have tried to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge before, when our kids were stroller-age, and never made it past the first tower. The noise of passing cars was overwhelming, and they were so close to the sidewalk that the experience of walking was kind of scary. Historically, the bridge has only been closed to cars for a few hours at a time; an hour in 2012 for the 75th anniversary, 6 hours in 1987 for the 50th anniversary, but never before for a whole weekend. I doubt I’ll live to see it again.

He is a strong rider now.

He is a strong rider now.

Our son decided to ride by himself, even though the hills en route are non-trivial to say the least. He did fine. Once we got there things got a little more difficult. We were not the only people who had the idea of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the construction work. What’s more, the bridge administrators decided to close the west side bicycle lane that weekend. (They close the west side a lot, for reasons that have never been explained. Maybe they hate active transportation.) At any rate, it was crowded. The worst were the multiple lines of lycra-clad riders from Marin, who came in huge clumps and who made no effort to hide their fury that they were being forced to slow down for other users. “DON’T STOP!!!” one screamed from behind me when I slowed to avoid hitting a toddler who wandered in front of me. I heard a tourist say in disbelief, “Why are those bikers so angry?” Good question.

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

So it was a tough ride. We had towed our daughter’s bike there so that she could ride the bridge by herself, but she didn’t have the skills to navigate the crowds and had to go back on my bike. Our son was grouchy about having to deal with so many people at once. Our bikes are huge and earned us the lifetime enmity of pretty much every recreational rider in Marin County.

And yet. Despite all of the hassles, it was sort of magical to cross the bridge in silence, especially as we got further north and the crowds thinned out. Every once in a while a bus or a construction vehicle would go by, and the noise would echo loudly, overwhelming the sounds of birds flying by, and of people having conversations. Just one car could drown all those living noises out. Yet on every other day on the bridge there are thousands of them. Until that weekend, no could ever hear anything at normal volume on the bridge. The bridge constantly roars with passing engines.

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

I named this blog Hum of the city because I fell in love with the noises of a city when I heard them for the first time. It took a trip to Copenhagen, which redesigned itself to cut back dramatically on relentless car traffic, before I even knew they were there. Now that we’re back in San Francisco, I listen all the time, but I only hear them in snatches—during a light cycle that’s briefly red in every direction, on a residential street block party, on a car-free Sunday, or on a once-in-a-lifetime weekend, crossing Golden Gate Bridge.

5 Comments

Filed under car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco

Happy 75th birthday, Golden Gate Bridge!

Hello, gorgeous!

If you live in San Francisco, you know that Sunday was the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge. We love this bridge. We have walked across it with our kids (although oddly, we have never ridden across it on the west side bike path). Matt and I have both had peek-a-boo views of the bridge from unlikely corners of old apartments. And we know the best hidden places on campus to watch the fireworks—either on the Fourth of July or on the bridge’s anniversary. Living on a mountain is not without its advantages. On Sunday, after our kids went to sleep, it was not possible for us to head out to see them, but you could hear them all over the city. I haven’t heard cheering like this since the Giants won the World Series (outcasts and misfits represent!)

No cars allowed

At the end of 30 days of biking, I said that I realized that our bicycles made us free. The crowds and traffic that mark every summer event in San Francisco have always overwhelmed us. This is no longer the case. This weekend was marked by an unbelievable confluence of street closures, including:

  • The main streetcar lines in the city, representing the western and southern trunk lines, are shut down and the roads they travel on closed for construction, with massive police presence for enforcement,
  • One East Bay bridge closure,
  • A partial shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge for its birthday,
  • The closure of the entire Presidio (the park around Golden Gate Bridge) to cars in recognition of same, again with the massive police presence,
  • A Carnaval parade in the Mission,
  • The usual Sunday closure of Golden Gate Park to cars.

Looking back at drivers who Did Not Get The Memo

None of these things affected us on our bikes. We were waved through barricades all over the city.

Matt and our son spent the first half of the weekend in Reno at a martial arts tournament. When they returned they wanted to get dim sum. And the kids’ shoes had actual holes in them, so we could no longer put off replacing them. And I wanted to visit the Golden Gate Bridge Festival in the Presidio, just because it seemed like the right thing to do. Historically, this is the kind of travel that we used the car for—unavoidable hills are all over this route. But with every news source and person we knew shrieking, “DON’T DRIVE ON SUNDAY!” we rode. And it was fantastic.

