SERIES: Exiting Toronto by bike – Ride into and out of San Francisco
Story and photos by Alix Aylen
I rode into San Francisco for the first time on August 6, 2012, having left Vancouver on July 4th. The west coast is a very popular route for touring cyclists, with campgrounds, towns, grocery stores and Warmshowers hosts clustered at regular and convenient intervals along Highway One and the 101. Toronto cannot really be compared to San Francisco directly when it comes to landscape and bike infrastructure.
San Francisco is much more densely populated as a 7x7 mile square peninsula, jetting out into the Pacific Ocean, with a much more moderate climate (although, hilariously enough, some do find it too cold to ride all year round). Toronto, on the other hand, sprawls north, east and west from the lake with highways bordering the city. Entering and exiting San Francisco is a much more immediate experience. You cross the Golden Gate Bridge from Sausalito (the city to the north), and boom, you’re in San Francisco. There’s very little of the awkward, non-human friendly, exurban and industrial zones dominated by overpasses and 8-lane highways that pose as the main challenge when leaving TO. Many of those were destroyed by the two major earthquakes in the Bay area in 1906 and 1989, and then never rebuilt. The interstate and main highways of the region, rather than bordering the city and acting as a barrier to non-motorists, are concentrated in the southeast corner of the city and in Oakland, the east bay.
The cycling infrastructure of TO and SF is somewhat tricky to compare as SF has its own set of challenges. Cycling culture and attitudes towards cyclists travelling on the highway, however, can be compared with somewhat predictable results.
Entering SF via Highway One
The first time I entered the city I decided to take highway one all the way to the Golden Gate bridge. I was having a bit of a moment after riding from Vancouver, and wanted to complete the trip on the “One” and “101”. It was a long, hilly and meandering ride to the bridge along Highway One. I could see a faint image of the Sutro tower about four hours before I was actually within the city limits. The landscape was beautiful, and more challenging physically than it was in terms of cycling accessibility. It’s not the route outlined in any of the “Cycling the West Coast” guidebooks, and there’s no dedicated bike lane for much of it, but there are still plenty of cyclists on the road or a decently sized shoulder to hop on at any given time. Cyclists are not a rarity here.
Highway One is often more of a tourist’s highway than a commuter’s due to its scenic, meandering nature, so there seemed to be less of a feeling of entitlement from drivers than you would find on a highway frequented by daily commuters (or at least that’s how I perceived it). It can be a bit frightening at times when making your way around a curvy switchback running along a mountainous section of the coast, however “Share the road” signs are present along the route, reminding motorists and cyclists alike to be aware of their surroundings. At one point, as I grew impatient riding up a steep switchback, a car drove past me, with all three passengers giving me a big smile and thumbs up. About 30 minutes later, the same car passed me again, this time throwing flowers out the window and encouraging me to “keep it up!”. It was a moment oozing with “California”. I tell you this story not as a “California is a dream, and a cycling paradise with no room for improvement” story, rather as a “highways need not inherently be hostile war zones for cyclists and motorists” story.
I was prepared to continue along the highway all the way to the bridge, when a gas station attendant flagged me down once I reached Marin City. Not just a passive wave as I rode by, but he ran out to the road to give me directions to the beginning of the bike lane and path that would take me all the way to the GG bridge. The defensive cycling Torontonian that I am, I was prepared to defend my right to be on the shoulder of the highway and at first didn’t understand that he wasn’t telling me to get off the highway, rather suggesting that I take the route designed specifically for cyclists. So, I took that advice. This route guided me through Marin City and Sausalito, along the water, and parallel to the 101. All the scenery minus the traffic and noise.
Entering via Sir Francis Drake Blvd
This is the route that you are told to take into the city as a cyclist by all of the guidebooks that I ignored the first time around. It passes through several towns of about 12,000 people (Lagunitas, Fairfax, San Anselmo), most of which are connected by bike lanes and bike paths, or are at least towns frequented by cyclists from the area. The route is used by long distance cyclists completing the “Alaska to Tierra del Fuego” trip as well as roadies and cyclists from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley on weekend camping trips. The campground Samuel P. Taylor is only 50 km from downtown San Francisco and is equipped with several “hiker/biker” campsites that are popular along the west coast ($5-$15/person!). It’s a fully equipped cycling route, with all of the amenities that you might need, whether on a day, or year long trip (cheap campsites, bike shops, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, access to public transit, permaculture schools...whatever!).
This route is way less hilly than the highway One route, with more towns and less time ocean-side. What it lacks in epic scenery (which is not much, as it’s still California), it makes up for in its relative efficiency as a more direct, less mountainous route to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bike paths are intuitively connected for the most part, meaning that you don’t need to stop to look at a map very often when passing through for the first time. There are gaps in the dedicated bike lanes, but you’re never without a sufficient shoulder to ride on.
The main headache about entering and exiting San Francisco through both of these routes, is the constant flow of tourists back and forth across the bridge. Cyclists and pedestrians are both allowed to cross the bridge, but must share the sidewalk. This creates a ridiculous bottleneck at times, with some relief in the centre of the bridge, which sees only about a third of the bridge’s pedestrian traffic (it is indeed a long bridge to cross by foot). The west side of the bridge is sometimes open to cyclists exclusively, however that is only between 3:30 pm-9 pm on weekdays, and 9 am-5 pm on weekends. Entering and exiting San Francisco is SO enjoyable in fact that Sausalito is looking to place a cap on the number of rental bikes entering the city. There’s a bit of a congestion problem maybe, but it’s a good one to have, Sausalito.
Exiting the city southwards
When entering or exiting San Francisco through the southwest corner, there is no dramatic Golden Gate Bridge equivalent to take, rather a meandering route through the suburbs. You can take the famed “Wiggle” from the Bay side of the city to the Pacific side neighbourhood, the “Sunset”, and just work your way south out of the city on primarily residential streets. You don’t even need to start thinking about hopping on the highway or working your way around a terrifying thick marigold line on Google maps until you’re about 20 km out of the city. My partner, Bobby and I were guided by our San Francisco bike guru, Rez, to an alternate route that would skip the most intimidating transitional section of Highway One referred to as “Devil’s Slide” (for the frequent occurrence of landslides on this section of the highway). But what used to be considered one of the few sections of Highway One to avoid by cyclists, is now being marketed as a destination in itself as part of the California Coastal Trail project.
My experiences entering and exiting San Francisco were great. I’m sure that there are cyclists out there that have had less great experiences. But the one thing that I took away was how nice it was to feel comfortable and accepted as a legitimate vehicle in areas that are often off limits to cyclists . It was a relief to feel, not like a “CYCLIST”, but like someone just trying to get somewhere with a vehicle that just happens to be a bicycle.
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