Bikes backed up at the end of the running race (nice Mundo)

Our preferred dim sum restaurant is near our old apartment, on the other side of Golden Gate Park, and parking a car there is a nightmare—but the bike racks in front of the restaurant? Unclaimed. On Sunday morning, riding through the closed-to-cars streets of Golden Gate Park on the way there is also unbelievably pleasant. There were hundreds of runners in the park, some of whom actually tried to race me. This is ridiculous. Even I, with a kid on the back of a heavy bicycle, can effortlessly outpace a fast runner. It turned out they were there for a footrace, and the finish line backed up the bicycles heading out of the park, so I guess the runners got their own back. I ended up behind a Yuba Mundo dad carrying two skateboards for his sons, one of whom was riding on the rear deck.

Looking down at the bridge festival

After dim sum we headed into the Presidio for the bridge festival. This was billed as an afternoon-to-evening event, but one of my yoga teachers was offering a sunrise class for the festival so I knew it was an all-day affair, and I figured it was better for the kids to get there early before the crowds got thick. On the way we passed the house of some of our son’s classmates who live in the Presidio and while catching up, played in their backyard, which has stunning views of the ocean and the coast. On the way in we also saw the first wave of unwitting drivers being turned away at the gates; this was a sight that would become familiar by afternoon.

Playing on the beach under the bridge

At the Presidio people were already staking out spots for the evening fireworks. Because we had no ambitions on that front we just watched the battleship Nimitz head under the bridge, and the fireboats spout water, and the kids built sandcastles on the beach. There was bike parking everywhere and three food plazas filled with representatives from food carts throughout the city—for once, we’d hit an event with organic ice cream and paella instead of cheap soft serve and nachos.

Family Bilenky!

And most of the people we saw once we reached the park had heeded the advice not to drive, so, oh, the bikes we saw. I have never seen so many tandems (most were rentals). I saw an amazing cargo bike, with a flat bed in the front and a child seat in the back. “I love your bike!” I yelled, “What IS it?” It turned out to be a custom Bilenky, made in Philadelphia. The dad riding it had bought it when he lived in Manhattan. Now that he lived in the Presidio, he could ride it along the waterfront, but he was frustrated that it couldn’t handle hills and was thinking about an electric assist.

Hebb electric bicycle

At our next stop, fittingly, we saw a Hebb electric bicycle, and when I asked the woman riding about it, she told me that she used it to commute from the outer Avenues to her office on the top of Nob Hill (some of the steepest grades in the city, which make the hills around our place look like gentle slopes). She obviously loved her bicycle. It is not my kind of electric assist—the Hebb has a front hub motor that is independent of the pedaling, rather than a pedal assist—but it was the right bike for her commute. She even offered to let me ride it, which was very sweet, but in the crowds, given my inexperience and the potential speed of that bike on the flats, it seemed too risky.

My spendthrift road-bike adviser leaves us in the dust.

We rode back out of the Presidio to the kids’ shoe store, which was the emptiest we’ve ever seen it as everyone was headed toward the bridge by then. And we rode home down my normal commute route, meeting some road bikers along the way, who were entertained by our child-hauling ways. One of them told us we should make the kids work and get a tandem like he had for his kids: a Co-Motion, which can handle huge height differentials like those between parent and child, and can climb serious hills. I told him my brother-in-law had told us the same thing (he has!) but it was a pricey bike. “Think of it as a car replacement,” he told me. “The maintenance cost for a car is over $3,000 a year. That means you can buy an expensive bike every year instead and still come out ahead!” I told him my brother-in-law had used that logic for a decade and it was not making my sister happy.

I was so bummed that this stand was not actually selling chalk, glass, and ice. Just mildly spicy food.

When we got back near home we stopped by Everybody Bikes to pick up my Breezer, which was ready at last after a week. The shop was dead when we arrived, but things picked up 15 minutes later as a half-dozen people piled in after discovering their bikes had flat tires after months in the garage. They were all planning to ride those bikes to the bridge festival. Usually, our neighborhood is packed on weekends, but it was clearing out.

In past years, we would have avoided the bridge festival if we could, fearing the crowds and the traffic. Golden Gate Bridge itself would never have missed us, I know; it is, in the end, just cables and steel. But I feel better having gone. Celebrating the places we love with everyone else in the city is what makes us part of San Francisco. And on our bikes, I feel like we belong here.

4 Comments

Filed under destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco